PHOENIX — Two years ago, Bucs general manager Jason Licht had a trail of microphones and reporters chasing him through the NFL annual meeting at the Biltmore resort. That's the kind of attention that comes with owning the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
"I'm glad I'm not the popular guy this year," Licht said Monday. "Usually that means you're doing something right. We're picking 19th this year and our goal is to be picking a lot later in the future."
Of course, the Bucs' fortunes changed when Licht decided to take a calculated risk in 2015 on quarterback Jameis Winston.
Breaking down film of the Heisman Trophy winner from Florida State was the easy part. But Licht uses his vast array of contacts he developed as an area scout to his advantage. In fact, he said, you never know when those relationships will pay off.
Licht's best story about his days spent on college campuses involves another Bucs first-round pick.
"When I was a young scout and I was cutting my teeth out there, the best thing you can do is build a database of players that you've watched so you can compare and contrast," Licht said. "And when I first had the Southeast and I was going to the University of Miami and I had to camp out there two, three, four days because they had 11 first-rounders, or in one year they might have seven or eight. You watch the film, which might take a few days, but then also go and do your research and mill around talking to janitors and coaches and things.
"Those were the best days. I was learning at an accelerated rate because of the quality of players, and also figuring out how to get real intelligence.
"They eventually know what you're doing. It's like being a sales rep. You have to have contacts and they have to trust you after a couple years. Then they finally say, 'Okay, this guy has never done anything to put me in a bad position so I'm going to help him.' You can bribe them with doughnuts and things like that, too."
One of Licht's contacts was Vernon Hargreaves Sr., who coached linebackers for the Hurricanes from 1998 to 2005 and also served as the liaison between the football program and pro scouts.
"So I built a relationship and I remember when he was talking about his son being a heck of an athlete," Licht said. "He would never really brag on him. But he said, 'My son is so lucky, he gets to train and work out with these guys.' Turns out we selected him in the first round (out of UF last year). His dad never steered me wrong."
Nobody is right about every player in the NFL draft, but if Licht has demonstrated anything heading into his fourth season with Tampa Bay, it's that he's willing to take some risks.
Winston, who was accused of sexual assault at Florida State but never charged after two investigations, was a polarizing pick at the time that has paid off with a two-time 4,000-yard passer and a rookie of the year award in fan voting.
Last season, he led the Bucs to a 9-7 record, Tampa Bay's first winning season since 2008. Licht also wasn't afraid to use a second-round selection on unheralded guard Ali Marpet from Division III Hobart College. Of course, not all the risks have panned out. Not yet anyway. Last year, the Bucs dealt their third- and fourth-round choices to move up in the second round and select kicker Roberto Aguayo, whose field goal average of 71 percent was the worst in the league.
To his credit, Licht is willing to cut his losses and signed Jets free agent Nick Folk to compete with Aguayo.
That's not to say Bucs fans can expect Licht to take a chance on troubled Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, who was convicted of assault on a woman as a redshirt freshman. Licht wouldn't comment on specific players in the draft, but if Mixon hasn't completely been taken off the Bucs' board, he's at or near the bottom.
"I still think we're at the point right now where we're young and we just need to continue to add players," Licht said. "And risk? I mean, there's risk with any pick. There's no sure thing. So in essence, you're taking a risk with just about every player.
"So you want to do as much research as you can to eliminate as much risk as you can. I don't think I'll ever be risk adverse and be very careful and scared. You can't pick with fear. But I think we just want to continue to add layers like I said. The way we've been doing it, we've been pretty happy."