Lineman Jeremy Zuttah paid immediate dividends for the Bucs' in 2008 and fellow rookie Josh Johnson may be a factor in the future
In the spring of 2007, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers plucked three players out of the collegiate ranks that were starters by midway through the following fall.
First-round draft pick Gaines Adams spent half of the '07 season in a rotation off the bench, but settled into a starting role at right defensive end for the final eight games of the year. Meanwhile Arron Sears, the team's second round selection, started all 16 games at left guard and fourth-round pick Tanard Jackson opened every game at the free safety spot.
All three of those young players went on to start the entire 2008 season, as well, with only Sears missing a single game due to injury.
By that simple metric – games started – Tampa Bay's 2008 draft class lagged behind its predecessors from the year before in terms of immediate contributions. In 2008, Buccaneer rookies started a total of seven games – two by first-round pick Aqib Talib and five by third-round lineman Jeremy Zuttah – compared with the 40 starts the three previously mentioned Bucs earned in 2007.
But that isn't to say that this year's draftees, as well as a pair of college free agents the Bucs added just after the 2008 draft, failed to make an impact in their shared debut season. A trio of first-year starters is the exception, really; most rookie classes make their presence felt more gradually, often in part-time roles, on special teams or through late-season emergences.
Considering the clear promise exhibited by such newcomers as Talib, Zuttah and Pro Bowl return specialist Clifton Smith, the Buccaneers' 2008 rookie class fits very encouragingly into that second group.
Reviewing rookie classes immediately after the draft can be misleading, and that's still partially true after just one season of play. Young players often take a few seasons to develop their skills, or as in the case of Bucs' starting linebacker Barrett Ruud, must simply wait for an opportunity to reveal itself in the starting lineup.
Still, we know more than we did in April. With the above caveat in mind, let's take a peek at the Bucs' 2008 rookie class, beginning with the team's seven draft picks.
First Round: CB Aqib Talib, Kansas
Talib entered the league with a reputation as a ball-hawk after his outstanding collegiate career at Kansas and certainly did his best to carry that label with him into the pro game.
The Bucs' gregarious youngster snagged four picks in 2008, tying him with Arizona rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for the league lead among first-year players. That total also tied him with Ronde Barber for the Bucs' team lead.
However, Talib snared his four interceptions while operating mainly as the team's nickelback, while Rodgers-Cromartie spent the majority of 2008 (11 games) as a starter for the Cardinals.
Talib showed an outstanding ability to pick up a complex new defense and seemed to be around the football most of the time he was on the field. Talib finished the 2008 campaign with 27 tackles and 10 passes defensed to go with those four picks.
Second Round: WR Dexter Jackson, Appalachian State
The speedy Jackson was picked with the thought that he might provide an immediate boost to the Bucs' return game.
Well, the Bucs certainly received that shot in the arm in 2008, and will be sending a player to the Pro Bowl as the NFC's kick returner for the first time in team history. It isn't Jackson that will be making the trip to Hawaii, however, as he was supplanted by fellow rookie Clifton Smith midway through the 2008 season.
We'll discuss Smith a bit later, but Jackson's debut was certainly not the one the Bucs envisioned when they drafted him. Jackson returned a punt for a touchdown in the preseason finale in Houston but wasn't able to translate that big play into much regular season success.
Jackson spent seven games on the active roster before bowing to Smith, and averaged 23.4 yards on 14 kick returns and just 4.9 yards on his 20 punt returns. Jackson was then on the game-day inactive list for the remainder of the season, but the team is nowhere near ready to label Jackson a missed pick. As a receiver, the Buccaneers considered him a worthwhile "project" when he was drafted, so Jackson will still get a very good opportunity to continue his development and contribute in 2009.
Third Round: OL Jeremy Zuttah, Rutgers
Zuttah caught the Bucs' eye as a versatile offensive linemen after lining up at each position along the Rutgers front throughout his college days.
That experience certainly came in handy early in his NFL career, as Zuttah saw time at both guard positions in 2008 and was also cross-trained at center during training camp. After the midseason release of veteran Anthony Davis, Zuttah even became one of the team's primary backups at offensive tackle.
Zuttah opened the first four games of the season at right guard while usual starter Davin Joseph recovered from a foot injury, then started at left guard in Week 9 while Sears sat out due to injury.
In all, Zuttah saw action in 12 games, and received excellent reviews from the coaching staff on his overall performance. Although the Bucs already possess the league's second-youngest group of starting offensive linemen, Zuttah should prove to be an integral part of the unit as it continues to develop.
Fourth Round: DT Dre Moore, Maryland
Much like second-round pick Jackson, Moore was viewed as a bit of a project entering the NFL. At 6-4 and 305 pounds and with nimble feet, Moore certainly possesses the physical traits necessary to contribute at defensive tackle, but the 2008 season was mainly a chance for Moore to fine-tune many of the other aspects of his game.
In fact, the Bucs knew going in that Moore was more of a plan for the future, rather than the present. With both starting defensive tackles, Jovan Haye and Chris Hovan, set to become free agents this offseason, Moore was taken with an eye towards developing some depth behind those two and a plan for the future.
Again, as with Jackson, it is much too early to assign any sort of grade to the acquisition of Moore. With both of these players, their best chances to contribute may not come until next year, but the Bucs are clearly still intrigued by their talents.
Fifth Round: QB Josh Johnson, San Diego
Even more so than Jackson or Moore, the Bucs drafted Johnson with every intent of letting him develop for some time before giving him a shot in a regular season NFL game.
Johnson spent the entire season on the Bucs' active roster but was inactive for every game as he worked tirelessly in practice to pick up his new playbook and adjust to life in the NFL after playing at a smaller college.
No one knows just yet when Johnson's opportunity will present itself, but the Bucs were very pleased with the progress this young passer made in his first year as a pro. Johnson showed a good command of the offense in practice and even displayed some hints of on-field leadership.
With Jeff Garcia and Luke McCown both set to be come free agents, and Johnson and veteran Brian Griese as the only two players under contract at the position, the situation at quarterback – especially as it pertains to Johnson – could be one of the more interesting ones to keep an eye on as the offseason progresses.
Sixth Round: LB Geno Hayes, Florida State
Much like 2007 draftee safety Sabby Piscitelli, Hayes saw his first year in the NFL cut frustratingly short by an injury but not before it was marked by some solid work on special teams.
Hayes performed well enough in training camp to make the 53-man roster, and proved to be an outstanding contributor in the Bucs' kicking game. In the Week 4 game against Carolina, Hayes burst through the protection on a Panthers punt, blocked the kick, then scooped up the loose ball and raced in for a 22-yard score early in the first quarter that helped set the tone for an eventual 27-3 Bucs win.
A knee injury suffered in the Bucs' Week 11 win over the Vikings robbed Hayes of the remainder of the 2008 campaign, but he is recovering well and will look to continue his development in 2009. At the time of his injury, Hayes was ranked fourth on the team with seven special teams stops.
Seventh Round: RB Cory Boyd, South Carolina
The grade on this pick – which the Bucs picked up via trade from the Patriots – can hardly be deemed as much more than "incomplete" after Boyd was injured for nearly all of his time in Tampa this offseason and was waived/injured in July.
Boyd was eventually signed to Denver's practice squad in November and bounced from active roster to practice squad and back again before seeing action on special teams in the Broncos' season finale against San Diego. The Bucs thought Boyd had NFL talent but never got a chance to see much of it as Boyd was hurt in virtually his first workout with the team and never really made it back to the field before he was waived.
That concludes the Bucs' crop of 2008 rookies that were acquired via the NFL Draft. However, even after "Mr. Irrelevant's" name is called at the conclusion of the seventh round, teams continue to add dozens of new players to their rosters as undrafted free agents, a process that is essentially an extension of the draft.
The Bucs, perhaps more than any other team in 2008, mined this crop of players excellently, discovering just the third first-year player in NFL history to enter the league as an undrafted rookie free agent and end up in the Pro Bowl.
That man was Smith, the diminutive running back out of Fresno State who joined the Bucs for rookie minicamp soon after the draft concluded.
Smith was an outstanding return man in college and quickly became a favorite of his coaches and teammates during training camp – earning the nickname "Peanut" – as he impressed everyone with his speed and agility, as well as his knack for picking up both his offensive and special teams playbooks.
When it came time to pare the roster down to 53, Smith was one of the last Bucs left on the outside looking in but was quickly added to the Tampa Bay practice squad, where he spent the first seven weeks of the season.
With Jackson struggling in the return game, the Bucs pulled a switch and brought Smith up to the active roster, and the results were nothing short of astonishing…and immediate.
Smith needed only a month to become the first player in team history to notch both a kickoff return and punt return for a touchdown…period, let alone in a season. He finished with a sparkling 27.6 yards-per-return average on kickoffs and a 14.1-yard mark on punts as he breathed new life into the Bucs' return game.
For his efforts, Smith was named to the NFC Pro Bowl squad as the team's kick returner and will travel to Hawaii along with Davin Joseph, Ronde Barber and Derrick Brooks.
The Bucs also signed another undrafted free agent after the draft that ended up making his mark – cornerback Elbert Mack of Troy.
Mack led the NCAA his senior season in 2007 with eight interceptions, a stat that surely caught the eye of some NFL teams as he left campus. Buccaneer scouts went to the Troy campus to scout eventual first-round cornerback Leodis McKelvin but couldn't help noticing that McKelvin's counterpart was a pretty good player, too. Mack routinely made eye-catching plays and eventually became one of just two undrafted rookies – along with tackle James Lee (signed off waivers after entering the NFL with the Cleveland Browns) – to make the opening day roster.
As surprising as it was that Mack made the team out of camp, he showed why he'd earned that nod rather quickly. During the preseason and early in the regular season, Mack belied his size by laying some big hits on opposing players. He was also a regular contributor on special teams. Mack ended up appearing in 15 games his rookie season and ranked fourth on the team with 12 special teams stops.
Overall, the Bucs' 2008 rookie class may not have produced the same starting-level contributions as the previous year's group but they provided just as much promise for the future…and even a Pro Bowl nod that the '07 class can't claim. A new rookie class will soon take their place, but the Bucs expect the 2008 group to produce solid returns for years to come.