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Top-to-Bottom Success

Posted Apr 30, 2011

Whether it was high-value defensive picks in the first three rounds or versatile need-specific selections on Day Three, the Buccaneers believe they maximized the potential value of the NFL’s 2011 draft


Day Three matters.

 

Of course, Day Three of the NFL Draft has only existed for two years, but the lesson has been valid for decades: A team’s success in the lower frames of the draft is often as important as what happens in the spotlight of Round One.

 

The Buccaneers clearly understand this under General Manager Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris.  In two previous drafts, Dominik and Morris have uncovered such late-round gems as E.J. Biggers, Sammie Stroughter, Mike Williams, Cody Grimm and Dekoda Watson.  And they signaled their intent to aggressively attack the second half of the draft on Saturday just days into the fourth round, trading up 12 spots to nab Tennessee tight end Luke Stocker.

 

Since 2010, the NFL has extended its draft from two days to three, holding Round One on Thursday evening, Rounds Two and Three on Friday night and the remainder on Saturday.  Each of the breaks offers teams an opportunity to regroup and reconsider their needs before drafting again.  The Buccaneers were determined to start the last day by addressing one particular need.

 

“We felt like he was one of the top players on the board,” said Dominik of Stocker.  “We felt like he was the best tight end left on the board at the time.  He was a guy that we targeted last night.  He’s got great size, he’s a great worker, he can play special teams, he catches the ball very well but he’s also a good in-line blocker.  For that reason, he really complements what Kellen Winslow does and he’ll be a big asset to our football team.”

 

The Stocker pick is certainly no more important to the team than what it did in Days One and Two – and we’ll get to that shortly – but it is a perfect example of how the franchise has worked the draft board over the last three years, and how it has quickly rebuilt the roster into contending form.  During the first two days, the board favored a patient approach for the Buccaneers, considering their needs, but when it came to make a more aggressive move Dominik didn’t shy away from it.  It cost Tampa Bay their 2012 fourth-round pick to move up and get Stocker, but that was the right way to maximize draft value, in the mind of Head Coach Raheem Morris.

 

“Mark continued to push the envelope,” said Morris.  “When you get a Luke Stocker in the fourth round, when you can easily give him a grade of a second-round pick or arguably late first, that’s a phenomenal day.  It’s a phenomenal day by our scouting department.”

 

After Stocker, the Buccaneers added Florida safety Ahmad Black, USC running back Allen Bradford, Florida International cornerback Anthony Gaitor and Idaho tight end Daniel Hardy.  All extremely productive players at the college level and all perfect fits from a character standpoint.  If that Saturday haul offers production to go with what many considered a fantastic first three rounds, Dominik and Morris could have their third straight franchise-changing draft.

 

And Buccaneer fans could have a team primed for a long run of playoff contention.

 

Last year, the second at the helm for Dominik and Morris, the Buccaneers won 10 games and narrowly missed the postseason on a tiebreaker, despite fielding the youngest team in the NFL.  Much of that success was a product of such young players as Williams, Grimm, Biggers, quarterback Josh Freeman, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, running back LeGarrette Blount and many others.

 

There is room in that core of players for more young talent, and the Buccaneers think they added it with the likes of defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers and linebacker Mason Foster in Rounds 1-3.  Few teams were able to so directly and comprehensively address one of their key needs as the Buccaneers, who succeeded on defense in 2010 despite having difficulty generating a consistent pass rush.  Clayborn and Bowers could give the Buccaneers the most dynamic pass-rushing bookend in team history, and even the versatile and productive Foster can rush the passer.

 

Here’s a look at the Buccaneers’ final eight-man 2011 draft class:

 

Pick*

Pos.

