The Bucs got a starting safety with the 157th pick in 2002; they'll have seven picks before that in 2005
In April of 2002, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Georgia safety Jermaine Phillips with the 157th pick in the NFL Draft. Three years later, Phillips is coming off a very promising, if injury-marred, campaign in his first full season as a starter.
Phillips is, however, the only player drafted by Tampa Bay in 2002 who is still with the team.
A shortage of remaining players from the drafts of the last seven or eight years is a main reason the Buccaneers had to dig deep into free agency last spring. And, given the existing contracts of some of the holdover stars on the roster, the Bucs had to search for players who were both schematic and financial fits; Tampa Bay spent less on signing bonuses for nearly 20 free agents in 2004 than the Chicago Bears gave one player, tackle John Tait.
Okay, that's the history; here's the good news. By the time Phillips' spot – pick number 157 – rolls around in the draft this coming April, the Buccaneers will have made seven selections. Before the possible addition of a few supplemental picks after the third and fourth rounds, the Bucs are scheduled to make seven of the first 139 picks this year. That includes their own picks in rounds one through five and additional picks from the San Diego Chargers in rounds three and five. The fifth-rounder the Bucs will get from the Chargers originally belonged to the New York Giants, and will be the 11th choice in that round.
That's a potential bonanza of talent. If the Bucs can hit on all or most of those seven picks (not to mention the two selections each they have in rounds six and seven), the team will have the youth infusion it admittedly needs.
"The upcoming draft is an exciting moment for this franchise," said General Manager Bruce Allen. "Right now, this last season, seven of our last 11 first and second-round choices are not on this team. This upcoming draft, we have seven choices in the top 140 players. So we have a good chance to add some vibrant young players to our team. Any of you who are watching these college games have to be excited about some of the talent that you see running around the field. Watching some of these young players play has gotten a lot of our coaches excited and our scouts excited because we have the choices this year to make some selections."
The Bucs' 2002 draft was eviscerated by the lack of first and second-round picks and misses in rounds three (WR Marquise Walker) and four (RB Travis Stephens). However, the team's six-pick draft of 2003 produced three players who made starts in 2004 (DE Dewayne White, QB Chris Simms and C Sean Mahan) and a fourth who was the team's primary kickoff return man and a prominent nickel back (Torrie Cox). More impressively, all nine players the Bucs drafted last April played in the league during the 2004 regular season: WR Michael Clayton, LB Marquise Cooper, S Will Allen, G Jeb Terry and TE Nate Lawrie with the Bucs, WR Mark Jones with the Giants, FB Casey Cramer with Carolina and CB Lenny Williams with Dallas.
The Bucs are making no secret of the fact that this coming draft is a critical juncture in the team's development. The team hasn't made as many as 10 picks in a single draft since 1997, the class that produced Warrick Dunn, Frank Middleton, Ronde Barber, Alshermond Singleton and Patrick Hape. The players added in that draft combined to play 553 games with 327 starts (and counting for Barber).
The Bucs need to pick as shrewdly as they have the last two years, and they are confident they can do so.
"We feel very good about what we did last year in the draft," said Allen. "I like our process; I think it's very thorough. We're going to look at that to add to this team, because you can't sign young players in free agency. You only can sign young players from the draft, and the franchise hasn't had a lot of choices in the past, and some of the choices that have been made haven't panned out. We're looking to make sure that we excel in that department."
Picking three seventh-rounders who played in the league as rookies is impressive; making the right choices in the earlier rounds is usually more important, however. Last year, obviously, the Bucs hit a home run with the drafting of Clayton at number 15 overall. There was speculation at the time that the team would trade down, given the depth of the receiving talent last year. Instead, the Bucs fixed on Clayton early and stayed put to make sure they got the former LSU standout. Had Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger not emerged as the most successful rookie quarterback ever, Clayton likely would have been the league's Rookie of the Year.
Similarly, the Bucs expect to stand pat at number five in the first round this year and reap the benefits of that spot, the unintended windfall of a disappointing 2004 season.
"Being at number five feels good [though] it felt terrible getting to that," said Allen. "I would imagine there will be some trade rumors and things of that nature, but right now we're just going to plan on staying at five and trying to get the best player.
"We're going to be able to get an impact football player, one of the premier players in the country. That should be a very good football player and he should be somebody who could be one of the cornerstones of the franchise."
Most early draft boards indicate some very intriguing top-10 talent at quarterback, running back, defensive line, wide receiver and linebacker. How that matches up against the Bucs' draft needs and desires is a matter that will be kept among the player personnel professionals at team headquarters. There's little to be gained in letting your specific draft strategies be known; additionally, there will likely be significant developments over the next several months that will impact that strategy.
Suffice it to say that the Bucs will be able to address a good number of needs on draft weekend this year.
"We should be able to get some talent that can add to this football team, give it some depth," said Allen. "We're going to analyze everything, but to say there's one spot, I don't want to say that right now. It would be premature."
As for Phillips, while he may be the lone Buc survivor from his draft class, he is an important part of the team's plans in the coming years. He is obviously a draft-day success for the Buccaneers, and that underscores the importance of what the team will be doing come late April. As much as the Bucs want to make an immediate improvement on their 5-11 record from last year, they also want to keep their foundation strong for season's to come.
"The 2005 draft is important for the 2005 year, but also for '06 and '07," said Allen. "I we're going to have a successful draft, it's going to help us for the future. This team is built on winning."