QB Josh Freeman is a critical part of the new foundation in Tampa
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, under the direction of General Manager Mark Dominik and Head Coach Raheem Morris since January of 2009, want to build a foundation for lasting success, a core of players that will keep the team in Super Bowl contention year after year.
It is no secret that they expect to find most of that core through the NFL Draft. This year's draft, in particular, looms as particularly important, a perfect intersection for the Buccaneers of a deep pool of available talent and their own thicket of picks.
As much focus as there has been on this April's draft, however, the truth is that the foundation-building process is already well underway. The tide has turned and the result is already a younger, more draft-oriented team. In many ways, the transformation that is taking place mirrors the one that began in 1996, when the team's new ownership brought in Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin and long-term, steady plan was put into place.
From 1995, the last season under Head Coach Sam Wyche and the first after the franchise was purchased by Malcolm Glazer, to 1996, the Buccaneers got significantly younger and more focused on homegrown talent. The average age of the players who accounted for the 352 individual game starts dropped from 26.25 in 1995 to 25.91 in 1996. The percentage of starts made by players drafted by the Buccaneers rose from 58.81% to 63.64%, and the percentage of those starts made by players drafted in the previous five years jumped even more aggressively, from 42.61% to 51.70%.
Compare that to the changes from 2008 to 2009, after Dominik and Morris took over. The age-per-start number dropped precipitously, from 27.84 (one of the league's oldest figures) to 26.48 (one of its youngest). The percentage of starts made by Buc draftees instantly rose from 49.72% to 59.66%, while the percentage of those starts made by picks from the previous five drafts climbed from 35.51% to 49.43%.
The chart below tracks all three of those categories from 1995 through 2009. Some interesting and relevant trends can be found.
Last 5 Draft %*
* "Age/Start" indicates the average age of the player, on opening day of that season, that made each of the 352 individual game starts; "Draft %" indicates the percentage of those 352 starts that were made by players the Buccaneers originally draft; "Last 5 Draft %" indicates the percentage of starts made by players the Buccaneers selected in the five previous drafts before that season.
As noted, the Dungy era began with a suddenly younger team. In fact, the average age per start in 1996, 1997 and 1998 were the three lowest marks of that entire 15-year period. Nearly two-thirds of the starts made in 1996 were by players the Bucs had drafted. After 15 straight losing seasons, the Buccaneers than turned it around in 1997, made the playoffs and kicked off a six-year stretch in which they would reach the postseason five times and just miss it a sixth.
Tracking the first two columns of the above chart, one can see that the age of the roster began to slow climb as the '90s turned into the '00s, but the percentage of starts by Buccaneer draftees stayed steady and even climbed to almost 75% by 2000. That's easy to understand; the franchise had found a core group of players through the draft - Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, John Lynch, Donnie Abraham, Warrick Dunn, Mike Alstott, etc. - and had built around that core. That group aged into its prime together and the Bucs won much more than they lost.
The next obvious transition in the chart comes in 2002, when the age of the team took a significant leap and the percentage of starts made by Buc draftees dropped rather suddenly. This is also not hard to understand. The 2002 season marked the arrival of new Head Coach Jon Gruden, and the Buccaneers aggressively pursued a group of free agents (primarily on offense) that would fit into Gruden's plans. With the likes of Roman Oben, Michael Pittman, Keenan McCardell, Joe Jurevicius, Kerry Jenkins, Ken Dilger and Greg Spires coming on board all at once and assuming starting roles, the Bucs' own draftees were less prominently featured.
And one cannot argue with the results. Those new additions, along with a few other important ones from 2000 and 2001 (Keyshawn Johnson, Brad Johnson, Simeon Rice, Jeff Christy) helped form the core of the Bucs' only Super Bowl championship team in 2002. One could also argue that such additions were necessary because the team had had a couple of somewhat unproductive drafts, in part due to trades that landed Gruden, Keyshawn Johnson and the pick that landed tackle Kenyatta Walker.
Surely, no one cared in 2002 that only 21.8% of the team's starts were made by players the franchise had added in the previous five drafts. A title is a title, by whatever means it arrived.
What was ultimately less successful, in retrospect, was the attempt to add more titles by continuing with the same trends. The Bucs continued to age for the next two years, reaching a peak of 28.59 years per game start in 2004, and did not get a much higher percentage of starts out of its own draftees or, especially, it's younger draftees. Just over one quarter of the starts made in 2003 and 2004, a pair of non-playoff seasons, were made by players taken in the previous five years' drafts.
By 2007, those draft-start numbers had advanced only a little bit - to 45.74% for all draftees and 31.25% for those of the previous five years - and the average age per start was still near 28. The Buccaneers did return to the playoffs in 2005 and 2007, though they lost their opening game each time. The numbers were virtually unchanged in 2008.
Then, as mentioned, a new era began in 2009. The Bucs purposely emphasized youth and even released some high-profile veterans who were nearing the ends of their playing careers. Nearly 60% of the team's starts were made by its own drafted players, the highest mark in that category since 2001. Just under 50% of those starts were made by players drafted in the previous five year, the highest mark in that category since 2000.
Some of that was by design - for instance, the team specifically wanted to find out if it had difference-makers in such recent draftees as Geno Hayes, Quincy Black and Sabby Piscitelli. Some of it was a bit ahead of schedule, most notably rookie quarterback Josh Freeman forcing his way into the starting lineup at midseason. And certainly not according to plan was the Buccaneers' 3-13 record in 2009. Team management had pursued dual goals of refreshing the roster while also staying in contention last year.
That win-loss disappointment in '09 did nothing to derail the Buccaneers' overall plan, however, nor does the team believe it hurt its chances for success in 2010. Just as they did in 1996, promising signs down the stretch - including a road win over the eventual champion New Orleans Saints - point to a turnaround next fall.
And, just as that 1996 team sat at the beginning of a long run of success, with its nascent core beginning to take shape, the current squad is poised to benefit from its efforts to build a lasting foundation through the draft. With 10 picks ready to be spent in the 2010 draft, the trend to youth, and to success built from within, should only continue this year.