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Good drafting only way Tampa Bay Buccaneers will return to respectability in NFL

This is the week the dominance began. And later, the doubts.

This is the week that got the Bucs out of trouble. And eventually, back in.

This is the week when the Bucs found their stars. And looking back, when they lost their way.

Say what you will about the NFL draft. As sporting spectacles go, it can be silly and annoying and overhyped and unpredictable. Seldom have there ever been more voices talking about players they have seen less, all of them hoping you will forget about the absurd things they said about last year's failures.

For the Tampa Bay Bucs, however, draft week is their latest chance to get better.

Also, their greatest chance.

This is where it all started, remember? The last time the doubters outnumbered the dreamers by this large of a margin, the last time it was this difficult to look at a Tampa Bay schedule and pick out six victories, the Bucs came away with the draft that changed everything.

That was 15 drafts ago, in 1995, the draft when the Bucs traded down and took Warren Sapp, then traded up and chose Derrick Brooks. Before the day was done, they had also traded in all those old perceptions about the failure of a franchise.

Together, Brooks and Sapp made 18 Pro Bowls, and they each won a defensive player of the year award, and they turned the Bucs into the most dominant defense of the next decade. Throw in the draft picks spent on John Lynch, Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn and Ronde Barber and you pretty much have most of the recent good days covered. (For the record, Tampa Bay's first flirtation with success, back in '79, can be credited to the drafts that brought such players as Lee Roy Selmon and Doug Williams to town.)

Which brings us to this question:

When it comes to stars, isn't it about time the Bucs started growing their own again?

The Bucs need this draft. They need a solid pick at No. 1, and they need a surprise player on Day 2.

More than anything, the failure of the Bucs in recent seasons has been an inability to replace their aging stars with younger ones. You can blame those in charge of the draft, or you can blame those in charge of the development, but either way, it has been far too long since the Bucs have had a player attain stardom.

For years, young players haven't seemed to get better around here. Remember Michael Clayton as a rookie? Cadillac Williams? Remember Chris Simms in '06? None lived up to the previews.

When young players don't grow, a franchise doesn't either. Instead, this has been a team that has had to reinvent itself with each season. That makes the playoffs hard to reach. It makes championships almost impossible.

Granted, the Bucs traded away a lot of premium picks over the past decade for Jon Gruden (it was worth it; he won a Super Bowl) and Keyshawn Johnson (it wasn't worth it; even though he led the team in receiving on the way to that Super Bowl, he wasn't here long enough to justify the cost) and Kenyatta Walker (it is not worth even discussing whether it was worth it).

The point is not the players who aren't here, however. It's the ones who are. The Bucs have had five first-round picks and six seconds since 2002, and they have one Pro Bowl appearance (Davin Joseph last season) to show for it. You can argue linebacker Barrett Ruud should have made it last season, but that's still not enough.

This hasn't helped, either. The Bucs haven't discovered a second-day impact player in a very long time. You know, a Tom Brady. A Matt Cassel. A Marques Colston. An Asante Samuel. Every now and then, a team needs to hit on one of those.

After all, young players take care of a team's future. They keep the salary cap manageable. And they make up for average drafts.

Hey, it isn't as if the Bucs always drafted great players throughout the Dungy years, either. Remember, they spent a No. 12 overall on Regan Upshaw, a No. 15 on Booger McFarland, a No. 16 on Reidel Anthony and a No. 22 on Marcus Jones in a four-year period. The Bucs have had bigger busts, but still, that's not very good value.

The thing is, when you have great young players around them, you can endure a few who are just good enough.

For the Bucs, it's time to take full advantage of the draft again. No matter what you think about free agency — where the Bucs landed Derrick Ward but missed out on the big prize, Albert Haynesworth — there is a limit to how much a team can improve. No matter how much you talk about trades — where the Bucs landed Kellen Winslow but missed out on the big prize, Jay Cutler — they only happen every now and then.

The constant is the draft. The more consistent a team is in it, the more consistent it is likely to be on the field.

Even with the first pick at No. 19, even with no second-rounder, the Bucs need to choose wisely.

After all, this is the week when the good teams reload. And the week when the bad ones simply repeat their mistakes.

Good drafting only way Tampa Bay Buccaneers will return to respectability in NFL 04/18/09 [Last modified: Sunday, April 19, 2009 7:10am]
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