Grading a team's draft over the short term is, of course, sheer folly, and can be nearly as inexact a science as drafting itself. But there's little projection required when it comes to where Tampa Bay's past two rookie classes rank. Nobody in the NFL has done a quicker or more remarkable job of roster building than the resurgent Bucs, who have received that rare blend of production and potential from the youth they added in both 2009 and 2010.
More so than any other team in the league, it makes me eager to watch Tampa Bay's 2011 draft unfold. Three consecutive well-executed drafts in the NFL usually portend much better things to come.
A Bucs fan has every right to dream big. Tampa Bay is on a hot streak when it comes to finding impact players in the draft. While their work is far from done, the track record that's coming together under the direction of third-year general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris is one of the better stories going in the labor-stalled NFL.
The Bucs last year enjoyed the franchise's biggest single-season turnaround ever, going from 3-13 in 2009 to 10-6 and on the cusp of making the NFC playoffs. And Tampa Bay's overnight transformation from loser to contender clearly can be traced to its meticulous work in the draft, from the glamour picks of the first round to the under-valued skill it showed in gleaning rookie talent from the waiver wire. More than once for the 2010 Bucs, one team's garbage turned into starting lineup treasure for Tampa Bay. Consider:
• Of the 15 draft picks made by Dominik in his two years running the show, 13 remain on the roster, and 12 have become starters. Last year's nine-man draft class contributed 94 games played and 50 starts, and that's even with season-shortening injuries to defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, receiver Arrelious Benn and safety Cody Grimm.
• The Bucs boldly traded up two spots (from 19th to 17th) in the 2009 first round to select franchise quarterback Josh Freeman, then found another star-in-the-making in the middle of 2010's draft, fourth-round receiver Mike Williams (a team-record 11 touchdown catches). Two seventh-round picks in 2009 -- receiver Sammie Stroughter and cornerback E.J. Biggers -- have added impact as well.
• Tampa Bay's final roster in 2010 included a mind-boggling 26 rookies when you take into consideration its injured reserve list, practice squad, and active roster. In a Week 16 rout of Seattle, the Bucs had 15 rookies play in the game, and they became the first team since the 1970 merger to start 10-plus rookies and finish with a winning record.
• The Bucs last year found their leading rusher (LeGarrette Blount, undrafted) and a starting guard (Ted Larsen, sixth-round pick of the Patriots) on the waiver wire and also got contributions from rookies like defensive tackle Al Woods (fourth-round pick of New Orleans), defensive end E.J. Wilson (fourth-round pick of Seattle), safety Larry Asante (fifth-round pick of Cleveland), defensive end Doug Worthington (seventh-round pick of Pittsburgh) and receiver Dezmon Briscoe (sixth-round pick of Cincinnati).
That's a rare use of the totality of the draft class, league-wide, to improve your roster, and Tampa Bay has done it expertly. It shows a far-ranging and thorough approach to scouting the entire crop of draft-eligible rookies, not just the ones you deem worthy of selecting with your seven or eight picks.
"We made it clear to everyone here that there was a lot at stake for us last year in the draft,'' said Dominik, reached by phone Thursday, while continuing to prepare for next week's draft. "We had to be aggressive in finding as many picks as we could because we knew the quality of the entire 2010 draft class. So we traded away a tight end in Alex Smith, we traded away Gaines Adams, we traded away Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich. We wanted to be able to use that entire draft class throughout the season, and not just the guys we selected.
"And we did that. So, yeah, it was rewarding to see the young players come in here and help us win and get us to 10 victories. We had to rely on a lot of young players, and they all had to step up. When the season was over, we had guys from all over on our roster. But they got a ton of experience last year, and hopefully that helps us going forward.''
Tampa Bay wasn't alone in having draft success last year. Kansas City, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New England, Oakland and Detroit all had their rookies of note in 2010. But the Bucs' two-year run of adding quality pieces to the puzzle make them a team worth keeping close track of next week, even if their 10-win season comes at the price of them selecting 20th overall in the first round, rather than 2010's No. 3 slot.
Dominik, a draft historian of sorts, is well aware that some NFL dynasties have been built on the foundation of three great drafts in a row (think 1972-74 Steelers, 1989-91 Cowboys and the Packers of the early Ron Wolf era). He's determined to keep building on the momentum the Bucs have created for themselves in 2009-2010. For that reason, he sees the 2011 draft being just as crucial as last year's, because plenty of holes on the Bucs roster remain.
"It's not too much different for us, because we're still really young,'' said Dominik, himself only 40, but a 16-year veteran of the Bucs organization. "If I could steal (Packers general manager) Ted Thompson's words, you've got to put three or maybe even four draft classes together to really get the team you want to be at this level. I do feel like we've got two good draft classes now back to back, and I'm excited about the way we handle the draft. But I want to continue that, obviously because (Josh) Freeman is so young, and there's a big window here that I hope is just starting to open up.
"When you have the right quarterback, you want to keep that window open as long as possible, like the Patriots and Colts have done. But this draft class is again very pivotal for us because we have some question marks on this roster that still need to be answered, and I feel like this draft has to do that.''
The Bucs' need list starts with a search for pass rush, where they were ranked 31st in the league last season with 26 sacks. Having taken defensive tackles McCoy and Price in the first two rounds last year, Tampa Bay is desperate for a defensive end who can generate some edge rush. In another recent example of Buc Luck (which has been the fortuitous kind of late), this year's draft is rich with quality pass-rushing defensive ends.
Tampa Bay might even be in position to grab a falling Da'Quan Bowers if the Clemson defensive end experiences a first-round freefall due to knee injury concerns. Or defensive end prospects like Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, or Iowa's Adrian Clayborn could be there waiting at No. 20 to address Tampa Bay's top need.
Dominik and the Bucs personnel department every year spend effort striving to identify the strength of the current draft, choose accordingly, and then project where next year's draft will be strongest. It led Tampa Bay to taking McCoy and Price at defensive tackle last year, as well as grabbing both Benn and Williams at receiver (trading up in the second-round to get Benn). The need at defensive end, the Bucs determined, could wait until 2011, when the draft was bountiful at that position.
"You have to take advantage of the particular strength of the draft class,'' Dominik said. "You're trying to find the value of that draft, with always having an eye toward asking where the talent pool is next year? Prior to the draft last year I was out there saying defensive end was going to be a strong spot for the 2011 draft class, and it came true. We do that with our scouts, asking them what the future looks like for the draft in your area? And that does formulate my opinions of who we're going to take sometimes.''
The Bucs have set the bar for draft success fairly high at this point, and it'd be hard to duplicate their 2010 rookie impact. Naturally a roster can't include 25-plus rookies too often, without there being a major problem somewhere. Tampa Bay must now supplement its still-young squad with more productive rookies, but to take that expected next step to being a playoff team, it's the second- and third-year veterans who must lead the way. That's the transition of how on-the-way-up teams often mature into perennial contenders.
"It's going to be tough to have a (2010) kind of (rookie) haul, simply because your roster can't handle it,'' Dominik said. "But it doesn't lessen the fact that the eight picks that we have slotted right now, we need those guys to find a role and help us win in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
"It's nice to be judged by great draft classes, but at the end of the day we're judged by playoff wins and championships. That's the reality. That's what I think of when I'm putting a roster together: Can we get to a championship? That's my barometer. So far we're at zero, but I know we're closer than we have been.''
Maybe closer than anyone in Tampa Bay even had a right to expect, at least this soon. One more great draft, and it'll be intriguing to see how far these Bucs might go.