Is it too early to start thinking about next year's draft? Maybe, but it's fun anyway and judging from some of the comment threads lately I'm not the only one doing it. So I figured I'd post this to give us a place to exchange our thoughts.
The unknown variable is where we'll be selecting. I'd suspect we'll end up somewhere between #15 (if we tank down the stretch) amd #25 (if we make it to the playoffs). Simplest way to approach it though is just to project our current record of 4-3 to be 10-6, and to assume for the moment that we'll pick at #20; please don't interpret that as me trying to jinx our shot at the playoffs! We also should remember that we'll have no 4th round pick in 2012 because of the deal we made to move up in last year's 4th round to get Luke Stocker.
First step is to look at our needs, and project what they'll be in April. In order of priority, here's what I think:
Cornerback: This is a no-brainer for me- absolutely the highest priority looking towards the draft (and possibly free agency, but we all know about Dominik's aversion to FA). Ronde will be 37 next year, and he's currently playing on a one year contract. Is there a possibility that he'll come back for the 2012 season? Sure, it's possible- he's a gamer, he's a key team leader, and he's still playing well. Still, the fact that it was a one year contract that was negotiated makes me think that until we know otherwise, we have to assume he's retiring. Then there's the ongoing saga of Aqib Talib. With his trial set for March 26, 2012, there's a slight possibility that a verdict will be reached before the draft, but it's likelier that it will still be ongoing. He's also in the final year of his current contract. Considering how lackluster he's looked this year, it's hard to say what the Bucs will do with Talib in terms of offering a new contract. I doubt that they'll simply let him go into free agency, but they will hopefully address the trial by inserting a clause in his contract that 1) renders its terms null and void if he's convicted and 2) contains little or no guaranteed money/signing bonus. With both the number 1 and number 2 corners' futures with the team in doubt, I can't see how the Bucs won't go with a corner in the 1st round, and I'd wager they'll probably look to add a second in the later rounds.
Running back: Earnest Graham is out for the season (and his career, sadly, may be over), Kregg Lumpkin is a total flop, and Madu is an untested unknown (for now). Blount is developing well and has a firm hold on the number one spot at running back, but our depth at running back behind him is woeful. We need a long term solution, a second back to complement Blount: ideally, a speedy scat back with good hands and pass protection skills. I'd say that after cornerback, this is our biggest need.
O-Line: Playing Chicago at Wembley, we lost both Faine and Zuttah to injuries. The result wasn't pretty. Donald Penn and Davin Joseph are the anchors of the line, but all of the other positions have the potential for improvement. Trueblood has been pretty solid so far this year, but his pass protection still needs work. Zuttah is serviceable at LG, but he's nothing superb. And Faine is good when he's not injured, but it seems like you can count on him having at least one injury a year. Quality OTs usually go very quickly in the draft, but guards and centers stay on the board longer. I'd like to see the Bucs draft at least one lineman in this draft, preferably someone who can challenge Zuttah to start at left guard or who can be shuffled around as needed.
Linebacker: Geno Hayes is in his contract year. He's had some nice plays this year, though he hasn't exactly set the world on fire. I'd wager we'll resign him, though hopefully for less than we gave Quincy Black. Black and Foster seem set in their respective spots, with Watson performing well as a backup. But we're too thin across the board- use the same two-injuries-in-one-game scenario that we experienced with the O-line at Chicago. After Foster left the game, if we'd lost another linebacker, we'd have been shredded. I'd like to see at least one LB added.
Tight end: K2 hasn't performed nearly as well as he did last year- though any TE is going to look shabby by comparison after the emergence of Jimmy Graham. Stocker shows potential, but we haven't seen much from him yet. Another tight end could be good pickup.
Wide receiver: The sophomore slump of Mike Williams is deeply troubling, though the emergence of Preston Parker somewhat makes up for it. Rejus Benn is a deep threat, if and when Olson draws up a plan that involves him actually working as a WR. Dez Briscoe finally showed us last week that he's still relevant. And Ed Gant is still on the practice squad, waiting for his turn. For once, the Bucs are actually pretty loaded at WR- though we could always use more speed. Unless Justin Blackmon or Alshon Jeffery somehow falls all the way down to us, I don't think the Bucs need to draft a WR in this draft- though I realize I may be in the minority in that particular opinion.
Safety: With T-Jack back in business, Sean Jones playing well, Cody Grimm back with us next season after recovering from his injury, and Corey Lynch, Larry Asante, Devin Holland, and Ahmad Black (plus Myron Lewis, if we convert him) all ready to back them up, we're very deep at safety. Not a position of concern in this draft.
D-Line: We've got a very solid corps of defensive lineman- not a position of need.
Fullback: Erik Lorig is solid as our starter, and fullbacks usually go undrafted- no need to use a pick on one.
Kicker/Punter/Longsnapper: Koenan, Barth, and Economos are are solid- no needs to be addressed.
So with our needs in mind, let's take it round by round looking at some of the prospects that might be available to us:
As I said above, it's my opinion that we need to take a cornerback in the first round unless a top ten prospect that would fill one of our other needs (Matt Kalil, Justin Blackmon, Jonathan Martin, or Alshon Jeffery) falls all the way down to us. Let's have a look at who could be available:
Dre Kirkpatrick: If we're picking around 20, it's likely he'll already be off the board. If he isn't, we shouldn't hesitate. Kirkpatrick is 6'3", 190 lbs., and is projected to run a 4.46 40; he's been an absolute beast for Alabama. If you're looking for a guy to defend the Calvin and Andre Johnsons of the world, he's the physical archetype of what you want.
Morris Claiborne: A ballhawk with impressive physical skills and excellent speed.
