tampabay.com

Big two start of draft team's high marks

The Bucs brass has made an impact in the past two drafts beyond Cadillac and Clayton.

By RICK STROUD
Published April 22, 2006


 

TAMPA - For a few months last season, Cadillac Williams and Michael Clayton lived under the same roof. They had plenty in common as first-round picks with Southeastern Conference ties. The newly drafted running back even raided his teammate's closet a few times until his wardrobe arrived.

On the field, there were more similarities. Both were finalists for NFL rookie of the year.

Williams won, running away from four defensive nominees. He led rookie running backs with 1,178 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Clayton, who topped all rookie receivers with 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven TDs in 2004, was second to precocious Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Rarely does lightning strike twice in the same place in the NFL draft, so give the Bucs their due.

General manager Bruce Allen has compiled a remarkable record while presiding over the draft the past two years.

Most NFL observers, of course, predicted stardom for Williams, the fifth overall pick from Auburn, and Clayton, the 15th overall selection in '04 from LSU.

But the Bucs have many other success stories from their past two classes. Seven of the team's 12 selections in '05 spent most of the year on the 53-man roster and four others were on the practice squad. Five of the eight players drafted in '04 remain with the team.

Finally, the past two drafts have produced five starters: guard Dan Buenning, tight end Alex Smith, safety Will Allen, Williams and Clayton.

Allen is quick to credit a collaborative effort, including coach Jon Gruden, personnel consultant Jim Gruden and Ruston Webster, director of player/personnel.

But drafting back-to-back rookie of the year candidates?

"I think you have to compliment the players and Coach Gruden for that," Allen said. "We knew the type of players we were going to get and his imagination allowed them to be productive."

Gruden's creativity might be challenged this season. After finishing 11-5 and winning the NFC South, the Bucs won't select until 23rd overall.

Many mock drafts have them taking an offensive tackle or cornerback, which is hard to argue. But Tampa Bay doesn't have a history of drafting great offensive linemen. The two elite tackles - Virginia's D'Brickashaw Ferguson (6-5, 289) and Southern California's Winston Justice (6-6, 300) - figure to be gone. But there will be some good values late in the first round such as Miami's Eric Winston (6-7, 312) and Auburn's Marcus McNeil (6-9, 338).

Cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly are in their 30s, but the Bucs have never used their first-round pick on a defensive back. Some think this year will be the exception. South Carolina's Johnathan Joseph, Clemson's Tye Hill and Florida State's Antonio Cromartie are all expected to go late in the first round.

It could be more than seven hours Saturday before the Bucs make a pick, but Gruden believes it'll be worth the wait.

"Last year was the first time that we had a draft choice in every round in a long time," he said. "So if we can put together a couple of back-to-back classes, you bet your lucky stars we can be pretty good if we do a good job and get the right kinds of guys. But it's a lot easier to have a good draft picking fifth in each round than it is picking 23rd in each round. So the challenges will be a little bit different this year."

In the past 10 years, two offensive linemen have been taken at No. 23 and become reliable starters. In 1998, the Raiders took Florida's Mo Collins, who started 64 games in seven years, including a Super Bowl. Center Jeff Hartings, a first-round pick by the Lions in '96, appeared in two Pro Bowls and started for the Super Bowl champion Steelers.

"I do like the draft process because there are no excuses," Gruden said. "You can't say, "Well, the salary cap won't allow us to do this,' or "This guy's not worth this,' or "This agent won't send him to us.' You got a draft. You get a pick in every round. You're on the clock. At some point in the day, we pick in the first round.

"Our goal is to put together three consecutive draft classes, and have a lot of these guys make our team. Contractually, that would help us with the salary cap, certainly, and overall from a depth standpoint and a developmental standpoint it's vital that we do that."

The Bucs' approach won't vary this year, despite picking 23rd. Since Allen arrived, coaches have been instrumental in helping scouts evaluate players and shape the draft board. Webster, who has been with the Bucs since 1988, might opt to let his contract expire after the draft. Increasingly, Allen, Gruden and his father, Jim, have the loudest voices in the room.

"He's been a valuable contributor," Allen said of Jim Gruden. "He's like another one of our scouts, and has had great input because of his years of service."

The Bucs have 21 of 22 starters returning (safety Dexter Jackson signed with the Bengals as a free agent). In fact, the Bucs have concentrated free-agency efforts on retaining their players.

Still, Allen said, the draft is "a great opportunity to find players that can help your team. And if you look at the last three Super Bowl winners, you see Pittsburgh, New England and Tampa. I'd say from Pittsburgh and New England, they got the two quarterbacks - one a first-rounder (Roethlisberger) and one in the sixth round (Tom Brady). That tells you about the draft right there. New England became a dynasty with a sixth-round pick. Pittsburgh got a quarterback with the 11th pick of the draft. He really brought that team together."

Though Clayton struggled with injuries and performance last season, dropping from 80 catches to 32, the Bucs expect him regain his rookie form. Williams, who missed two games with a foot injury, could compete for a rushing title if healthy.

It's hard to imagine the Bucs finding a player at No. 23 who will be invited to the rookie of the year award ceremony. But the way things have gone for Tampa Bay in the draft the past two years, don't bet against it.

"I can't speak for other teams, who might take the best player available," Allen said, "but we'll take the best player for the Bucs."