Tampa Bay Buccaneers

April Powers


The depth of the 1996 draft, which produced Pro Bowl CB Donnie Abraham in the third round, made it one of the 10 best in franchise history

The Buccaneers have had some fine draft weekends…which one was the best?

The most optimistic day on the NFL calendar generally falls on a spring Monday.

Every year, after the National Football League concludes its weekend-long draft in April, hope flourishes in each team city. Great expectations are heaped on the newest players in the league, and every team is certain it has upgraded for the future.

We know, of course, that these hopes are sometimes dashed, that every year some team's draft class is going to prove to be of little help in the long run. Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans certainly realize this.

Yet they have seen both sides of the coin. The same Buc fans that might shudder at the thought of April, 1986 (the spring of Bo Jackson and Rod Jones) feel a warmth in their hearts over Draft '95 (welcome aboard Mr. Sapp and Mr. Brooks).

Yes, there have been bad Buccaneer drafts, but there have also been quite a few that were eventually deserving of that April optimism, particularly in recent years. Our task here is to see if we can determine the greatest draft weekend in franchise history.

First, just a few criteria we employed in narrowing the list of 25 drafts down to 10 for consideration.

In our estimation, the draft had to be successful in the first round to be worth mentioning. In some seasons, the team had difficulty with its first-round pick(s) or had traded it away, then went on to snare some quality players later in the weekend. The 1990 draft, in which the team misfired on Keith McCants but later added Reggie Cobb, Tony Mayberry and Ian Beckles, is a good example. First-round picks are more likely to yield 'special' players, and so a miss in that round is particularly painful.

However, a first-round success and little else was also not enough to get on our list. In 1978, the team picked up a crucial part of its upcoming playoff seasons by drafting Doug Williams in the first round, but got almost nothing else of value from the weekend beyond FB Johnny Davis, who started 20 games in his career. Our top ten drafts combined first-round success with helpful players down the line.

For the purposes of this discussion, we also did not include players netted by draft-pick trades. The first pick of the 1979 draft went to Chicago for Wally Chambers, who then started at left end and had 5.5 sacks for the '79 division champions. Chambers is not included in this analysis, so the decent 1979 haul of Greg Roberts, Gordon Jones and Jerry Eckwood falls a little short.

With that groundwork laid, on to the opinions. Our main measuring sticks will be games played and started, Pro Bowl berths and positions on the team's all-time stat charts.

Our top 10 Buccaneer drafts, in chronological order:

1976: The first draft in team history was a doozy, netting such cornerstone players as DE Lee Roy Selmon, LB Dewey Selmon, OL Steve Wilson and DB Curtis Jordan. Of course, Selmon's presence on the list makes this one almost a no-brainer, but nine players from that draft went on to account for 491 games played and 347 starts between 1976 and 1985. Yes, the Buccaneers' expansion status presumably made it easier for rookies to make the team, but the team had also been well stocked through a veteran allocation draft and five of these '76 rookies went on to play for the '79 division title team (Selmon, Selmon, Wilson, Jordan and WR George Ragsdale).

The group went on to earn six Pro Bowl berths, admittedly all belonging to Lee Roy Selmon, who is also the only Pro Football Hall of Fame member in team history. Selmon ranks first on the Bucs' all-time sack chart and brother Dewey is 11th in tackles. Wilson and Lee Roy Selmon rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in games played and fifth and third, respectively, in games started.

1977: The '77 draft didn't produce any more Hall of Famers, but it was the source of one of the key figures in team history, RB Ricky Bell. Bell's career – and life – were cut short by illness, but he was absolutely instrumental in the team's 1979 playoff run. The same could be said for LB David Lewis and T Charley Hannah, and WR Larry Mucker also made a contribution.

The '77 draft group of Bell, Lewis, Hannah, Mucker and QB Randy Hedberg eventually amassed 247 games played and 179 starts. Lewis earned a Pro Bowl berth in 1990. On the team's all-time stat charts, Bell ranks fourth in rushing and 11th in touchdowns despite playing just five seasons.

