The Bucs knew LB Derrick Brooks had a passion for the game when they drafted him in 1995
No team drafts perfectly.
As scientific and methodical as NFL scouting departments are in their draft preparation, it is still an inexact science. Mistakes can and will be made, and some of them will end up being costly.
But mistakes can also end up helping, and that is only possible if a team makes an effort to learn from its unsuccessful picks. Why did we miss? How can we avoid doing it again?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' draft history is certainly not mistake-free, though misfires have been relatively rare of late. One reason: Paying attention to the lessons in failure.
One very good and very large example comes from the early '90s, when the organization made a sea change in its approach, best described as choosing production over potential. First-round mistakes such as Keith McCants and Eric Curry were blamed, accurately, on a tendency to become too enamored with "measurables" and what they might portend for a player's future. Subsequent picks such as Derrick Brooks and Warrick Dunn, on the other hand, emphasized what a player had put on videotape over supposed concerns over size or speed. That emphasis continues to this day in the Buccaneers' Draft Room.
Current Buccaneer Director of College Scouting Dennis Hickey recently pointed to another lesson the team has embraced in much the same manner: The importance of certain intangible qualities.
"You're doomed to repeat mistakes if you don't [learn from them]," said Hickey. "You learn from guys and that's part of the continual learning process. There are certain guys you thought were destined to be great ones and they end up not, so you go back and say, 'What was he missing?' And usually it's those key intangibles."
Though "intangibles" can be a bit of a fuzzy concept, think of them as the opposite of "measurables." How fast can a player run the 40-yard dash? That's measurable. How will he react to his first NFL setback? That's intangible, but not impossible to predict. How tall is the player? Measurable. How big is his heart, how fast his motor? Intangible.
So just which "intangibles" are the Bucs hoping to, well, measure, as best they can?
"Pretty much universally they have to have a passion for football," said Hickey of the type of prospect the Bucs value. "They have to love football. They have to have toughness, durability, be able to play through pain, play through nicks. Their season's going to be twice as long as college season. If they were hurt and banged up all during their college season, usually they're going to be hurt twice as much. So you want durability, and I would say intelligence, [specifically] football smarts. Can they learn football and can they take it on the field? There are some guys who are extremely intelligent but they struggle applying it to the field."
The Wonderlic test is one famous – some would say infamous – tool for assessing intelligence and decision-making abilities in prospects. It is not a tool the Bucs put much weight on, however. The team prefers to gather such information with its own eyes and ears.
"The number-one thing that we base our evaluations on when it comes to an ability to learn football is our exposures in interviews with the players," said Hickey. "Bringing them in here and having our coaches sit down and talk with them, that's very important. Also, watching them on tape – do they show up there? – and also interviewing their coaches.
"Turn over every stone. Find out about the player, whether it's about his character, or about his play, or his work ethic. Find out all we can so we know who the player is, and we can go from there."
Basically, focusing on such intangibles as toughness and passion for the game puts a fine edge on the production-based search for talent. After all, there are hundreds of prospects each year who played well and put up good numbers on the college level. Measuring these players against each other at the Combine helps to arrange them on a draft board, but so do the impressions they give in one-on-one meetings. Cadillac Williams made a very strong impression on the Bucs' coaching staff during the Senior Bowl in 2005, mostly off the field, and the team couldn't wait to take him with the fifth overall pick in April.
"To us, if you go with a proven commodity, someone who's done it and has been successful and has the key intangible aspects – toughness, loves football," Hickey summarized, "you're going to be successful going that way."