CB Phillip Buchanon fit into the Bucs' defensive scheme well after signing just prior to midseason last year
In the last six months, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have added two veteran cornerbacks who could fill potential gaps in their secondary, this season and in the future. Interestingly, those two defenders – Phillip Buchanon and Sammy Davis – might also erase another type of void that has been five years in the making.
The 2002 and 2003 NFL Drafts passed without the Bucs executing either of their original first-round picks . Those two selections (plus second-rounders in 2002 and 2004) were shipped to the Oakland Raiders in February of '02 as part of the deal that freed up Head Coach Jon Gruden to make his bay-to-bay switch.
Obviously, the Bucs knew well in advance of draft weekend during those two offseasons that they would be idle in the first round. Presumably the team could have lopped a few days off their scouting timeline in the springs of 2002 and 2003. They could have sent their scouts and personnel folks home early a few days a week, told them not to bother scouting, say, Dwight Freeney or Jordan Gross. Barring the most unusual of draft-day trades, the Bucs weren't going to be anywhere near the clock when such highly-regarded prospects had their names called those two April afternoons.
But, of course, they did no such thing. Tampa Bay scouts worked as hard in '02 and '03 as they do every year. And that's part of the reason Buchanon and Davis are Buccaneers now. Buchanon was snapped up last October 17 after being released by the Houston Texans, then re-signed on March 2 after very briefly becoming an unrestricted free agent. Davis joined the Bucs 11 days later as an unrestricted free agent, just a few weeks after being released by the San Francisco 49ers.
Buchanon and Davis originally entered the NFL as first-round picks in 2002 and 2003, respectively. Buccaneer scouts, diligently doing their homework, had scouted the two in their entry years, which formed the basis of the team's internal report on each player – updated since, of course. Tampa Bay liked what it saw four and five years ago and, despite some ups and downs for both players, remained intrigued in 2007.
"You do a lot of work on these guys in your draft meetings for a reason," said Gruden. "Inevitably, they're all going to become free agents. There are a lot of traits that they had coming out that we liked. Just because it didn't work out where they were for two or three years doesn't mean you won't like him, the coaches won't like him."
If Buchanon and Davis stick in 2007, they will have in essence filled the void created by those lost first-round draft picks…almost to the exact pick. Buchanon was the 17th overall pick in 2002, by the Oakland Raiders; had the Bucs retained their first-rounder that year, they would have been selecting 21st. Davis was the 30th overall pick in 2003, by the San Diego Chargers; had the Bucs retained their first-rounder that year, they would have been selecting 32nd.
Those are coincidences, of course, and there's no reason to believe Buchanon and Davis would have ended up as Bucs without the Jon Gruden trade. After all, both of them went off the board just before Tampa Bay would have picked. In addition, the Bucs probably would have had quite a few players in whom they were interested during those two opening rounds.
But what the Bucs did draft in the first rounds in '02 and '03 was nothing. Was it worth it? Of course. Led by Gruden, Tampa Bay won its first Super Bowl title after the 2002 season. Still, the absence of those four premium draft picks (don't forget the two second-rounders) and some attendant salary cap restrictions left the Bucs short on roster depth during injury-plagued campaigns in 2003, 2004 and 2006. Every general manager in the league knows that it is essential to reload through the draft in order to effectively manage the cap.
So, while the Bucs have recovered over time in terms of both draft-pick depth and salary cap maneuverability, it would be a nice bonus if Buchanon and/or Davis gave the Bucs a little delayed payoff on the '02 and '03 drafts. Gruden believes both players can be significant assets in 2007.
"We're really fired up to have Buchanon back," he said. "He's a natural cover guy. He needs to settle in at one place and become a football player again. The thing in Oakland didn't work out, it didn't work out in Houston. He's a Florida guy. He brings us a little swagger, a little confidence and a lot of speed. I think his return ability is also something that we need. He could make a big play for us.
"Sammy Davis – the Candy Man, I call him. He's a number-one pick out of Texas A&M, a big-sized corner. Sometimes these guys they regain their groove."
Buchanon played three seasons with the Raiders and had 11 interceptions in that span, but was traded to Houston before the 2005 season for second and third-round draft picks. He played in 10 games before landing on injured reserve with an ankle ailment in his first year with the Texans, then saw action in four more contests in 2006 before being released. As Gruden mentioned, Buchanon has excelled as a return man, too, running three punts back for touchdowns. He played in 10 games and started the last four for the Buccaneers, pulling in two interceptions. At 26, he is still in his prime.
Davis jumped right into a starting spot as a Charger rookie in 2003 and had his finest season to date, with 58 tackles, two interceptions and eight passes defensed. He was slowed by a leg injury in 2004 and had fallen out of favor in San Diego by 2005. After his third season with the Chargers, he was traded to the 49ers for another first-rounder who hadn't yet lived up to his promise, wide receiver Rashaun Woods. Davis had 30 tackles and six pass break-ups in his one season in San Francisco but was released on February 26. He will celebrate his 27th birthday a week from Sunday.
Obviously, Buchanon and Davis would still be battling each other in the AFC West if their careers had gone as well as hoped when they were drafted, and they wouldn't have been quite so available to the Buccaneers. For instance, Tampa Bay would have loved to have signed defensive end Dwight Freeney, a fellow first-rounder with Buchanon in 2002, but the Indianapolis Colts locked him down with the franchise tag and its promise of a huge one-year salary.
Still, the cross-league moves by Buchanon and Davis are actually as common as Freeney's story. Surprisingly, of the 32 players drafted in the first round in 2002, exactly half of them have already left their original teams; some have made at least two switches and a few are no longer in the league.
Buchanon and Davis are still playing, though, and there is reason for the optimism they've given their new team. The Bucs believe their coaching staff can help these two former first-rounders get their careers pointed back in the right direction.
"Phillip Buchanon, Sammy Davis…some of the guys we were able to get maybe weren't as notable in some people's eyes but I think they're important signees," said Gruden. "I think [Defensive Backs Coach] Raheem Morris is fired up to have two young guys who have kind of been on a rollercoaster in terms of their careers. They both have talent. It's fun to come to work today every day with two young guys who have talent and also have something to prove. We'll see what happens. It will be interesting, I'll say that."