TAMPA — A year ago at the NFL scouting combine, I wrote about only two players: cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive end Noah Spence. They offered solutions at positions of need for the Bucs, and it figured the team might target one or both early in the draft.
The Bucs selected Hargreaves No. 11 overall, then nabbed Spence in the second round with pick No. 39.
Genius foresight? Hardly. When it comes to the draft — this year's is next week in Philadelphia — unless a team owns one of the top three picks, your guess about whom it takes is as good as Mel Kiper's. Besides, it's all a big game of liar's poker. Nobody wants to show his hand.
You want to talk about fake news? Everything said about the draft by an NFL coach or executive should be taken with a lake of salt. But while covering the Bucs over the years, I've managed to stumble into a few hits. I've also had lots of misses.
It began promisingly enough in my first year on the beat. The Bucs owned the fourth overall pick in the 1990 draft. On the eve of the selection, waiting outside the office of then-coach Ray Perkins at the old, cramped One Buc Place, I sort of overheard his conversation with who I thought was then-owner Hugh Culverhouse. Perkins may have been talking to Culverhouse's son, Hugh Jr., but Perkins called him Hugh, and that was good enough for me.
"Yeah, we're going to take Keith McCants and we're going to play him at linebacker," Perkins said, referring to Alabama's All-American. Perkins played and coached at Alabama.
Too bad he didn't coach at Southern Cal, because Junior Seau went at No. 5 to the Chargers.
Anyway, McCants was indeed the Bucs' pick. Perkins, however, insisted that McCants have an arthroscope on his knee within days of the selection. McCants was furious about it, but he obliged and arrived in Tampa Bay on crutches. This prompted one of my favorite leads: He came from Alabama with a bandage on his knee. (Apologies to Oh! Susanna).
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In 1995, Rich McKay was a first-year general manager who authorized one of the best head fakes in draft history. The Bucs needed a pass rusher and defensive help in general. Boston College defensive end Mike Mamula, who had 17 sacks his final year in college, was a workout wonder at the scouting combine. He was one of the first players to specifically train for combine drills rather than hone his football skills.
McKay began a campaign to let all media know — off the record — how enamored the Bucs were of Mamula. The truth was the Bucs were looking to gain more draft picks, and they did so when they swapped first-round picks with the Eagles, moving from seventh to 12th while collecting two second-round choices.
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Meanwhile, reports of a positive drug test at the combine resulted in Miami defensive tackle Warren Sapp plunging. The Bucs took him 12th overall, then parlayed the extra picks to move back into the first round and select Derrick Brooks.
Mamula had 311/2 career sacks for the Eagles. But there was no way for McKay to know that his first two draft picks would become first-ballot Hall of Fame players. Now that's a successful smoke screen.
• • •
When Lovie Smith took over as Bucs coach in 2014, he had control of the 53-man roster and owned the seventh overall pick in the draft. He also had a desire to dabble in misinformation.
Through off-the-record channels, Smith made sure the word was put out that the Bucs had more than a curiosity about Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. With Josh McCown as their starter, Johnny Football looked pretty good on tape. Sure, he had off-field issues, but he was a playmaker. Heck, Texans coach Bill O'Brien liked him, too, the narrative went.
You like to think the team you cover isn't putting out a false narrative. And the Bucs did like a big component of the Aggies' passing game. But it was receiver Mike Evans. The Browns took Manziel 22nd overall. They also eventually wound up with McCown. Go figure.
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The Bucs tanked the final game of 2015 for the No. 1 overall pick in 2016 and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. That's right, tanked. Watch the second half against New Orleans. By then they had decided to go all in on Winston and needed to sell the decision due to his considerable off-field issues.
By the time Smith sat down with a few writers at the combine in Indianapolis, his first comments were about Winston. He began by saying, "Let's talk about the elephant in the room." So we talked, often, for the next two months, and Winston was selected by the Bucs at No. 1.
• • •
This year? At No. 19 overall, the Bucs can't be sure which players will be available. There's been a lot of talk about a running back. They claim they like their offensive linemen. Everyone knows they need help on defense.
What should you believe? It's liar's poker.