The Bucs established an exciting new direction for the franchise with the drafting of QB Josh Freeman in the first round on Saturday
When Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik assumed the primary leadership roles for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January, they vowed to take the franchise in a "new direction."
It doesn't take a cynic to point out that similar proclamations have been made before, by other new management teams. It can be sincere – and certainly is in this case – but indeterminate. Actions, not words, ultimately define whether or not a franchise has forged a truly new path.
After this weekend, it would be hard to argue that the Buccaneers have done anything but that.
"This weekend," of course, was the 2009 NFL Draft. Signs of the team's new direction were already in abundance over the last three months – the release of five respected veteran players, new systems on both sides of the ball, aggressive free agency moves – but the Buccaneers' wave of change swelled substantially during the seven rounds of the draft.
That was obviously by the middle of the first round.
The Buccaneers traded up two picks from 19 to 17 and used that choice to take Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman. A short time later, in speaking with the local press, Morris raved about his newest player and didn't hesitate to use the "franchise quarterback" designation. There is hardly a more dramatic turn a franchise can make when steering towards a new direction.
Double that when you speak of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose success has seemingly always been built on defensive excellence. The team had needs on the defensive side of the ball – Dominik stated as much in speaking to the press on Sunday evening – but also felt a conviction that finding a franchise QB was the right move at this time.
"I was very aware [of the ramifications of the pick]," said Dominik. "I have been part of this organization for 14 years. I got my start with it when [Derrick] Brooks and [Warren] Sapp stepped in the door, so I understand this town and how important defense is to it. The year before I got here is the last time we took a quarterback in the first round. I knew there was going to be some reservations about that, considering what this town is used to and what they are about. But, I am excited about what we did yesterday in terms of the direction and long-term plan for this franchise. It was an important position for us to address [the quarterback position] and we felt like we did that yesterday."
The Buccaneers didn't have a second-round pick, but even that reality is part of the team's overhaul. On February 27, Tampa Bay sent that pick to the Cleveland Browns to acquire tight end Kellen Winslow, a 2007 Pro Bowler who is expected to provide a whole new dimension to the team's offense. Given that Winslow is already a proven producer on the NFL, it's hard to imagine an offensive player the Buccaneers could have drafted that would have a larger impact in 2009.
That left the team without another pick until the second day of the draft, but the Bucs still managed to meet another important goal by nabbing a pair of defensive linemen in the third and fourth rounds. Tampa Bay's defense is loaded with young, emerging talent – Aqib Talib, Gaines Adams, Tanard Jackson, Barrett Ruud, etc. – but had a need for added depth and competition, particularly along the defensive line. Dominik said that unit was a priority for the team on draft weekend, and he was pleased that the team was able to land defensive tackle Roy Miller in the third round and end Kyle Moore in the fourth. Those two aren't just extra pieces for the line, they're a sum that is greater than its two parts.
"We're excited about having Kyle Moore on the football team, competing with Jimmy Wilkerson at left end right now," said Dominik. "Kyle's going to be a versatile player for us. He's 270; I think he has the ability to get bigger. Our coaches were excited about him as well because he has the ability to go inside at his size to rush the passer possibly on third down. So he's got that versatility that we're looking for in this defense. It's a nice compliment with Roy Miller and what he brings as a defensive tackle, a run-stuffing, tough, physical, brings-it-every-down run-stopper. Those two were really a nice combination that we were able to acquire in the third and fourth rounds."
Morris said he could envision Moore adding weight to his 6-5, 272-pound frame and potentially working as a swing man, as Dominik suggests. Moreover, he believes both Moore and Miller can make an immediate impact on the defensive line, something that isn't always the case with second-day draftees.
"I think we got a couple of guys that are going to step in and play right away," said Morris. "I definitely think that Roy can. He has the ability to and I don't see why not. His attitude and his work ethic are what is going to carry him through. That is the difference between the pros and the college game. Those guys that come in ready to work harder than everyone else usually play."
