Brian Kelly and the 1998 Buc draft class made a collectively small impact that first year but eventually produced three starters and two valuable reserves
Since the new draft room at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' headquarters has significantly more space than the old one, the team ought to think about making a few additions for the weekend. A pool table, maybe, or a library.
Anything to pass the time.
The Bucs, who do not own a first-round pick this year and have to wait to the final selection of the second round to get on the board, have gotten use to uneventful Saturday afternoons on draft weekend. The 2003 Draft will mark the fourth in the last six years that Tampa Bay does not pick in the first round, barring a dramatic and very unlikely trade. By contrast, the team missed out on the first round just four times in its first 22 years, and it still averaged a pick a year during that span, as it selected twice each in 1986, '95, '96 and '97.
Only two teams, the San Diego Chargers and the Dallas Cowboys, have moved out of the first round more often than the Buccaneers over the past decade. The Chargers have done so six times, as former General Manager Bobby Beathard was fond of trading future first-round picks for current second-round picks while the draft was in progress. The Bucs, in fact, were on the other side of those deals on two occasions, in 1996 (for a '97 first-rounder) and in 1998 (for a 2000 first-rounder, which was later traded to the N.Y. Jets). Dallas has been absent from the first round five times in the last decade.
This year, the Bucs, Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins will all make it four times, and Washington will do so for the second time. The extra first-round picks belong to New England, New Orleans, Oakland and the N.Y. Jets.
Never a Reach
General Manager Rich McKay, one of the primary architects of the Bucs' successful drafts of the past decade, has said that his team is in the perfect position to actually follow the oft-mentioned 'best-available-player' strategy this year. Thanks to a full starting lineup and a broad wash of depth across the roster, Tampa Bay believes it can go in almost any direction when it gets on the clock.
McKay very clearly remembers drafts of another variety, however. The Bucs of fairly recent vintage have been in a position where their early picks were dictated by glaring roster needs. That doesn't have to be an obstacle to a good draft, of course, but it certainly increases a team's chances of making a 'reach' in order to get help at the right position.
You'll never hear that term in the war room, however. Even if a team may appear to be reaching, says McKay, the power players at the draft's nerve center usually believe they've made the perfect selection at the perfect time.
"You have convinced yourself in the seven days prior to that that you're not doing that," admitted McKay, candidly. "I promise you. You have talked yourself out of the fact that you're doing that. You have either killed the two other players along the way that maybe should have been ahead of this guy, or you have overrated some players on your team who maybe you shouldn't have overrated. You have created a circumstance that when the guy does reach up and grab him off the board, he's coming right off in the perfect order.
"You really don't ever say in a draft room, 'Boy, we reached.'" Now, you can go back and analyze it and look at your sheets and look at your grading board from a month prior to the draft and you may say, 'Gee, this guy kind of shimmied up the charts quickly.' But I don't know if you ever truly admit that."
With a supplemental pick that is part of their continuing expansion-aiding package, the Houston Texans will make the 262nd pick of this weekend's draft. That will be the proceeding's final selection, which means the player whose name is called will instantly be dubbed 'Mr. Irrelevant.'
Paul Salata, a 75-year-old former Baltimore Colt, has been celebrating the last pick in the NFL draft since 1976. The good-natured tribute includes a week of festivities in Salata's hometown of Newport Beach, California and treats the guest of honor to gifts, free meals, free travel and a week's stay at a resort. The NFL has embraced the fun, even bringing Salata to New York each year to announce the final selection.
Last year's Mr. Irrelevant was Ahmad Miller, also drafted by Houston. Miller, a defensive tackle out of UNLV, was the 261st player selected. He did not make the Texans' roster but did catch on with the New York Giants for this year's camp.
The only Buccaneer pick to ever claim the Mr. Irrelevant honors was Akron P Daron Alcorn, the last selection of the 1993 draft. Alcorn did not make the Bucs' roster as a rookie nor find a permanent spot in the NFL.
New York, New York
While the Bucs' draft-weekend decisions will be made right here in Tampa, in that new war room, each pick will be announced in New York, in the Theater at Madison Square Garden. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue generally heads to the podium with index cards to announce the early picks before giving way to other NFL representatives for most of the weekend.
Those cards are filled out at 32 separate tables within the theater. Each team has a station complete with a phone line back to its own team that is left open for the entire draft. Obviously, that station must be manned by a team representative who, while not directly involved in the draft decisions, is technically responsible for making each pick. Whatever name that representative puts on the card and hands to the league is the team's official pick.
For the Buccaneers this year, that responsibility will be handled by Director of Legal Affairs Nathan Whitaker. Entering his third season with Tampa Bay, Whitaker was formerly the senior manager of football operations and staff counsel for the Jacksonville Jaguars. In addition to this draft-weekend duty, Whitaker assists with salary cap management, football budget administration and player contract negotiations.
