Using simple math, one might expect that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have focused in on just three possible candidates for their first-round pick in next week's 2012 NFL Draft.
The assumption is understandable, and indeed the Buccaneers' brain trust could move three names to the top of their draft board and be virtually assured of getting one of them. Tampa Bay is slated to pick fifth in the opening round next Thursday night. The Indianapolis Colts, choosing first, have reportedly informed Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck that he's their man. The Washington Redskins gave up a king's ransom to trade from #6 to #2, and it's common knowledge that they were maneuvering to get Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. That leaves only two unknowns before the Bucs go on the clock, so a list of three would be a sufficient guarantee.
So why are the Bucs, according to General Manager Mark Dominik, still scouting many more than three players as possible first-round picks? Turns out the situation isn't quite as simple as the math.
First of all, a week is still a lot of time to tweak one's draft board, and Dominik's personal philosophy is that such a board is never completely set, even after the picks have begun.
"There's always one more tape you can watch," he said. "There's always a little more information, another phone call you can make. You're always tweaking. And if you're not tweaking your board, that 173rd player might be your 150th player and you need to keep working at it. This is a 12-month process."
Beyond his own observations, which are obviously crafted not to give away any information that could be used to thwart the Bucs' draft plans, this article is not intended to reflect actual strategy from the team's draft room. Hypothetically, however, Dominik and Head Coach Greg Schiano could have one draft prospect that they clearly consider the top choice after Luck and Griffin. They could even have a second player that, should that first player be taken before pick #5, is their obvious next option. But as long as there remains any question about who the third player on the list is, the intense scouting work must continue.
"I think it's a rare year where you know the first two picks," said Dominik. "I think we probably all know the order, too. It does make it a little different, but I don't think it makes it easy. I think there's a lot of work that goes into it to make sure you make the right pick.
"You don't know [what other teams will do]. You try to do all the reconnaissance you can. You watch other people's web sites, you watch how the day is going and you try to figure out as much information as you can, anyway you can. I'm feeling better and better about where [we are]. And we have the 36th [overall] selection in the second round, so it's not just focused on the first four picks. I'm looking past that and trying to look deeper."
NFL fans and analysts are understandably leery of smokescreens and misinformation at this point of the year. As much as teams are loath to let any of their real draft desires be known, it obviously wouldn't hurt if other teams became convinced of something other than the truth. But Dominik wasn't trying to sow any misleading seeds on Thursday when he discussed the draft with the local press. He declined to offer any sort of scouting report on LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne or Alabama running back Trent Richardson, two players commonly linked to the Buccaneers' first-round pick in mock drafts. He acknowledged that running back is something the team is "looking at…certainly, in the draft," but that was already obvious given the Bucs' current short numbers at the position. The Bucs also signed running back Robert Hughes after this week's mini-camp and, Dominik said, don't necessarily expect the answer to come over draft weekend.
Otherwise, Dominik merely stressed that it was too early to make any assumptions as to what his team was preparing to do next Thursday night. That includes the rather strong assumptions that rise from the mock drafts in regards to the very small pool of players that could be considered at #5. Obviously, that mock draft pool includes Claiborne and Richardson, as well as USC tackle Matt Kalil and Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon. Many analysts have identified those four as almost certain to go in some order on the heels of Luck and Griffin, but of course there may be different opinions in some of the 32 draft rooms around the league, including the Buccaneers' own.
"I don't want to pigeonhole us because that's not the way I'm looking at our draft right now," he said. "We as an organization will take the player that we think fits, whether that's in that top five or not. If we don't think so, I have no problem making that selection. Although the public perception may be, these are the four, these are the five players that we're considering, certainly we have evaluated other positions and there are guys we like at other positions."
Dominik was purposely vague with that sort of statement on Thursday, as any G.M. would be. However, there is one more very specific and important reason that the Bucs have not pared their first-round wish list down to just three names. As Dominik has previously stated, he is willing to listen to the idea of trading down in the first round, and if such a move is going to be considered then his crew has to be ready to execute a plan wherever that first pick ends up falling.
"The reality is, you have to be prepared to not only move up but to move back, and what does that pick look like?," Dominik explained. "You can't just sit there and say, 'What are we going to do at five?' You have to be ready to go to six, to 18, hopefully to 24 if you have to or wanted to. As crazy as it may sound, it's not an easy pick ever. It really isn't."
Is a trade down likely? It's hard to tell at this point, but the only acceptable course of action is to be prepared. There will be no disappointment in the Bucs' draft room, however, if the phone never rings while Tampa Bay is on the clock Thursday night.
"I'm preparing for it with the reality that it may not happen at all," said Dominik. "But I am preparing for it, we are as an organization, thinking about what would it take already, putting together our charts. If we move to 22, what does it take? What would we be comfortable with? And then who do you take? So we're doing all that to prepare. If no one calls then no one calls; we're ready to pick. Because I do like where we're at at number five."
There is, in other words, at least one player the Buccaneers believe they can get at the fifth pick that would help the team tremendously. There may, in fact, be two, or six or eight. The point is, the Bucs are in a good position to get better next Thursday night, and their options on how to do so are still wide open.