In a year of reinvention, mental strength a must-have trait for Bucs' top pick
MAY 01, 2014 12:22p ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- Paul Gruber sensed the pressure. He felt the elevated expectations that came with his selection as a first-round pick, most observers inside and outside his new franchise projecting a successful career.
Gruber was prepared. It was 1988. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose the offensive tackle fourth overall, after he had completed a notable career at Wisconsin in which he was named a captain and a first-team All-American.
Gruber's choice was a departure from the norm. Then-coach Ray Perkins had never selected an offensive lineman before the fourth round in five previous drafts as coach of the Bucs and New York Giants. Perkins considered Gruber unusual in a good way.
"I definitely feel like there's more pressure," Gruber told FOXSportsFlorida.com earlier this week. "Everyone has high expectations for the first-round pick, but at least my mind-set was that I had high expectations for myself. I was probably more critical of myself than maybe the organization was."
Like Gruber 26 years ago, someone will feel the psychological weight involved with becoming the Bucs' first-round pick when the NFL draft begins May 8. Tampa Bay holds the seventh overall selection, and if coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht remain near the top of the draft, it will be assumed the Bucs will select a future starter and a centerpiece of efforts to build toward the franchise's first playoff berth since the 2007 season.
The pick's importance won't be lost.
Part of the reason why the Bucs lived a regime change in December and a roster overhaul in free agency is because of the draft failings of former general manager Mark Dominik and former coaches Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the third overall selection in 2010, is the lone player left from Tampa Bay's 2009 and 2010 draft classes. Other recent first-round selections -- defensive end Adrian Clayborn (2011) and safety Mark Barron (2012) -- must be better next fall to avoid questions about their long-term viability.
Gruber, meanwhile, met expectations and more. He became a two-time first-team All-Pro after starting all of the 183 games in which he played from 1988 to 1999, and he was honored as the fourth inductee into the Bucs' Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium in 2012.
Gruber's advice to any would-be first-round pick is simple.
"Just keep it in perspective and continue to do what got you there," he said. "I think what probably causes a lot of guys to fail is they kind of forget what got them there."
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Smith grasped the question's significance. On Tuesday, during a pre-draft news conference, he was asked if the Bucs' top pick should be an instant contributor.
"That's a tricky question on how I answer it," he said, looking at the large crowd in a small room. "I guess I could be saying a little bit on how I answer it. As a general rule, the seventh pick, you want them to play fairly soon. There's no rebuilding around here."
"Rebuilding" has been a word to avoid throughout One Buc Place since Smith's hire in January. The term suggests there's a grace period for struggle, but Smith and Licht have made it clear they have no interest in repeating recent results: A 4-12 season in 2011, 7-9 in 2012, 4-12 in 2013.
Naturally, their first draft pick will become a face of their attempt to return the Bucs to national relevance. There's little time to waste within the win-now NFL culture. Mike Williams' trade to the Buffalo Bills on April 4 created a need for a wide receiver to complement Vincent Jackson, so Texas A&M prospect Mike Evans seems like a safe choice.
Still, with an aging Josh McCown as the presumed starter next fall, and with doubts about Mike Glennon's role, securing a quarterback of the future like Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles would make sense.
Options are plenty. Smith and Licht, in time, will be judged by their choices in the same way Dominik, Morris and Schiano once were.
"There's a high bust rate up there, especially where we're picking, so you want somebody that can handle the expectations that are placed on them from us, from you guys, from our fans," Licht said. "He's got to be a mentally strong player in addition to being a great player. He's got to be very mentally strong. That's probably the number one thing we look for."
Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden knows the process well. There's nuance involved in selecting possible future stars or players who set back a franchise. When he worked as a San Francisco 49ers offensive assistant in 1990, he learned a simple outlook: If you have too many rookies starting, you're a bad team.
However, the modern era has forced coaches, general managers and scouting personnel to evolve. Now, the draft has become a franchise's lifeblood, one that either offers a bounty for years or forces careers to shrivel.
The NFL operates on this ethos: Screw up in the spring, and there won't be many more falls to live. The first-round pick, especially high in the draft order, must become a hit.
"Because of the modern era and salary cap, you want as many rookies to be on the field because they're the most affordable," said Gruden, who coached Tampa Bay from 2002 to 2008. "Most importantly, let's get good players that are on the front line at every position or we won't be here for very long."
Problem is, there's no simple way to spot difference-makers on the front line or likely busts. The Bucs' recent draft history is riddled with first-round names that fizzled and faded from pewter-and-red Sundays, like defensive end Gaines Adams (2007) and quarterback Josh Freeman (2009). Cornerback Aqib Talib, the Bucs' first-round pick in 2008, was a frequent member of Dominik's doghouse because of off-the-field issues before enjoying a career renaissance with the New England Patriots.
Smith is aware of that troubled track record. He said he plans to do better and make the draft "our foundation."
His Bucs tenure depends on it.
"I think it can be a lot of factors -- the organization and just different situations could have an impact, your position coach," Gruber said of top picks that don't pan out. "There's a lot that goes into it. I don't think you can really pinpoint one thing. Maybe with some of those guys, the analysis during the draft process wasn't correct, and they weren't really what they were built to be as a college player. And it didn't carry over into the NFL."
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Their spotlight will be unavoidable. That's the reality for whoever will be chosen as the Bucs' first pick, especially in this year of the franchise's reinvention.
There are inherent pressures with the position. But how a player chooses to manage those expectations will be his decision alone.
"I think expectations are a given, and they have to have a lot of confidence in you to step up and make that selection," Gruber said. "So I think a lot of that (expectation) is just part of the process of getting there. Then after that, it's just a matter of working hard and being diligent and having the confidence in yourself and your ability.
"I don't think from an organizational standpoint, the process is a whole lot different, especially with analyzing players as a football player. I think they probably spend a little bit more time analyzing the individual and his personal character than maybe they did. And that has probably been refined a lot more. I think there's just a lot more people outside of the organization pining at things than there was when I was going through the process."
The process will yield results next week. Whether the selection is Evans, Manziel, Bortles or someone else, he will be tied to Smith and Licht's efforts to lift Tampa Bay from the NFC South cellar.
Mental strength will be a must-have trait to complement physical gifts.
"Characteristic-wise just as a whole, there's a type of guy that we want to bring into the building," Smith said. "We want to be a fast football team as much as anything, so we like athletic ability and a little bit of quickness and speed at every position, even the quarterback position. We just want good football players."
Gruber, for his part, grew into one of the Bucs' best. Environment matters for any draft pick, but he persevered to become memorable during some of the franchise's darkest days.
Gruber did so by staying true to himself. The Bucs' next first-round pick would be wise to be as strong.
"It doesn't get any easier," Gruber said.
"I think if anything leads to failure, it's just you take it for granted and assume that you've arrived. One thing about the NFL is you've got to earn it every week in every practice and every meeting. It just gets a lot more competitive."