CB Ronde Barber was the fifth of five picks the Bucs made in the top 75 of the 1997 draft
Midway through the last decade, in a 12-month span, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers added Mike Alstott, Donnie Abraham, Warrick Dunn and Ronde Barber. Those five players would help form the nucleus that broke a 15-year playoff drought for the franchise.
During that same time, the team also added Regan Upshaw, Marcus Jones, Frank Middleton, Reidel Anthony and Jerry Wunsch. While that group of players didn't, in the long run, have as long or as successful Buc careers as the previous group, all five became starters and periodically valuable contributors to a team that made the playoffs five times in a six-year span.
Even casual Buccaneer fans can likely glean what those players have in common. All nine were Tampa Bay draft picks in 1996 and 1997. But it goes just a bit deeper than that. All nine were products of a bonanza of early picks that only comes along every so often. In 1996, the Bucs had four picks in the top 75 of the NFL Draft and used them on Upshaw, Jones, Alstott and Abraham. A year later, they had five picks in the top 75 and picked up Dunn, Anthony, Wunsch, Middleton and Barber.
Ten years and a wide variety of draft experiences later – boom: 2005; bust: 2002 – the Buccaneers are back in a similar situation. Heading into the 2007 NFL Draft, which looms just two weeks ahead, the Buccaneers own four of the top 68 selections, including the fourth pick overall in the opening round.
That opportunity seems to arise about once every 10 years, though the Bucs' back-to-back drafts in '96 and '97 obviously doubled the bonus that decade. The Bucs' very first draft in 1976 included that scenario – four picks in the top 61, which produced DE Lee Roy Selmon, RB Jimmy DuBose, LB Dewey Selmon and T Steve Young. The next four-in-the-top-75 occurrence for the Bucs was 1987, when they actually had five of the first 57 picks and selected QB Vinny Testaverde, CB Ricky Reynolds, LB Winston Moss, RB Don Smith and WR Mark Carrier.
Then came the back-to-back opportunities a decade later, helping the team form a playoff nucleus. And now, in 2007, it's time to try it again. This time around the Bucs ended up with four of the top 75 picks for two reasons – a 4-12 record in 2006 that puts them near the top of every round, and a midseason trade of DT Anthony McFarland that netted Indianapolis' second-round pick.
So should Buccaneer fans be excited by this wealth of early picks? It says here that Tampa Bay succeeded in making the most of similar situations in 1996 and 1997, but is that the norm? There are, of course, teams with such opportunities almost every season, even if the chance doesn't come along that often for any one team. Can we learn anything from reviewing how those teams have done in recent drafts?
During the current decade (the drafts of 200-06), there have been 19 instances of teams selecting four teams in the first 75 picks, or roughly three per year. And, yes, it is somewhat arbitrary to choose 75 as the cutoff point, but on the other hand that is almost exactly the top third of the original pool of 224 picks in a seven-round draft of 32 teams (compensatory picks annually add 32 more picks to that total). There should be, of course, a decreasing percentage of successful picks from the top third to the middle third to the bottom third.
Below are all 19 instances of teams executing (at least) four of the top 75 picks in NFL drafts held this decade: