In the spring of 1998, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into the NFL Draft holding the 23rd pick in the first round, their lowest slot ever to that point thanks to a breakout 10-6 campaign in 1997.
In the previous three drafts, the Buccaneers had proved willing to trade – up, down or both. A series of maneuvers in 1995 famously landed them both Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in the first round. Similar up-and-down trades in 1997 produced the first-round duo of Warrick Dunn and Reidel Anthony, and a pre-draft swap of Craig Erickson gave the Bucs an extra pick in 1996.
Tampa Bay traded in 1998, too…right out of the first round.
It might have seemed like an unusual move at the time, a team on the rise giving up a chance to add a first-round talent. But the Bucs had a very good reason. They wanted a starting-caliber cornerback, and when their turn came up at #23, there just happened to be a wealth of those still on the board.
Look at the first round-and-a-half of that 1998 draft. Charles Woodson went fourth overall, to no one's surprise, and the Baltimore Ravens grabbed a fine corner in Duane Starks at #10. Terry Fair, whose NFL career wouldn't prove to be as impressive, went to the Detroit Lions at #20. The next three defensive backs off the board – Tebucky Jones, Shaun Williams and Donovin Darius – were safeties, and then cornerback R.W. McQuarters went to the San Francisco 49ers at #28. That didn't come close to clearing out the top of Tampa Bay's board, so they traded down, all the way to the fourth pick of the second round. Oakland gave Tampa Bay two second-round picks to make the deal, giving the Bucs three selections in the round, the last of which they eventually traded to San Diego for a first-round pick in 2000.
No more cornerbacks were selected between the McQuarters choice and the Bucs' new pick at #34 overall. Thus, the Bucs let the corners slide again and took wide receiver Jacquez Green instead. At pick #43, the Cincinnati Bengals took cornerback Artrell Hawkins; at #44, the Miami Dolphins took cornerback Patrick Surtain; at #45, the Buccaneers took cornerback Brian Kelly; and at pick #46, the Houston Oilers took cornerback Samari Rolle.
So what happened? Hawkins had a decent nine-year career, mostly as a starter, though he recorded only nine interceptions. Surtain was a star, with 37 career interceptions and three Pro Bowl appearances. Kelly had a very good 11-year career, 10 with the Buccaneers, and was Tampa Bay's leading interceptor during its 2002 Super Bowl season. Rolle had a good career, mostly as a starter, with 31 interceptions and one Pro Bowl bid.
As mentioned, Fair failed to live up to his high draft slot, as did McQuarters. Meanwhile, picks in the third (Allen Rossum) and fourth (Deshea Townsend) returned nice results for their teams.
It's easy to see, a baker's-dozen years later, how the cornerbacks in that draft should have been ordered. At the time, though, it was a deep group, and using the Buccaneers' willingness to trade back as evidence, there wasn't necessarily a consensus on which players were the best prospects.
The 2011 class of cornerbacks might be in a similar situation. Only a few corners (Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara) and maybe one safety (Rahim Moore) are considered sure first-round bets, but there is a deep group of others who might force their way into the opening stanza. Or perhaps the drafting teams will see this deep but hard-to-distinguish group and decide they can wait, as the Buccaneers did in 1998.
To make it into a premium draft position, then, this year's prospects have to find a way to stand out. It seems as if there is an endless number of ways to do so. The invited defensive backs at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine will get their chance to work out on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf on Tuesday. In the meantime, on Sunday, they took turns meeting with the press. Here is what some of those prospects felt might be their edge when it comes to draft weekend in April. (Note: This list includes cornerbacks and safeties, including some prospects who could be considered at either position by some NFL teams.)
South Carolina's Chris Culliver: Speed
"I want to be one of the fastest ever to come through here, faster than anyone else. No projections, but as long as I run a 4.3, I'll be straight."
North Carolina's Kendric Burney: Baseball
"I would definitely have to say the ability to play baseball all my life [makes me stand out]. Playing baseball as I did in college has definitely helped me as far as turning and running with the ball. Playing centerfield, tracking the ball down in the gaps is kind of like going after a deep ball. You don't know where the ball is and you have to turn and find it.
Temple's Jaiquawn Jarrett: Tackling
"One of the strengths of my game is being able to tackle in space and being able to support the run. I went to the Senior Bowl, and not only was I able to compete but I think I stood out in some of the drills."
Ohio State's Jermale Hines: Special teams ability
"That's something we thrived on at Ohio State. If you couldn't play special teams, you couldn't play. So that is something that is already instilled in me. "
UCLA's Rahim Moore: NFL defensive background
"It helped me a lot because it was an NFL scheme [at UCLA]. My freshman year, I had Dewayne Walker, who was an NFL coach. I've been used to the NFL type of defense, even in high school. Even in Pop Warner, I was running 4-3, 3-4 and a 5-2 up front. I've been used to those types of things and they helped me out a lot."
Virginia's Ras-I Dowling: Size (6-2, 198)
"Nowadays, they've got a lot of tall receivers, so it helps out a lot being tall, being able to guard those big receivers."
Oklahoma's Quenton Carter: Practicing against the best (Sam Bradford and company)
"I owe a lot of my success to Sam. That whole offense, his Heisman campaign year, was a great offense, a lot of great players on that team. Just practicing against those guys every day took my game to another level."
USC's Shareece Wright: Confidence
"I feel like I have the size and the speed and the athletic ability to cover any receiver. I feel like I'm one of the best here."
LSU's Patrick Peterson: All-around skills
"I'd probably say my ball skills. Toughness. I can support the run. I'm just an all-around cornerback, and that's what I wanted to be coming out of college. I definitely want to continue that trend going into the NFL."
Ohio State's Devon Torrence: Multi-sport experience
"I believe I'm a different kind of athlete. They're going to test the 40 and the vertical and they're going to see a lot of us from that sort of athleticism. But I played a lot of baseball and I kind of categorize myself as a different kind of athlete. Hopefully these guys can see that and I believe they will."
Nebraska's Prince Amukamara: Character
"I think character is a huge part of it. I think I have a very good character."