The NFL Draft – an event that now rivals anything in the sports nation in terms of spring coverage – kicks off on Thursday night with the first round broadcast from Radio City Music Hall in New York City. However, for the first time in exactly a decade the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head into the draft without a first-round pick in hand.
That pick (plus a conditional 2014 selection) was already converted into star cornerback on Sunday, so the Bucs are more than satisfied with their first-round returns. And we've already discussed why the Official Draft Party at Raymond James Stadium is still the place to be for Buccaneer fans on Thursday night, even without a countdown to a pending pick.
The remaining question is, what makes the first-round broadcast still must-see TV for Buccaneer fans on Thursday evening? Of course, many will tune in or otherwise follow the picks simply because they are football fans, and the draft is still several solid hours of surprising reveals. Anyone looking for added motivation to follow the first round from a Buccaneer standpoint, however, should consider these five pursuits:
1. Identifying trends
This year's draft is considered particularly deep in defensive tackles, with some additional noteworthy depth at cornerback, defensive end and offensive line. It is considered extremely shallow, at least in terms of first-round prospects, at running back and the quarterback group is apparently underwhelming enough to keep it a mystery where the likes of Geno Smith and Ryan Nassib will fall.
Does that mean that teams will be hurrying to dip into as much of that DT depth as possible, and overall load up on as many defensive linemen as possible in the early going? Or will that depth actually push some first-round talent into Round Two, as teams pick off the few top options at shallow positions and wait to address D-Line needs? Will the recent trend of teams taking quarterbacks higher than expected continue, or will this class be the one that reverses that momentum?
Either way, the answers will be important to the Buccaneers. Once the dust has settled on Thursday night, Tampa Bay decision-makers will have a much better feel for the positions at which the talent remains deep. For the Bucs, that will be significant in terms of both their second-round pick, which is just 11 into the round, and their third-round pick. If the team is targeting two specific positions with those picks, for example, it might be prompted to start with the one that has the shallower remaining talent pool and hope a good player at the other position falls into Round Three.
Astute Buc fans will be able to sniff out these trends, too, as the first round unfurls.
2. Tracking the falling prospects
Two years ago, as the 20th overall pick in the first round approached, pundits wondered whether the Bucs, needing a jolt for their pass rush, would take the chance on Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. Once considered a possibility for the first overall pick, Bowers had seen his "stock" fall over concerns about a knee injury and offseason surgery.
The Bucs would actually take Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn at #20, but not because they had dismissed Bowers. When Bowers remained on the board at the end of Thursday night, Tampa Bay's interest was piqued. When he fell to #51 overall, the Bucs pounced and ended up with the two ends who are likely to start for the team in this year's season opener.
Bowers fell due to the injury concerns, which he has since allayed. Other prospects remain available for longer than expected for different reasons, perhaps a slower-than-expected 40-yard-dash time or simply a run on other positions. It is almost a guarantee that at least one player who is seen as almost a lock to be a first-round pick in the assembled mock drafts will find himself undrafted after Day One, and thus one of the most discussed topics on Friday night.
With their early pick, the Buccaneers will have a chance to jump on such a player, particularly if the teams above them are focusing on different needs. For instance, if an intriguing pass-rusher or cornerback remained on the board, the Bucs might benefit from a run on the quarterback prospects at the top of the second round. Watching which top names remain on the board as the first round draws to an end – hopefully without any maudlin footage from the Green Room in New York – will be particularly interesting on Thursday night.
3. Keeping an eye on the neighbors
The Bucs may be sans picks in the first round on Thursday night, but their fellow NFC South teams most definitely are not. Barring trades, the Panthers will be the first South team to act, picking 14, one spot ahead of the Saints. The Falcons will have to wait until #30 if nothing changes, but they have been rumored to be interested in another dramatic trade up, such as the one that landed them Julio Jones two years ago.
Buccaneer fans should be particularly interested in what these teams do with their picks. Will Carolina try to get more weapons for Cam Newton in the passing game? Will the Bucs have to deal with a dangerous new pass-rusher in New Orleans? Are the Falcons satisfied with their secondary?
It will also be interesting to see if the Buccaneers' recent maneuvers have had any impact on what their division rivals are prioritizing. Tampa Bay's coveting of Revis was understandable, given the high-powered passing attacks they have to face in the NFC South. Of course, the Bucs had one of those dangerous passing games in 2012; will the addition of Vincent Jackson cause their division opponents to look for secondary upgrades and, in particular, tall cornerbacks? Will Gerald McCoy's emergence as a Pro Bowler put a premium on interior linemen? Will the threat of Doug Martin cause division foes to covet rangy linebackers? And so on.
2. Watching your Twenty Questions predictions come true…or not
This year's Twenty Questions Draft Contest on Buccaneers.com has turned into the biggest one yet, drawing in thousands of entries before Tuesday's deadline. That means that many Buccaneer fans will be watching the picks unfold on Thursday night in part to see how well their predictions turn out.
The Twenty Questions contest hinges on, well, 20 questions about the 2013 draft that required predictions, such as which player the Panthers will take with their first pick and which team will make the most aggressive trade up. The three entrants who hit the most predictions on the head will win exciting prizes, including Club Seat tickets to the games of their choice in 2013.
Some of the trickier predictions will be more important in 2013, because the questions regarding the Buccaneers' selections were thrown for a loop by Sunday's trade. It is obviously much harder to predict the 43rd pick than the 13th, and those entries that were submitted before the deal are particularly unlikely to get that one right. In addition, the questions regarding what positions the Bucs would target with their second and third overall picks now refer to (at the moment) picks in third and fourth round, not the second and third. Since all of these predictions got harder in a hurry, the final results could hinge on such questions as which receiver goes first in the second round and which team drafts Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o. Either way, it will be fun for contest entrants to watch it all develop.
1. Potentially watching the Bucs make a pick after all
Remember who is at the helm of Tampa Bay's draft. General Manager Mark Dominik is clearly not afraid to swing trades, and he's been pretty darn good at it in recent years. You only have to rewind one year to see an example of a high second-round pick converted into a low first-rounder; Dominik did just that in 2012 to nab rookie running back sensation Doug Martin.
Moreover, Dominik said in both his pre-draft press conference on Monday and his draft-room video exclusive on Tuesday that he is open to the idea of another such deal. If a player the Bucs particularly covet is still available as the first round is entering its latter stages, it would not be at all shocking to see Dominik make another deal. For that reason alone, it's worth sticking this one out until pick #32 on Thursday night.