If you tuned in to sports talk radio last December, you remember callers flooding the airwaves with theories on the Bucs' late-season swoon.
They committed too many penalties. They dropped too many passes. The cornerbacks couldn't cover. The pass rush couldn't generate pressure.
Some said Lovie Smith was getting outcoached. He refused to adapt. The league had passed him by.
The truth is that the Bucs' struggles were set in motion long ago. For years, they have been at a disadvantage on each and every game day — before the national anthem is even sung.
The Bucs' decade-long run of futility can be boiled down to one simple fact: Since winning the Super Bowl in 2003, they've been bad at the draft. Abysmal, really.
The busts from draft classes past are startling. Josh Freeman. Gaines Adams. Da'Quan Bowers. Brian Price. Arrelious Benn. Dexter Jackson.
But a list of names doesn't do the problem justice. I wanted measurable proof. So I built a database of every player drafted in the NFL from 2003 to 2013. Then I analyzed the performance of those 2,806 players.
Teams don't win the draft by finding role players. They win by finding high-impact starters.
And the Bucs, it turns out, are among the worst teams in the league at doing just that — at least for the decade I reviewed.
I used "Approximate Value," a Pro Football Reference statistic that represents a player's share of credit for the team's success. Texans defensive end J.J. Watt led the NFL with a 21 AV last season; quarterback Jameis Winston led the Bucs with a 13. It's not a perfect metric, but it does give us an objective way to compare players across seasons and positions.
I compared players by adding up the "value" for each of their first three seasons. By the end of a player's third season, we usually have a good sense of where his career is headed.
When you look at the players who haven't been in the league long enough to be included in this analysis, there are signs that the Bucs' draft fortunes may be turning.
Receiver Mike Evans, the seventh overall pick in 2014, has a 17 AV in his first two seasons. Winston's value last season was the third-highest ever by a Bucs rookie (Warrick Dunn, 15 in 1997; Doug Martin, 14 in 2012). And if his second and third seasons match his first, he will have produced more by this measure than any other draftee in Bucs history.
The big question when the 2016 draft starts Thursday: Can general manager Jason Licht build on the successes of the past two drafts — or will he add another name to the Buccaneers' long list of blunders?
• • •
Despite the millions of dollars teams invest in scouting, no one has cracked the draft. Teams miss. A lot.
Of the 2,806 picks I reviewed, 1,320 failed to produce a total value higher than 3 points after three seasons. That means that about half of draft picks are no better than safety Ahmad Black, the Bucs' 2011 fifth-round pick who started three games in as many years.
Of those 1,320 picks, half of them didn't produce any AV whatsoever. It's almost as if those players never played a snap.
The Bucs' snapshot looks similar. The key difference between them and most other teams is that they've selected high-impact talent much less often.
Of the players they've drafted from 2011 to 2013, only two are locks to start this season: linebacker Lavonte David and Martin.
In my analysis, only five Bucs draft picks — including David and Martin — produced a total value of at least 20 after three seasons. That's tied with the Browns, Dolphins and Titans for fewest in the NFL.
The Bucs' struggles aren't exclusive to any particular round. They haven't drafted well in the beginning, and they haven't canceled that out by finding value late. In terms of average AV per pick, the Bucs lag in every round except the fourth and sixth.
Average value per pick (by round)
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||17.00||11.36||7.91||8.17||2.45||3.50||1.33|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
On the other end of the spectrum, five teams have drafted at least twice as many players who have produced a value of at least 20. The Patriots lead the NFL with 13, followed by the Jets (12), Chargers (11), Packers (11) and Texans (10).
|13||New England Patriots|
|12||New York Jets|
|11||Green Bay Packers , San Diego Chargers|
|9||Arizona Cardinals , Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams, Washington|
|8||Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks|
|7||Atlanta Falcons, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants|
|6||Baltimore Ravens, Oakland Raiders|
|5||Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans|
• • •
So why have the Bucs been so bad at the draft?
Several teams with similarly poor draft records — the Browns and Dolphins, for example — share more in common than their frequent last-place finishes.
