In April of 2009, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected six players in the first team draft conducted by its new leadership – General Manager Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris. The following September, after the Buccaneers' roster was trimmed to 53 for the regular season, all six – Josh Freeman, Roy Miller, Kyle Moore, Xavier Fulton, E.J. Biggers and Sammie Stroughter – were still around, though Fulton and Biggers had landed on injured reserve.
This past April, after hoarding picks in anticipation of a very deep 2010 draft class, the Buccaneers selected nine more players. When the latest cutdown to 53 was executed on Saturday, all nine of those draftees – Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, Arrelious Benn, Myron Lewis, Mike Williams, Brent Bowden, Cody Grimm, Dekoda Watson and Erik Lorig – made the team. In addition, that previous Class of '09 once again stayed intact with the exception of Fulton.
That's 14 of the 53 players on the 2010 roster, or 26.4% of the whole. Furthermore, there's a very good chance that all 14 of those players will suit up on most game days this fall, when teams have to declare eight inactive players and run with just 45. If so, that would be nearly one third of the players in action when the lights are on.
Those are interesting numbers, but don't ask Dominik to quote them. As encouraging as the team's apparent draft-weekend success is, that actually has nothing to do with how the team's 53-man decisions were made. Just as Preston Parker's undrafted status didn't hurt his chances of making the team, neither did Grimm's fortune of being selected in the seventh round help him in any way. Each player had to prove it on the field.
"I really don't keep track of the draft class," said Dominik. "I really don't. I wanted to make sure that we make the best decisions in the interest of this football team. I think our draft class – and specifically the seventh-rounders, which usually have the hardest time making any football team – all did show up. I think Erik Lorig played well in this last preseason game, got a lot of good pressure and played consistent again on special teams. Dekoda is probably going to be one of our most impactful rookies on fourth down on the entire football team."
Freeman and McCoy – those players were selected with the belief that they would become pillars for the team to build around for years to come, and it would have been a major upset if they had not made the roster. But Dominik and Morris made a particular point of emphasizing the later rounds after they ascended to their current posts, believing those players, too, could form a long-term foundation. The Bucs had gained little out of the seventh round for years before 2009, but now they have five seventh-rounders who could contribute in a big way in 2010, including the likely starters at flanker at nickel back and three core special teamers.
Those latter three are Grimm, Watson and Lorig, and they proved to be exactly what the Bucs hoped they would be when they took their seventh-round chances. In interviews at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, the Buccaneers were impressed with each of those three in terms of their character and their willingness to devote their early-career time to special teams. That showed up on the preseason game tapes repeatedly.
"I think they all stepped up and figured out how to play, and that's a credit to Coach Bisaccia really working hard with these young players, and then buying in and having the mentality of how to make a football team," said Dominik. "I'm not keeping score at home. It's more about trying to make sure we keep the right guys."
The potential long-term haul from those 2009-10 draft classes is huge, if those 14 players remain on their current paths. At the moment, they include the starting quarterback and hopefully the first long-term answer to that position the team has had in a very long time (Freeman); two starting defensive tackles and a third DT who have turned a position of weakness into one that could drive the defense for years (McCoy, Miller and Price); the starting nickel back (Biggers) and another corner who will challenge for that job in the short run and perhaps Ronde Barber's starting spot in the long run (Lewis); the starting split end and dynamic playmaker (Williams) plus the young man who could become Williams' running partner for years (Benn); the likely starter opposite Williams at flanker and the team's best third-down weapon (Stroughter); the starting left end and the player the team is hoping becomes their best edge rusher (Moore); a punter who could stick around for the better part of a decade (Bowden); and three young players who will make their initial impact on special teams (Grimm, Watson and Lorig) but have promise beyond that.
Now that the 2010 cuts have come and gone and the immediate fate of the newest crop of rookies is clear, the most interesting part of the last two years' worth of additions is how the last two classes will fit together. McCoy, Miller and Price have remade the interior line. Biggers and Lewis may be competing for the same jobs for years. And, perhaps most importantly, Freeman has a promising group of young receivers to call his own.
"We've talked about building an offense around Josh Freeman and letting that group of receivers grow with him," said Dominik. "I was very excited and encouraged to watch the preseason unfold and watch the Sammie Stroughters, the Arrelious Benns and Mike Williamses play around Josh Freeman. Another young guy that played well in Houston made this football team – Preston Parker. Those players growing together is what has been the most important thing for this organization."
Dominik said he was approached in the visitor's locker room at Houston's Reliant Stadium before the game on Thursday night by a football person he knew but who was not a part of the Bucs' organization. Dominik didn't identify the figure but did pass along the man's assessment of the players in that locker room: "That's the greatest locker room I've ever been around. These are really great guys."
That locker room includes veteran leaders like Barrett Ruud and established character guys like Ronde Barber who have managed to integrate themselves seamlessly with the new wave of young players. But it obviously also includes those young players, including the very promising draft classes of 2009 and 2010.
"It's a young football team, but we're not just focused on youth," said Dominik. "It's time for this team to start growing and winning together. Now I hope we become an older football team, a team that grows together and jells together and figures out how to win, like we had in the past. I think we have a really great group of guys and now we've got to go out and start playing some football."