TAMPA — The 1997 NFL draft, which started 20 years ago today, is a fulcrum in Bucs history. Before it, Tampa Bay had 14 straight losing seasons. After it, the Bucs went to the playoffs five times in six years, a run that ended with a Super Bowl championship.
The '97 draft class isn't as appreciated as the 1995 class, which now has Hall of Famers in Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. But for depth of impact, it's hard to match. In the last 30 years, it's the only draft by any team in any year to produce seven players who would go on to play 100 or more NFL games.
"It was a class that helped with the growth of the organization," said running back Warrick Dunn, the Bucs' first pick and 12th overall. "Coach (Tony) Dungy was building the foundation, and they did a good job of drafting great players that were good guys. We had the opportunity to build lasting memories and friendships to last a lifetime. For all of us, it's always going to be special."
What was ultimately the best pick in the class didn't always look that way — the third-round pick from Virginia was inactive all but one game as a rookie, but defensive back Ronde Barber went on to play 232 games, all for the Bucs, in a career that might put him in Canton next year.
"We went into that draft trying to get faster," said former Bucs general manager Rich McKay, now with the Falcons. "We just felt like speed was something we needed to add, and we needed to add it on offense."
The Bucs had run with more bruising backs like Errict Rhett and Mike Alstott, but found a burst in Dunn, who topped 1,000 yards five times in a 12-year career. Initially, the Bucs thought they could land Dunn with the No. 16 pick, their second first-rounder.
"We always felt we could draft Warrick second, because we had two picks, but his stock just kept rising," McKay said. "I knew that Green Bay with Ron Wolf was really after him. We were nervous all morning about whether he was going to be there when we picked."
Former Gators receiver Reidel Anthony, taken at 16, had the shortest career of the top picks, totaling 16 touchdown catches in just five years in the NFL. The Bucs wanted to get more physical on the offensive line, and found tackle Jerry Wunsch and guard Frank Middleton in the second and third rounds.
"If you watched his tape in college, you saw a guy that whenever the whistle was blown, Frank was absolutely still playing," McKay said. "Very aggressive, and something we wanted on the offensive line. We felt good about the draft because we felt like we got impact players at the top of the draft, and we thought Ronde Barber was a perfect scheme fit. He became a much better player than that."
The rookie class — including linebacker Al Singleton and tight end Patrick Hape — was deep enough that a player who couldn't make the Bucs' cut still managed to play 14 years in the NFL. Cornerback Al Harris, a sixth-round pick, made it with the Eagles in 1998 and started 128 games, mostly with the Packers.
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"Shame on us, but he wasn't a perfect scheme fit," said McKay, who had four future GMs in his front office in Jerry Angelo, Tim Ruskell, Dennis Hickey and Mark Dominik.
Five years after that draft, when the Bucs played in the Super Bowl, only Barber and Singleton remained — Middleton was on the Oakland sideline.
To get there, Barber had an iconic Bucs moment, returning an interception for a touchdown to clinch the 2002 NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia.
He stuck around long enough — through the 2012 season — to impact current Bucs leaders Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David.
McKay remembers that shortly before the '97 draft, the Bucs' front office split their evaluations to have separate grades for personal character and football character, something this class stood out for, then and still now 20 years later.
"Football character meant practice habits, offseason habits, weight-room habits, how important was football to the player," he said. "Personal character speaks for itself. We wanted stellar grades in both areas — you have to have both coming into our league."
Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.