When Mark Dominik discusses the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' organizational philosophy of building from within, he frequently cites three teams as models: the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts.
Dominik, the Buccaneers' general manager since 2009, has studied those teams and the other 28 in the NFL, but one wonders if even he knows just how accurately those examples fit the philosophy. When it comes from building through the draft and keeping your homegrown core intact, the Steelers, Packers and Colts put their money where their mouths are.
And, now, so do the Buccaneers.
The Packers beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV last February, in a rather massive validation of that philosophy. That's because Green Bay and Pittsburgh were two of the most homegrown teams in the NFL last year. One team that was even more so: perennial playoff participant Indianapolis.
According to a fine piece of analysis on NFL.com by Elliot Harrison, posted about a month after the Packers' Super Bowl victory, the Packers, Steelers and Colts got nearly all of their starters from within. Harrison noted that, for each of those three teams, at least 18 of their 22 regular starters in 2010 were homegrown – that is, they played their first regular-season NFL game for that organization and hadn't played anywhere else since. For Green Bay it was 19 of 22 and for Pittsburgh it was 18 of 22. The Colts found a whopping 20 of 22 starters from within their own program.
Note that Harrison's definition of homegrown does not require that the player be drafted by his current team. Some players are acquired right out of the college ranks as undrafted free agents. Some are drafted or signed as undrafted free agents by another team but come aboard in what Dominik calls "The Second Draft" – the period after the preseason and after roster cuts when teams can cull the waiver wire for more talent. Some are plucked as rookies off other teams' practice squads before ever establishing themselves. All are part of the same overall process: Scouting and identifying the talent you covet before every draft, and then acquiring as much of it as possible through whatever means available.
The 2011 Buccaneers look like the Packers, Steelers and Colts, in terms of homegrown talent. Of the 22 players currently listed as starters for Tampa Bay – and that's a lineup that has a very good chance of being the same when the regular season opens on September 11 – 19 are homegrown.
Of those 19, 14 were Tampa Bay draft choices, including cornerstone players like quarterback Josh Freeman, right guard Davin Joseph, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and wide receiver Mike Williams. One was originally an undrafted free agent signed out of college by the Buccaneers: fullback Earnest Graham. Another three came into the league as undrafted free agents with other teams but moved to the Buccaneers before every playing in a regular-season game: left tackle Donald Penn, running back LeGarrette Blount and left defensive end Michael Bennett.
The final player on that list of 19 is left guard Ted Larsen, a prime example of a "Second Draft" player. The Buccaneers liked Larsen in the 2010 draft, but he was selected by the New England Patriots in the sixth round. When the Patriots waived Larsen in the final roster cuts last September, the Bucs pounced, claiming the former North Carolina State lineman off waivers. By midseason, he was starting on the team's front line.
The three players in that starting 22 who did not debut in the NFL regular season for the Buccaneers are center Jeff Faine, tight end Kellen Winslow and safety Sean Jones.
The last half-dozen NFL seasons provide ample evidence as to why the Buccaneers have chosen this model for building their roster. Incredibly, the Packers, Steelers and Colts have combined to win four of the last six Super Bowl titles. In addition, those three teams have also produced two Super Bowl runner-up spots in that same time span.
The Buccaneers have stated that their goal is to build a team core that will keep the team in contention for the title year after year. That's what has been built in those other three NFL outposts. In addition to the six Super Bowl appearances and four titles in the past six years, the Colts, Packers and Steelers have in that same span combined for 14 seasons with a winning record, 12 playoff appearances and nine division titles.
Now, it is of course possible that the Buccaneers' starting 22 for the 2011 season opener will change from where it stands in late August, or as the season progresses. But even if it does, that probably will not alter the team's homegrown chemistry much. That's because the second-string player on the depth chart at just about every position was also developed within, from left defensive end Da'Quan Bowers to wide receivers Sammie Stroughter and Dezmon Briscoe to linebacker Dekoda Watson.
Tampa Bay has 90 men on its current roster, a number that will be trimmed to 80 after the third preseason game and 53 before the regular season. Of those 90, 51 were either drafted or originally signed by Tampa Bay and have only appeared on Tampa Bay's roster. Some, like Joseph and cornerback Ronde Barber, have already performed well enough in their years as Buccaneers to prompt new contracts to stay in Tampa. Others, like Freeman and Williams, are mostly likely headed in the same direction. Still others, like Bowers and fellow defensive end Adrian Clayborn, are just getting their careers in the NFL started but are carrying high expectations.
All came to the Buccaneers young and fresh and – if things go according to plan – will have the opportunity to grow together in the years to come.