Director of College Scouting Ruston Webster knows that top-five picks come with very high expectations
Make no mistake, every draft is important.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coming off a 6-10 season in 1994, maneuvered to get Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in the first round in 1995, they set the stage for the franchise's long-awaited resurgence. Conversely, when they came away from the 2000 and 2002 drafts with only two combined players who would become starters (Cosey Coleman and Jermaine Phillips), they propelled the team more anxiously into the free agent market.
NFL teams look to the draft for replenishment, and it usually takes only a few years to determine whether they got the supplies they needed.
So, yes, every draft is important.
That being said, this one is particularly big for Tampa Bay. In a year in which the draft class itself continues to resist any consensus opinion, there has been a consensus reached on this fact in Tampa: the Buccaneers need a strong draft now more than they have in a long while.
That's the outside analysis. In this case, the Buccaneers' brass agrees. Most importantly, the Bucs have to make the most of their four picks in the first 91, including their selections high in the first and second rounds. That's where teams expect to find future starters – think Brian Kelly or Courtney Hawkins – and in the best-case scenario, players who make an instant impact – think Brooks or Michael Clayton.
"You feel like you need to make [the high picks] count," said Ruston Webster, the Buccaneers' director of college scouting. "If you're going to rebuild or continue to build or get better quickly, those guys have to count. We've got a lot of picks for the first time in a long time, and you have to make those picks count."
The Bucs start the draft with 12 chips to spend, though the number could go up or down if trades are made. They haven't made that many selections in a draft since 1992, when the proceedings were still 12 rounds long. Webster wants to hit on all of them, but the definition of "hit" changes as the number of the round grows higher. It is most critical to hit at the top.
The Buccaneers will make the fifth pick in the draft (again, barring trades), their highest selection since 1990. That's an asset that has to be protected with good scouting and solid decision-making on draft weekend.
"The fifth pick in the draft has got to count," said Webster. "If you miss on this guy, it's hard to overcome. In some ways, we're fortunate to have high picks in the first and second rounds, and we need to hit on those guys."
There is a pitfall, however. The need to hit on a guy can sometimes make a team swing for the fences, and occasionally swing too wildly. Five years down the road, how many of the players taken in the top five of this year's draft will be outright superstars?
Well, the top five from 2000 were DE Courtney Brown, LB LaVar Arrington, T Chris Samuels, WR Peter Warrick and RB Jamal Lewis. Arrington and Lewis would be the closest on the list to superstar status, while Brown and Samuels are clearly solid players and Warrick would probably have trouble cracking the top five if the draft were redone today.
Still, most of their teams are probably happy with the player they gained that weekend, five years ago. The same probably cannot be said about the teams that selected 1-5 two years earlier in 1998. They selected Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf, Andre Wadsworth, Charles Woodson and Curtis Enis. Manning is an NFL MVP and Woodson has had a good amount of NFL success, but Leaf, Wadsworth and Enis have been out of the league for some time.
It's a tricky pick, made trickier by the expectations.
"You've got the spotlight on him and everybody thinks that that top-five pick has got to be a Hall-of-Famer," said Webster. "He can't just be solid, he's got to be great. And in my mind, if he was just solid, that would be fine. I think that's the deal, because everybody thinks that he's supposed to be great. You may see him as really good, but you may not see him as Hall-of-Famer great, so you get a little nervous about that."
The Bucs missed the last time they were in the top five, selecting Alabama's Keith McCants fourth overall in 1990 when they could have snared Junior Seau, who went sixth. Tampa Bay has shown some very good draft acumen in the years since, but they might have been too intrigued by McCants' "measurables" at the time.
"The most important thing, I think, is to not make a mistake, to get into that boom-or-bust thing," said Webster. "Some guys, they've got the big talent and the big holes. Some guys have a little less talent, but they've got fewer holes, or they may have no holes. You've got to look at that and take that into consideration. When you miss on guys, you don't necessarily do that. You go for the boom."
Sometimes, you like everything about a player, which is where the Bucs found themselves as the 15th overall pick approached last year. They used it on LSU's Michael Clayton and were rewarded with one of the finest rookie seasons ever by an NFL receiver. Even though the Bucs are 10 spots higher this year, they don't have to match the Clayton pick to be successful in 2005.
"That first-round pick, you've got to hit on it, and we didn't have one for so long," said Webster. "If we hadn't have hit on Michael, that would have been a bad, bad thing. I don't think there's any pressure in terms of that guy's got to match Michael, because it's going be tough for any guy we take – fifth pick, first pick, whatever – to match what Michael did last year."
The topic of Clayton begs the question: Are the Bucs really any better off to be at number five rather than number 15? It definitely broadens the field of top prospects available to the team, but it also puts the onus on Tampa Bay to determine which of those prospects are the real blue-chippers.
"There's a little pressure there; the spotlight is on," said Webster. "You move down, and sometimes you may get a really good player. Michael Clayton went 15th and outperformed guys that went higher. There's always that concern. The spotlight on them makes you nervous because they don't really have time to develop. Yeah, it's tough to make those picks."
Even if they wanted to trade down – and only a select few in the Bucs' draft room know if they do – most analysts believe there will be few teams looking to move up. Whatever pressure the fifth overall pick may hold, the Bucs must be prepared to handle it. It is theirs, and it is likely to be one of the keys to the team's near future.
"If you can't trade up and you can't trade down you've got to be prepared for whoever drops to you," said Webster. "So all of those guys who are maybe thought of as guys who will go ahead of us, we're preparing like they're going to be there. You don't know what's going to happen."