TAMPA — One by one, the names fell from the 2018 NFL draft board like big raindrops.
Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield to the Browns. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley to the Giants. Southern Cal quarterback Sam Darnold to the Jets. Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward to the Browns.
The Bucs were three picks away at No. 7 overall. Two consensus great players remained: North Carolina State edge rusher Bradley Chubb and Notre Dame guard Quenten Nelson.
But that was it. Six consensus elite players. After that, beauty was in the eye of the beholder. Nothing but million dollar maybes.
The Bucs needed the Broncos and/or the Colts, picking fifth and sixth, to go completely off script. Make a surprise selection or trade the pick to a team moving up for Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen.
Maybe, just maybe, the Bucs hoped, they could catch a falling star.
It didn’t happen. The Broncos snapped up Chubb, who had 12.5 sacks to earn a spot on the NFL All-Rookie team. The Colts nabbed Nelson, who finished the year in the Pro Bowl.
The Bucs finished just out of the money. Again.
Of course, by now we know they traded back to No. 12 with Buffalo, who took Allen.
With Florida State safety Derwin James still available, the Bucs selected Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea. James, taken five picks later by San Diego, made the Pro Bowl. Vea had 3.5 sacks in 13 games.
Had Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston not thrown a game-winning pass in the final regular-season game against the Saints to end the 2017 season, Tampa Bay would’ve picked no worse than fifth and been a lock to have a shot at an elite player.
Another 5-11 record has the Bucs back at the top of the draft again, this time with the No. 5 overall pick.
The question is could they finish just out of range of one of the elite players in the draft again?
Tampa Bay’s draft history
Bucs draft lore is full of bad luck and worse decisions, from Bo Jackson to Ron Holmes.
In 1989, the Bucs were picking No. 6 overall. That turned out to be just outside the money.
Tampa Bay took Broderick Thomas. Unfortunately, Derrick Thomas went two picks earlier. Deion Sanders went just ahead of the Bucs’ selection at No. 5. Both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Broderick Thomas never had more than 11 sacks in a season and finished with 47.5 career sacks.
Sometimes, even when fate smiles on the Bucs, they get it wrong.
In 1977, John McKay chose his former Southern Cal running back, Ricky Bell, first overall in the draft. Bell had on good season, rushing for more than 1,200 yards to help the Bucs to the NFC championship game. He died at age 29 of a rare heart disease.
It wasn’t a popular pick at the time because Tony Dorsett went No. 2 to the Dallas Cowboys and had a Pro Football Hall of Fame career.
Misplaced loyalty hurt the Bucs again in the draft in 1990. Ray Perkins had coached at Alabama only a few seasons earlier. Tampa Bay owned the No. 4 overall pick. Linebacker Keith McCants had played for Perkins and that was going to be his guy. Word is he didn’t even bother to have his scouts go to the west coast to check out another linebacker, Junior Seau.
McCants was the pick and had knee surgery before ever arriving at One Buc Place. His career was pretty underwhelming. He was moved to defensive end, played only six seasons and finished with 13.5 career sacks. Seau, of course, was a Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker for the Chargers. Defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, who went No. 3 overall, had a Pro Football Hall of Fame career with the Seahawks.
In 1993, the Bucs took defensive end Eric Curry at No. 6 when offensive tackle Willie Roaf went to the Saints two picks later.
How does 2019 shape up?
Unless a quarterback – most likely Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, goes in the first four picks, the Bucs could be on the outside looking in again.
The draft is loaded with defensive line talent.
“What I would say about the defensive line in general is that in the last ten years I’d say it is the best defensive line group we’ve seen, both edge rushers and inside guys,’’ said Raiders general manager Mike Mayock. “I think when you start talking about the first round of the draft, I think it’s going to be dominated by defensive lineman.”
Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, Ohio State edge rusher Nick Bosa, Kentucky defensive end Josh Allen are the best of the bunch. Then comes Louisiana State linebacker Devin White, who is the player most linked to the Bucs in mock drafts.
Tampa Bay’s biggest needs dovetail nicely with the players that merit top five draft status.
The loss of linebacker Kwon Alexander to the 49ers as a free agent has left a hole in the middle of the Bucs defense. White could be more than an adequate replacement.
Inside linebackers don’t typically go in the top 10 unless they are rare talents such as Seau, Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis.
“He’s not just a linebacker who runs in the 4.4s, who’s over 230 pounds,’’ ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. “He’s not just the production. He is one of the best leaders in this entire NFL draft. He’s the guy who gets you going at LSU and he’s the guy who is the face of the defense for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers if he winds up being their pick at five. He’s going to be the first true linebacker, off the ball linebacker, drafted in this year’s class. And again, with that speed, he can play every single down. Coverage. Sideline to sideline. I love Devin White.’’
Ifs and buts
But what if the Arizona Cardinals, or the Raiders or any other team for that matter, doesn’t draft a quarterback in the top four selections?
What if Williams, Bosa, Allen and White are gone? Could the Bucs finish out of the money again?
Changes are, the Bucs would entertain offers to trade back. There still will be some very good defensive lineman available, such as Houston’s Ed Oliver and Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat. But the ability to earn more draft picks and still have a chance to take a player such as Michigan linebacker Devin Bush.
“We have a line drawn at a certain number,’’ Bucs general manager Jason Licht said. “It’s still a talented group, a good group. I would say after a certain number – which I won’t give. Then they kind of all are together. It’s tougher than most years to really rank the let’s just say top 50 players, because of that. But the flip side is what makes this draft exciting. Those players – let’s just pick a number out – 20 through 50 or 20 through 60 are all very good. I think this is a deep draft. I think we’re going to get good players in the second, third, fourth, fifth round.’’
If the Bucs want to get a great player, well, they may have to hope at least one will still be alive at No. 5.
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud.