Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Two Down, One to Go

The Buccaneers’ goal was to string together three straight strong drafts in order to strengthen the core of the team...So far, so good, but there is still work to be done

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RB Cadillac Williams, the league's Rookie of the Year in 2005, is one of the many players from the last two drafts who have contributed to the team's success

Here's one reason to prefer the draft as a means to acquire players, if you happen to be a National Football League Head Coach: It's a sure thing. Well, at least in one sense.

To paraphrase Pretty Woman's Vivian, as it might apply to the draft versus the NFL's free agency period, there's no need for "this whole seduction thing."

"I do like the draft process because there are no excuses," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "You can't say, 'Well, the salary cap won't allow us to do this,' or 'This guy's not worth this,' or 'This guy's agent won't send him to us.' You get a draft. You get a pick in every round. You're on the clock. At some point in the day, we get to pick in the first round."

There are always obstacles in free agency, some of them as obvious as a stressed-out salary cap. The Buccaneers have dealt with that to some degree in recent years, as most teams will at some point or another, though it hasn't stopped them from making some strategic moves in the open market. Some obstacles can be subtler, such as a player wanting a clearer path to a starting spot, or a team wanting a shorter contractual commitment than the free agent.

There are no such obstacles in the draft. If you need a cornerback and one you covet is available at your pick, he's yours. Salary issues will come later, and with the exception of very high picks, they will generally be far less painful than with a free agent. You can trade picks for players or a better draft position, of course, but generally you go into the weekend knowing what, if not necessarily who, you're going to add to your roster.

"I do like that," said Gruden, whose team recently added three compensatory picks to its original total of seven. "I do like the idea that we have two more sevens and another sixth-round pick. They're not high picks, but we'll get 10 selections in the draft. An opportunity to add 10 more people to our team. I get fired up for the draft."

Last year, the Bucs made the most of their cautious forays into free agency, adding a handful of players who became significant contributors without busting the cap: Chris Hovan, Matt Bryant, Ike Hilliard, Anthony Becht and Juran Bolden, primarily. But there's no question that the organization's main focus during the 2005 offseason was the draft. In an effort to reload the core of the team and get its cap situation under control, the Buccaneers have looked to the draft as the primary solution, which means they could afford nothing but success in late April.

So far, so good. There is still work to be done, though.

"Our goal was to put together three draft classes, three consecutive draft classes, and have a lot of these guys make our team," said Gruden. "Contractually, that would help us with the salary cap certainly, and overall from a depth standpoint and a developmental standpoint, that's vital that we do that. In spite of what anybody says, we were down on players. We had lost a lot of players, through trades for coaches and trades for former players and guys who weren't here who didn't work out. But now to have those successive draft classes that are pretty good and hopefully we add another one, that gives you a nice group of players at every position that you can build around."

Even the harshest critics would have to admit that the Bucs' last two drafts have gone well. Of the eight players drafted in 2004, six have played for the team and five are still in Tampa, despite the lack of a second-round pick. Of the 12 players drafted in 2005, 11 are still with the team and seven appeared in games last year. The Bucs drafted the league's Rookie of the Year (Cadillac Williams) last year and a finalist for that award in 2004 (Michael Clayton).

Those two drafts have produced, so far, four starters, if one includes tight end Alex Smith, who opened 10 games last year. Five if you include safety Will Allen, who had eight starts in '05. That's quite good, but the results might get even better. Pundits say you can't adequately assess a draft class until after its third year; by then, the Bucs might be even happier with their '04-05 haul.

In fact, there are a handful of young players who may make a big impact in 2006, and that includes Clayton, who followed up his phenomenal rookie season with an injury-plagued and frustrating 2005.

"He's our first-round draft choice, Michael Clayton," said Gruden, half-kidding. You'll meet him April 30. We're going to start this over again. He'll be the first-round draft pick. Barrett Ruud didn't really play for us last year [other than] special teams. He's a hell of a player. There's a time and a place for him to step up now. Chris Colmer was on IR, really. He didn't get on IR, but he was hurt. He was unable to showcase what he can do. He was a third-round pick, the highest offensive lineman we've selected since I've been here. He'll be our third-round pick this year. So we do have some young guys who hopefully you say, 'Man, they've got some pretty good young players.'"

So the Bucs feel as if they've aced drafts number one and two, but another one looms in less than a month, and it's vitally important. As Gruden indicated, they've got 10 more picks to spend, including at least one in each round. The Bucs' core could be solid for years if the team nails it again.

Then again, the draft really isn't a "sure thing," any more than Vivian was. Oh, the Bucs will add 10 or so players, but their scouting acumen will determine how many prove to be keepers. And unlike the last two Aprils, the Bucs will be picking in the lower third of the draft this year. Still, the organization's confidence is high.

"Last year was the first time that we had a draft choice in every round in a long time," said Gruden. "So if we can put a couple back-to-back classes together, you bet your lucky stars we can be pretty good if we do a good job and get the right kind of guys. But it's a lot easier to have a good draft picking fifth in each round than it is picking 23rd in each round. So the challenges will be a little different this year."

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