Early last offseason, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were devoting more and more of their time to preparing for the 2010 NFL Draft, General Manager Mark Dominik told his scouts and coaches to stop evaluating the best prospects on the board.
This was a temporary thing, mind you. The Buccaneers would be pulling the trigger on the third overall pick and four of the top 67 in just a few months, so they certainly needed to have the top of their draft board in order. Plenty of time would eventually be spent evaluating the likes of Gerald McCoy, Ndamukong Suh, Arrelious Benn and Demaryius Thomas.
For one concentrated period of time, however, Dominik wanted everyone involved in preparing for the later stages of the draft, the prospects that weren't consensus sure things. There was no reason, he believed, that the draft should stop yielding good, long-term assets after the fourth or fifth round.
Unfortunately, that had been the case for the Buccaneers for some time. The NFL first went to a seven-round draft format in 1994, and in the decade-and-a-half that would follow the Bucs would repeatedly have multiple picks in the final round. They had two in 1995, three in 1999, four in 2002, and so on. From 1994 through 2008, through what could be considered three different general manager-head coach "regimes," the Bucs drafted 30 players in 15 seventh rounds.
The average Bucs fan would be hard-pressed to name more than two or three of those 30 players. The list starts out quite well in 1994 with center Jim Pyne, who went on to start several seasons for the Buccaneers and was at one point the first pick in the 1999 draft to restock the Cleveland Browns. Wide receivers Darnell McDonald (1999) and Paris Warren (2005) briefly made the team and had a couple of memorable moments, but in the end didn't stick for long. Cornerback Tim Wansley saw significant playing time in 2003 after being drafted in 2002.
Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris assumed their current positions in January of 2009. In the four previous drafts the Bucs had used seventh-round picks on Warren, fullback Rick Razzano, safety Hamza Abdullah, wide receiver J.R. Russell, cornerback Justin Phinisee, defensive end Charles Bennett, tight end Tim Massaquoi, tackle Chris Denman, cornerback Marcus Hamilton, running back Kenneth Darby and running back Cory Boyd. None were still around that January. (A few, it should be noted, have gone on to establish NFL careers elsewhere, such as Abdullah and Darby.)
Things have certainly changed since.
In the two drafts conducted by Dominik and Morris, the Buccaneers have selected five players in the seventh round, aggressively acquiring extra picks and treating even the later ones as valuable commodities. Every single one of those five selections has "hit;" in fact, that quintet made a large impact on the team in 2010 as the Buccaneers surprised the NFL with a 10-6 record and a serious run at the playoffs. Moreover, all five appear likely to stick around for some time.
In 2009, the Buccaneers used seventh-round picks on Western Michigan cornerback E.J. Biggers and Oregon State wide receiver Sammie Stroughter. Biggers suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the preseason and spent his rookie year on injured reserve, but Stroughter immediately emerged as one of the team's top pass-catchers.
In 2010, Tampa Bay deployed three seventh-round picks and netted Virginia Tech safety Cody Grimm, Florida State linebacker Dekoda Watson and Stanford defensive end Erik Lorig. All three made the team and all five of the above players started at least one game in 2010.
Here's what Biggers, Stroughter, Grimm, Watson and Lorig combined to contribute during the 2010 season alone: 63 games played and 21 starts; 131 tackles and two tackles for loss, three interceptions for 24 yards and a touchdown; 16 passes defensed; one quarterback pressure; 45 special teams tackles; 25 receptions for 249 yards; one rush for two yards; three kickoff returns for 79 yards and one punt return for no yards.
Here's what the 30 players chosen by the Buccaneers in the seventh round from 1994-2008 combined to contribute in their entire Tampa Bay careers: 86 games played and 44 starts; 59 tackles; one forced fumble and one fumble recovery; two interceptions for 38 yards and one touchdown; 10 passes defensed; 12 special teams tackles; 16 receptions for 175 yards and one touchdown; three carries for seven yards; and eight punt returns for 74 yards.
Again the numbers for the 2009-10 seventh-rounders do not include Stroughter's' sizeable contributions as a rookie in '09. That rather impressive output was just from the 2010 campaign, and it is superior in many ways to the entire Buccaneer production of the 30 seventh-rounders that came before.
Here's a look at what each of the Buccaneers' last seventh-round draft picks accomplished in 2010:
- CB E.J. Biggers (2009, 217th overall pick)…Biggers made the most of his season on IR, staying involved in the day-to-day workings of the Bucs' defensive back corps and absorbing everything he could from the likes of Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib. As a result, he hit the ground running when training camp began in 2010 and before long he had separated himself from a crowded field of nickel back contenders. Biggers won that job on opening day and played extensively for the next three months, usually manning one of the outside positions in the nickel package while Barber slid into the slot as usual. Biggers' role expanded again during the final month of the season when Talib was lost to a hip injury, moving the second-year player into a starting role. In all, Biggers would finish the season with 16 games played, six starts, 53 tackles, one tackle for loss, one interception, 12 passes defensed and seven stops on special teams.
