The selection of DE Dewayne White in 2003 was a good example of best-available-player winning out over need
Most of us will never see the draft boards the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' player personnel department has put together this year. Even if we knew the most critical information displayed on those boards, the numerical grades given to each of several hundred draft prospects, we couldn't share it.
We can, however, help to construct a mental image of the boards.
Off-white, about six feet high and covered with magnetic strips containing the names of the aforementioned prospects, they take up one side of the Buccaneers' team meeting room, which has recently been converted into the main draft room. Before the boards moved into this final staging area, they had covered several walls in the office of Director of College Scouting Ruston Webster.
These boards are divided two ways. Horizontally, they are split into the various football positions, from quarterback to kicker. Vertically, they are stratified into layers of perceived talent. Most teams use a number scale, and the Bucs are no different. The range of numbers chosen is not all that significant, as long as everybody working for the team understands what each level signifies. If the Bucs used a scale that went up to 20, for instance, a 20.0 grade would signify a once-in-a-lifetime talent, while an 18.0 might signify a player the team believes will become a perennial Pro Bowler.
The two divisions on the draft board, in effect, represent the two common draft philosophies; it's "need" versus "best available player." If you're worried about the first, then you're paying more attention to the horizontal, looking hard in the linebacker section, for instance, because you must replenish that spot. If you're worried about the second, then you're simply paying attention to the highest names left on your board vertically, no matter the position.
Most teams claim to be going into the draft with the best-available-player philosophy, and most have to give in to need at some point. What is a wonderful moment in any draft room is when a team looks both horizontally and vertically and ends up in the same place.
In other words, it's a best case scenario on draft day when the highest-rated player on your board just happens to play a position that your team needs to address. And when this happens very early in the draft, you get one happy draft room. If the team picking first overall in the draft is in desperate need of a franchise quarterback and there happens to be one blue-chip passer in the field, then it's not hard to figure out how draft weekend will begin.
The Bucs aren't first this year, but they aren't far behind. At number five overall, Tampa Bay is almost duty-bound to go with a best-available-player approach to some degree. To reach down your board vertically just to fill a need with this pick would be to get less than full value for that pick.
So will the Bucs be looking for the best available player when the fifth pick rolls around?
"Yes, I can say that," said Webster. "I think the thing about it is that you would love to get a guy you feel strongly about, but there is also a need. If you've got four guys there and you see them all the same, but one of them is more of a need than another, then I guess to some extent you are going to go with need."
That's an important distinction in this year's draft, because there is less consensus as to who the top five or 10 players available are. Looked at in a positive light, that means there are more options at the top of the draft than usual. The players generally mentioned as top-pick candidates include several quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, cornerbacks, linebackers and defensive linemen.
The Bucs have options because they have more needs than they have in some time. A series of drafts depleted by previous trades have prevented the team from restocking with youth as much as it would have liked. This year, the Bucs go into the day with a cool dozen picks, and they will be pressing to meet as many needs as possible. So, the additional depth concerns actually give the Bucs more draft flexibility.
"I think we have enough needs where there are a lot of guys fitting into that," said Webster. "We've got a lot picks for the first time in a long time and you have to make those picks count. When you go to the best-player philosophy, you are just saying if there is one guy (ranked above the other guys) and the rest of the guys are (ranked lower) and the guy (ranked higher) is a need, then you are going to take the best player. But, if they are all ranked the same, then need comes into play."
As you move deeper into the draft and the top strata of your boards are picked clean, the "need" approach begins to encroach more on a your team's strategy. If certain positions of need weren't addressed with one of the first few picks, a team might concentrate more on one or two areas, as long as there are still some good grades left in that section of the board. The Bucs, for instance, could take a look at their offensive line grades in the middle rounds, something they did in each of the last two years. In 2003, the team selected tackle Lance Nimmo, center Austin King and guard Sean Mahan in the fourth and fifth rounds; last year, the Bucs picked up guard Jeb Terry in the fifth round. Mahan and Terry could end up with significant roles in 2005.
"We need help in a lot of spots right now and the offensive line is definitely one of them," Webster conceded.
On the other hand, it is a few rounds into the draft when those players who rank high vertically on the draft boards really begin to stand out. Picking fifth overall, the Bucs are going to be looking at a board filled with players on the higher levels. In the third round, when Tampa Bay picks twice, there will be far fewer magnetic strips on the upper levels. If a player two does remain up there in the third round, it will be hard for the Bucs to pass. That's how the team ended up taking defensive end Dewayne White in 2003, for instance.
"When we go through these [draft preparation] meetings, we don't focus on one position or one side of the ball," said Webster. "We go through it all because you don't know who is going to be there. You can predict it, you can kind of half-way predict it, but you have to be ready for pretty much anything, even if it is a position that would be a position of strength. If you look at Dewayne White, that would've been considered a position of strength for us, but we just thought he was the most talented guy there. The same thing will happen this year."