Bucs hope to put NFL draft busts behind them

The Bucs called Josh Freeman a franchise quarterback and took him with their No. 1 pick in 2009. They released him last season.
The Bucs called Josh Freeman a franchise quarterback and took him with their No. 1 pick in 2009. They released him last season.
Published May 1, 2014


Bucs coach Lovie Smith knows the NFL is a boom-or-bust business and nothing is more combustible than the draft. Choose wisely and you are well-stocked for the future. Pick poorly and you're the laughingstock of the league. In fact, Smith's mere presence at One Buc Place — the third coach to sit in his chair since 2011 — is testament to the franchise's draft day failures over the past five seasons. The Bucs are among eight teams — including Smith's former club, the Chicago Bears — that do not have a single player remaining from the 2009 draft.

Perhaps just as damning is that only one player remains from the 2010 class: All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. All told, the Bucs selected 36 players in drafts since 2009 and only 17 remain with the team (47 percent). Seven are projected to be starters this season.

That's why Smith and general manager Jason Licht felt compelled to be among the most active teams in free agency, signing 14 players.

"Is it hard to make up and is it a hindrance? You know, it's probably one of the reasons why Jason and I are both here right now," Smith said. "That's just a part of it. If you had to have one guy remaining, you'd like for it to be Gerald, of course. So that is a part of it. Of course, our plan is for us to do better in the draft and make that our foundation. I feel like we'll do that."

That was the same hope Mark Dominik had when he took over as Bucs GM in 2009. To be sure, despite the flops, he cultivated some talent — McCoy, linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster, running back Doug Martin and safety Mark Barron.

But those picks were countered by busts such as Brian Price, Arrelious Benn, Myron Lewis, Da'Quan Bowers and Luke Stocker.

Missing from either list is quarterback Josh Freeman. The 17th overall pick in 2009 showed incredible promise in two of his first four seasons in Tampa Bay. He went 10-6 in 2010, throwing 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions; and 7-9 in 2012, passing for a club record 4,065 yards and 27 touchdowns.

But by Week 3 last year, Freeman was gone, released amid accusations that the Bucs leaked sensitive drug testing information. At 26, following a disastrous one-game start with the Vikings, Freeman has signed a one-year contract with the Giants to potentially back up Eli Manning.

"Quarterbacks make or break every franchise," Dominik said. "You have to hope yours is going to continue to improve, and if you take one in the first round, you've accelerated the process for everybody in the organization."

More and more, NFL owners want microwave results. That has led to shorter head-coaching tenures. Only nine of the 32 coaches who were on the sideline in 2009 still have their same job.

It's a chicken-and-the-egg debate. Do bad drafts lead to coaches being fired or vice versa? A coaching change generally means a scheme switch and new personnel.

"That's what you're seeing in some regard. You're seeing new coaches come in," former Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "For instance, in Tampa, I'm not sure if they even like (Mike) Glennon at quarterback. Last year during the season, people were saying he might be the future of the Buccaneers. It's in the eyes of the beholder, but you'd better get good players out of this draft to make your team because they're affordable and they're the lifeblood of the organization."

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New coaches evaluate personnel differently, which can also nullify draft classes.

"I know that's a lot of it," Dominik said. "You want to go in and establish yourself and what you want to be offensively and defensively and that can be a part of your turnover."

Todd McShay, a draft analyst for ESPN, said Wednesday he believes the Bucs got value for some players in the draft, particularly the past three years.

"When you take some chances, you're taking some risks," McShay said. "I thought that Mason Foster pick was a really good pick. Da'Quan Bowers was a risk. … Adrian Clayborn, they got him a lot later than expected and he's started 35 games. Mark Barron started 30 games. Doug Martin, obviously dinged up, but I think both those guys are going to be really good football players for a long time in Tampa. Lavonte David is an absolute stud and that was a great value, one of the best values of that entire 2012 class.

"I wasn't as big on Glennon, but I thought he outplayed what the expectation was. It'll be interesting to see what his role is in Tampa, if he winds up hanging around with the new regime."

The Bucs own the No. 7 overall choice in next Thursday's draft. Though nothing is decided, the quarterback position will be considered.

"There's a high bust rate up there, especially where we're picking," Licht said. "So you want someone that can handle the expectations that are placed on him from us, from (the media), from our fans. So he's got to be a mentally strong player in addition to being a great player."

Just another boom-or-bust player in a boom-or-bust league.