Fifteen years ago, the Bucs enjoyed the richest first-round haul in their draft history. It was the pro football equivalent of winning the lottery and striking oil on the same day. After trading down five spots with the Eagles to pick up an extra second-round choice, Tampa Bay selected Miami defensive tackle Warren Sapp with the 12th overall pick. Then they cashed in their extra chips from the Eagles and their second-round pick to move back into the first round and select Florida State linebacker Derrick Brooks 28th overall. As then-general manager Rich McKay sat on the back porch of One Buc Place about 11:30 that night with then-player personnel director Jerry Angelo, they had a sense of what their bounty would mean to the franchise.
"We really felt like we were very fortunate to walk out of there having drafted Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks," said McKay, now the president of the Falcons. "Nothing was lost on us that night."
But even they could not have predicted the impact the two would have on the until-then woeful franchise. Sapp and Brooks combined for 18 Pro Bowls in 23 seasons in Tampa Bay, were named defensive players of the year and filled resumes that one day will put them on the steps of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Most important, they anchored a defense that dominated for more than a decade and made the Bucs perennial playoff contenders, and for the 2002 season, Super Bowl champions.
"I firmly believe that the 2010 draft is as critical as the '95 draft was for the Bucs, just from the standpoint how talent-rich the draft is," said general manager Mark Dominik, who was hired as a 22-year-old scout a few months after that draft.
"In '95, it turned out to be a good draft, but no one took advantage of it in the first round better than the Bucs did. This draft class, to me, has more talent throughout. … It's why we've spent an exorbitant amount of time preparing for this class."
It's probably unrealistic to believe the Bucs could catch lightning in a bottle again in the draft. But this year's plan has a chance to follow the '95 blueprint.
The Bucs own the No. 3 overall pick, for which they are again likely to look at a defensive tackle. Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh or Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy should be available.
But with two high second-round picks (Nos. 35 and 42 overall) and 11 picks overall, the Bucs have the material with which to trade up for another first-round pick should they choose to.
Like McKay, Dominik has worked hard to change the way the Bucs have approached the draft.
"The Bucs (in '95) were in a place where the focus (always) seemed to be the same in the draft: 'measurables' and 'potential'," McKay said. "Those two words were the biggest problems the franchise had faced. What you saw (in '95) is 'Let's focus on production and not get too concerned with measurables and not worry about potential.' "
Dominik's challenge is a little different. Where the Bucs have been so deficient in the draft is the middle rounds (not that first-rounders Michael Clayton and Gaines Adams or second-rounder Dexter Jackson hit it big). The last player drafted by the Bucs after the first round to be selected to a Pro Bowl was placekicker Martin Gramatica in '99.
"We've got to do a better job of finding guys like Ronde Barber in the third round and the fourth round," Dominik said.
The Bucs have selected 37 players in Rounds 3 through 5 since '97, but only nine have held starting jobs for more than one season. So Dominik told the scouts to focus on uncovering prospects in the middle and late rounds.
He also solicited input from the coaching staff about the type of player each position coach is looking for and communicated that to the scouting staff.
It also helps to have luck. Draft-day reports of Sapp's positive drug test at the combine caused him to drop in the draft. Even the Bucs passed on him at No. 7, but they'd done their homework and knew he'd be motivated and competitive. So they traded down with the Eagles and took him at No. 12.
Then they found a trading partner in Dallas with the 28th pick. One pick earlier, the Falcons had pondered taking Brooks but instead selected his FSU teammate, safety Devin Bush.
Now Dominik is hoping for some good fortune.
"When I had a chance to talk to the Glazers about what I would do, I talked to them about getting the defense on track and get the youth on this football team back in here and get that organized core group of guys to grow together," he said.
"And that's what we're going to do."