Through 43 seasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had 1,175 different players appear on one of their active rosters during the regular season. From that pool, 1,091 have played in at least one regular-season game and 657 have started at least one regular-season contest.
Fifty-three of those 1,175 players were on the active roster the evening the Buccaneers won their first Super Bowl title. Forty-one different players have represented the franchise in at least one Pro Bowl and 11 have been named an Associated Press First-Team All-Pro at least once while with the Buccaneers. Six of those 1,175 players to put on a Tampa Bay uniform are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame; three of those six were Buccaneers for all or the majority of their careers.
Can we narrow this list to one? If you were asked to name the greatest Buccaneer of all time, would the answer be obvious? Derrick Brooks would certainly come quickly to mind, but surely others could argue pretty strongly for his fellow Hall of Famers, Lee Roy Selmon and Warren Sapp. John Lynch and Ronde Barber might find themselves in Canton before too long as well; would they make the discussion?
And what if you were trying to list the 10 greatest Buccaneers of all time? Now you have even more debate, particularly when you get down to the last few spots. And that's fine – the debate is really the whole point of asking the question. The difficulty arises in comparing players from different eras and at different positions. Offensive tackle Paul Gruber and tight end Jimmie Giles are both in the Buccaneers' Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium, but which one had the greater career.
(By the way, I am purposely making this a long introduction to the list in order to give you a chance to guess who's on the list and in what order before you see the results below. Scroll down if you just want to see the list without guessing.)
That seems like a largely subjective question, but the good folks at Pro Football Reference have attempted to provide an objective measure to compare players across eras and up and down the depth chart. Their method is called "Approximate Value," or AV, and like WAR in baseball it attempts to put a single numerical value to the contributions a player makes during an individual season. Also like WAR, it is a cumulative career stat, so if a player were to have 7AV in his first year and 10AV in his second year he would have 17AV after those two seasons. (That would be a very good start to a player's career, by the way; I lifted those numbers from Mike Evans' stat table.)
Another thing that AV has in common with WAR: It's complicated. If you'd like to read up on the AV methodology, visit the creator's explanatory pages here. But to summarize again: An AV score is meant to summarize a player's entire contributions in a season, it's cumulative throughout a career, and more is better.
Thus, if you are prepared to have faith in the AV methodology, then you can come up with at least a somewhat objective answer to that question about the 10 most valuable players in franchise history. This is certainly not the final answer to that question; keep in mind that the word "Approximate" is right there in the name of the statistic. Here's how AV's creator, Doug Drinen, puts it before diving deeper into the explanation of his methodology:
"AV is not meant to be a be-all end-all metric. Football stat lines just do not come close to capturing all the contributions of a player the way they do in baseball and basketball. If one player is a 16 and another is a 14, we can't be very confident that the 16AV player actually had a better season than the 14AV player. But I am pretty confident that the collection of all players with 16AV played better, as an entire group, than the collection of all players with 14AV."
Below are the 11 players (there was a tie for 10th) with the most accumulated AV in Buccaneers history. One of those players is still active and another current Buc is closing in on the top 10, so this list could be a bit different a year from now. The AV totals for each of the 11 players represent only the numbers they accumulated while playing for the Buccaneers.
10t. Shelton Quarles (67 AV) and Simeon Rice (67 AV)
There will be no shortage of players from Tampa Bay's Super Bowl era on this list. Quarles and Rice were both starters on that top-ranked defense in 2002, the former at middle linebacker and the latter at right defensive end. Both were voted into the Pro Bowl that season as well as collecting championship rings.
In fact, Quarles and Rice had a lot to do with the great run of success of the Buccaneers' defense from 1997 through 2005. Quarles had the greater longevity in that era, as his time in Tampa started in '97 and concluded in 2006. (His playing career concluded, that is; Quarles moved directly into the Bucs' front office after his retirement and is currently the team's director of football operations.) Rice, a 2001 free agency addition, was the piece that put Tampa Bay's great defense over the top and he hit greater statistical peaks, leading the NFL in sacks from 2001-05.
