Last April, just one day before the start of the 2011 NFL Draft, Buccaneers.com pulled together the online results of 20 recent mock drafts from various football analysts. This exercise was intended to see if there was any sort of consensus among the draft opinions – those outside of One Buccaneer Place – regarding who the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would target in the first round.
The amassing of the mocks would also serve another purpose a few days later, as a look back at the data would indicate how on-point that consensus of opinion was. And in this particular case, the mock drafters proved quite prescient about what the Buccaneers were likely to do.
Well, sort of.
Only one of the 20 analysts correctly predicted that Tampa Bay would tab Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn with the 20th overall pick. However, the assembled experts certainly identified the type of player the Bucs were interested in; all 20 suggested the team would go defense, and 19 of the 20 landed on a pass-rusher of one stripe or another. Moreover, the most popular prediction for Tampa Bay's first-round pick was Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, and the Bucs did indeed end up with Bowers…in the second round.
What is important to note in terms of the mock drafts' general accuracy is that almost all of the those polled had updated their predictions in the final week before the 2011 draft began. That is an understandable and obvious practice, and one most of the media follows as a matter of course these days. An NFL analyst such as ESPN.com's Todd McShay or SI.com's Don Banks will generally publish a "1.0." version of their mock drafts in January, then follow with a series of tweaked versions in the following months.
Clearly, the information gathered at events such as the NFL Scouting Combine, and from behind-the-scenes reporting, leads to a more accurate picture as the draft draws closer. As an example, in the early days of January of 2011, Bowers was often included in the discussion of who the Carolina Panthers might take first overall. Eventually, concerns over his knee surgery led him to slide down the board, much to the Buccaneers' eventual delight. As time passed, it became clear to most that the Panthers would go with Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, and the top five picks began to fall in place after that. In his final mock effort (version "5.0"), just one day before the real thing, ESPN.com's Mel Kiper correctly predicted all of the first five selections.
As such, even the most confident draft analysts wouldn't want you to take their "1.0" versions as gospel in January or February. Kiper's own 1.0 had only one of the first five correct (DT Marcell Dareus to the Buffalo Bills at #3) and still had Bowers going fourth overall.
That said, it is instructive to see how the early opinions are shaping up regarding what the Buccaneers will do with the fifth overall pick, if indeed they remain in that spot. The last three times Tampa Bay has picked in the top five (RB Cadillac Williams in 2005, DE Gaines Adams in 2007 and DT Gerald McCoy in 2010), the mock drafts were almost unanimous in accurately predicting those selections on the eve of the real draft's opening bell. Months earlier, it was a different story.
A look at a handful of early mock drafts shows outside opinion already converging on two possible paths for the Buccaneers at #5 overall. The majority of analysts are making an initial prediction of LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. Those that dissent seem to agree on Alabama running back Trent Richardson.
In April, Buccaneers.com will once again round up several dozen mock drafts to provide a comprehensive picture of the prevailing opinion just before the draft. For this earlier look at how the mocks are starting to take shape, we'll concentrate on just a handful of the analysts from the most prominent sports sites: McShay, Banks, NFL.com's Bucky Brooks, Rob Rang and Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com and Peter Schrager of Foxsports.com.
Among this group, only the CBSSports.com mock drafters disagree with the Claiborne prediction. Both Rang and Brugler are going with Richardson at this point, each suggesting that the arrival of Greg Schiano as the Bucs' new head coach will cause the team to focus on a power rushing attack. In a way, the two colleagues arrive at the Richardson prediction in different ways – Rang says the team has "other, more pressing concerns," while Brugler says the Bucs "don't have any obvious holes" – but both think the Richardson pick "makes sense" given the team's expected commitment to the running game.
The rest of the field of analysts, however, are currently of the opinion that the Bucs will go defense in the first round for the third year in a row. After shoring up the defensive line with tackles in Rounds One and Two in 2010 and ends in Rounds One and Two in 2011, Tampa Bay will be looking for some new talent in the secondary, goes the line of reasoning.
McShay (no link as his mock draft is behind a subscription wall) says Claiborne has the best cover skills in the 2012 class and thinks the Bucs are due for a makeover in the secondary. He does acknowledge the possibility of a Richardson pick, even agreeing with the reasoning behind it, but simply believes cornerback to be a more pressing concern for Tampa Bay.
One minor difference between McShay's prediction and the others who put Claiborne in a Bucs cap on draft day: The ESPN analyst has Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon falling out of the top five. Others may wonder if the Bucs might face a tough decision if they are choosing from Claiborne, Richardson and Blackmon at #5.
Like McShay, Brooks, Banks and Schrager have Claiborne as the first defensive player drafted. While Rang and Brugler focus on Schiano's desire for a powerful rushing attack, the others note the coach's defensive background and believe that will push his draft interest to that side of the ball. Brooks also notes that the ever-increasing passing prowess in the NFC South makes cornerback a particularly important spot for the Buccaneers.
Schrager contends that Claiborne is potentially better than his former LSU teammate Patrick Peterson, who went fifth overall to Arizona last year and ended up in the Pro Bowl due to his punt-returning prowess. And Banks is the most emphatic of all when it comes to pairing the Bucs with the latest LSU product, calling the predicted choice of Claiborne "a no-brainer." Banks also approaches the Richardson possibility with the most skepticism, calling the choice of a running back at #5 "a little rich" for the Buccaneers.
The 2012 NFL Draft begins at 8:00 p.m. ET on the evening of Thursday, April 26. At some point in the next hour, barring a trade down, the Buccaneers will make their first-round selection. Ask the experts now, in early February, and they would expect Tampa Bay to turn in a card with either "Claiborne" or "Richardson" on it. Ask again in late April, however, and you just might get a very different answer.