This is the second of a series of articles examining how the league�s current elite built their juggernauts.� We�ve seen that the Rams success has hinged on their commitment to speed.� Speed kills on the field; beyond that, the He-goats� singular focus on this attribute has created a state where players like McCleon, Az-Zahir, Wistrom, Bly and even Fletcher and Warner produce at a much higher level in St. Louis than they might elsewhere.� In that sense, the luck factor identified previously is subsidiary to this �commitment� principle.�� In short, the Rams have taken a group of limited players who fit their system and formed these men into a team that is much greater than the sum of their partial talents.
Due to spotty drafts in the mid-90�s, the Rams have been forced to in-fill with (generally) mid-level FA but, since �99, have traded effectively to leverage impact-now performers like Faulk, Holt and Aeneas Williams.� Last April, they moved to secure their future, swinging deals to acquire (2) additional 1st round picks and (via Vermeil) a 2nd round selection.�� Trades are not common in the NFL but that fact is irrelevant to the Frontiere franchise�s long-term reliance on this route.�� Turning towards Florida�s Gulf Coast:
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Rich McKay-Tony Dungy era dates from 1995.� In the period since, no team was been more success building through the draft.� A remarkable 17/22 Buccaneer starters are home-grown; even more amazing, Ourlad�s depth chart reveals that all 22 second team players began their careers in T�Bay.� The Stiller FO professes to build through the draft but the current roster reveals just 13/22 starters and 15/22 backups began in B&G.� In short, Tampa Bay is a superior, and younger, team built on the lines favored here.� How is that possible?��
The Bucs increased their chances to succeed by stockpiling high draft picks, especially between �95 and �97 when their re-building process began.� Tampa Bay gained two 1st round selections in �95, �96, �97 and �00.� This was accomplished either by trading down in the 1st or, twice, by trading a present 2nd round pick for a future 1st.� In �96, the Bucs had (2) 2nds to go with their (2) 1sts.� They traded the lower 2nd to San Diego for the Bolt�s �97 1st.� In �98, Tampa Bay traded out of the first round altogether dealing their 1st (19 overall) to the Raiders for Oakland�s dual 2nd round picks.� With those, Tampa had three 2nd round slots; they made two selections but moved the third to the Bolts (again!) for that team�s 2000 1st.� Note that Tampa Bay twice acquired multiple 2nd round selections, kept one (or two) and transmuted the other into a deferred 1st.
�Early in the McKay (the Younger) era, T�Bay had been slotted to draft in the top 5-10 but moved down in the 1st to acquire multiple Top 12-50 opportunities.� T�Bay was awful in those years and, evidently their FO believed that it was better to get 2-3 shots at quality players than to hurl (1) prospective stud into the gaping abyss that was then their roster, talent-wise.� You may not agree but you have to admire their perspective; it is one thing to swap high 1st for mid-1st picks; it is another thing to highjack a 1st for one of a multitude of 2nd round selections.� By looking to the long term, or by avoiding the �hard-on� factor, the Bucs generated cascading premium (if not �elite�) opportunities.�
In contrast, the Stillers have not had multiple 1st round selections since �89; I can�t remember a year when they had multiple 2nd round picks.� While the results in �89 (Worley and Ricketts) were not good, the fact remains that talent-starved teams require force-feeding and the draft is the best, and cheapest, means of sustenance.� The Stillers were in a re-building mode in the late 80�s and, IMO, should have been so again since, say, the �96-�97 off-season.� In the latter period, the FO has moved down twice (Shields and Hampton).� Those deals were both successful (the Shields deal netted Porter and Poteat; the Hampton deal, arguably, was instrumental in acquiring Bell) but, compared to the cavalcade of picks generated by the T�Bay braintrust, the Stiller FO has operated on the margins�
The Bucs committed to building an elite unit on one side of the ball.� T�Bay selected DE Warren Sapp (95/1.12), ROLB Derrick Brooks (95/1.28), DE Regan Upshaw (96/1.12) and DT/DE Marcus Jones (96/1.22).� All are front 7 players with speed; while none were top 10 players, this concentrated aggregate of talent has established a dominant unit upfront on the D-side.� That DL dominance, especially in the pass rush area, has reduced T�Bay�s premium in the secondary.� In 2001, the Buc D-side will feature (5) former 1st round picks.� They figure to be: Sapp, Brooks, Jones, DT Anthony McFarland (99/1.15) and newly acquired UFA DE Simone Rice (96/1.03 or 9 spots ahead of the departed Upshaw).� That is all (4) DL and Brooks; in contrast, the Buc secondary is entirely made up of former mid-rounders, 3rd and 4th round picks.� Barber, Abraham, Lynch and Jackson do some things well but without the pass rush generated by the Buc front, those DB could be overexposed and seriously abused.
