Only two fourth-round picks in last year's draft started every game as a rookie, Tampa Bay G Dan Buenning and N.Y. Jets S Kerry Rhodes
We know the draft is crucial in constructing a team's future, but how much could it help this year? The Bucs have certainly found instant contributors in the past
In the National Football League, you have to build through the draft. We dare you to find an NFL executive who will argue with that basic thesis.
Thanks to the demands of the salary cap, it is very difficult to sustain long-term success without displaying some acumen on draft day. Star-caliber veteran players help you win now, but they can also occupy large chunks of your cap space; you must balance them with the more affordable talent available in the draft. And draft picks who mature quickly into strong contributors, before their first big free-agency payday, offer the best bang for the buck.
That's why, for many teams, what happens on the 29th and 30th of this month will be far more important than anything that has transpired since the start of free agency on March 11.
In the long term, that is. A much iffier concept: How much the 2006 draft class will help your team this year.
And of course, as fans, that's what we want. We drink in the draft, all 22 hours of it, and we understand that many of the names we hear called over that Saturday and Sunday won't be heard all that frequently over the stadium loudspeakers this fall. We know there may be a waiting period, that these names might be the team's foundation of the future. Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans adore Ronde Barber, and for good reason, but he played in all of one regular-season game as a rookie. Barber's 1997 draft mate, Alshermond Singleton, had to wait five years to get a starting spot with the Bucs, but there he was in Super Bowl XXXVII, patrolling strongside linebacker for the league's best defense.
We understand this, but we can also dream of that rookie who makes an instant difference. After all, didn't Michael Clayton catch 80 passes for the Bucs straight out of LSU in 2004? Didn't Warrick Dunn make it to the Pro Bowl in his inaugural season? Didn't Paul Gruber step in immediately at left tackle in 1988 and play every snap of his first five seasons in the league?
Yes, yes and yes. Still, Barber's model is much more common. Tony Mayberry, the only Pro Bowl center in Buccaneer history, started every game from 1991-99, but as a rookie in 1990 he opened just one. John Lynch was actually tried in a sort of safety-linebacker hybrid role early on before eventually settling in as the best safety in franchise history. Chris Simms will likely make his first opening-day start this coming fall, in his fourth NFL season.
Most players, no matter how talented, need an adjustment period and/or the opening of a starting spot to establish themselves in the NFL, and that applies even to those star-quality names you hear in the first round. For every Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown, each of whom started 14 games for their respective teams last year, there is a Cedric Benson, who opened just one. The three quarterbacks taken in the first round last year started seven games between them, all by number-one overall selection Alex Smith.
And there are, obviously, diminishing returns as you progress from round to round. For instance, the Bucs got a full 16-game starter in the fourth round when they drafted Wisconsin guard Dan Buenning, but he was one of only two players selected in that round who opened every game (also Jets safety Kerry Rhodes) and one of only five that started at least 10 games. Eighteen of the 32 players taken in that round didn't start a single contest.
The Bucs, in fact, got a total of 40 starts out of the trio of Williams, Buenning and third-round tight end Alex Smith. Williams, of course, won the NFL's Rookie of the Year award, while Smith instantly became the team's best pass-catching tight end in years and Buenning looked like a future fixture at left guard.
That draft was obviously a home run, particularly in terms of immediate impact and most likely in terms of long-term roster strength. The Bucs may be hard-pressed to duplicate that haul in 2006, but there's reason to believe that the team can find some 2006 contributors during the upcoming draft weekend. Over the course of their first 30 drafts, the Bucs have at one point or another selected a player at almost every position who would go on to excel as a rookie.
