The Bucs like the thought of pairing young players with such proven veterans as LB Derrick Brooks
The first week of the 2005 NFL free agency period is essentially over and it's hard to get overly excited about the results.
For sure, there have been significant signings – DT Jason Ferguson to Dallas, G Mike Wahle to Carolina, T Jonas Jennings to San Francisco, WR Derrick Mason to Baltimore and LB Dexter Coakley to St. Louis, to name a few – but it has undoubtedly been a slower marketplace than in years past. Fewer teams struggling with the cap mean fewer productive veterans cut or left unsigned.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, of course, are one of the team's facing some cap issues, or at least they were before they cleared up space through a series of roster moves, including restructured contracts for such players as QB Brian Griese, FB Mike Alstott and DE Greg Spires. The Bucs have certainly not dived into the free agency pool as aggressively as they did last year, when they signed T Derrick Deese, G Matt Stinchcomb, RB Charlie Garner and G Matt O'Dwyer in rapid-fire fashion.
A fast start discounted, it's also unlikely that the Buccaneers will be as active in free agency this year as they were in 2004, when they also inked such players as Griese, T Todd Steussie, P Josh Bidwell, LB Keith Burns, LB Jeff Gooch, CB Mario Edwards and LB Ian Gold. General Manager Bruce Allen recently said that the Bucs have their eyes on two to five targeted free agents.
All of which is to say, the draft is going to be more important to ever.
This is not a surprise to the Buccaneers. Since Allen arrived last February, the Bucs have made moves to target this draft, acquiring extra picks and making sure not to lose any. After years of draft-day deficiencies – the Bucs haven't picked in both the first and second round since 1999 – Tampa Bay is going to be a player again in late April. The free agent market is thinner than ever, and so is the Bucs' wallet, but that was expected.
"We intend to improve through the draft," said Allen. "We enjoyed the draft process last year and we feel we accomplished a great deal. Each one of our draft choices made an NFL team this year; each one played for an NFL team this year, including three seventh-round draft choices. Last year, we started acquiring extra picks with the eye of making sure we brought in an infusion of talent to the core of champions that were on this team so we could develop them in our way. We're excited about the 11 players we're going to draft this year."
The Bucs' 2004 draft will eventually be remembered as either good or excellent, depending upon the development of such players as LB Marquis Cooper, S Will Allen, G Jeb Terry and TE Nate Lawrie. Usually, it takes several years to determine the value of a draft class, but WR Michael Clayton's immediate impact makes it clear that the Bucs hit a home run with their first pick. That's a tremendous accomplishment, given that the team picked 15th last year, and that Clayton was the fifth receiver taken overall.
This year, the Bucs will make the fifth overall selection (barring trades), and they'll have similarly high slots in each round. Allen thinks the team's draft position will pay off with some significant additions to the team.
"We have a chance, with the opportunity of having a high draft choice in each round," said Allen. "The players that you pick at the top of the second and the top of the third round are better than the players that you pick at the bottom, hopefully. That's the way it's designed. We have a chance to add some impact players in the draft, which this franchise hasn't been able to do for the last several years. So we look forward to it."
The Buccaneers last executed a top-five pick in 1990, when they misfired on LB/DE Keith McCants from Alabama. Obviously, they expect a different result this year, and they also believe that the team is in a drastically different position. The 1989 and 2004 teams both finished 5-11, but the current Bucs believe they have a much better foundation from which to build than did that 1989 squad. That's a reasonable belief; many of the players who form the current core of the team are wearing Super Bowl rings.
"We feel comfortable with keeping the core of champions here, and we think those people are as important in the development of young players as anyone," said Allen.
There's little relevance to the McCants selection at this point, of course. Several generations of draft decision-makers have come and gone since then, and the team – if not the whole league – has made a paradigm shift in the argument of potential versus production. Still, it's intriguing to think what might have happened to McCants had he joined a more successful team. The Bucs expect their proven veterans can help them get the most out of this all-important 2005 draft.
"You'd love to bring in a linebacker and have him play next to Derrick Brooks," said Allen. "Marquis Cooper has developed because he gets to play with him in our system with our coaching leadership. So we feel comfortable with where we're at.
"The core of the team is going to be the key."