Jason Licht's office at One Buccaneer Place is in the middle of the second floor, at the back of the building, with a wide view of the team's three practice fields. The room directly next door is essentially an extra-large conference room, about 40'-by-40' and lined with narrow tables affixed to the floor. Like every room in the building, this one has a placard by the door, with a Buccaneer flag and a notation of the occupant, the room's purpose, or both.
This wall next to Licht's bears two simple words: "Draft Room." There's another door on the north side of this room, letting out into a hall, with the same placard. Both doors are always locked, 12 months a year.
There was a time that the placards by these doors might have read, "War Room." That has long been the informal term for the area inside each team headquarters where the actual draft decisions are made. (Radio City Music Hall is for the show, not the turning of the gears.) Over the past decade or two, there has been a conscious effort by professionals both inside and outside the league to reduce the use of that term so as not to conflate sports with war, knowing the latter is, in fact, much more serious business.
Still, there is a perception of the draft room that, in some ways, is not much different than an actual military command center. After all, decisions that come from this room are made under intense pressure, based on constantly updated information, with huge consequences at stake. Right?
Well, sort of. Even if you stipulate the difference between decisions regarding a football team and ones regarding life and death – which you should – there is another fundamental difference. At least, there is for Licht's Tampa Bay Buccaneers this year, as they count down the hours to the 2014 NFL Draft.
Basically the difference is this: When Round One rolls around a week from Thursday, it's going to be a lot simpler than you might expect for the Buccaneers to make their pick. The stress level in that room next to Licht's office will be low and the Buccaneers' decision at pick #7 – a decision that could include a trade up or down – will probably not involve much debate.
Not that this decision is being taken lightly. Licht will be directing his first draft as a team's general manager. His partner in this endeavor, Lovie Smith, has occupied the head coach's chair for nine previous drafts, but this is his first in Tampa, too. Both have declared, as do management teams across the NFL, that the annual draft will be the primary source from which the core of the roster will be constructed, long-term. And since the success of that roster dictates the length of their stay at One Buccaneer Place, Licht and Smith know full well the importance of draft weekend.
Which is why they will be more than ready next Thursday, and why that first-round pick won't be particularly stress-inducing.
"You guys should all be able to come inside, back to the war room again," said Smith to an assemblage of local media on Tuesday…an invitation they would jump at if ever truly proffered. "We have this picture about the war room and what all goes on in there and everything happening that day. There's so much preparation that goes on before. Those decisions are made well in advance. So much work goes into it. Like Jason and I, we've watched players and gone back over them again and again and again, with the staff, with the scouts. So, as far as what we're going to do, it's a little bit easier than you might think."
Smith and Licht will be fully comfortable in that draft room next Thursday because they've already spent so much time there. They had met in that space the night before Tuesday's press conference, and they'll do so again on Tuesday evening. Their board is not completely set; as long as there is time for more discussion and more film study, there could be changes. But if the draft happened to be tomorrow night, Licht would be ready. In fact, he'd probably prefer that.
"I'm fired up," said Licht. "First-year GM…the draft is the red-letter day for all scouts, it's our Christmas. Sitting next to Lovie and making the decisions with Lovie, it's awesome. Lovie's big on communication and that, so far, we feel has netted some good results and that continued through the draft prep and still continues now. I wish we could draft this Thursday; Lovie wants to take advantage of the extra days to reconvene with our scouts, our coaches and that's what we're going to do."
They'll meet every day, in fact, until the middle of next week. There could be tweaks to the board, but there likely won't be anything dramatic. Licht was asked if he was feeling any anxiety about their rankings and what they will produce on draft weekend, but he says those emotions were smoothed out over time as he and Smith and their staffs spent the past three months putting the board in order.
"I had more of that going on early in the process, when we were setting the board, just making sure it's right and then going over it again and again and again with Lovie," said Licht. "We're going to do it again tonight and leading up until early next week. On draft day, it will be simple. Lovie's got his own grading scale. Where we [the scouts] have numbers and things, Lovie's just 'I like him,' or 'I love him,' so he makes it a little easier on me."
Licht has been an NFL general manager for roughly three-and-a-half months, but he's spent well over a decade being part of the decision-making process on draft weekend. His first year in the draft room was 2001, the third season in a four-season run with the New England Patriots. He has also held prominent player-personnel positions in Philadelphia and, most recently, Arizona. Now he's hearing a message from his new drafting partner that jibes with what he's learned from so many other's in the business.
"I learned from a lot of different people and I guess the number-one thing – I was thinking about this last night – just be patient," said Licht. "Be patient and don't get anxious and don't stress. Let it come to you. Lovie tells me that every day."