Rookie S Tanard Jackson started all 16 games for the Buccaneers in 2007 after being drafted in the fourth round
In a little less than two months, the NFL's free agency period will begin and a handful of teams – maybe even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – will make big news by signing an established star performer.
Some franchises approach the free agent market more aggressively than others. But all 32 teams would surely agree on this: You can't fashion sustained success in the league, and stay out of salary-cap misery, without making good use of the draft.
After winning the Super Bowl in 2002, the Buccaneers had two losing campaigns in 2003 and 2004. Their plans for revitalizing the roster and escaping from the serious cap deficit that had hamstrung the team centered around drafting well, and frequently.
The 2007 NFC South Championship season showed those plans starting to come to fruition.
After the 2005 and 2006 drafts produced such big-time contributors as Cadillac Williams, Barrett Ruud, Alex Smith, Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood, Maurice Stovall and Bruce Gradkowski, the 2007 class hit the scene as if trying to prove it was the best of them all.
Out of the Bucs' five picks in the first four rounds, the team emerged with three starters and a valuable special teams performer, which is an extremely impressive haul, especially since those starters look like potential stars in the making. Only a season-ending foot injury in Week Three prevented safety Sabby Piscitelli from contributing in similar fashion.
That the Bucs won the South with so many players in the process of finding their way in the NFL has the team very optimistic about the future.
"Half of our roster has under four years of experience, half of our roster is home-grown players," said General Manager Bruce Allen. "And I think they got some valuable experience this year on and off the field that will make them better in the future."
First-round selection Gaines Adams lived up to the hype surrounding the fourth overall pick in the draft, playing in every game in 2007, including eight starts. The Clemson product rang up six sacks on the year, leading all rookies in the category. He started slowly, at least statistically, but finished strong while other young players were hitting the rookie wall. Of those six sacks, 4.5 came during the season's second half, after he moved into the starting lineup.
The Bucs' next pick came at the top of the second round, and the 35th overall selection was spent on guard Arron Sears out of Tennessee. Sears went on to start all 16 games at left guard and helped anchor one of the most talented young offensive lines in the league. The Bucs rebuilt the right side of their line with their first two picks in 2006, picking up guard Davin Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood, and now they've found another pillar around which to build a dominant front.
"Arron Sears is going to be a great player," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "He's a guy, I think, that can take his game to an incredible height. He's just one tough, hard-nosed football player that could be great."
As discussed on Tuesday, Piscitelli, the Bucs' other second-round pick, was forced to the sideline for much of the 2007 season. The expectations the club held for the 64th overall selection will have to wait until next season to be fulfilled, though that in essence provides an early boost to the 2008 class of newcomers.
The team selected linebacker Quincy Black with its third-round selection, the 68th overall pick. A talented and established linebacker trio prevented Black from cracking the rotation on defense, but he picked up nine tackles playing extensively during the last two weeks. His biggest contributions came on special teams, as he finished third on the team with 17 kick coverage tackles and added a forced fumble.
The third starter the Bucs were able to snag in the 2007 draft was fourth-round pick Tanard Jackson. Taken 106th overall, the safety out of Syracuse stepped in, like Sears, and became a full-time, 16-game performer. Jackson tallied 78 tackles on the year to go along with two interceptions, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and 12 passes defensed.
Interestingly, all 10 of the Bucs' 2007 picks remains with the team, an unusual development that speaks to the quality of the team's draft evaluations last year. Fifth-round pick Greg Peterson saw action in 10 games at defensive tackle, picking up 1.5 sacks, and sixth-round selection Adam Hayward contributed 11 special teams tackles.
Even the team's three seventh-round picks are still around and will be back to fight for roster spots in 2008. Tackle Chris Denman ended up on injured reserve, cornerback Marcus Hamilton spent the entire season on the practice squad, and running back Kenneth Darby, the team's last selection with the 246th overall pick, followed a long stint on the practice squad with a late-season promotion to the active roster. Darby even saw action in the regular-season finale against Carolina and looked sharp, albeit in a minor role.
A litany of injuries that plagued the Bucs through much of the season presented opportunities for some of these draftees that might not have otherwise existed, but when every single draft pick is still on the team in one form or another, it's worth noting. All of these players will be around when the 2008 training camp rolls around with a chance to improve and continue contributing.
Now the club looks ahead to the 2008 draft. If the last three drafts, which have produced eight starting players, are any indication, some new faces added to the team in 2008 may become impact players right away.
As he addressed the media last week, Allen fielded questions that were primarily focused on the upcoming free agency period. The Bucs have some cap space available to target some talented free agent acquisitions, but after the recent contributions made by players acquired in the draft, Allen clearly understands the role that drafting well holds in constructing a championship squad.
"I'm looking forward to the 2008 season," Allen said. "We have the ability to acquire more players. First and foremost, we can play better. We can execute better on the field and we can train better. But the best way to improve the team is to increase the talent level on this team. We have the ability, whether it's a trade or in free agency, or having another good draft, that we can improve this football team."