The Bucs embraced Derrick Brooks in the 1995 draft, but not before trading down then back up again to gain an extra first-round pick
It's the NFL's newest mantra, echoed in such outposts as Buffalo, Dallas, San Francisco, Green Bay:
'We build through the draft.'
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took up that cry years ago, realizing that the new promises of free agency were often fool's gold. With General Manager Rich McKay leading an inside-development-over-outside-investment strategy, the Buccaneers drafted the core of a contender over the 1990s then worked hard to keep those players in town.
It was not necessarily a novel approach, but it was also one not shared by every team. The Carolina Panthers got to the 1996 NFC Championship Game with a team built largely on prominent free agent acquisitions. The Cowboys and 49ers showed no hesitation in paying top dollar for the one or two veterans that would put them over the top or keep them there. Last year's Washington Redskins shopped extensively in the free agent aisle, to less spectacular results.
But the salary cap came back to bite quite a few teams in the last two years, leading by necessity to an even greater focus on the draft and its relatively cheap talent. All that adds up to what could be one of the most critical, competitive and strategic drafts in years, coming to a television near you on April 21 and 22.
Will teams seemingly in a rebuilding phase – say the Cowboys – look to trade down in order to stockpile more picks, as the 49ers did quite nicely last year to patch several holes in their defense? Will other clubs, priced out of the free agent market, be desperate to move up to obtain that one key quarterback, running back, offensive tackle or pass rusher? Will teams reach, making surprising picks in order to satisfy a particular need?
The answers to all of those questions are almost certainly yes, though we can't yet know which teams will move or in what directions. What cannot be discounted is the possibility that the Bucs will become involved in the movement. While McKay has protected the team's draft picks jealously most years, he has been more than willing to slide up or down in the order to acquire what the team needs, whether it be a specific player or an additional draft pick.
McKay moved into the team's general manager position in 1995 and has thus had the final say in each of the last six drafts. During that time, the Buccaneers have made nine trades involving first round picks, sometimes piggy-backing one move on top of the next.
Most famously, McKay engineered a move down then back up again in the 1995 draft in order to steal both defensive tackle Warren Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks, arguably two of the top 10 defensive players in the NFL. He first gambled downward in the first round to pick up an extra second-rounder, winning that gamble when Sapp was still available at number 12 overall. He then worked that extra second-round pick into a package that pried Dallas' late first-rounder away and used that selection on Brooks.
In '97, McKay did it again, moving up and then back in the first round and ending up with both of his targeted players, Warrick Dunn and Reidel Anthony and snagging an extra third-rounder in the process. That extra pick eventually became CB Ronde Barber.
There have been other notable McKay draft-day dealings, but you get the point. There's room to maneuver on draft weekend, and the Bucs have a leader that knows the terrain well.
The Bucs, in fact, have already stockpiled a few extra picks, though they probably have barely registered on the fan radar. The team has an extra sixth-rounder as payback from Jacksonville for the Regan Upshaw trade in 1999 and recently snapped up a seventh-rounder from Atlanta in exchange for quarterback Eric Zeier. On Monday, it picked up an additional fifth-round pick in exchange for LB Jeff Gooch.
Though those extra picks do come on the second day of the draft, don't discount their importance. As teams fight to stay underneath the salary cap and still be competitive, any player that can contribute at a relatively low salary is a major blessing. That's exactly what a team gets if a sixth or seventh-rounder makes the team. Of course, many players picked at that stage do not make an early impact, having extra picks in that range increases a team's chance of scoring a hit.
The importance of later-round picks might also increase the chances that a team would be willing to make a slight move downward in the upper rounds in order to pick up an extra day-two selection. That possibility is further increased by the general feeling that the upper echelon of talent is fairly deep in this year's draft. Teams may be convinced that a pick at, say, number 30 is as valuable as a pick at number 22 or 23.
All of which could help increase the number of early-draft trades that add such excitement to the proceedings. That's a trend that has been on the rise in recent seasons already. In 1998, eight of the 30 first-round picks; in 1999, it was 10 of 31. Last year, the number climbed to 12 of 31.
Will it go higher? So far, just three picks have changed hands, with Seattle owning Dallas' first-rounder from last year's Joey Galloway trade and the Seahawks and Packers switching first-round slots in the Matt Hasselbeck trade. Still, more movement would not be unexpected as team's look to pour the foundation of what they're building through the draft.