CB Ronde Barber was an important part of a critical draft in 1997
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are about to do something they haven't done in eight long years. The last time they headed into a draft following consecutive losing seasons was 1997.
The comparisons between those two years are, admittedly, limited to some extent. The 1997 team was actually following 14 straight losing seasons and was just in the second year under a new head coach, who had gone 6-10 in his first campaign. The current Buccaneers are built on a foundation of almost a decade of success, and they're trying to field a team for a head coach who led them to a Super Bowl title just over two years ago.
Still, if you've won only a dozen games over the last two years (or a baker's dozen, as the 1997 team could boast), then you have some issues to resolve. It's a different animal than, say, the 2000 draft, in which the defending NFC Central champs traded two first round picks for Keyshawn Johnson and made only five selections, total. Or, say, the 2003 draft in which the ring-bearing Bucs had no first-rounder, picked last in each round and used their first two picks on positions that weren't of drastic need (DE Dewayne White and QB Chris Simms).
No, in 1997 the Bucs had a lot of picks and a lot of goals. The same can be said of 2005. Look back over the team's last 29 drafts, and you won't find too many that are more similar in scenario to this year's proceedings than that of eight years ago. The Bucs made 10 selections in seven rounds that year; that's the team's most until this year, in which they go in with 12 picks. Also, Tampa Bay was slotted eighth that season, marking the last time they've been in the top 10 until this weekend.
It's not hard to remember – there was a definite sense of urgency heading into the 1997 draft, thanks in part to a strong finish to the 1996 season. Every draft is important, but that one seemed like a potential turning point. The same feeling looms over this weekend.
"We've got a lot picks for the first time in a long time and you have to make those picks count," said Buccaneers' Director of College Scouting Ruston Webster, who was involved in the '97 draft as well. He's one of the few organizational assets still around eight years later, as most of the team's leadership – and roster – has changed over. Whether working as a college scout, as a director of pro personnel or in his current role – all jobs Webster has held since joining the team in 1988 – he has treated each draft with the same tireless approach. Still, the whole team must now how important this year's preparations are.
"The scouts and I have met multiple times for hours, since they got off the road in December," said Webster. "So we have spent a lot of time doing that, and two weeks up to the draft, we do nothing but meet with coaches, [Head Coach] Jon [Gruden] and [General Manager] Bruce [Allen]. We've been doing that from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then we all have projects after that."
It might be hard for any team to fit a dozen rookies onto its regular season roster, but the Bucs are still going to try to make every pick count in this year's draft. The perfect draft might net a few new starters at the top of the class, a group of developing reserves and special teamers in the middle and later rounds and some intriguing prospects at the end. It's worth a look: Did the Bucs fare that well in that similar 1997 draft?
Tampa Bay drafted 10 players in 1997. Those Bucs had one significant advantage over the current administrators in that they owned two first-round picks. A series of trades left the team with the 12th and 16th picks in that opening round and also converted the Bucs' fourth-round pick into a third-rounder (they also had a compensatory pick at the end of the fourth round).
