The most memorable image of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2012 offseason was Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright seated together at a table at One Buccaneer Place, a day into free agency and just hours after the most open-market plunge in franchise history. The Bucs moved swiftly to lock down three very valuable players, all of whom are now starting and providing excellent production.
The Bucs tapped into the high end of the free agency market like never before, and have no reason now to regret. Let's not be mistaken, however: This is still a team that intends to build – and is building – through the draft. And the building has acquired a very strong foundation.
Obviously, the first round of the draft each spring is seen as a team's best opportunity to add long-term star players. And the Bucs have certainly made use of that asset, with 2009 first-rounder Josh Freeman leading the offense and 2010 first-rounder Gerald McCoy at the heart of the defense. The only way to truly "build through the draft," however, is to find value throughout the seven rounds, and even beyond into the undrafted pool, year after year.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Captain's Blog here on Buccaneers.com added posts on the value being provided by defensive tackle Roy Miller (here), linebacker Mason Foster (here) and wide receiver Mike Williams (here). Miller was a third-round pick in 2009, Foster a third-rounder in 2011 and Williams a fourth-round selection in 2010. Tampa Bay's future, both immediate and long-term, wouldn't be nearly as bright if it hadn't hit on those types of draft picks.
The Bucs are just 2-4 so far in 2012, of course, in Greg Schiano's first season at the helm. Each one of the team's four losses has been by the margin of a single score, and three of the four have literally gone down to the final seconds. Every coach in the NFL will tell you that the circumstances of wins and losses are ultimately irrelevant – the Bucs are what they are at 2-4. But the team's week-after-week competitiveness is a sign of what is wholeheartedly believed inside One Buccaneer Place: The foundation has been established for a long-term winning team.
Making the right decisions on draft week has been the key, and will continue to be the key. Miller has settled in at nose tackle in the Bucs' new defense and has become a major weapon against the run. Foster looks comfortable in the new scheme as well and is racking up tackles around the line of scrimmage. Following two productive seasons to start his NFL career, Williams is having a breakout campaign with a series of big plays and a per-catch average close to 20 yards.
Nine of the current 11 starters on the Buccaneers' defense are Tampa Bay draftees. Two of those – safety Mark Barron and linebacker Lavonte David – are 2012 rookies, as it's undeniable that the team's most recent draft efforts are paying off in a big way. In fact, it's hard to imagine that any team is getting as much production out of its first three picks from this past spring than are the Buccaneers. In addition to Barron and David, first-round running back Doug Martin has also started all six games this season. David is the Buccaneers' leading tackler with 49 stops, Martin leads the offense with 408 rushing yards and Barron has racked up 42 tackles, an interception and seven passes defensed while already building a reputation as a ferocious hitter.
They are all among the league's most productive newcomers, too. David is third in tackles, but only two behind Carolina's Luke Kuechly. Barron is fifth, and tied for third in passes defensed. Martin is second to Washington's Alfred Morris in yards from scrimmage, with 553. All have only scratched the surface of their potential.
As those three and other recent Buccaneer draftees begin to fully realize that potential, the team expects to see its winning percentage soar. A strong foundation is in place, the Buccaneers believe, and it is the product of making each draft weekend count.