When the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft began last April, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were fairly certain they would get their man.
Picking third overall, the Buccaneers had only a few variables to consider, and those were reduced further if one believed the prevailing wisdom (which proved correct) that the St. Louis Rams would select Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford with the first choice.
Thus, it was a moment worthy of celebration but no real surprise when less than an hour into the proceedings Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was tearfully holding up a Buccaneers jersey.
There will be no such certainty for the Buccaneers this April, at least not to that extent. That's a good thing, however.
"I'm happy that we're 17 selections lower, I can tell you that," said Tampa Bay General Manager Mark Dominik. "That's a big step."
The Green Bay Packers are more than happy to take a spot at the end of the line when the draft picks are handed out, and the Carolina Panthers, already on the de facto clock, would quickly switch places with them. High picks, and the greater degree of choice they afford a team, are coveted of course, but they are the product of struggles in the previous season. The Packers are last because they're the champs, the Panthers first because they managed only two wins. The Buccaneers were thrilled to get McCoy last year, but even more happy that a seven-win improvement from 3-13 in 2009 to 10-6 in 2010 means they're back in an area of draft uncertainty this spring.
Knowing you will get your targeted player: Fantastic. Winning enough games to be low in the draft order: Even better. Somehow combining the two: Perfect.
That's what the Buccaneers pulled off two years ago, when their 9-7 record slotted them 19th in the first round. That was the first draft conducted by Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris, both elevated to their current positions in January of 2009. The team's long-term plan for success under Dominik and Morris included one crucial step: Finding a franchise quarterback. The Bucs believed Josh Freeman was that man.
Georgia's Matthew Stafford went first overall in that draft, and the New York Jets traded up to the fifth spot to grab USC's Mark Sanchez. Most mock drafts had Freeman coming off the board third among quarterbacks, perhaps somewhere in the second half of the opening round. The Bucs, who coveted Freeman, might have landed their target by sitting tight at #19. However, considering the possibility that another quarterback-hungry team would trade in front of them to steal the Kansas State product, Dominik took matters into his own hands and traded up, giving up a sixth-round to advance to #17.
The Bucs didn't know they would walk away with Freeman when the 2009 draft began, but they had a target and a plan, and it worked out.
Does the Tampa Bay brass have a similarly-targeted player in 2011? If so, they obviously won't divulge that information. But if another stealth move like the two-spot trade-up in 2009 is necessary, the option may exist. Similarly, if the Buccaneers believe that portion of the draft is deep enough to move down, gain some more picks and still land a coveted player, that option may also exist. Dominik says the Buccaneers are in a good spot to stay put or move in either direction.
"We're going to let the draft come to us, kind of like what we felt like it did the second and third day last year," he said. "We'll try to take advantage of it. I like where we're at. My first year, when we were at 19 and we decided to trade up to get Josh Freeman at 17, it was a very active spot. I think it's been an active spot for trades over the years, in that 20-range. I think it's going to give us the ability to do either thing. We can just sit still or we'll have the ability to either move up or move back. It's always been a good spot to possibly pull a deal."
Last year, six of the 12 picks from #17 through #28 changed hands (obviously some of them in the same deals). The picks that moved were 17, 22, 24 (three times), 25, 27 and 28. In 2009, it was even more active in that range, with eight of the 12 picks moving at least once. In 2008, it was six picks being swapped in that range again, including 17, 18, 19, 21 and 22.
It is difficult these days to move the highest picks in the first round, because the trade demands are high and the salary situation can be difficult. Late in the opening round, and as the draft continues, trades still occur but the returns are diminishing for those who are willing to move down. It may just be that the 15-25 range of the first round is the best place to find a marriage between teams that are very eager to move up and others that are very eager to move down. Here, too, a team might have one player targeted specifically but concerns that he won't quite make it to its pick.
Obviously, the Bucs were highly motivated in that regard in 2009, and that was understandable in retrospect. Franchise quarterbacks are rare commodities. That's clearly not an issue for Tampa Bay this year, so the same motivation might not exist, especially if the draft begins to fall out as the Bucs internally predict it will. Think 2008, when Tampa Bay stayed put at #20 and eagerly snapped up cornerback Aqib Talib when he remained on the board.
"I like the depth of the draft this year," said Dominik. "I think it's become a very strong draft and I think we'll be able to take advantage of it at 20."
Whatever the Bucs decide to do with that first-round pick, that will only be the beginning of their draft-weekend efforts. The current regime has gotten great results out of the lower rounds, finding such talents as E.J. Biggers, Sammie Stroughter, Cody Grimm, Dekoda Watson and Erik Lorig in the seventh round. That will be a focus again in 2011, because the Buccaneers are determined to continue their long-term approach to rebuilding the roster.
"We are patient," said Dominik. "A lot of us like to stand up there and say we like to build through the draft. We're absolutely going to do it that way. That's the way we've been doing it. Clearly, the two teams that just played in the Super Bowl had the same mindset, which is an encouraging blueprint for where we want to be. We'll stay the course."