Player

College

Notes

1-20-20

DE

Adrian Clayborn

Iowa

Natural right end with physical style of play

2-19-51

DE

Da’Quan Bowers

Clemson

Left end who led nation with 15.5 sacks in ‘10

3-20-84

LB

Mason Foster

Washington

Nation’s second-leading tackler in ‘10

4-7-104

TE

Luke Stocker

Tennessee

Could have instant impact in two-TE sets

5-20-151

S

Ahmad Black

Florida

Team captain, very productive, 13 career INTs

6-22-187

RB

Allen Bradford

USC

Jumbo back averaged 7.2 yards per carry in ‘10

7-19-222

CB

Anthony Gaitor

Fla. Int’l

At least 44 stops and 2 INTs in each of 4 years

7-35-238

TE

Daniel Hardy

Idaho

71 catches and 17.4 ypc the last two years

 

* Round/Pick in Round/Overall Pick in Draft

 

Obviously, every team is excited and optimistic about its latest draft class in the hours after the final pick, and the Bucs are no different.  But the success of the last two Aprils and the rave reviews for the Bucs’ opening three picks certainly add to the rosy feelings at One Buccaneer Place right now.  The question is, after the 2009 and 2010 draft classes proved so sticky – 12 of the 14 selections in those two drafts are still with the team and many are already in key roles – is there room for another deep class to fit into the roster?

 

That’s not the right way to ask the question.  Dominik’s viewpoint is that there is never enough available talent at any position, and that internal competition will bring out the best in the depth chart.  As an example, he didn’t hesitate to follow the Stocker selection with the choice of Hardy near the end of Round Seven, even though recent undrafted pickups like Nathan Overbay and Ryan Purvis have shown some promise at tight end.

 

“I want to challenge this roster to be as good as it can be,” said Dominik.  “If that’s adding two more tight ends to push Purvis or push Overbay, they understand.  We’re going to continually make this a hard team to make.  I think we did that today, made this a hard team to make now.”

 

The Buccaneers also stayed true to their efforts to build a team that is just as promising in the locker room and in the community as it is on the field.  Dominik laughed when asked if it was a ‘requirement’ that a player be a college team captain to be drafted by the Buccaneers – that was true of six of this year’s eight draftees – but that trend is certainly no accident.  Dominik and his staff believe that the traits that lead a college program to elect a player as one of its leaders are a big part of what makes a player and a team successful in the long run.

 

“That’s the one thing we really stressed in this draft again, is building a team that this town falls in love with,” he said.  “As this town gets to meet this group of draft-class members I think they’re going to do that.  We added a lot of quality character to this football team, a lot of leaders, a lot of captains, a lot of production from schools that we felt could produce good players.  We’re really excited about this draft class, for all the right reasons.”

 

All three of the Bucs’ picks during the first two days of the draft were team captains, and the Bucs believe they were all extraordinary value at the spots they were available.  You can read more about the reaction of the team and the players to the early picks here for Adrian Clayborn, here for Da’Quan Bowers and here for Mason Foster.

 

Near the end of the seventh round on Saturday, after the Bucs had ended their 2011 efforts with the choice of Hardy, Dominik and Morris addressed the work of Day Three.

 

It’s no surprise that Morris was on board with the trade up to secure Stocker.  Noting the often inscrutable nature of the New Orleans Saints’ offense, Morris wanted to be able to field a personnel grouping that would have the opposition wondering what to expect.  A ‘Tiger’ set of Winslow and Stocker on the line and a single back (most often Blount) in the backfield may keep opponents from knowing whether the Bucs are going to run or throw.

 

“The thing with Kellen and Jerramy [Stevens] last year is that it was harder to do because then you’re kind of predictable,” said Morris.  “‘Hey, look at us, we’re throwing the ball.’  Having a guy like Stocker who has more of an in-line ability, more of a stout guy on the point where Kellen can do some of the move stuff, cut off blocks, and also go over there and run power with them and move them around to different things, it’s very exciting.”

 

As excited as Morris was about the Stocker selection, much of the Bay area was thrilled by Tampa Bay’s next pick, Florida’s Ahmad Black.  That obviously includes Black’s family – he hails from Lakeland and grew up a big Mike Alstott fan – but there is also a sizeable Gator fan base in Tampa that would probably cheer if the Bucs hired Florida’s equipment intern.

 

Of course, it’s not often that the most productive defensive player in the Gators’ powerful program is available in the fifth round.  That’s a product size and measurable numbers for Black that don’t light up scouts’ eyes, but the Buccaneers believe he was a steal where they got him.

 

“He’s always produced,” said Dominik.  “He’s always been able to battle above some of the limitations that people have always thought he had.  For him to be there in the fifth round, that’s the type of guy we want to bring on this football team.  He can play some corner, he can play safety and he can help us a lot on special teams, which is important to me.”

