The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have to turn their draft board up to 11 this year.
Allow me to explain. The titular band from the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap famously produced a set of amps on which the top number on the dial was not 10 but 11, because, "that's one louder, isn't it?"
Meanwhile, the walls of the Draft Room at One Buccaneer Place are covered with boards displaying the available prospects ranked in a number of different ways. The traditional board lists the various positions (QB, RB, etc.) horizontally along the top and a numerical evaluation scale (8.0, 7.5, etc.) vertically down the left side. The Bucs' talent evaluators also create a useful "120 Board," which literally lists their top-rated prospects, from one down to 120, regardless of position. Most if not all of their picks on draft weekend are likely to come from this list.
This year, the 120 Board may not stop at 120, just like the Spinal Tap amps could be turned up past 10 for "that extra push off the cliff." In other words, the 2017 draft is unusually deep in good prospects, even if it has certain positional strengths and weaknesses like every class. The top 120 might actually be, oh, 150. And that's a good thing for a team on the rise that might need that "extra push off the cliff" into the playoffs.
"I think overall it's a really deep draft," said Buccaneers Director of Player Personnel John Spytek on Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "We're really excited about it. [Director of College Scouting] Mike [Biehl] and I were talking [about our] initial 120 Board the other day and we were excited about the depth of that board and where we had players ranked this year compared to where they were last year at the same number 100 or whatever."
The Buccaneers hold their own pick in each of the seven rounds, rotating between the 18th and 20th selections as the rounds progress. On the first two days of the draft, barring trades, they will choose at #19, #50 and #84. They do not have any compensatory picks nor any extra selections due to trades, at least at this point. It's not the sort of early draft capital that a team like Cleveland (five of the first 65 picks) owns, but in this class it still means a chance to get some players who can help right away. For a team that has improved for two straight years and last year only missed out on the playoffs on a third-level tiebreaker, the strength of those picks could make a big difference in getting over the hump in 2017.
The specifics of where the draft is deep, at which positions, obviously matters to the Buccaneers, but perhaps not as much as it did a few years ago. Three straight strong drafts under General Manager Jason Licht have helped improve the overall talent level of Tampa Bay's depth chart, leading to fewer glaring holes. That allows more flexibility on draft weekend. If player number 100 on the Bucs' 120 Board is noticeably better than number 100 was in 2016, that's going to be the team's benefit.
Still, this year's class does have the usual peaks and valleys.
"Every year there are some positions that have more depth than others," said Spytek. "I think people can look at all the running backs that are out there this year. Sometimes there's a bunch of them and sometimes there's not. They just keep lining up. We're excited to see how they work out here later today. I think it's a very strong draft for DBs as well. There's just a lot of really good players this year for whatever reason."
Where the specific strengths of this year's draft class could affect the roster-building strategies of the Buccaneers and other teams is in the upcoming free agency period. Even though the free agent market comes before the draft, the planning may operate in the opposite direction.
"I think you have to look at it the other way," said Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com on an appearance on Buccaneers.com Friday. "I think you have to look at what positions are weak in the draft, and offensive line is a weak position in the draft. So you might go into free agency and the guys like Kevin Zeitler and [Larry] Worford of Detroit, the guards, they're going to get paid. Last year, [offensive lineman Kelechi] Osemele got $11.7 million per year; they'll go north of that because there's such a desperation for those kinds of guys. Ricky Wagner, a right tackle for Baltimore, is probably going to get more than the $7 million that some of the guys recently have got.
"So I think you have to look at what's in the draft and then come back and try to supplement it with what guys are in free agency."
The Buccaneers have made no secret of their desire to add explosive playmakers to an offense captained by 23-year-old quarterback Jameis Winston. General Manager Jason Licht made reference to that again this week while speaking at the Combine.
It's obviously not a stretch to think that the Buccaneers will use the draft in that pursuit, perhaps with a premium pick or two during the first two days. As such, it's not surprising that many mock drafters have paired the Buccaneers up with speedy University of Washington wide receiver John Ross. For instance, four of the six drafts currently listed on CBSSports.com have the Bucs going with Ross.
Ross certainly has speed. He says he ran a 4.3-second 40-yard dash during his preparations for the Combine, a time he hopes to at least match on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf when the receivers work out on Saturday. But he doesn't want that stopwatch reading to be the end of his scouting report.
"I was gifted with speed, so I use it the best that I can," said Ross, who caught 81 passes and scored 17 touchdowns for the Huskies last fall. "[I want to be known for] just not being one-dimensional, a guy who can move around to different positions and play everything and be explosive, really. I just don't want to be a guy who can just go deep. I want to be able to do a lot of things in my game."
Ross obviously had a lot of success over three seasons at Washington, and whether or not he lands in Tampa he's widely expected to be taken in the first round in April. He knows, however, that pure speed isn't enough to succeed at the next level.
"Growing up, I never really had anyone to monitor me with that," said Ross. "I was just basically running out there. I was just so gifted with speed, I just used that versus a lot of people. As you get older, a lot of people get faster, a lot of people get smarter. You can't just run past everybody because people's technique changes and everyone gets better."