Here's what the Bucs did with those 10 picks:
- 1a: RB Warrick Dunn, Florida State...Dunn immediately gave the team the backfield threat it needed, given that Errict Rhett had detoured his career with an ill-fated holdout in 1996. He teamed with '96 second-rounder Mike Alstott to form the Bucs' "Thunder and Lightning" backfield and was a legitimate long-range threat in both the running and passing games. A fantastic pick, especially after trading down. * 1b: WR Reidel Anthony, Florida...Another dip into the amazing state-of-Florida football talent failed to pan out as well, as Anthony experienced five up-and-down years as a Buccaneer. The first receiver ever taken in the first round by Tampa Bay, he failed to live up to that lofty, number-16 slot, but he did contribute 35 catches as a rookie and led the team with 51 in 1998. He was also a very solid kickoff return man. Overall, not a terribly successful pick. * 2: T Jerry Wunsch...The Wisconsin lineman was big and big-hearted (he started a notable program for pediatric cancer patients that continues to this day), but he never developed into a cornerstone tackle. He proved to be more adept at run-blocking than pass-blocking, which was troublesome against some of the great end-rushers of the NFC Central. Still, Wunsch was the team's primary right tackle starter from 1999-2001, three successful seasons, and that's no miss. An average pick. * 3a: G Frank Middleton...A fiery competitor, Middleton was a starter at right guard by his second season. His run-blocking certainly helped the Buccaneers rank fourth in the league in rushing in 1998. Middleton bolted via free agency after just four years, but he started 50 games before he left and remains (mostly) a starter in the NFL to this day. Definitely a successful pick. * 3b: CB Ronde Barber...A homerun, though he played very little during his rookie season. Barber got into one game during the exciting 1997 season (vs. Arizona at the end of September) and was then put back on the inactive list for the rest of the year, until the playoff game at Green Bay, in which he served as the nickel back. Let's just say that this was a valuable learning experience, as Barber exploded onto the scene as a big-time playmaker in 1998. He has been a starter since midway into that '98 season and is the only two-time Pro Bowler at cornerback in franchise history. The Bucs have proven adept at picking mid-round defensive backs, but Barber is probably the best of the bunch. A phenomenal pick. * 4: LB Alshermond Singleton...This was the compensatory pick, the highest one in team history. The Bucs used it well, grabbing the soft-spoken Temple linebacker. Singleton didn't crack the Bucs' starting lineup until his final year in Tampa, the 2002 championship season, but he was an undeniably valuable contributor in each of his six years as a Buccaneer. One of the better special teamers in club annals, he also frequently subbed in with whoever was the starting strongside linebacker at the time. Singleton left for a starting gig in Dallas after the Super Bowl, but he remains one of the better fourth-round picks the team has made. * 5: TE Patrick Hape...When it's all said and done, Hape may be a fairly obscure name in Buccaneer history, but this proved to be a fine pick. Hape, the gregarious Southerner, played four years with the Buccaneers and missed just one game, quietly going about his business of being a strong blocker and occasional pass-catcher. He was used extensively in the H-back role due to his blocking skills, and he was widely credited with playing an important role in that great 1998 running attack. Hape moved to Denver via free agency in 2001 and excelled in a part-time role there, as well. A very useful fifth-round pick. * 6a: CB Al Harris...Well, this was a good pick, even if it never helped the Bucs much. Tampa Bay had a very good scouting feel for little Texas A&M-Kingsville in the late '90s, and they felt comfortable using a sixth-rounder on Harris in 1997. However, Harris failed to make the team as a rookie and ended up with Philadelphia the next year. He made a nice career with the Eagles as the team's third corner behind Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, then went to Green Bay two years ago to be a starter. A well-executed pick, if not to the Bucs' eventual gain. * 6b: WR Nigea Carter...The Michigan State product, a big and somewhat speedy project, never really panned out. He was worth a try, but the pick, like many sixth-rounders, came up empty. * 7: DT Anthony DeGrate...Same story. The Bucs are fond of taking defensive lineman late if they show one or two of the traits the team covets. Some of those projects work out well – think James Cannida or Ellis Wyms – but some don't. This one didn't.
So what to make of the 1997 draft overall? Some hits, some misses. But just as a home run has much more positive impact on a baseball game than a strikeout has a negative impact, this class overall was a huge success. Two offensive linemen who became starters, a running back and a cornerback who are among the best at their positions in team history and several other important contributors – that's a victory.
The 2005 Bucs hope to do even better. There is no additional first-round pick, but the team does have two third-rounders, plus a recent history of making fifth and sixth-rounders count. This one falls on the shoulders of a new regime, and that's the way it works in the NFL. Few teams have the same primary decision-makers now as they did eight years ago. For the Bucs, the ultimate authority in making this draft count is General Manager Bruce Allen, though he has plenty of qualified aids.
"He has made every pick," said Webster of Allen. "Jon and I have a big say in it. But Bruce will make the best decision for the team."