1980: No Pro Bowlers came out of the 1980 draft, but the team did recharge its starting lineup for the next four or five years with the likes of G Ray Snell, WR Kevin House, LB Scott Brantley, OL Jim Leonard, WR Gerald Carter and LB Andy Hawkins. It also nabbed two of the top five receivers in Buc history.

Between them, those six accounted for 456 games played and 284 starts through 1987. House helped push the Bucs to their second playoff berth in 1981 with the first 1,000-yard receiving season in team history and was, at the time his Tampa Bay career ended in 1986, the leading receiver in franchise annals. He now ranks third. Carter ranks fifth.

Brantley ranks ninth on the team's all-time games played list and eight on the tackle chart.

1981: Hugh Green, who led off this draft, eventually spent much of his career elsewhere. But he did wear a Buc uniform through 1985 and was part of a group that played in a combined 305 games, starting 210.

It was actually the second round where the Bucs struck gold in this draft. The team drafted James Wilder to play fullback, but he moved to running back a few seasons later and finished his career as the most prolific offensive player in team history.

Wilder tops both the all-time rushing and all-time receptions charts in the Buc record book, both by a healthy margin. He was the only offensive player between 1983 and 1988 to make the Pro Bowl for Tampa Bay, and he held the NFL record for carries in a single season for 14 years. Green actually topped Wilder with two Pro Bowl berths, for a total of three from this class.

The '81 drafted also garnered the Bucs John Holt, who started 53 games at cornerback, as well as contributors Johnny Ray Smith and Brad White.

1985: The mid-80s were not the Golden Era of Buccaneer drafting, but the team did get some use from the '85 crop. First-rounder DE Ron Holmes was an instant starter and remained in that role for four years. Between Holmes, LB Ervin Randle, S Mike Prior, WR Phil Freeman and K Donald Igwebuike, this group eventually started 103 games and played in 262.

Holmes remains in the team's top 10 in sacks, but it's Igwebuike that made the most lasting mark. 'Iggy' is the team's second-leading scorer, also ranking second in field goals, trailing Michael Husted in both accounts.

There were, however, no Pro Bowl invites for this draft class.

1987: At the very least, this was one of the most formative drafts in team history.

No fewer than six long-time starters emerged from this draft class, including, of course, QB Vinny Testaverde. In fact, the Bucs netted not only their quarterback for the next six years, but also his primary targets in WRs Mark Carrier and Bruce Hill and TE Ron Hall. On defense, starters CB Ricky Reynolds, LB Winston Moss and NT Curt Jarvis were also '87 draftees.

Stunningly, 13 different players drafted in 1987 eventually saw action for the Buccaneers in the regular season – the seven mentioned above plus RB Don Smith, LB Don Graham, LB Henry Rolling, RB Steve Bartalo, DE Harry Swayne (who would later switch to offense) and G Mike Simmonds. In addition, two other players – P Greg Davis and QB Mike Shula – made the active roster but failed to see action in a game.

Before it was all said and done for this class, the above 13 had played in 621 Buccaneer games and started 494, easily the most of any draft class in team history. Testaverde is the Bucs' all-time leader in every passing category and even owns a 100-yard rushing game. Carrier, Hall and Hill all rank among the team's all-time top ten in receptions, headlined by Carrier, the number-one man in receiving yards. Carrier and Hill also rank third and fourth, respectively, in touchdown receptions.

Reynolds is tied for fourth on the Bucs' career interceptions list, though he never earned the Pro Bowl nod some felt he should. Carrier, in fact, is the only member of this group to go to the Pro Bowl as a Buccaneer.

1988: This one didn't have the lasting impact of the '87 draft, except in one instance.

The '88 draft will forever be known in Buccaneer circles as the one that produced T Paul Gruber, perhaps the most accomplished offensive player in team history. Gruber was followed by a handful of impactful players in RB Lars Tate, DT Robert Goff, G John Bruhin, RB William Howard and DT Reuben Davis.

In fact, 10 of the 12 Bucs drafted that weekend played for the team, a very high success rate. Those listed above plus DT Shawn Lee, RB Kerry Goode, WR Frank Pillow and LB Victor Jones accounted for 472 games played and 327 starts.