Stephon Gilmore: Another big CB with excellent speed- he doubles as a punt returner.
Jayron Hosley: At 5'10" and 172 lbs., he's smaller than the first three, but he has excellent speed (another who doubles as a returner) and excellent ball skills.
Alfonzo Dennard: Rumor is that the Tampa Bay scouts are very interested in Dennard. He's dropped on some draft boards, due to an injury that kept him out for the first three games of the season. I watched the Nebraska/Michigan State game earlier today and he looks completely recovered- totally shut down B.J. Cunningham. He's 5'10" and 205lbs, projected to run a 4.45 40.
Any one of these five guys would be an outstanding choice for the Bucs in the first round, and could project to start for us in 2012.
The further along we go, the more unpredictable it becomes, due to the uncertainty of who will still be available and how they'll match our needs. If one of the five cornerbacks from above is somehow still on the board (unlikely), doubling down would be a wise investment. Here a few other possibilities for round 2.
LaMichael James: I know that a lot of other Bucs fans love the idea of drafting the Oregon running back to pair him with Blount. James has electric speed and great receiving ability- he's considered to be a contender for the Heisman. If he's available, I think he'd be a perfect match for our needs. My top choice for our second pick.
Cyrus Gray: In the event that James is already off the board, Gray would be a good consolation prize. The Texas A&M product has a great burst and strong receiving skills.
D.J. Fluker: I'd expect the Alabama RT to be gone before the Bucs make their second pick. If he's still on the board, he'd be a very solid choice- he's 6'6", 335 lbs., and excels in both run and pass protections.
Chase Thomas: The Stanford OLB woud be great choice- he's one of the keystones of their defense.
Lavonte David: The Nebraska OLB is a dynamo on the field with superb tackling skills- he set a single season record for Nebraska last year with 152 tackles.
Janoris Jenkins: Jenkins isn't huge but he has an incredible skill set as a cover corner. The only reason why he would fall this far (or further) is the same reason the Bucs might hesitate: he was arrested a couple of times for smoking pot and got kicked out of Florida as a result. Do we want to take the risk of picking up T-Jack, Jr. (in terms of suspensions, not tackles)?
Again, if any of the guys we've already covered are still available, pull the trigger. Remember that we have no fourth pick, so this is our last shot before the late rounds. A few possibilities:
Ryan Miller: The giant guard is surprisingly mobile for his size: he's 6'8" and 310 lbs. He's played RG and RT at Colorado, but would probably be plugged in next to Penn at LG if the Bucs drafted him.
Ben Jones: The center from Georgia has both run blocking and pass blocking skills- he's the same height as Faine but bulkier at 316 lbs.
Coby Fleener: One of Andrew Luck's favorite targets, the 6'6" 248 lb. tight end has excellent run blocking skills as well.
Brandon Boykin: Another option for doubling down at CB, the Georgia product has excellent speed (yet another who doubles as a KR). Last season he had 44 tackles with 6.5 tackles for a loss and three interceptions.
Sean Spence: At 6'0", the Miami OLB is a bit undersized, but he's an absolute ballhawk. Last season he had 110 tackles with 16 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, six passes broken up, and one forced fumble.
Isaiah Pead: Another RB option if we miss James and Gray. The Cincinnati standout is notable for having great pass protection skills, along with good speed and receiving skills.
T.Y. Hilton: One WR who might be worth considering is this Florida International product. He's got superb speed and is a legitimate deep threat, with superb kick returns skills as well.
The late rounds:
Rounds 5, 6, and 7 are always about grabbing the guys that have been overlooked- here are a few sleeper picks that might catch the Bucs' eye:
Alex Hurst: The RT from LSU projects to move inside to guard in the NFL. Good run blocking and pass protection skills. Excellent power, technique, and work ethic.
Moe Petrus: The UConn center started off as a left guard and can play both positions. Good mobility and strength, sometimes inconsistent technique.
Cameron Chism: The Maryland CB had an impressive sophomore year with 54 tackles and 4 interceptions, but declined somewhat as a junior with 67 tackles, no interceptions, a forced fumble and a sack. So far this year: 41 tackles, 2 interceptions, and a sack. Could be a good third day pick if we're doubling down on CBs.
Jeff Demps: In the event that the Bucs don't pick up a RB in the opening rounds (and I for one will be swearing at my TV if that's the case), Demps could be worth a look in the 7th round. He's a Florida hybrid RB/KR with blinding speed: projected to run a 4.25 40. The problem? He's 5'7" and he's been out twice this season with injuries, so there might be durability issues.
Phillip Lutzenkirchen: The Auburn tight end cut his teeth run blocking for Cam Newton. He's been underutilized as a receiver in Auburn's offense, but has the skills to do the job.
Josh Chichester: The Louisville tight end has 20 receptions for 280 yards and 1 TD this season. He was originally a WR, so his run blocking skills are still being developed. He's got the physique to make it work though: he's 6'8", 240 lbs.
Andrew Sweat: The Ohio State OLB made the starting lineup as a junior in 2010 and had 41 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception. He hasn't had much visibility but could be a quality day 3 choice.
Ryan Baker: Last year, the LSU OLB led the team in sacks (7) and was second in tackles (85). So far this year he has 33 tackles and 1/2 sack. He missed the home opener for violating an unspecified team rule, and played with a broken jaw wired shut for the first month of the season.
So with all that in mind, my mock for the Bucs would look something like this: 1st round, Stephon Gilmore; 2nd round, LaMichael James; 3rd round, Ryan Miller; 5th round, Cameron Chism; 6th round, Josh Chichester; 7th round, Ryan Baker.
What do y'all think? Any players of note I've missed that you think we should make a play for? How would you prioritize the draft? What do your preliminary mocks look like?