By Monday morning on the 28th, virtually every newspaper in every NFL town will have printed its team-by-team grades for the 2003 draft class, usually parceling out As selfishly but also going lightly on the Ds and Fs.
It is a largely hollow exercise, of course, but it grows in popularity each year because, well, it is insanely interesting. Whether we choose to admit it or not, most of us also have an immediate opinion on each team's draft efforts, particularly our own. And post-draft grades are often based on months of study of college players, so the 'draftniks' are sometimes on the money with their predictions of boom or bust.
On the other hand, any general manager in the league will tell you that it takes at least two or three years before the success of any particular draft can be fairly judged. In 1998, the Bucs got relatively little out of the rookies they had drafted that April, but WR Jacquez Green, CB Brian Kelly and LB Jamie Duncan eventually became starters and C/G Todd Washington and DT James Cannida developed into valuable reserves. Conversely, the team's 1993 draft looked good on paper the day after but was saved only by third-rounder John Lynch and sixth-rounder Chidi Ahanotu. The team's first three picks – DE Eric Curry, LB Demetrius DuBose and WR Lamar Thomas – failed to make any lasting impact.
Yet rarely do we look back at these grades three years later, after the players in a particular draft class have had a chance to make their mark – or not – in the NFL. But we certainly could.
In April of 2000, the Bucs' draft efforts drew mostly high praise. The team had used its two first-round draft picks to acquire WR Keyshawn Johnson from the New York Jets, then traded up in the second round to get Tennessee G Cosey Coleman and nabbed Miami LB Nate Webster in the third round. Most analysts chose to include Johnson in the Bucs' draft haul for the year, and adjusted grades upward, accordingly. Sports Illustrated's Peter King gave Tampa Bay a B , and The Sporting News' Dan Pompei handed out an A. Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News said C, but the New York Times' Mike Freeman, while not assigning a letter grade, said the Bucs had one of the best drafts of the weekend.
Would the Bucs argue now? Probably not. Johnson, if you want to count him, has caught 253 passes and scored 14 touchdowns in three years, earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2001. Coleman has started the past two years at right guard and Webster has been a valuable sub and special teamer. TE James Whalen, a fifth-round pick, didn't make the team, but S David Gibson was another special-teamer before he was traded to Indianapolis last year. Seventh-round QB Joe Hamilton made the roster in 2000 and 2001 but was on injured reserve last year.
CBS Sportsline gave the Bucs a representative B after the weekend, with good words for Coleman, Webster and Whalen. Sportsline's coverage of the draft was very thorough, has been well archived and is easy to retrieve to this day, which explains why we're looking back at their specific work today. Many of its comments immediately after the draft still seem relevant. Nevertheless, a look back at its grades in total reveal the unreliability of assigning marks as soon as a draft ends.
For instance, choosing arbitrarily from the list, the Arizona Cardinals were assigned an A while Philadelphia earned a C, one of the lowest grades given out. Looking back, was Arizona's draft class – RB Thomas Jones, LB Raynoch Thompson, DT Darwin Walker, CB David Barrett, DT Mao Tosi, TE Jay Tant, DE Jabari Issa and OLB Sekou Sanyika – better than Philly's – DT Corey Simon, WR Todd Pinkston, G Bobbie Williams, WR Gari Scott, RB Thomas Hamner, DE John Frank and C John Romero?
We now have the huge advantage of three years of evidence. Neither group produced a lot of keepers; for Arizona, only Jones and Thompson remain and for Philadelphia, Simon, Pinkston and Williams are still on hand. Coincidentally, Walker, the Cardinals' third-round pick is now with the Eagles. Scott has hooked on with Green Bay after three years (and two receptions) with Philly. Tosi, Tant, Barrett, Issa or Sanyika are currently not on any roster, nor are Hamner, Frank or Romero.
The edge on the respective first-rounders appears to go to Philadelphia, as Simon quickly developed into one of the league's better defensive tackles while Jones has struggled to hold a starting role in Arizona. The second round produced a starter for each team, as Thompson has produced well at strongside linebacker for the Cardinals and Pinkston rang up 60 catches and seven touchdowns last year. The Eagles' other second-rounder, Williams, remains with the team but has not yet won a starting job.
We may not be qualified to assign grades, even in hindsight, but it seems clear that, while the Eagles' 2000 draft may not have been one for the ages, it was certainly not two letter grades worse than that of the Cardinals.
Of course, the fine folk at CBS Sportsline didn't have three years of evidence to apply to their marks, and they won't again this Monday. And that's fine. Even if NFL general managers caution us against the wisdom of immediate grades, we'll be reading each and every one of them.