TAMPA, Fla. — The first pick will be huge, but it’s only part of the picture.
Jameis Winston? Marcus Mariota? Someone else? No single player will be the silver bullet to deliver the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to respectability. A healthy draft class with future impact players is necessary to improve the overall heartbeat.
The NFL draft begins this week, and the first-round festivities Thursday will receive the most attention throughout Tampa Bay. But there must be hits on Friday and Saturday as well. This is a franchise that has struggled to string together strong draft classes in recent years, and the consequences have been seen in the abysmal results on fall Sundays. Spring misses can spoil seasons.
So what’s to come? Clearly, the offensive line needs help. Don’t be surprised to see the defensive line receive reinforcements. The same goes for the secondary.
"It matches up pretty good," Bucs general manager Jason Licht said of the coming draft pool. "It’s a good (offensive line) draft, pretty deep O-line draft. It’s good on the defensive side. There’s some good defensive line depth there too. In terms of that, it matches up pretty well, but we also still keep our eye on that best available player too. Because at the end of the day, those are the guys you are glad you have, you’re glad you picked. So we are not going to pigeonhole ourselves into necessarily always just picking for need. But we are aware of what this team needs."
Whatever may come in this draft, just look to the recent past for how important it is to hit early and often. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was a home-run pick. It’s early, but wide receiver Mike Evans appears on track to becoming the same thing.
Still, the Bucs have had too many swings and misses in recent years. They must be better starting this week.
Here’s a glance back at the Bucs’ drafts throughout the past five years:
2014: WR Mike Evans, seventh overall (B+) — Some called for the Bucs to take Johnny Manziel, Evans’ Texas A&M teammate, with this pick. But Evans proved to be the wise choice here. He led Tampa Bay with 1,051 yards receiving on 68 catches with 12 touchdowns last season. His challenge will come in evolving as defenses catch up to him. He was held to no more than 54 yards receiving in each of his past six games last year.
2012: S Mark Barron, seventh overall (D) — "Disappointing" isn’t too strong a word to characterize his Bucs career. He never did grow into the large, physical safety that Tampa Bay envisioned when he was taken early in the 2012 draft. In seven games with the Bucs last season, he didn’t prove to be an effective fit within coach Lovie Smith’s defensive scheme. He totaled just three interceptions and 19 passes defensed with Tampa Bay in parts of three seasons before he was traded to the St. Louis Rams last October for a fourth-round and a sixth-round pick.
2012: RB Doug Martin, 31st overall (C) — After a standout rookie season, Martin’s career appears at a crossroads. He was held to 494 yards rushing on 134 carries last year, which was minimal improvement from his 456 yards on 127 carries in 2013. Remember when it looked like the Bucs captured lightning in a bottle when he broke out for 1,454 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns as a rookie? That season seems like a distant memory.
2011: DE Adrian Clayborn, 20th overall (D) — The Bucs will never know if he could have been a different player without all the health problems. But Clayborn’s lasting memory in a Tampa Bay uniform will be unrealized promise because of injuries. He appeared in just one game last season before he was placed on injured reserve with a biceps injury. He closed with 109 tackles and 13 sacks in 36 games over parts of four seasons with the Bucs before he was allowed to walk in free agency this year. He’ll look to revitalize his career with the Atlanta Falcons.
2010: DT Gerald McCoy, third overall (B+) — After a slow start to his career in which he was limited to a combined 19 games in his first two seasons, he has grown into the face of the franchise. McCoy has a combined 18 sacks the past two seasons, including 8 1/2 last year in 13 games. He’s the soul of the Bucs’ defense, and he was signed to a seven-year extension worth $95.2 million with $51.5 million guaranteed last October.
2011: DE/DT Da’Quan Bowers, second round, 51st overall — The Bucs tried to hand him a starting job at defensive end after they allowed Michael Bennett to walk before the 2013 season. But instead of thriving, Bowers made little impact throughout an underwhelming four-year stint with the team. Last year in a hybrid defensive end/defensive tackle role, he had 21 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks in 11 games. He was allowed to walk in free agency.
2010: WR Arrelious Benn, second round, 39th overall — He never had more than 441 yards receiving in a single year with the Bucs (2011). He was thought to stretch defenses with his speed, but those visions never became reality. He only had four catches for 26 yards in his final year with Tampa Bay in 2012.
LATE-ROUND SUCCESS STORIES
2012: S Keith Tandy, sixth round, 174th overall — Some of the Bucs’ recent failures stem from their lack of success in the draft’s later rounds. Tandy stands as a rare player taken in the fourth round or later in recent years who has made a measurable impact. He has 51 tackles, four interceptions and four passes defensed in 40 games with Tampa Bay. He had eight tackles and one interception last season.
The Bucs learned the perils of trying to build a team through free agency last season. Contending franchises hit in the draft, and that should be Tampa Bay’s mission going forward. Any success would be positive moment from the recent past. Here’s the breakdown for a group that contributed to a 27-53 record (no playoff appearances):
The Bucs have a potentially franchise-changing opportunity with the No. 1 pick on Thursday, but this draft will be about so much more. This is a franchise in need of quality depth. The lack of it has contributed to Tampa Bay’s fall in recent years, and a correction must be made fast.