Let's take a look at the starting lineup one could construct using only players who were drafted by the Buccaneers and went on to stand out as rookies. Below is one possible such lineup:
|Michael Clayton (2004)
|5th-highest rookie rec. total in NFL history
|Paul Gruber (1988)
|Team-record 183 games started
|Dan Buenning (2005)
|Helped run game improve from 29th to 14th
|Ian Beckles (1990)
|5th-round pick started all 16 games
|Ron Heller (1984)
|4th-rounder, 16 starts, consensus all-rookie pick
|Alex Smith (2005)
|Second on team with 41 receptions
|Lawrence Dawsey (1991)
|Caught 55-818-3 to lead team
|Doug Williams (1977)
|1,170 passing yards still Buc rookie record
|Cadillac Williams (2005)
|Buc rookie record 1,178 rushing yards
|Mike Alstott (1996)
|377 rushing yards, 65 recs., 16 starts as rookie
|Martin Gramatica (1999)
|27-32 FGs, then-team-record 106 points
|Chidi Ahanotu (1993)
|Started 10 games at 3 different positions
|Santana Dotson (1992)
|5th-round pick named NFC Def. Rookie of Year
|Mark Wheeler (1992)
|Started all 16 games, had 61 tackles, 5 sacks
|Lee Roy Selmon (1976)
|5 sacks in just 6 games before injury
|Derrick Brooks (1995)
|Consensus all-rookie choice, 80 tackles
|Hugh Green (1981)
|Consensus all-rookie pick, 151 tackles
|Donnie Abraham (1996)
|Started 12 games, had five INTs
|Ricky Reynolds (1987)
|Started 12 games, second on team w/70 tackles
|Tony Covington (1991)
|2nd among NFL rookies with 3 INTs
|Marty Carter (1991)
|Started 11 games, had 62 tackles
|Chris Mohr (1989)
|84 punts, 39.4 gross, 32.1 net
(A few notes: This list includes only players who were drafted and then contributed heavily in their first seasons. That excludes many, many players who were drafted and became strong contributors in their second seasons or later, such as Barber or Jermaine Phillips. It also excludes many players who contributed right away as special teamers. Also, it does not take into account how well the players' careers went after their rookie seasons. Undrafted players and any players acquired from other teams were not considered.)
So, what can we learn from this exercise?
Mainly, that there are certain positions that have a much higher incidence of rookie contributions than others. Most NFL analysts consider running back to be the simplest position for a rookie to make an instant impact, and that certainly holds true in Buccaneer annals. Williams is an outstanding choice, but Dunn would have been strong, as well, and one could also consider Ricky Bell, Johnny Davis, Jerry Eckwood, Lars Tate, Reggie Cobb and Errict Rhett. All had very strong rookie seasons, and Rhett had the team record of 1,011 rushing yards until last year. Throw in fullback and you include the two leading rushers in team history, James Wilder and Mike Alstott. Yes, Wilder was the Bucs' starting fullback during his first three seasons.
Defensive tackle is another position at which the Bucs have frequently found rookie contributors. Dotson and Wheeler stepped right into starting roles in 1992 and had strong seasons, but they were extremely difficult choices over the likes of Warren Sapp, Anthony McFarland, Reuben Davis, Rhett Hall, Curt Jarvis and Chidi Ahanotu, who did get one of our end positions. Obviously, Sapp was the top player in that group over the long haul, but several others had larger opportunities as rookies.
That, of course, is one of the keys to this list. The center and middle linebacker positions had no real options for this list, but that's not because the team has done a poor job of drafting them. At center, Steve Wilson, Randy Grimes and Tony Mayberry were the team's only starters from 1978 through 1999, but all had to wait a season before the spot opened up. One could recount a similar story for such inside linebackers as Dewey Selmon, Scot Brantley, Jeff Davis, Winston Moss and Jamie Duncan,
Despite having outstanding draft success in the defensive backfield, particularly in the middle rounds of the draft and since the mid-90s, the Bucs have few candidates for this list at cornerback or safety. Almost all of the standout defensive backs of the last decade – Barber, Lynch, Brian Kelly, Dexter Jackson, Dwight Smith et al. – had to work their way into the lineup over the course of a season or two. The two safeties on this list, Carter and Covington, started together in 1991 due mostly to injuries; both were fine players but they played only a combined seven years in Tampa.
Rookie quarterbacks have almost never started for the Buccaneers, which made Williams the easy choice. A first-round pick in 1978, he was a starter from opening day, though injuries limited him to 10 games and 10 starts, two of which he was unable to finish. He was still the NFL's all-rookie choice at quarterback that year. Shaun King obviously deserved consideration here as well for the relief job he pulled off in 1999, starting the last five regular season games and helping the Bucs advance to the NFC Championship Game.
Of course, there are plenty of other rookies who came out of the gates strong for the Buccaneers. To name a few: Ron Heller, Mark Carrier, Bruce Hill, Kevin House, Donald Igwebuike, Kenyatta Walker, Regan Upshaw, Ron Holmes, Curtis Jordan and Broderick Thomas. The point is, it can be done. Though the annual draft is more effective at providing long-term solutions than instant contributors, it is possible to make an immediate impact on the coming season at the end of April.