One would be hard-pressed to find an NFL team that got more out of its rookie class in 2010 than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It was, as we have noted before, a group effort. Ten different rookies started, 20 got into at least one game, one led the team in scoring, another in rushing. LeGarrette Blount, Mike Williams, Gerald McCoy, Cody Grimm, etc. – the Bucs didn't hit double digits in wins despite their overwhelming rookie presence but because of it.
Individually, however, the top NFL rookies in 2010 were judged to be the very first two players taken in last year's draft: St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford (AP Offensive Rookie of the Year) and Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (AP Defensive Rookie of the Year).
Those were fine choices, of course, and both were in some ways predictable and in some ways trend-breaking.
Suh, for instance, was the first defensive tackle to win on that side of the ball since Miami's Tim Bowen in 1994. Nine of the 10 previous winners had been linebackers, suggesting that is a position in which a young player can immediately step in and make a difference. On the other hand, Suh's high draft position – he was taken second overall, after Bradford went first – is no surprise. Only one of the last five Defensive ROTYs and two of the last 15 have been players chosen outside of the first round. The last time a player picked later than 39th overall was named the top rookie defender was in 1995, when New York Jets defensive end Hugh Douglas (the 66th pick) took the award.
Unlike Suh, Bradford's position made him something a favorite, in part because in most years there are only one or two rookies who start all year under center. Bradford is the fourth quarterback in the last seven years to win the offensive award, following Atlanta's Matt Ryan in 2008, Tennessee's Vince Young in 2006 and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. Bradford's selection also marks the fifth time in the last six years that a player picked in the top seven overall won the award.
The Bucs, of course, were in the discussion for both awards last year. Williams finished second in the voting to Bradford after leading all rookies with 65 catches for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns. His 11 scores were a new Buccaneer single-season record for all players, not just first-year men. On defense, the Bucs' chances were essentially derailed by injuries, as McCoy and Grimm, in particular, had strong seasons cut short by the I.R. list.
Historically, Tampa Bay players have only taken one of those two awards home twice. Running back Warrick Dunn was the first to do so, winning in 1997 following his Pro Bowl rookie season. Running back Cadillac Williams duplicated the feat with his 1,118-yard rushing season in 2005. No Buccaneer has ever won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Both awards date back to 1967; Tampa Bay began play in 1976.
Given the Buccaneers' obvious push to go young since General Manager Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris took over in 2009, it is safe to assume that the team's newest class of rookies – the eight players taken in April's 2011 draft – will get an opportunity to chase those awards this coming fall. That is particularly true given that a good number of those picks were selected with very real roles in mind. Defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, for instance, will be given every chance to win starting jobs in 2011, and tight end Luke Stocker figures to play extensively in two-TE sets with Kellen Winslow.
A week after the 2011 draft was in the books, a group of NFL.com analysts gathered to predict the winners of next year's two Rookie of the Year awards.
On the defensive side, all of the analysts except one chose a player who went among the first 12 picks – Patrick Peterson, Marcell Dareus and Nick Fairley – and that's certainly an understandable decision. Obviously, teams drafting high are coming off down seasons and probably have more openings for young players. In addition, these are the young men who were considered the absolute cream of the crop coming into the draft. Among the 45 players who have been named AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (two players tied for the award in 1980), the average draft position is 20th overall.
The one dissenting opinion, however, thought the Bucs might get their first Defensive ROTY. That would be NFL Network's Charles Davis, who foresees a big opportunity for Bowers, Tampa Bay's second-round pick. Once considered a possibility for the first overall selection, Bowers slid to #51 overall due to concerns about an injured knee. The Buccaneers believe he can have a long and productive NFL career and eagerly jumped on him with their second pick, after taking Clayborn 20th overall. (Perhaps that average draft position mentioned above is a good omen for the former Iowa end!)
Davis believes – as do the Buccaneers – that Bowers is "burning to prove everyone in the league wrong." If the former Clemson pass-rusher can put together the sort of production that made him the NCAA's sack king last fall, he will indeed have a very good opportunity to take home the award.