Meeting that critical D-line need in the middle of the draft allowed the Buccaneers to use a fifth-round pick on promising Illinois tackle Xavier Fulton and a pair of seventh-rounders on the cornerback and receiver positions. Here's a look at the Buccaneers' complete list of selections this weekend:
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2009 Draft Class
|1||17 (17)||QB||Josh Freeman||Kansas State||Bucs traded up 2 spots|
|3||17 (81)||DT||Roy Miller||Texas||Big body, non-stop motor|
|4||17 (117)||DE||Kyle Moore||USC||Inspirational leader for Trojans|
|5||19 (155)||T||Xavier Fulton||Illinois||Converted defensive end|
|7||8 (217)||CB||E.J. Biggers||Western Michigan||Ran a 4.35 at WMU Pro Day|
|7||24 (233)||WR||Sammie Stroughter||Oregon State||Physical and very productive|
Beyond the Numbers
By the time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent the 81st pick in the 2009 NFL Draft on Texas' Roy Miller, eight other defensive tackles had already heard their names called.
B.J. Raji, Peria Jerry and Evander Hood all came off the board in the first round, and three more DTs were selected in Round Two. Miller even saw two more players at his position go in Round Three before the Buccaneers called. However, if things unfold as he expects, Miller's name will rise to the top of that list in the next few years.
"For me, I feel like I am the best defensive tackle in this draft, so watching everybody come off the board…I knew a couple guys were going to go based on their height, their weight," he said. "Yeah, I watched it. Like I said before, those kinds of things push me and I feed off of them."
Miller is 6-1 and currently weighs about 310 to 315 pounds. Raji weighs closer to 340 pounds; USC DT Fili Moala (pick #56) stands 6-4. Those numbers aren't significant; measurables such as those and shuttle-run numbers and 40-yard dash times help form a team's scouting report on a player. However, they don't tell the full story on a player, and Miller thinks his production is going to prove some of his own measurables irrelevant. He laughs when asked about his supposedly short "wingspan," for instance.
"I mean you read and it definitely [ticks] me off because these days everybody has an opinion," said Miller. "It can be just simply theirs or a blog or wherever you can see it. I take a lot of pride in what I do. I'm definitely honored to be a Buc but I feel like there are a lot of guys that went ahead of me that shouldn't have. Those kind of things I feed off of when I play, but it is what it is."
A Worthwhile Switch
Seven games into his 2005 sophomore season at Illinois, defensive end Xavier Fulton sustained a knee injury severe enough to put him on the redshirt list in 2006. Funny thing is, that might have been the best thing that ever happened to Fulton, at least in terms of his professional athletic career.
Illini coaches re-evaluated the young man during his long recovery from the injury, and speculated that he might be an outstanding offensive lineman. Two years as a starter later, it's obvious they were right. The Buccaneers validated that by grabbing Fulton in the second round despite a shoulder injury that required surgery in February. The Bucs envision Fulton as a strong candidate for the "swing tackle" backup position that is so valuable to a streamlined offensive line corps on game days.
Still, Fulton admits that it wasn't an easy conversion at first. He was surprised at how little margin of error there was for the men charged with protecting the quarterback from ill-intentioned players like…well, him.
"I made the switch during spring ball in 2007," he said. "It was a little difficult at first to adjust; the biggest thing that I had trouble with was my pass blocking. It is totally different than the way you are taught to do it on defense. On offense, you make one mistake and your entire play is busted and it's lost yardage. It was pretty difficult at first but I think I got the hang of it over the past two seasons. I feel pretty comfortable at it now."
The thing that troubled Fulton early became his strength, thanks to quick feet and over athleticism. He is a very strong pass blocker, and that helped the Illini make a dramatic change from a run-based attack in 2007 to a more aerial assault in 2008. Illinois led the Big Ten in rushing two years ago, and then led the conference in passing last year.
Obviously, Illinois needed some adaptable players to make that conversion, and Fulton certainly fit the bill.
"I would say I am a pretty athletic guy," he said. "I'm very fast. I like to get up to the next level pretty quickly. If you get the o-lineman up on the second or third level, you have obviously done something pretty well. It's usually a big yardage gain."