With little time to waste, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are moving fast to get their 2011 draft picks inked before the start of training camp.
Most significantly, the Buccaneers announced on Wednesday that first-round pick Adrian Clayborn has signed his first NFL contract, heading a list of four Buccaneer draftees who have already cleared that hurdle.
Also signing their initial pro deals on Wednesday were second-round defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, third-round linebacker Mason Foster and seventh-round tight end Daniel Hardy. That impressive list cuts the Bucs' 2011 class in half; the four remaining players still to sign are fourth-round tight end Luke Stocker, fifth-round safety Ahmad Black, sixth-round running back Allen Bradford and seventh-round cornerback Anthony Gaitor.
The Buccaneers have not had to deal with an extended training camp holdout by a rookie since the mid-'90s, and one was not expected in 2011 thanks to the rules governing draft-pick contracts in the new collective bargaining agreement. Still, deals for first-round picks often involve 11th-hour negotiations, and it's an encouraging sign for both the team and the player that Clayborn's deal was finalized so quickly.
It is also encouraging that all of the Bucs' first three picks are already in the fold, as all three will have the opportunity to carve out major roles on the team in 2011. In fact, a year after becoming the first team since the 1970 merger to start 10 different rookies and finish with a winning record, Tampa Bay will likely see each of its first three picks compete for starting positions.
Clayborn and Bowers will certainly be in the running for starting spots on the right and left end of the line, respectively. Re-igniting the pass rush was clearly the Buccaneers' number-one priority on draft weekend, and the Bucs' two new rookie ends ranked among the most dynamic sack men in the college ranks the last few seasons.
The Buccaneers nabbed Clayborn with the 20th overall pick in April, taking advantage of a deep class of pass-rushers to get the player they had targeted all offseason. In four seasons at Iowa, Clayborn started 37 games and racked up 192 tackles, seven forced fumbles, 19 sacks, 19 quarterback pressures and 37.5 tackles for loss. In the process he built a reputation as a non-stop gamer – in 2009 he was given Iowa's "Hawkeye Hustle" award in recognition of his relentless effort. Though he has a quick step off the edge and is a natural pass-rusher, Clayborn is projected as an every-down defensive end who is equally capable against the run.
Clayborn's finest season, statistically, came in 2009, when he racked up a career-high 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles while helping Iowa rank fifth in the nation against the run. Though his sack total dropped to 3.5 last fall as a senior that hardly noted a downturn in his play. In fact, at the end of the 2010 campaign Clayborn was named an All-American by the Associated Press and a finalist for the Ted Hendricks award, given to the nation's top defensive end.
In 2010, it was Bowers who emerged as the nation's top sack artist, leading the college ranks with 15.5 QB takedowns. In January, he was mentioned as a possible candidate for the draft's first overall pick, but concerns about his postseason knee surgery led to a slide down the board.
The Buccaneers believed on draft weekend that Bowers would be able to make an impact not only in future seasons but in 2011, and reports since indicate that the former Clemson star is progressing well. General Manager Mark Dominik said on Tuesday that he does not expect Bowers to open training camp on the P.U.P list, meaning he is on track to be ready for the regular season.
The Buccaneers had to pass on Foster, the ultra-productive Washington linebacker, in order to grab Bowers in the second round, and so they were thrilled to get him in Round Three. While Foster is considered capable of playing any of the three linebacker positions in the Bucs' defense, the team will work him in the middle. This is particularly significant given that the Bucs' incumbent starter at that position, Barrett Ruud, is currently an unrestricted free agent.
Foster was a tackling machine at the University of Washington, racking up 378 stops over four seasons and 50 games. He never missed a game during his Huskies career and by his senior season was the heart and soul of Washington's defense. Like Clayborn and Bowers, he served as a team captain, something the Buccaneers have identified as a very encouraging factor in their scouting efforts.
As a senior in 2010, Foster amassed an incredible 163 tackles, 106 of them solo stops. He ranked second in the nation in both overall tackles per game (12.58) and solo tackles per game (8.08) and hit double digits in stops in all but one of Washington's outings.
While the path to a starting spot isn't as obvious for Hardy, the former Idaho standout, the Bucs still consider him a very intriguing prospect for their passing game. He has the speed necessary to stretch the middle of the defense and has displayed an ability to make difficult catches in traffic. Despite missing the last five games of his senior season, Hardy was still the Vandals' second-leading pass-catcher, grabbing 32 passes for 545 yards, earning second-team all-conference honors in the process.
Hardy was among the nation's leading receivers among tight ends last season before sustaining a broken arm in the Vandals' eighth outing. He first emerged as a big-time threat in Idaho's passing game as a junior in 2009, finishing second on the team with 39 catches for 391 yards. Over the last two seasons, Hardy has averaged 17.4 yards per catch, a rather impressive number for a tight end.