Gruber is the Bucs' all-time leader in both games played and games started, rarely missing a contest over his 12-year career. Though he never earned a Pro Bowl berth (he was an alternate choice), he was considered the team's Most Valuable Player in 1994.

1995: Yes, we made a pretty big leap forward there to the mid-90s. After years of failed attempts to hit on 'high-potential' players, the Bucs changed philosophies under new General Manager Rich McKay and began looking for players that were proven producers.

The results were dramatic right off the bat. Tampa Bay laid the groundwork for its awesome defense in 1995 by drafting DT Warren Sapp and LB Derrick Brooks in the first round.

However, this draft fails to walk away with the award because the remaining six choices failed to make a huge impact. S Melvin Johnson, chosen in the second round, was a starter for two seasons before being traded prior to the 1998 campaign. He, CB Clifton Abraham, LB Wardell Rouse and T Stephen Ingram combined for just 67 games and 27 starts.

Of course, Brooks and Sapp have a combined 190 games played and 177 starts since '95 and, more impressively, eight combined Pro Bowl appearances. Sapp ranks second on the team's all-time sack chart, behind only Selmon, and Brooks is second in tackles, trailing Hardy Nickerson. Brooks has been named the team's MVP three times, sharing it with Sapp twice. Both are two-time first-team AP All-Pros.

1996: Every single player drafted by the Buccaneers in 1996 played for the team at some point during the regular season.

That alone would be a remarkable distinction, but this class has gone far beyond that. With Marcus Jones, Mike Alstott and Donnie Abraham, the draft of 1996 produced some of the key members of the current Buccaneer playoff contender. T Jason Odom was a strong member of that group as well before he was felled by a career-ending back injury.

Alstott and Abraham are each fresh off the 2001 Pro Bowl; Alstott, in fact, has been to that game four times, tied for the most among offensive players in team history. He is also ranked third on the Bucs' all-time rushing chart and fourth on the team's career scoring list. With eight touchdowns in 2001, certainly well in line with his career standards, Alstott could become the all-time leading TD producer in Buc annals.

Abraham is similarly headed to the top of the Bucs' interceptions chart. He has 25 in five seasons and five more will put him at the top of the list; he currently stands third. With his recent career revival, Jones has moved into ninth place on Tampa Bay's career sack list.

So far, the draft class of 1996 has produced 348 games played and 261 starts, and it's still going strong.

1997: Seven of the 10 players the Bucs' drafted in '97 have already played at least 50 games (okay, Ronde Barber's at 49, but close enough, right?). Like '96, this draft was a team-builder.

Free agency makes it a little difficult to determine where this group will be headed, but they've already played in 415 games and started 215. Warrick Dunn, Reidel Anthony, Jerry Wunsch, Frank Middleton and Ronde Barber have all been starters Alshermond Singleton and Patrick Hape have played major roles.

Dunn has earned this class two Pro Bowl berths and has already moved into second place on the Bucs' all-time rushing chart. He is also ninth on the receptions chart.

So there are your 10 choices. 1976, '77, '80, '81, '85, '87, '88, '95, '96, or '97. Can we name one best year? We can try.

Let's eliminate '80, and '85 for lack of a true star. The '77, '81 and '95 drafts had stars, but weren't deep. After Gruber, the rest of the '88 draft was too short-lived.

That leaves us a final four of 1976 (the Selmon draft), 1987 (Testaverde, et. al.), 1996 (Alstott & Abraham) and 1997 (Dunn and Company).

As deep as the '87 draft was, it failed to produce even a single Pro Bowler. With apologies to the 1996 and '97 drafts, which are still proving themselves, we'll go with 1976, the very first draft in team history.

Under intense pressure, the newly-formed Buccaneers found the right men to form the base of the team for the years to come. Without the free agency advantage now available to expansion teams, Tampa Bay was in the playoffs in just four years. That wouldn't have happened without a good effort in April of 1976.

Of course, you are free to disagree. Using the poll to the right side of the main Draft Central page, register your opinion about the finest draft in team history.

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