RB Adrian Peterson combines power and speed in a way Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden has rarely seen in a running back prospect
Regardless of where a team is slotted specifically in the NFL Draft, a first-round pick is a reason for optimism. After all, a franchise-altering player can be found at picks one (Peyton Manning), 10 (Jerome Bettis), 20 (Steve Atwater) or 30 (Reggie Wayne). Every team in the league – excluding Seattle, which doesn't have a first-round pick – believes it will come away with an impact player in the opening stanza on April 28.
Still, there is a particular sort of buzz around a team set to pick in the top five of the first round. Perhaps it's simply a more focused brand of optimism.
If your picking, say, third, you can narrow your vision to three particular players, knowing your guaranteed to get at least one of them. And when you happen to be absolutely smitten with all three of those possible draftees, you simply can't lose.
All of which is why Jon Gruden, head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, recently chuckled when asked about the difficulty of executing his team's first-round pick this year. The Buccaneers are due to pick fourth, their highest spot in the draft since 1990 (Tampa Bay was slotted second in the 1992 draft but had traded away its '92 first-round pick in 1991).
The question wasn't without merit. There is a greater risk in a top-five pick in one sense, in that a bust that high can have greater and longer-lasting effects on the salary cap. Misses in the top five tend to last longer in the collective NFL consciousness, too. Everyone remembers Ryan Leaf, Tony Mandarich and Ki-Jana Carter, but try to name the year and the teams associated with these four consecutive draft flops: Fernando Bryant, Aaron Gibson, Andy Katzenmoyer and Dimitrius Underwood.
(For the record, those four went 26th-29th in 1999, to Jacksonville, Detroit, New England and Minnesota, respectively. None panned out in the long run.)
But there is less risk in another sense. Top five picks do bust, but not quite as often, because these are the absolute cream-of-the-crop prospects every year. Most of them are both supremely gifted and well-rounded prospects. Many of those who don't become outright stars at least end up as above-average or serviceable regulars for a decent length of time (think Shawn Springs or Justin Smith).
So, as well as the Bucs believe they have executed recent picks at number 23 (Davin Joseph) and 15 (Michael Clayton), Gruden feels even better about being in the top five this year.
"It's a lot easier, if you ask me," he said. "I'd rather pick there than the bottom five. I've gone two or three drafts where we didn't get to pick at all (in the first round). I'd rather pick number one and take whoever I want. Why would that be hard? I like being the first to pick. You want Vince Young, Mario Williams or Reggie Bush?"
Still, what if you do end up pulling the trigger on a Curtis Enis or an Akili Smith? And do you try to avoid certain positions due to a higher bust potential? Those are things you can't worry about as you refine your prospect board in the weeks leading up to the draft, says Gruden
"People talk about the guys who don't make it," he said. "'Don't take a guy there,' they say. 'Thirty percent of these guys, 40 percent, they don't make it.' You've got to live in your hopes, not in your fears. The draft is no perfect science. There are going to be errors. You try to find a guy with as few holes as you can."
The Bucs believe they can do that, and it's easy to see why. That no-lose situation described above? Tampa Bay's #4 pick sure looks that way to Gruden here in the final weeks before draft weekend.
Obviously, Gruden is going to share neither the Bucs' specific draft strategy nor their most in-depth scouting reports. But he has been asked and will be asked again about the players commonly thought to be this year's top prospects, and he's not going to deny that he sees a lot of assets he would like to add to his team.
When asked if the Bucs would consider trading up or down, Gruden concedes that the team will keep an open mind. But when you're already only four spots down in such a loaded draft, it's awfully tempting to stay put and cherry-pick a potential difference-maker.
"Staying right there is not a bad option, either," he said, heating up as some of the available star players cross his mind. "The guy at Oklahoma [RB Adrian Peterson] is a great player. He might be as good a running back coming out of college as I've ever seen. This guy kills people when he runs the ball. And you've got to do your homework on the quarterbacks [LSU's JaMarcus Russell and Notre Dame's Brady Quinn]. And [Wisconsin offensive tackle] Joe Thomas might be sitting there. And you start talking about the defensive side of the ball – Gaines Adams; [Jamaal] Anderson; my main man at Louisville, [Amobi] Okoye, [Alan] Branch."
