The Bucs found an instant starter in the fourth round last year with S Tanard Jackson of Syracuse
Each year, every general manager, coach and fan of an NFL team dreams of selecting a slew of players in the NFL Draft who will immediately show up to training camp, mesh well with their new surroundings, master a thick new playbook and immediately begin producing on Sundays.
Often, that dream remains in the realm of imagination, as many players end up taking a bit more time to develop into contributors or simply never catch on and fade away.
But just how often does that dream come true? Is it realistic to expect rookies added through the draft to make an immediate impact in their first season in the league?
As much as we'd like it to be, the answer isn't a definitive yes or no. Some highly-touted rookies live up to their billing and step right into starting roles on their new squads, and other lesser-known commodities drafted in the later rounds put together strong training camps and emerge as surprise performers.
On the other end of the spectrum are the so-called "busts," players who never live up to the sky-high expectations surrounding them. In between is the most common result: Players who need a few years either to mature into good NFL players or to find an opening in the starting lineup.
The best approach is cautious optimism. A team's past draft success and/or holes in the lineup can make a rookie's immediate impact more or less likely, but one can never be sure how a draftee is going to take to the NFL until he puts on the pads and mixes in with the veterans.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers' fans have reason for optimism, however. The past five drafts have actually produced a fairly lengthy list of players who earned the title of "impact rookies," stepping into contributing roles in their first year in the league.
Michael Clayton's rookie season was a perfect example of what fans and teams alike wish for when making a draft-day selection. Clayton burst onto the scene in 2004 with 80 receptions for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns, all franchise rookie records and one of the most prolific debuts by a receiver in NFL history. Although Clayton has struggled to regain that level of performance in the years since, thanks in large part due to injury, his immediate impact as a rookie can't be erased.
Another Bucs rookie who enjoyed a hot start to his career was running back Cadillac Williams. In 2005, Williams set an NFL record by rushing for 434 yards in his first three league games and went on to post a club single-season rookie-record 1,178 rushing yards. Williams scored six touchdowns and was named the NFL Rookie of the Year. He also became only the sixth back in franchise history and only the second rookie to top 1,000 rushing yards in a season.
Three other draftees in recent years made debuts that were less statistically quantifiable but every bit as impressive. Offensive linemen Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood, selected with the team's first and second round picks in 2006, respectively, and Arron Sears, taken in the second round in 2007, each blossomed into starters in their first go-round in the NFL.
Joseph played in 13 games at right guard with 12 starts in his rookie campaign, while Trueblood played in 15 games at right tackle and opened 13, ranking the duo third in the league in games started among rookie lineman tandems in 2006. Sears, meanwhile, immediately assumed a starter's role in 2007, opening all 16 games at left guard and taking part in one of the league's youngest and most talented offensive fronts. Sears also became only the fourth rookie lineman since 1990 to start the team's opening day game. The trio of young linemen started every game for the Bucs in 2007 and looks to have formed a talented young foundation along the offensive front for years to come.
The 2007 draft also produced another 16-game starter in safety Tanard Jackson. Selected in the fourth round, Jackson hit the ground running, posting 78 tackles and two interceptions en route to becoming the first Buccaneers defensive rookie to start all 16 games as a rookie since defensive end Regan Upshaw in 1996.
Of course, that 2007 draft started with defensive end Gaines Adams, who proved worthy of his number-four overall pick status. Although he spent the first half of the season coming off the bench as part of the defensive line rotation, he started the second half at right end and posted six sacks on the season, tops among all NFL rookies. His six sacks also tied for the second-best rookie total in club history, behind only Santana Dotson's 10 in 1992.
A note of caution, however, for Bucs fans salivating at the thought of a set of star rookies emerging from the upcoming draft – not every year is going to produce the kind of instant contributors the team has been fortunate enough to find in recent history.
Some players – either by a simple need to continue to developing or by having an incumbent starter blocking their path – take a bit longer to make their mark.
Take the Bucs' current starting middle linebacker, Barrett Ruud. Drafted in the second round in '05, Ruud found himself stuck beneath incumbent starter Shelton Quarles on the depth chart. Ruud spent his rookie season mainly as a special teams contributor before getting a taste of the starting role in 2006, when he opened five games. Ruud finally ascended to the top of the depth chart in 2007 following Quarles' retirement and flourished, leading the team with 169 total tackles, as well as two interceptions, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and four passes defensed.
Would Ruud have been as successful had he been thrown right into the fire in his rookie season, or was he better served spending two years as Quarles' understudy? We'll never know the answer to that question, but one can't argue with the way it worked out. Rookies will always run into situations such as Ruud's, so it is inevitable that some first-year players will fail to make an impact in their debut seasons.
Another example of a player that took some time to develop was defensive end Dewayne White, who joined the Bucs as a second-round pick in 2003. White entered the league as a raw talent still in need of some polish to his game, but he also faced the unfortunate situation of having two veterans anchoring the defensive end spots in front of him – Simeon Rice and Greg Spires.
Despite those two factors, and a rookie season in which he totaled only six tackles and zero sacks in 12 games, White still went on to post 14 sacks over his next three seasons in Tampa before departing for the Detroit Lions.
Maurice Stovall is the latest draftee the Bucs hope will follow the pattern of a young player taking a few years to emerge. A third-round selection in the 2006 draft, Stovall fought for playing time in the wide receiver rotation in his rookie season. He saw action in just nine games, posting seven receptions for 102 yards. The 2007 campaign saw Stovall play in each of the team's first 15 games and catch 10 passes for 86 yards and a touchdown, but a broken arm suffered in the team's second-to-last contest of the year prematurely ended his season.
Stovall possesses the size and athleticism that coaches drool over, and the Bucs' staff still has high expectations of the young receiver. Could 2008 be the season in which Stovall finally explodes and joins the above list of players whose success in the NFL was slightly delayed for one reason or another? Time will tell.
Broadening the scope of this discussion onto the league as a whole, recent drafts have actually produced a high number of early contributors, at least in the first round.
Based on an entirely unscientific review of the previous two drafts, where a brief glimpse at a player's stats from their rookie season was used to determine whether or not they had made an "impact" in their inaugural campaign, the results were actually quite good.
In the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft, 22 of the 32 picks went on to have successful, productive rookie seasons, highlighted by young stars such as Mario Williams, Reggie Bush, Jay Cutler, Joseph Addai and 2006 Offensive Rookie of the Year Vince Young.
In addition, Defensive Rookie of the Year DeMeco Ryans emerged as a star linebacker for the Texans after being selected with the first pick in the second round, and the Bears' electrifying return man Devin Hester was taken later in that round.
In 2007, the first round produced another 21 rookies who went on to have solid first years, with standouts such as Pro Bowl offensive lineman Joe Thomas, the Bucs' own Gaines Adams, 2007 Defensive Rookie of the Year Patrick Willis, Marshawn Lynch, Dwayne Bowe and Offensive Rookie of the Year Adrian Peterson and his record-setting season leading the way.
This isn't to say, however, that impact rookies can only be found in the early rounds of the draft. For a recent example, recall New Orleans Saints' wide receiver Marques Colston. Selected in the seventh round of the 2006 NFL Draft with the fourth-to-last pick, Colston went on to post 70 receptions for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns and could easily have been named Rookie of the Year if not for Young's outstanding performance.
As can be seen by looking at the Bucs' recent drafts, as well as recent results from across the league, accumulating impact rookies at any point in the draft can be somewhat of a hit-or-miss scenario.
And so the Bucs, along with the other 31 teams in the league, will continue their preparations as the clock ticks down to draft weekend in hopes of acquiring a crop of young draft picks that will be ready to excel immediately.