Originally an undrafted free agent in Miami in 1995, Quarles came to the Buccaneers in 1997 after a couple of seasons in the Canadian Football League. He was an immediate hit on special teams, leading the team in '97 with 16 kick-coverage stops and then setting the franchise record in that category with 31 in 1999. Quarles didn't take over a starting job on defense until his third year in Tampa, beginning a three-year run at strongside linebacker in 1999. That job, which usually is on the field only in base formations, kept his tackle totals fairly low through 2001, but he moved to middle linebacker in 2002 and then averaged 106 stops over the next five seasons. In all, Quarles started 113 of the 148 games in which he played and recorded 682 tackles, 13 sacks and four interceptions. He also has the distinction of owning the longest scoring play of any kind in franchise history, a 98-yard interception return against Green Bay in 2001.
Rice started all 87 games he played for the Buccaneers and was near the top of his game for most of that time before missing half of 2006 and collecting just two more sacks. In all, collected 69.5 sacks as a Buccaneer and also contributed 242 tackles, 67 tackles for loss and 19 forced fumbles. Rice's best years for racking up AV were 2002 and 2003, when he was credited with 38 total over that span. That's more than half of the total AV he would accumulate as a Buccaneer.
9. James Wilder (73 AV)
Wilder is the franchise's all-time leading rusher, a distinction he has held since the second week of the 1985 season. Wilder's longevity helped his Buccaneer AV total, as he was with the team for nine years and played in 113 games, but he also peaked very strongly in 1984 and 1985. His 1,544 rushing yards in 1984 remain a single-season Buc record, and he also caught 85 passes that year. He had another 1,300 rushing yards and 53 catches in 1985 and those two seasons account for 28 of his 73 AV as a Buccaneer.
In all, Wilder racked up 5,957 rushing yards and 3,492 receiving yards on 430 catches with Tampa Bay. In addition to his franchise rushing record, he also has the most receptions in team history, though Evans will likely add that to all his other team records next season. Only one other tailback – Warrick Dunn – ranks among the Bucs' top 45 in all-time AV.
8. Gerald McCoy (76 AV)
After injuries marred the first two seasons for the third-overall draft pick in 2010, McCoy has been extremely consistent for the next seven years, as evidenced by his six Pro Bowl selections and also by his AV totals. McCoy racked up between eight and 10 AV every season from 2012 through 2017, his six-pack of Pro Bowl campaigns.
McCoy has now added longevity to his annual production and has played in 123 games, starting all of them. He has 54.5 sacks in that span, a very high number for an interior lineman, to go with 296 tackles, 79 tackles for loss, 140 quarterback hits, 22 passes defensed and six forced fumbles. Even though his sack totals for each of the past two seasons was "only" 6.0, he also had 45 QB hits in that two-year span, the highest two-year total for any part of his career.
McCoy, of course, is the aforementioned active player on this top 10 list and he could easily move up two more spots with another Buccaneer season under his belt. Two more season and he could find himself challenging the all-time top five. McCoy is quite notably the only player whose career began after the Bucs' Super Bowl win to crack the AV top 10 so far.
7. Paul Gruber (77 AV)
Gruber, the fourth-overall pick in the 1988 draft, was an iron man who played in 183 of a possible 192 games during his 12 years as a Buccaneer and started every one of them at left tackle. His consistency shows in his AV totals; except for a 1993 season in which he missed the first six games in a contract dispute, Gruber put up at least 5 AV in every one of his campaigns. He peaked at 11 in 1992, the last of five straight years in which he played every single offensive snap at the beginning of his career.
Gruber is notably one of just two offensive players on this top 10 AV list, and he's the highest-ranked player in team history on that side of the ball. As mentioned above, he is in the Buccaneers' Ring of Honor, the only offensive lineman with that distinction.
Obviously, beyond his starts and his playing time, there aren't a lot of individual statistics generated by his career as an offensive linemen. However, AV takes into account team offense; the AV numbers generated in that manner are divided up by position, with some positions carrying more weight than others. Gruber wasn't on a lot of Buccaneer teams that put up scintillating offensive numbers, but he was the most consistent aspect of those offenses for the dozen years he was on the field.
