WR Maurice Stovall excelled when Charlie Weis brought an NFL-type system into Notre Dame
Did the Tampa Bay Buccaneers go into the first day of the talent buffet that is the NFL Draft intending to select only from the offensive side of the steam table?
Almost certainly not. There was too much intriguing defensive talent under the glass to be ignored, particularly in the defensive back and linebacker menu sections. Had the draft fallen differently, the Bucs might have loaded their plate with cover corners, speed-rushers and other defensive delicacies.
However, a talented roster and a successful offseason of re-signing veteran free agents allowed the Bucs to go with the flow of the draft and stick with their grades. Head Coach Jon Gruden didn't even think of it as a purposeful emphasis on one side of the ball, though the team ended up with Oklahoma guard Davin Joseph in the first round, Boston College tackle Jeremy Trueblood in the second round and Notre Dame wide receiver Maurice Stovall in the third round.
"We were talking about defensive players every time we picked," said Gruden. "I won't say that we ever went into the draft exclusively to add players to the offensive line. At the end of the first round, the guy that we selected, we felt, without a doubt, was the best player on the board at the time Tampa Bay selected. At the end of the second round, we felt the same about Jeremy Trueblood. And that's kind of how we went about the process, not specifically to address a need or perceive need but to just try and get better and try to find guys that can make the football team and become players here."
That being said, it's hard to blame the team for gorging on offense, and gorge they did. Discounting 2002, in which the team didn't pick until late in the third round, this marks the first time since 1994 that the entire first day passed without the Buccaneers drafting a defensive player.
After all, the Bucs are returning all but one starter from their 2005 NFC South title-winning team, and the only defector, safety Dexter Jackson, basically shared his spot with Will Allen, who is back. While the team's offense showed obvious improvement in 2005 – particularly in terms of running the ball and hitting deep shots downfield – and while statistics very rarely tell the whole story, there is still this: the Buccaneers ranked first in the NFL on defense, and 23rd on offense.
Just as Chicago might claim that it actually had the league's best defense in 2005, the Bucs can justifiably claim that that #23 ranking misrepresents the strength of their offensive attack. Still, Tampa Bay wants to run the ball even better than it did last fall, when Cadillac Williams helped push the team from 29th in that category in 2004 to 14th in 2005, and it wants to continue to develop young skill-position weapons to go with Williams, Clayton and tight end Alex Smith. Joseph, Trueblood and Stovall should help significantly in those respects.
Gruden spoke of Joseph's strengths in some detail after the team spent the 23rd overall pick on the intelligent and versatile Sooner lineman. Trueblood shares some of them, such as long arms and strong hands, but he fills a different potential role than his new teammate from Oklahoma. While Joseph seems most valuable for the huge roles he will hopefully create for Williams, Trueblood could one day be protecting Chris Simms from blindside pressure. Though he played left tackle for BC, Trueblood is projected on the right side in the NFL.
That's not just the Bucs' opinion on the 6-8, 316-pound blocker. Trueblood walked into the Senior Bowl in January and was immediately asked to work out on the right side. Though he struggled at first, he picked up the nuances of the new position quickly and dramatically helped his draft stock. The Bucs were paying attention.
Joseph, too, played at a different position in the Senior Bowl than what he had manned as a senior, but his transition was quite a bit easier. After three seasons at guard for Oklahoma, two as a starter, Joseph moved to left tackle out of necessity in 2005 and more than held his own. After the season, though, NFL scouts wanted to see him at his most natural position. Now the two linemen are, potentially, a package deal on the right side for the Buccaneers, though they will have to fight through quite a bit of competition before they can earn a starting job.
"I played right next to [Joseph] in the Senior Bowl," said Trueblood, who was specifically excited to be chosen by the Buccaneers. "I was excited for him. I hoped that I would get drafted, and that we would get to play right next to each other for a few more years."
Said Gruden: "Obviously, we'll adjust as time goes on, but Jeremy will move over and compete initially at right tackle. Davin will start his pro career as a right guard and we'll see what happens. But these are two good collegians that love football, that have the size, strength, I think, the stamina and the production. The inner drive and self-motivation that we want to put together here on this offensive line."
Even at receiver, Stovall shares a few traits with his fellow 2006 Buccaneer draftees: He's big, he's tough and he's passionate about football. One Tampa Bay scout compared Stovall's approach to the game to that of Michael Clayton, who won over the Bucs' personnel department in 2004 with his willingness to do everything from block downfield to cover kicks. Stovall visited Buccaneer headquarters during the week's leading up to the draft and made a very positive impression.
"I think we all clicked with him…[Wide Receivers Coach] Richard Mann, [Special Teams Coach] Rich Bisaccia," said Gruden. "He's going to be a big wideout who can cover kicks, block kicks, go out and make some tackles on special teams, and contribute as a wide receiver. To get a guy at that position that can make a contribution on special teams is very important to us. He's a big mammoth target and a very productive one inside the 20. He had eleven or twelve touchdowns this past season and a lot of those catches were over the top of the defender in tight, congested areas. He's just an outstanding leaper and a very physical football player. To put him in the huddle with Michael Clayton in a slot formation is something that excites me a little bit."
Stovall surely knows that Gruden is adept at working big receivers into the flow of his offense. At 6-4 and 220 pounds, Stovall fits the ball.
"Yes, I definitely feel that way," he said. "I'm happy that he drafted me. I feel like I fit his criteria, obviously, for him to draft me, and I'm looking forward to playing for him."
Stovall, who had relatively low reception totals during his first three seasons with a Notre Dame system that emphasized the run, got a head start on learning the NFL game when the Fighting Irish hired the Patriots' Charlie Weis as their head coach. Stovall's highest reception total from 2002-04 was 22, but he caught 53 passes for 887 yards and 10 TDs as a senior.
"He gave us the chance to showcase my skills as a big, physical receiver making plays downfield or turning a short catch into a long run, getting yards after the catch," said Stovall of Weis.
Hopefully, Stovall will showcase the same skills within the Bucs' offense, which clearly got a big boost on Saturday. The Bucs may not have set out to concentrate on that unit when the draft began, but that was the end result of a day when things just fell into place.
"Three players," said Gruden, summarizing the first day. "We try not to get into the addressing of needs so much as, 'Let's take the best player that's there.' And if we can address a need that we feel we have in the process, that's a bonus.