Had the Bucs skipped Anthony McFarland in the first round in 1999 and tried to get a defensive tackle later in the draft, their chances for success would have been slim
In 1992, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Baylor DT Santana Dotson with the second of two fifth-round picks in the NFL Draft. Dotson started 16 games at under tackle for the Bucs that season and led the team with 10 sacks.
In 1995, Tampa Bay picked up Kentucky S Melvin Johnson in the second round after getting Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in the first round. Though Johnson was placed on the inactive list for each of the first five games of 1995 – not unusual for a rookie – he was in the starting lineup before the season was over. Johnson also started at free safety for the Bucs in 1996.
In 1997, the Bucs selected East Tennessee State CB Donnie Abraham in the third round and followed with Florida T Jason Odom in the fourth. Both Abraham and Odom got starts as a rookie, and both were in the opening-day lineup in 1997.
The NFL careers of those four players have taken different paths. Dotson kept his starting job for four years in Tampa, then moved to Green Bay as a free agent and continued to excel. Johnson was traded to Kansas City after the 1997 season and was out of football shortly thereafter. Abraham became the Bucs' all-time interceptions leader before joining the New York Jets in 2002. Odom had a promising career cut short by back problems.
However, they all started with the Bucs in the same way: as viable candidates for the starting lineup.
Times have changed in Tampa. Now possessed of the Lombardi Trophy and one of the league's deepest rosters, the Bucs are suddenly a very hard lineup to crack. Of last year's 22 offensive and defensive starters, 19 are back and the other three have already been replaced with veterans, two with free agents and one from the inside. No longer is Tampa Bay looking to the draft as a means to fill holes in the lineup immediately. If the Bucs of the early '90s were looking for Keith McCants or Eric Curry to instantly save the team, the Bucs of the early millennium are looking for help down the road.
"You actually get to sit there and pick players with a plan to succeed in the future," said Buccaneers General Manager Rich McKay. "You don't have to worry about trying to fill a position or a need, if you will, and I think we go into that this year. That doesn't mean we don't have needs that will crop up as this year goes along, or next year, but it does mean that you should be drafting players that you are projecting to help you in two years or three years. You're not projecting them to help you this year unless they contribute on special teams."
The Bucs got to this point by making their last seven or eight drafts count and, more recently, by making precision strikes in the free-agent market. The departure of Alshermond Singleton for Dallas left a hole in the lineup at strongside linebacker, but it was quickly filled with the signing of former Minnesota Viking first-rounder Dwayne Rudd. That frees the Bucs from shifting their early-draft focus heavily towards the linebacker spot in hopes of finding an immediate replacement. If Tampa Bay drafts a linebacker now, it will likely be because he is the highest-rated player on their board.
"I think, like last season and this season, we don't head into the draft feeling like we have to draft a player who's going to help us this year to win," said McKay. "We didn't feel like we had to last year, and we didn't, really. We got some guys who contributed a little bit, made the team, so on and so forth, but we didn't need them to win this year. Again, we head into this draft with the same thought. That's a good thing. That's why signing Dwayne Rudd became kind of important to us. Not so much because we had to find a player at that position, but because it makes the draft…is there such a thing as 'more pure?'"
The best-available-player strategy has helped the Bucs in recent years. In 1999, the team had two strong defensive tackle starters in Warren Sapp and Brad Culpepper, but still used their 15th overall selection on LSU DT Anthony McFarland. Just a few years later, McFarland is considered one of the best defensive tackles in the league and a monstrous pairing with Pro Bowl DT Warren Sapp.
Had the Bucs gone into that draft with a very pressing specific need, it could have gone very differently. Tampa Bay could have tried to fill that need with their number-15 pick, then picked up another defensive tackle later, but it's doubtful they would have matched McFarland's quality. The next 10 defensive tackles taken in that draft were Reggie McGrew, Dimitrius Underwood, Russell Davis, John Thornton, Larry Smith, Montae Reagor, Cletidus Hunt, Kevin Landolt, Jason Wiltz and Brad Scioli. At least six of those players – McGrew, Underwood, Davis, Smith, Landolt and Wiltz – would probably be considered 'busts,' or close to it, while Thornton, Reagor and Scioli have proven to be decent players. Perhaps only Hunt would be considered comparable to McFarland, which means the Bucs would have had a one in 10 chance of succeeding had they waited.
McFarland was a starter by his second season with the Bucs, but not because the team was deficient at his position. Recognizing McFarland's undeniable talents, the Bucs cleared the way for him by releasing Culpepper. The players Tampa Bay adds in next week's draft will similarly have to prove themselves to earn a spot in the starting lineup, and that could take several years.
"It takes time for every player and we are in the position where no matter who we pick, if you expect it to be like the old days where that guy is put in there as a starter, that's not going to happen," said Bucs Director of College Scouting Ruston Webster. "The guy is going to have to contribute on special teams and develop while he is doing that. But to expect a guy to come in and impact our football team right now, it would be very unlikely. We are staying with the philosophy that we will take the best player available. And we can do that now, we are not really held hostage."
CB Dwight Smith played on special teams as a rookie after being taken in the third round in 2001, then became the nickel back in his sophomore campaign and eventually racked up seven interceptions, including two in the Super Bowl. This season, he's being given the first crack at the free safety job vacated by Dexter Jackson. Rudd takes over for Singleton and former Jacksonville Jaguar John Wade, signed in March, slides into the center spot opened when the team released Jeff Christy. No other starters are expected to change, though there will always be training-camp competition.
Thus Tampa Bay can think several years down the road in terms of replacements, and they can make a move at any position. McKay has indicated that the team's second-round hot list (the Bucs' first pick is the last selection of the second round, number 64 overall) is broader than usual. The Bucs are targeting a player or two at almost every position, rather than a list of five or six names at one spot. That should keep the team from 'reaching down,' as McKay calls it, to grab a player at a position that might be rated lower than a remaining player at another spot.
"You hear that phrase a lot about reaching down and grabbing players who don't deserve to go where they go – and that is real," said McKay. "That is not manufactured. That happens, and that is impossible to prevent when you're building a team. Impossible. And it doesn't mean that it's a bad pick. It just means that you picked them when you didn't have to.
"You're trying to acquire players for various positions and it does cause you to reach. In this instance, it's nice that we're not faced with that."