The Bucs are on their fifth head coach since 2003, the Browns on their seventh and Dolphins on their sixth (not counting interim coaches).
They've seen similar revolving doors at general manager, too.
In a recent interview, six-time NFL executive of the year and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian connected the Bucs' poor draft record to frequent changes in leadership. Each new regime brings a new point of view.
"Some of it's bad luck, but some of it's a function of relatively constant change," said Polian, the Colts' president and vice chairman from 1997 to 2011. "When you change coaches, general managers and scouts, it makes it hard to have a constant philosophy and hard to have a constant philosophy to follow on draft day."
• • •
Nothing illustrates the Bucs' draft woes more than their eight-year quest to find a cornerback.
It started on draft day, 2008. With Ronde Barber turning 33 and Phillip Buchanon in the final year of his contract, the Bucs needed a long-term solution.
They picked Aqib Talib in the first round that year despite the fact that he had tested positive for marijuana use three times at Kansas and also served a two-game suspension for violating team rules.
Talib's troubles in Tampa began before he even played a game. At the NFL rookie symposium — a seminar designed to help new players avoid trouble — Talib got into a fight with a teammate. Once on the field, he quickly showed flashes of Pro Bowl potential, but his problems off the field continued to mount. He was accused of assaulting a cab driver from the back seat of a taxi, was indicted for firing a gun at his sister's boyfriend and then suspended for four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Then-general manager Mark Dominik traded him during the middle of the 2012 season.
Heading into 2013, the Bucs hadn't reached the playoffs in Dominik's first four seasons, and now he had a significant hole in his defense. The pressure was on to make a bold move.
Dominik did just that, sending first- and fourth-round draft picks to the Jets for cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was unhappy with his contract and coming off a serious knee injury.
It wasn't enough. The Bucs lost their first eight games and crawled to a 4-12 finish. The day after the team dropped its regular-season finale 42-17, Dominik and coach Greg Schiano were fired.
Enter a new regime with a new point of view.
Unable to restructure Revis' contract, the Bucs cut him and took the $16 million they saved into free agency.
Coach Lovie Smith and GM Licht acquired quarterback Josh McCown, defensive end Michael Johnson, offensive tackle Anthony Collins and cornerback Alterraun Verner. McCown, Johnson, Collins and Smith are all gone. Verner remains, but his role diminished last season.
The Bucs still need a cornerback, putting Licht in the same position today as Allen in the spring of 2008.
• • •
Teams that give up early-round draft picks often come out on the losing end of the deal. They're passing up the opportunity to find a long-term, low-cost contributor in exchange for a short-term, high-cost known quantity.
Just ask Jon Gruden. The Bucs traded two first-round picks, two-second round picks and $8 million to the Raiders to make him their coach in 2002. It paid off with a Super Bowl championship, but the years that followed were some of the weakest draft years for the Bucs, my analysis shows.
To this day, Gruden wishes he'd had those high picks.
"It's no fun going to the draft meetings when you can't pick in the first two rounds the first two years you're on the job as a new head coach. I hated that. I'm still ticked off about that," he said. "We gave up way too much for a coach in Tampa Bay."
Teams such as the Patriots do the opposite and find ways to add early picks.
Consider their 2009 trade of defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who was in the final year of his contract and a month from turning 30. The Patriots shipped him to the Raiders for a first-round pick in 2011. That pick became Nate Solder, who by his second season was starting every game at left tackle and protecting Tom Brady's blind side.
The Patriots also have preferred trading midround picks in the current draft for higher round picks in later years. That gives them fewer draft picks right away, but in the long run helps them get better players. Why? Because the NFL draft is a lottery, and a team is more likely to hit the jackpot early in the draft than it is later.
That approach helped them land tight end Rob Gronkowski in the second round of the 2010 draft.
Heading into Thursday, the Bucs own seven picks — their original picks in each of the first six rounds, plus an additional sixth.
Who knows? With the ninth overall pick, maybe they'll finally find that cornerback.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.