The same could be said of Clayborn, who in the earliest 2010 mock drafts – those put together by intrepid college football experts before the '10 season – was thought to be a top-10 or even top-5 pick. Clayborn was coming off a monstrous 11.5-sack season in his junior campaign; as a senior, that total fell to 3.5 sacks and with it his spot in the mocks. However, the Buccaneers looked beyond the sack numbers to the game film and saw a player that was just as dominant in 2010 as he was in 2009.
Clayborn may be in even better position to chase the award than Bowers. He has no lingering health concerns to overcome and a depth chart situation that he can definitely conquer. The Bucs' top sack man last year was Stylez G. White, but White had just 4.5 QB takedowns, is headed to free agency and has been mostly a situational pass-rusher, not a starter, in his Buc career. Among ends, Tim Crowder was next for the Buccaneers with 3.0 sacks, and his versatility would make him a perfect fit to move around the line of Clayborn can claim the starting right end spot.
Even the Bucs' third-round pick might find himself in position to pile up the sort of numbers that catch the eyes of end-of-season award-voters. Washington linebacker Mason Foster is considered versatile enough to play any of the three linebacker positions, and he can both rush the passer and drop into coverage. Foster had 6.5 sacks in his senior season and may end up being another linebacker, like Quincy Black, that the Buccaneers look to utilize in different defensive formations as a stand-up pass-rusher. Foster's playing time, however, could be affected by the eventual outcome of Black's and Barrett Ruud's free agency situations.
On offense, the Bucs nearly had their third winner last year in Williams, who probably would have been a shoo-in if Bradford hadn't grabbed the Rams' starting job so quickly. Blount, too, could have been a more serious consideration if he had been the Bucs' primary ballcarrier from Day One; as it was, he led all rookies in rushing yards.
There has been a little more variation in the draft status of Offensive Rookies of the Year. The 54th overall pick won in 2003 (Anquan Boldin), part of a four-year run of non-first-rounders. The 189th overall pick, Denver running back Mike Anderson, won in 2000. The 44 winners of that award have averaged an overall draft spot of 28th.
Williams and Blount gave the Bucs two players in the running for that honor despite the fact that they spent their of their first four picks on defensive players. It's a similar situation in 2011, as Tampa Bay's first three picks were Clayborn, Bowers and Foster. Perhaps another fourth-rounder, Tennessee's Stocker, can give Tampa Bay another shot at the offensive award.
There is one serious factor working against that hope, however: In 44 years, the AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award has never gone to a tight end. Since running backs often step right into major roles as rookies, it's no huge surprise that 31 of the 44 winners have come from that position. Five have been quarterbacks (what a run on that position in the last seven years!) and the other eight were wide receivers. With that in mind, it was an impressive feat for Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey to finish third in the voting last year behind Bradford and Williams.
None of this, of course, is meant to discount the rookie award possibilities for the Bucs' other four draft picks: safety Ahmad Black, running back Allen Bradford, cornerback Anthony Gaitor and tight end Daniel Hardy. Historically, however, the award-winners have rarely come from the second half of the draft. Black was picked 151st overall, Bradford 187th, Gaitor 222nd and Hardy 238th. Only one Offensive and one Defensive Rookie of the Year winner has ever been picked lower than 150th. As mentioned, Anderson won the offensive award in 2000; Atlanta Falcons linebacker Al Richardson, the 201st pick in 1980, shared the defensive award with his teammate, linebacker Buddy Curry, that year.
Last year marked the first time since 1981 that the top two players chosen in the draft ended up as the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year. That season, the winning tandem was New Orleans running back George Rogers (1st overall) and New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor (2nd). Those are the only two such occurrences.
If this year's first two picks can duplicate the Bradford-Suh sweep, the Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards would end up in Carolina (quarterback Cam Newton) and Denver (linebacker Von Miller). Newton and Miller will have plenty of competition, however, and much of it could come from the Tampa Bay area.