When Raheem Morris was named the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' eighth head coach on January 17, 2009, he referenced several organizations he would seek to have his team emulate. One prominently mentioned was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who would go on to win their sixth Super Bowl a few weeks later. Morris and new General Manager Mark Dominik appreciated the tough, physical style of play the Steelers that always seemed to be at the core of that franchise's success.
Obviously, a team, a culture and a franchise aren't changed overnight. Over the past 15 months, Morris and Dominik have worked tirelessly to reshape the Buccaneers into a team that can win consistently, season after season, with both toughness and talent. One of the key avenues available to the Buccaneers as they work on building a new core of talent is, of course, the NFL Draft.
And that's another way in which the Steelers model can come in handy.
Dominik, who presided over a very promising first draft one year ago, is eager to have the sort of multi-year draft success he has seen out of Pittsburgh during several different eras. One of those eras, of course, was the '70s, when a series of strong drafts in the early part of the decade set the stage for four Steeler Super Bowl titles. The most famous was the 1974 draft, perhaps the best class of all time in that it included four future Hall of Famers in Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. Drafts in the previous few years had also produced Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount and others.
"I've spent a lot of time studying the Pittsburgh Steelers drafts over the past few years," said Dominik recently, with the 2010 draft looming just days away. "I've spent time over the past 6-8 months, through the season and everything, really researching the Pittsburgh Steelers' drafts, especially the drafts in the 70s which were some of the finest drafts of all time-when they got Mike Webster and that crew of receivers.
"And I've spent a lot of time researching Bill Polian since his time with Buffalo, through his time with Carolina, through his time with the Colts. I've spent a lot of time researching New England and why they've had continued success, especially in that early formative period that built that franchise to what it is going forward, so there is a lot of time you can spend in terms of trying to find elements and traces and I think there is some correlations that you can glean out of those things to take advantage of, and I certainly hope and I think we can do that."
Studying the methods of proven success stories isn't a brand new idea, obviously, but Dominik's work is yet another example of how seriously the Buccaneers are preparing for this draft. It's too much to assume that this year's draft class will be a franchise-changer for Tampa Bay, but that is definitely the goal, and as such the team has left no stones unturned in its preparations.
That includes making sure that all 11 of the Bucs' picks, right down to a quartet of seventh-rounders, have a chance to be successful. Dominik concedes that the team's recent history of later-round picks hasn't produced much lasting benefit, though seventh-round WR Sammie Stroughter of the 2009 draft might have reversed that trend. As much time has been spent scouting possible third-day picks as has been devoted to the bigger-name prospects who will come off the board early.
"A prime example for us this year was when we brought our scouts in in February," said Dominik. "We didn't talk about first and second-round players. Generally, our scouts just sat there and scratched their heads and said, 'Why can't we talk about the fun ones?' I said because we haven't been very good in the third through the seventh. I want to focus on that. It's just another way to look at this draft and try to maximize it and a different way to do it than it's been done here before. I want to believe that last year was the start of it and we'll continue to adapt it a little bit going forward."
Studying draft possibilities goes beyond watching prospect film. The Bucs' 11 picks are assets that can be used in a variety of ways, including trading up or down in any of the seven rounds, even the first. The Bucs are slated to pick third overall in the opening round on Thursday night, and while trades of top-five picks have become exceedingly scarce in recent years, that possibility always exist. Dominik and his crew will also keep their minds open to movement in any round, and their two picks in the top 10 of the second round certainly have the chance to be enticing.
"I'll say this: We've gone through a lot of war games, I guess you could say, or games in terms of trying out scenarios of what makes sense, and I've gone through different scenarios of if we were to decide to move back," said Dominik. "I'm prepared for doing that either way. The question was posed, 'If you were on the clock right now, could you make a determination of the number-one pick?' and I'd say yes. I should be. We've had 12 months to work on this. I would be mad at myself if you're not ready to make a selection at this point. But we've looked into a lot of different scenarios and have role played a lot of that upstairs and just internally I do that and then I bounce that off of certain individuals and we work through all of those things so that we're not surprised depending on what happens at the beginning of the draft."
The format of this year's draft, which was altered to stretch over three days beginning with just the first round on Thursday night, could be an advantage to any team considering a trade up or down. In previous years, the top of the third or fourth round (depending upon where the two days of the draft split) could be particularly active because some teams would spend the previous night convincing themselves of how badly they wanted a remaining prospect. Now extend that possibility to the top of the second round.
"Because we're positioned where we are, it gives us not only more time to formulate our strategy of what's on the board and what makes sense, but it also gives other teams a little more time to make a decision on whether they want to move up, instead of the typical seven-minute or five-minute window where you only have x-amount of time. Now you're giving clubs behind us 24 hours in some cases to really look and say, 'Is this a place I want to be and how badly do I want to be there?' And it also gives me 24 hours to say, 'That sounds good, but I either like the player and want to pick him, or I might want to move up two spots to St. Louis' selection.' Or, 'You know what, I might like the offer, but I just got an offer from another club that I like better, and I'll have time to battle that back and forth.' So in terms of being at the number-three spot, I think it's actually very beneficial to this organization especially with where we pick."
Making those trade talks even more likely at the top of the second round: the fact that quite a few remaining players could have first-round grades on them. This year's draft is considered the deepest in many years, and that means second-round picks are thought to be even more valuable than usual. Dominik estimated that the 2009 draft class had about 22 or 23 players that were generally considered first-round talents. This year's group is considerably deeper.
"This draft class can go into the 40s in terms of real talent where you feel like you are walking out with first-round talent," said Dominik. "I'm excited about the third and fourth-round talent in this draft. This is a very talented class. I think everybody feels that way."
The Buccaneers hope to say the same thing about their own specific 2010 class in just a few days. Even a deeply talented pool of prospects holds no guarantees, however. The Buccaneers may or may not hit it out of the park this coming week, but whatever happens, it won't be the result of any shortcomings in preparation or effort.