- WR Sammie Stroughter (2009, 233rd overall pick)…After his outstanding rookie campaign (third on the team with 31 receptions for 334 yards and a TD), Stroughter opened 2010 as the team's starter at flanker, opposite rookie split end Mike Williams. The Buccaneers would later move another rookie, Arrelious Benn, into the starting role but that only allowed Stroughter to concentrate on his specialty as a slot receiver and go-to third-down target. Though he missed two midseason games and the last two weeks due to injury, Stroughter compiled 12 games played, four starts, 24 catches for 39 yards, one run for two yards, three kickoff returns for 79 yards, one punt return for no yards and two special teams tackles.
- S Cody Grimm (2010, 210th pick overall)…A converted linebacker from Virginia Tech, Grimm was viewed by some as a hard-working overachiever who would best be suited for special teams work. Of course, those aren't insults, and Grimm did indeed make the Bucs' roster out of camp and make a quick impact on special teams. However, it was clear from his earliest NFL practices that Grimm was a natural playmaker and a hard-hitter, and thus it was that the Buccaneers avoided disaster when starting free safety Tanard Jackson was lost to suspension after just two games. Grimm stepped into the starting role and was a revelation, handling the position like a seasoned veteran. His interception return for a touchdown at Cincinnati was a key play in the Bucs' come-from-behind victory in Week Five. Before seeing his own season end with a leg injury at Baltimore, Grimm played in 11 games with nine starts and recorded 61 tackles, two interceptions for 24 yards and a touchdown, two passes defensed and 10 special teams tackles.
- LB Dekoda Watson (2010, 217th pick overall)…Watson followed a path similar to Grimm's, shining first on special teams before eventually being pressed into greater service on defense due to injury. In Watson's case, however, the starter in question (Quincy Black) didn't go down until later in the season, and the rookie 'backer split the newfound defensive snaps with Adam Hayward. Watson and Hayward were linked even before they stepped in together at strongside linebacker in Games Nine and 10 and Games 14-16, as they spent the year swapping the team lead in special teams tackles. In the end, Hayward edged Watson by one, 20-19, but the rookie was every bit the standout in the kicking game the Buccaneers had thought he would be on draft weekend. In all, Watson played in 15 games with one start and produced 17 tackles, one tackle for loss, one quarterback pressure, two passes defensed and those 19 kick-coverage stops.
- FB Erik Lorig (2010, 253rd pick overall)…In some ways, the latest-drafted player in this group of five provided the most interesting storyline. At the time of the draft and all throughout the Buccaneers' training camp, Lorig played defensive end. He showed some spark at that position during the preseason and made the team on opening day, but he subsequently spent a few weeks on the practice squad before returning to the active roster. During that time, Lorig was quietly learning the Bucs' offense, with the team believing he could help out at tight end and fullback. Lorig, who had been a tight end when he first reported to Stanford, took to the conversion remarkably well and before long he was playing extensively at fullback due to an injury to Earnest Graham. And that's where Lorig would stay the rest of the season, though the Bucs also knew he could help them out on defense in a pinch. By season's end, Lorig had played in nine games with one start, caught one pass for 10 yards and, in addition to his lead-blocking, contributed seven tackles on special teams.
It is only fair to note, when comparing the last two crops of seventh-rounders to the ones that came before in Tampa, that opportunity can be a major factor in how much of an impact a later-drafted player is able to make. Purposely getting younger in an attempt to build a new core of players for long-term success, the Buccaneers have demonstrated time and time again under Dominik and Morris that they are not afraid to rely on inexperienced players. And the career trajectories for such players as Stroughter, Biggers and Grimm certainly took off at a steeper angle due to the timing of injuries to certain veterans.
Still, that opportunity must be seized, and a rookie who proves incapable of handling an expanded role won't stay in it for long. Those five all were able to handle it, and that reflects very well on the Bucs' current scouting and coaching staffs.
Of course, the Buccaneers aren't the only team that has been able to make good use of the seventh round the last two years, and that was particularly true in 2010 with its extraordinarily deep talent pool. Among the other 2009-10 seventh-rounders who have already made a mark in the NFL are Chicago Bears tackle J'Marcus Webb, N.Y. Giants punter Matt Dodge, Tennessee Titans wide receiver/kick returner Marc Mariana, Indianapolis Colts linebacker Kavell Conner, Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Moise Fokou, New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, Arizona Cardinals running back LaRod Stephens-Howling and Kansas City kicker Ryan Succop.
There were dozens of misses in those two seventh-round, too, which is to be expected. For two straight seasons, however, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have not missed in the seventh round, despite making a total of five picks. Clearly, the concerted effort to make the last round of the draft count has paid off for Dominik and Morris.