 

Added Morris: “Ahmad Black is one of those guys is that once you meet him you fall in love with him.  You watch his tape, you see the ball skills, you see all the things he’s able to do.  He is a safety who has the ability to go inside and play corner, so he opens up some of the things we’ve been able to get into lately.  He’s really similar to a guy like Cody [Grimm], really similar to a guy like Tanard [Jackson] – hybrid athletes that can do a bunch of things because o f their instincts and their awareness.”

 

In the sixth round, the Buccaneers surprised some people by taking USC’s Bradford, despite the fact that they already have one of the most electric big backs in the league.  As far as the Bucs are concerned, it’s more of a good thing, like pairing jumbo receivers Calvin and Andre Johnson.  If you dislike the comparison because a team generally starts two receivers and only one tailback, keep in mind that most NFL teams are now taking a committee approach to their running games.

 

That the Buccaneers would add a big back like Bradford, specifically, to a Blount-dominated backfield is more evidence that the franchise is looking to refashion itself in the physical mold of, say, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

 

“We like big backs,” said Dominik.  “Last year, I went big-back hunting when we went out and got Kregg Lumpkin and LeGarrette Blount.  We went big-back hunting again today and we brought home another one that we’re really fired up about.  This guy’s got strength, great power, and for us the National Football League has become a big man’s game and we’re going to bring backs at our opponents and we’re going to continue to do that here.”

 

Morris certainly didn’t mind getting another wrecking ball to add to his backfield.  To him, the pick was the same sort of value selection that the Bucs were credited for during Days 1-2.

 

“I was kind of as excited about Bradford as I was about Bowers,” said Morris.  “It was kind of that same type of feel.  Here’s a guy that we got late that can come in and be very productive for us.  He’s kind of from that ‘I’m from the bottom’ mentality.

 

“We talked about getting bigger.  We talked about being like the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Green Bay Packers, the home-grown football teams that continually compete for championships.  That’s what they do – they draft well, they draft big people, they put people together, they grow up together and they win championships.  Hopefully we’ll be able to do that.”

 

The Bucs finally deviated from their big-school/big-producer trend in the final round when they used a pair of picks to take Florida International cornerback Anthony Gaither and Idaho tight end Daniel Hardy.

 

If Biggers and Grimm are any indication, the current Bucs management knows how to find productive defensive backs in the seventh round.  One thing is for certain: Gaitor is going to work hard for his spot on the roster.  The Miami native enjoyed his pre-draft visit to One Buccaneer Place and couldn’t have been happier when Morris called him early Saturday evening with the good news.

 

“I thought it was the first pick of the draft, with the emotion, the excitement,” said Morris.  “Bringing that guy into the building, he was electric.  I asked him what round his agent thought he was going in and he said, ‘I don’t care.  I just want to come here, coach.’  And he absolutely showed me that when we called him on the phone today.”

 

With the selection the Buccaneers received through the compensatory pick system, which tries to balance the previous year’s losses in free agency, the team selected Hardy, it’s second tight end of the draft’s final day.  This kind of doubling up at a position in the draft’s end game isn’t unusual – the Bucs took two tight ends in the sixth and seventh rounds in 2006, two wide receivers in the seventh round in 2005 and two defensive ends near the end in 2001.  It’s a matter of draft-board value and, with the delayed start to post-draft free agency, perhaps a nod to how difficult it might be to sign a particular undrafted player.

 

More importantly, Dominik and Morris obviously believe that Hardy can help right away in two phases of the game.

 

“He’s a productive player,” said Dominik.  “He really can run well.  He’s got good hands but he’s got a combination of good blocking skills.  He’s got a thick lower body.  To me tight end is a spot where you need to play special teams and we also felt like he was a very productive special teams player, or will be one at the next level.”

 

Special teams considerations, as always, were on display on the last day of the draft.  All five of the Bucs’ Saturday picks could prove to be assets in the kick-and-return game.  That’s a nice complement to the opening salvo of Clayborn-Bowers-Foster.  In more than one way, the Buccaneers believe they addressed their most significant needs over the past three days.

 

“I feel like we’ve got a way to attack the quarterback,” said Dominik.  “I think we got some more weapons for [Josh] Freeman and I think we improved the quality of this team again, specifically on fourth down and special teams.