The first draft pick that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made after the ascension of Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris to general manager and head coach, respectively, was Josh Freeman.
That was almost exactly two years ago, midway through the first round of the 2009 draft. Most analysts believe a period of at least three seasons is needed to truly judge the success of any given draft pick or draft class, but one can probably waive that rule in Freeman's case. After the young passer's remarkable 2010 campaign, Dominik matter-of-factly called Freeman a "franchise quarterback," and there is no more coveted find in any draft.
Last year, Dominik and Morris picked defensive tackle Gerald McCoy with the third overall selection in the 2010 draft, and in McCoy's case it is fairer to reserve judgment. Internally, however, the team is just as thrilled with that first-round choice as it was the year before; an injury may have cost McCoy the last month of his rookie campaign, but he was rapidly rounding into the impact player he was expected to be before his mishap in early December.
In less than a week, the Dominik/Morris-led Buccaneers will try their hand at a first-round pick for the third time. Should we expect them to hit again?
Dominik believes it can be done, and he can sum up his argument in three words: The Baltimore Ravens.
"A team that I admire in terms of their more recent history is [the Ravens] and Ozzie Newsome, and how great they've been in their first-round choices," said the Bucs' GM. "I've studied that organization, certainly lately, because they have done such a great job with their first-round selections. I try to look at what they did – why Todd Heap? Why did these players continually hit?"
Heap was the Ravens' first-round pick way back in 2001, but that's still fresh in Dominik's mind. The former Arizona State tight end has played 10 seasons in Baltimore, and save for two injury-shortened campaigns has started virtually every game in that span. He has nearly 500 career catches, almost 5,500 yards and more than 40 touchdowns. The pick of Heap at the start of a decade solidified one of the Ravens' starting positions for more than a decade, and that is certainly a worthwhile first-round investment.
But Dominik wasn't cherry-picking with the mention of Heap. Here are the rest of the Ravens' first-round picks since 2000: running back Jamal Lewis, S Ed Reed, QB Kyle Boller, DE Terrell Suggs, WR Mark Clayton, DT Haloti Ngata, G Ben Grubbs, QB Joe Flacco, T Michael Oher and LB Sergio Kindle. Go back into the late '90s and you can add Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware. Boller didn't work out and Kindle missed his entire rookie season with a freak injury suffered at home, but otherwise that list is sensational.
Just as the Buccaneers openly professed a desire to construct their team in the physically-tough mold of the Pittsburgh Steelers at the beginning of the Dominik/Morris era, they aren't afraid to pattern their draft efforts after a franchise with proven success in that area.
"There are so many players that have hit in Baltimore in their first round – Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata – that you say, 'Whoa, how are they doing this?' So you look back at the reports and you also try to dig back into the character of the guys, and [find out] what is it about those players. So as a historian, to help learn from history like anything we try to do to get better, that's a team that I've been focused on."
Dominik knows that part of the reason it's difficult to have consistent success in the first round of the draft is that players selected that high come with very high expectations. That makes the perception of what exactly is first-round success very demanding. It also places added pressure on the players who happen to get that first-round honor.
"I think the pressure that goes with a number-one makes it that much more difficult for the number-one," said Dominik. "I think that's a big part of it, because there's so much scrutiny and so many people have an opinion. The NFL Draft has almost become as popular as fantasy football, in a way, because there are so many websites, so many people that have opinions on it, which is great. That has helped the draft grow in its popularity. So certainly everyone has an opinion, and no matter who I take at 20, there's going to be hundreds or thousands of people that said, 'I didn't like him, I like the other guy.' So that's going to put that much more pressure on a first round pick."
Where that becomes doubly interesting for Dominik this year as he tries to make it three in a row is the specific perception of what his Buccaneers need to accomplish in Round One. Quarterback might not have been everybody's idea of what Tampa Bay needed to target in the first round in 2009, but it wasn't hard to get onboard with the Freeman pick after it was made. Last year, the Bucs were picking so high in the draft and the intersection of need and talent was so obvious that the McCoy pick surprised exactly no one.
This year, Dominik knows there is a perception that the Buccaneers' top need again matches with one of this draft's main strengths. Tampa Bay tied for 30th in the NFL in 2010 with its total of 26 sacks of the opposing team, and the pass rush is something the team has been trying to re-energize for several years now. Having plugged the middle with McCoy and second-round defensive tackle Brian Price last year, the Bucs could concentrate on the edges of the line this year. It's certainly no coincidence that most of this spring's mock drafts have matched Tampa Bay up with one pass-rusher or another.
But the Buccaneers' actual draft efforts next week will be led by the same man who, at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, cautioned draftniks not to "pigeonhole" his team. Almost two months have passed since, but Dominik's assessment hasn't changed. The Buccaneers need to improve their pass-rush, he agrees, but that doesn't mean that the problem has only one possible solution. After all, the Buccaneers found a much-needed playmaker at wide receiver in the fourth round and a featured running back in undrafted free agency last year. One of their best cornerbacks in 2010, E.J. Biggers, was a seventh-round selection in 2009.
"I would say that I don't disagree with [the Bucs' need for pass-rush improvement], but it doesn't mean that that's what our first pick is going to be," said Dominik. "So when we have our draft day party over at the stadium, if our first pick isn't defensive end, it doesn't mean we can't get to the quarterback ever again."
It also doesn't mean the Bucs can't address the position in the second round or later, if value remains. Tampa Bay's 2010 draft class, which made an impact on the team from Rounds One through Seven, is an indication that Dominik's department can assess that value well. He thinks they are well-equipped to pluck pass-rushing talent out of this year's class, wherever in the draft it may be.
"I've got a certain group of traits that I look for in our defensive ends and defensive linemen that I think will play out, and I hope it gives us a competitive advantage in that position," he said. "It is a tough position to draft historically, but I'd like to think that going forward with our organization that we're going to continue to push ourselves to make sure that we draft the right guys at any position and specifically, probably when we choose a defensive end in this draft, that he can help us in 2011."