CB Aqib Talib, last year's first-round pick, has fit in well in the locker room, which is an important concern
March Madness wraps up on Monday night, six days into April. Students in Hillsborough County, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are located, began their Spring Break in the morning. The Buccaneers themselves finished up their voluntary, full-team mini-camp on Thursday and won't have another organized practice until May.
Time for a little rest and reflection, and some lazy days watching baseball's first games, right?
As Monday dawned at One Buc Place, team management knew that the 2009 NFL Draft — a critical weekend in helping to determine the immediate future of the franchise — was just 19 days away. Considering that an NFL team essentially spends an entire year preparing for each draft, 19 days is almost nothing. The 2008 NCAA game tapes have been digested, the NFL Scouting Combine is over and most of the college pro days have been run. These next 19 days are for strategizing, finalizing one's draft board and crossing every T on the hundreds of scouting reports that will be relied upon during the fateful weekend.
Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris was already shifting gears in direction of the draft last Thursday, as an energetic and encouraging mini-camp was coming to an end.
"The focus for me is now going to turn to the draft, obviously," said Morris. "It's coming up here at the end of the month. We've got to get ready to deal with that. We've got to make sure we know everybody in the draft. We've got to know everybody inside-out, we've got to know who we're going to add to our team."
It's true that the success of any given draft can't be accurately measured until several years down the road. Depending upon the players chosen, a rookie class might not have much of an impact on the season that starts in September. That said, a team can plan for the future and still hope to find help for the immediate future, as the Bucs have succeeded in doing in recent years.
Last year's first-round pick, Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib, was the team's nickel back as a rookie and is the expected starter on the left side in 2009. He tied for the team lead in his first season with four interceptions. The Bucs' 2007 first-rounder, defensive end Gaines Adams, started eight games as a rookie and every outing last year and might be the team's key figure on defense in '09, giving his pass-rush capabilities. The Bucs' 2006 first-rounder, guard Davin Joseph, was a rookie starter and a Pro Bowler last year, and their '05 first-rounder, running back Cadillac Williams, was the league's Rookie of the Year. Their 2004 opening pick, wide receiver Michael Clayton, topped the 80-catch, 1,000-yard barriers as a rookie and just re-signed with the team as an unrestricted free agent.
The Bucs were and still are impressed by the football talents of Talib and Joseph and the rest, but they wouldn't have selected those players if they weren't also sold on their character. Whether addressing free agency or the draft, an NFL team is well served to consider how a new addition will impact its locker room. That's an issue the Buccaneers always keep front and center, and something they will be discussing in great detail over the next 19 days.
"You always have to be careful who you add to your team," said Morris. "There's always the risk-reward factor."
That's an issue that is even more importance to Morris this year, now that he has been chosen as the team's new head coach. His easy manner with the players and his ability to motivate the team were factors in the Bucs' decision to install him at the helm, and now maintaining team chemistry has to be one of his top priorities. Morris must take that into account on draft weekend, even as he tries to get a grasp on several hundred possible additions to the team. Fortunately, Morris is not a one-man gang when it comes to that task.
"Of course, you lean on your guys like your Dennis Hickeys, your Mark Dominiks, your Doug Williamses," said Morris, referring to (in order) the team's director of college scouting, general manager and coordinator of pro scouting. "Those guys are great resources for you. They point you in the direction you should be going, they lead you to where they're trying to lead you and then you just give them your opinion."
And then, decisions are made. Important ones for the future of the franchise. All less than three weeks in the future.