6. Hardy Nickerson (78 AV)
Nickerson is the second player on this list, following Rice, who did not begin his playing career in Tampa. He had already spent six years in Pittsburgh before the Bucs signed him in 1993, the very first year of unrestricted free agency in the NFL. He wasn't a full-time starter for the Steelers until several years into his time there and he missed 11 games in his first three seasons so he didn't put up huge AV numbers during that portion of his career. That changed in a hurry when he got to Tampa.
In moving from Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense to the 4-3 scheme in Tampa, Nickerson immediately became the focal point of the Buccaneers' defense. He amassed an incredible 214 tackles in his first year with the Bucs, a single-season franchise record that still stands a quarter-century later. He tallied 12 AV that season but that wasn't his top AV campaign with the Buccaneers; in fact, he topped 14 in three other years and peaked at 17 in 1997, when he was named a first-team AP All-Pro. Though he had three sacks and two interceptions the previous year on the way to 14 AV, Nickerson saw his total spike in '97 because Tampa Bay's defense numbers as a team got much better.
In all, Nickerson played seven years for the Buccaneers and started all 104 games in which he played. He had 926 tackles, 9.0 sacks and 13 forced fumbles in that span (1993-99).
4t. John Lynch (87 AV)
Lynch will soon find out if he is getting a bust in Canton, as he is a finalist for the Hall of Fame's Class of 2019. It's the sixth year in a row that he has made it to that stage in the selection process. Of the four players who rank above him or are tied with him in AV in Buc history, three are already in the Hall.
Lynch also benefits from how good the Buccaneers' defensive results were for much of his time in Tampa, though of course he's a big reason why those numbers were so good. A third-round draft pick in 1993, he actually started out quite slowly in the AV department because the Bucs' defensive show-runners at that time did not consider him a good fit for their schemes. Lynch started just 10 games in his first three seasons and amassed only 3 AV in that span.
Everything changed when Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin came to town in 1996. Lynch was a good fit at strong safety in the Dungy/Kiffin defense and he immediately began a run of eight years as a full-time starter, missing only four games and six starts in that span. He made five Pro Bowls as a Buc and was a two-time first-team AP All-Pro.
In his 164 games for Tampa Bay, Lynch racked up 787 tackles, 6.0 sacks, seven forced fumbles, 23 interceptions and 42 passes defensed. He was known as one of the hardest hitters in NFL history, though that likely didn't affect his AV.
4t. Lee Roy Selmon (87 AV)
The Selmon case is an interesting one in that it is likely affected heavily by how his statistics were measured for two-thirds of his career. The late Selmon has a bust in the Hall of Fame just like Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, and all three of those players won an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, but his AV total is well below those of his Buccaneer successors. The reason, presumably: sacks were not an official statistics until 1982, which was the seven of Selmon's nine NFL seasons.
As such, Selmon's official sack total and the number that appears on his PFR chart, is 23.0. Sapp, in contrast, is credited with 96.5 sacks, 77.0 as a Buccaneers. In the franchise record book kept by the Buccaneers, however, Selmon is listed as the team's all-time sack leader, with 78.5. Though sacks were not considered an official statistic until '82, they were still tracked by teams long before that.
Selmon played in 121 NFL games with 117 starts, all with the Buccaneers, and his career was cut a bit short by a back injury. He was the centerpiece of a defense that ranked first in the NFL in 1979 (Selmon's NFC DPoTY campaign) as the Buccaneers made their first foray into the playoffs, and he totaled a career-best 16 AV that season. Tampa Bay's records credit Selmon with 742 tackles, 28.5 forced fumbles and 10 fumble recoveries to go along with his franchise sacks standard. Selmon was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995.
3. Warren Sapp (124 AV)
Sapp was the first of two eventual Hall of Famers the Buccaneers drafted in the first round in 1995, going 12th overall. His first two seasons were promising if not overwhelming, as he recorded a total of 12.0 sacks and 13 AV. Sapp's numbers exploded after that, beginning in 1997, and never really slowed down during his last seven years with the team.
Sapp averaged nearly 16 AV per season from 1997 through 2003, picking up 18 in 1999 when he was the league's Defensive Player of the Year. He set a franchise record with 16.5 sacks the following season and was credited with 17 AV. His top AV campaign came, not surprisingly, when Tampa Bay's defensive results peaked in 2002 and he got 21 on the way to a Super Bowl ring.
One of the greatest interior defensive linemen in NFL history, Sapp was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013, his first year of eligibility. He finished his playing days with four seasons in Oakland but 83.2% of his career 149 AV came as a Buccaneer. Sapp played in 140 games for Tampa Bay and started 130 of them, contributing 77.0 sacks, 400 tackles, 64 tackles for loss, 15 forced fumbles, nine fumble recoveries and three interceptions. He even caught four passes on offense, two of them going for touchdowns.
2. Ronde Barber (150 AV)
Barber finished his career with just one more AV point than Sapp, but he did it all with the Buccaneers, which gives him second place on this list with some breathing room. Barber is notably the only player in the top four who is not yet in the Hall of Fame, and the only one in the top five who has not yet been a Hall finalists. He has only been eligible for induction the last two years and in each case has made it to the semifinal stage.
With a cumulative stat like AV, it obviously helps to play for a long time. Barber did that, for certain, and essentially never missed a game or saw his production wane. When he retired after the 2012 season, in which he played safety after 15 years at cornerback, he had set franchise records for games played (241) and starts (232). After playing in only one game as a rookie in 1997, Barber then played in all 240 possible contests over the next 15 years, starting each of the last 215.
After that nearly idle first season, Barber never put up fewer than five AV in any subsequent campaign. From 2001, his first year as a Pro Bowler and All-Pro, through 2008, his final Pro Bowl season, Barber hit double digits in AV in all but one year.
Of course, his statistical production is well known, as he is the only player in NFL history with at least 45 interceptions and at least 25 sacks. He hit 47 and 28 in those categories, respectively. He was also a very active tackler and is credited with 1,028 stops, the most for any cornerback on PFR's all-time list in that category. Barber was also one of the best non-offensive scorers in league history, too. His 14 career non-offensive touchdowns are fourth all time.
1. Derrick Brooks (191 AV)
Brooks has the Bucs' all-time lead in this category by a pretty hefty margin, suggesting it will be tough for any future Tampa Bay stars to ever catch him. Like Barber, he played a long time, never missed games, never went to another team and was productive from beginning to end.
Brooks started 13 games as a rookie and had 6 AV after contributing 79 tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles. That would prove to be the lowest AV season of his entire 14-year career, all of it spent with the Buccaneers. He played in all 224 games possible during those 14 years and never missed a start after his rookie season.
Brooks' AV total spiked to 14 in 1997 as the Buccaneers' era of defensive dominance began, team success that obviously had a lot to do with his play. For the remainder of his career, Brooks would get double digits in AV in every season except the penultimate one, when he just missed with nine. His peak came in 2002, when he scored four defensive touchdowns, won NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors and led the Bucs to victory in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Brooks hit double digits in sacks in his second season and then did so annually for the next 11 years. He finished with 1,710 stops, which is sixth on PFR's career list in that category. Brooks also amassed 13.5 sacks, 68 tackles for loss, 25 interceptions and 24 forced fumbles.
Brooks' career mark of 191 AV is not only far and away the best ever by a Buccaneer but it ranks him among the all-time greats. He is currently tied for 13th on that list with active quarterback Philip Rivers and he is sixth among non-quarterbacks. The only defenders to have more AV than Brooks are fellow Hall of Famers Reggie White, Bruce Smith and Ray Lewis.
The Rest of the Bucs' Top 20: Warrick Dunn (66 AV), Lavonte David (65 AV), Tony Mayberry (64 AV), Mike Alstott (57 AV), Chidi Ahanotu (57 AV), Cedric Brown (56 AV), Donald Penn (54 AV), Mike Washington (54 AV) Cecil Johnson (52 AV).