T�Bay accepted the wisdom that �it all begins up front� and made their selections accordingly.� The Stillers have committed to a defensive scheme that requires two-gap DL, LB who can both rush like DE and cover like DB and DB who can both run with any greyhound WR and rush the passer (ref. Woodson and Lake, circa �94).� It is an open question whether such players exist (in sufficient numbers) here on Earth; there is no doubt that the Stillers have, at most, three (3) of the type.� Those men are Hampton, Porter and Bell.� The Stiller pass rush has been mediocre for years; this puts a premium on the DB.� The 3-4 is, allegedly, a LB-driven system; this suggests a premium at that position too.� In sum, while the Buc DL-dominant 4-3 requires 4 to 5 premium-type performers, the DL-depleted Stiller 3-4 seems to require as many as 8.
The Bucs have done a superior job of retaining their talent.� Sapp and Brooks, class of �95, are in their second deal; so are Jones, Alstott and Abraham of the class of �96.� Last winter, the Bucs not only acquired UFA QB Brad Johnson and DE Simone Rice but also retained starters ROT Jerry Wunsch, CB Ronde Barber and LOLB Shelton Quarles.� From �95�97, the Bucs have developed 3-4 starters per draft class and managed to hold their loses to about one per year.� The Stiller record in this area is well known.�
The Bucs have been able to draft ahead of the FA curve.� Not every player stays on; last winter, ROG Frank Middleton moved to Oakland and, about a year ago, DT Brad Culpepper was CC�ed to the Bears.� It�s worth noting that �99 pick Anthony McFarland capably replaced Culpepper in the 2000 season; this year, the Bucs must expect �00 2nd round selection Cosey Coleman to more than replace Middleton.� Similarly, when Hardy Nickerson was up for renewal in �99, the Bucs let him go to Jaxville and moved Jamie Duncan (98/3) in at MLB.� Duncan is no hardware-man but the T�Bay defense managed to carry on.�
Obviously, there is a reciprocal relationship between retaining talent and being able to draft in front of need.� Both are instrumental to the success of any team claiming to build through the draft.� Next year, the Stillers face losing (2) CB, their run-stuffing MLB and Pro Bowl OLB.� None of these positions were addressed last winter; presumably, the FO expects to keep all these players.� We�ll see.�
The Bucs have altered their approach as their team developed.� Initially, TB traded down and rarely entered the FA market.� That�s changed in the last couple of seasons.� In �00, the Bucs traded (2) #1 picks for feature WR Keyshawn Johnson; in addition they acquired UFA/CC interior O-linemen Jeff Christy and Randell McDaniel.� This winter, they moved on UFA QB Brad Johnson and DE Simone Rice.� Every one of those players has Pro Bowl credentials; they must be considered elite type FA.� It is worth noting that, excluding Rice who replaced semi-bust Regan Upshaw, all these men are O-side players.� T�Bay has built a powerful defense through the draft but their O-side hasn�t kept pace.� That�s parity; even with a two-fold draft haul in the early years, the Bucs could not build both units simultaneously.�
Reality bites or how old is too old?� NFL players have a short life span; the Bucs rise began with Sapp and Brooks and it is an open question how long they�ll remain premiere players.� Every FO, and every player, must face the question �how old is too old?�� The clock is ticking for the Buc D-side; that is why the Buc FO has moved into the premium FA market and that is why they traded up this year for LOT Kenyatta Walker.� The Steel Curtain rusted out in about 10 years; Sapp and Brooks are entering their seventh seasons; their next contract will be their third and, for most players, the movement in that period is sharply downward.� In T�Bay, the time is now.�
Summary:� T�Bay began by stockpiling multiple high draft picks to build their team.� That accomplished, they moved into the FA market in a big way.� Remember, T�Bay was very close to upsetting the Rams for the 1999-2000 NFC title.� That game served notice that their D-side could get them to, but not over, the top.� Since then, the Bucs have added Keyshawn, the former Viking OL duo, Johnson and, by trading up this spring, Kenyatta Walker.� This appears to be year 7 of, say, a 10-year plan.� If intelligence, vision and perseverance have any reward then the Bucs should be repeating Super Bowl champs over the next couple of years.