CB Ronde Barber is the perfect example of a promising draft pick who didn't make an impact until his second season
The Senior Bowl is over – the South avenged last year's upset loss with a 28-10 drubbing of the North on Saturday – and that means the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one step closer to deciding upon their first draft pick.
There is a chance that the Buccaneers witnessed the man they will take with the 15th overall pick (barring trades) this past week in Mobile, Alabama. With General Manager Bruce Allen, Head Coach Jon Gruden, Director of College Scouting Ruston Webster, several coaches and a gaggle of scouts on hand for the week of practices that led up to the game, the Bucs got a very good look at 95 of the nation's most accomplished, draft-eligible players.
The same thing happened in 1999, when the Bucs not only watched LSU defensive tackle Anthony McFarland dominate in practice but also came to appreciate his approach to the game during one-on-one interviews in the evening. Tampa Bay picked McFarland 15th overall that April, and though his impact was fairly negligible as a rookie, he was a starter by 2000 and is now considered one of the team's cornerstone players.
That's what a team hopes to acquire with a pick as high as the middle of the first round – a player who either immediately steps into the lineup and produces or one who is clearly going to be a key member of the team for years to come.
"At 15, we'd love for a guy to come in and make an impact," said Webster. "There's no question about that. But you kind of learn through the years that even with the guys that are better players now, the guys that have been our cornerstones, they all didn't jump on the scene their first year."
The Bucs' second-round pick in 1999, Tulane quarterback Shaun King, was also a standout in that year's Senior Bowl. He was certainly not expected to be much of a factor as a rookie, but injuries to Trent Dilfer and Eric Zeier shoved King into the lineup during the playoff stretch run and King performed superbly, helping the Bucs reach the NFC Championship Game.
Tampa Bay's third pick in that '99 draft was Martin Gramatica, who not only was an instant hit as the Bucs' new kicker but who is now the team's all-time leading scorer after five seasons. The fourth pick that year was Florida State safety Dexter Jackson. Jackson played almost exclusively on special teams his first two seasons, but was a starter by 2001 and the Super Bowl MVP by the end of 2002.
Of the Bucs' last five picks in 1999 (including three seventh-rounders), none played extensively for the Bucs, though DE John McLaughlin was a special teams ace for a few years and WR Darnell McDonald got some action as a rookie.
As that Senior Bowl-influenced '99 season demonstrated, drafted players can take varying amounts of time to become significant contributors, and some never pan out at all. As a long-time scout, Webster knows to be patient when evaluating a draft's impact.
"I used to get a lot more wrapped up in how much they played their first year than I do now," said Webster. "I don't really anymore because I know that the second and third years could be the time they really take off. You have to be patient with some of these guys because there is a learning curve. We'd love to get a guy that would come in here and make an impact."
CB Ronde Barber provides an excellent example. A third-round pick in 1997, Barber was a fairly big name coming out of college after an interception-filled career at Virginia. The Bucs were looking to replace the cornerback spot opposite Donnie Abraham, a third-rounder who had immediately won a starting job the year before, but Barber had difficulty breaking into the lineup as a rookie. He appeared in only one game during the regular season and wasn't inserted into the nickel back spot until the final playoff game in Green Bay that year. However, Barber clearly 'got it' after that, and he was a starter by midway through the 1988 season and a Pro Bowler by 2001.
Of course, the Bucs have had the luxury of working their youngsters into the lineup slowly over the last five or six years, thanks to the weight of a lot of good drafts building up the team's depth. Before that, the team commonly drafted an Eric Curry or a Charles McRae in the first round and expected them to be immediate saviors.
"I always say that in the old days, when we were losing, we had some Rookies of the Year and that kind of stuff because they played," said Webster. "They had to play. So, I don't put a lot of stock in that. The big thing is how they play over time and what they become. Even saying that, I would love to have a guy come in here and make a big impact."
There is reason to believe that could happen, of course. The Bucs have a first-round pick for the first time in three years, and there is likely to be some lineup turnover after a Super Bowl title defense season that ended in a disappointing 7-9 record. Among the first-round players from last year's draft who made an impact are potential stars at almost every position – WR Andre Johnson (Houston), T Jordan Gross (Carolina), DE Terrell Suggs (Baltimore), DT Ty Warren (New England), LB Nick Barnett (Green Bay) and CB Marcus Trufant (Seattle). Gross and Warren demonstrated two different ways in which a highly-drafted rookie can have an instant impact, the former as an immediate starter at a position that had a hole and the latter as a valuable role player on a deep defense.
The Bucs could benefit from duplicating either of those scenarios. And not only do they finally have a first-round pick to increase their odds but they may have a better grasp on the field of eligibles this year. Last season, the Bucs were playing through January, and though they would have much preferred a chance to play in the Super Bowl again and defend their title, they at least aren't behind in their offseason preparations this time around. With the NFL Scouting Combine just a few weeks ahead, Tampa Bay is beginning to put some shape to its draft board. The Senior Bowl helped in that process immensely.
"I still feel like I'm catching up from that long (2002) season," said Webster. "Last year it was like the season was over and we went right in to the combine. With all the hoopla around the Super Bowl, that was a little bit of a distraction. I think we're further ahead now. We should be in good shape."