Gruden wasn't ignoring Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, either. It was Johnson's name – one that many analysts put atop their overall rankings – that started the whole conversation.
"If that guy doesn't make it, then there are going to be a lot of guys that have been wrong," said Gruden. "He's a heck of a player."
"I feel that way about the quarterbacks. I personally think this running back at Oklahoma might be the best back I've ever seen come out of college. The kid at Wisconsin, that Joe Thomas kid, is a hell of an offensive tackle. Are you kidding me? He has a lot of upside.
"So we're going to get a good player. It's just a matter of what we want to do."
Most of the published mock drafts have the first four picks going all offense, just as they did in 2005 with QB Alex Smith, RB Ronnie Brown, WR Braylon Edwards and RB Cedric Benson (and the Bucs made it five in a row that year with RB Cadillac Williams at number five). Those four picks always come from a pool of the aforementioned five offensive players: Russell, Quinn, Johnson, Peterson and Thomas. If one wants to envision the Buccaneers staying put and adding to their young offense – not that Gruden said that would happen, or this story is suggesting such a strategy – then you need to look no further than that list to pick a player.
Fortunately for the Buccaneers, if they do decide to go that route, Gruden thinks highly of all five. Here are a few of his thoughts on each player:
Russell: "I think he's got rare talent, rare talent. Throwing the football, his size, mobility, his arm…it's just rare. He reminds me of [Ben] Roethlisberger in some ways physically; he's freakish. Roethlisberger's a big quarterback; this guy's very big. He's a gamer. The workout that Russell had was Star Wars; it was unbelievable. He's got the big arm, he's got the quick arm and he's got the ability to run around himself. And he's a heck of a kid. He's a leader."
Quinn: "[He] is a Type-A guy. He's a winner. He's the hardest-working guy, maybe, in this draft. He does sit-ups at halftime. He's unbelievable. He's ripped; he's cut out of marble. The guy's working around the clock. He has really got a burning desire to be the best. Above the neck he's been well-trained. And you forget that he is six-three-and-a-half, he's 225 pounds and he threw 75 touchdown passes in two seasons at Notre Dame. What a great looking kid and a great competitor."
Johnson: "At the combine you have this guy looking at you on the big screen, you're looking at this guy and he's built, he's chiseled. And he's 6-5 and 240 pounds. And he runs a 4.35 for us. Then he [broad] jumps 11'7" and he's mad as heck at himself. I've been doing this 16 years and I've never seen 11'7", especially from a 6-five-5, 240-pound guy. Then he [vertical] jumps 44 and a half inches and he's mad as heck again, thinks it should have been 47. And then you forget he's a great guy. He's a great kid. He'll look you in the eye, and he wants to be good. He's going to be a great player."
Peterson: "He's a punishing guy. If you go back and watch him as a freshman, in nine games this man has 1,500 yards. He doesn't try to go out of bounds. He tries to hurt you. Every time he carries the ball he tries to hurt you…bad. And he's fast. I love the way he plays this game. I've heard people compare him to Eric Dickerson. This guy runs with power, Peterson. I love him. When I saw him catch the ball at his workout and run as fast he did, I said this guy's a heck of a player."
Thomas: "He's a technician. He's got good feet. His senior season – I honestly can say we've looked at every tape and he doesn't ever get beat. I don't think he gives up a sack. Fundamentals are important to him. He understands situations. He anticipates stunts, he's good with his hands, he's flexible, he can run and at times he's mean as hell in there. This is a guy who has progressively gotten better and better and better and better. His senior year he wasn't challenged a lot. He didn't do much in every film but dominate."
So who will be available and who do the Bucs covet most? Well, one of the above. Or perhaps the highest-rated defensive player on their board. Are we hedging? Of course. Tampa Bay could still move up, move down or trade all of their picks for Ricky Williams. Still, it's clear that, in the Bucs' opinion, the team can sit tight at the fourth overall pick and be assured of getting a player they expect to be very, very good.
"This is what we need in Tampa," said Gruden. "We need to get another good player, then we need to get another one and another one, and we need to go to training camp and win some football games."