There's not much to like about the Bucs' record of 4-10. There's even less to like about the prospect of finishing the season 4-12 with the NFL's longest losing streak of 10 games, a possibility that seems probable with away games against the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons coming up in the next two weeks. But aside from the prospect that such a meltdown might bring about the staff changes that many of us feel are necessary, there's one positive to be taken away from our record. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently positioned to pick at number 6 overall in the 2012, and could potentially pick as high as number 4 overall depending on how the season concludes.
A draft pick this high puts us in a great position: we'll be able to choose from amongst the most elite prospects available. Alternatively, we could use our pick to trade down with one of the teams seeking a new quarterback, and gain extra picks in the trade. With multiple positions of need heading towards the offseason, the later option will have definite attractions to whoever is managing the Bucs' personnel decisions in April. Let's have a look at the five teams ahead of us in the draft order and their draft needs, the top prospects that may be available to the Bucs, and the different options that the Bucs can explore.
The Indianapolis Colts (1-13), Minnesota Vikings (2-12), and St. Louis Rams (2-12) will all pick ahead of the Bucs in April, regardless of the results of the remaining games. Even if either the Rams or Vikings win both of their remaining two games (a very unlikely prospect), they would pick ahead of the Bucs based on strength of schedule. If teams have the same record, the draft order is determined by strength of schedule (the total wins of their opponents), lowest picking first and highest picking last. In any conceivable tiebreaker with the other bottom five teams, the Bucs lose- our difficult schedule working against us one last time. Therefore, the highest draft pick that the Bucs can receive is number 4 overall.
The Jacksonville Jaguars and the Cleveland Browns have the same record as the Bucs, 4-12. Cleveland's remaining games are at Baltimore in week 16 and home against Pittsburgh in week 17. Yeah. I think we can safely assume that both the Browns and Bucs will finish 4-12, and that the Browns will pick at #4 overall. How about the Jaguars? In week 16 they play at Tennessee and in week 17 they play at home against Indianapolis. It's probable that Jacksonville can manage a win in at least one of these games, particularly as a second victory by the Colts could ruin their shot at Andrew Luck (St. Louis and Indianapolis are currently tied in strength of schedule numbers at 106) and their other game is against the team that the Colts just defeated. So we can posit that the Bucs will end up with the #5 overall pick.
Who are the top five players available in the draft? Every big board varies on this point, but they tend to have a few similarities. Almost every board lists Andrew Luck as the #1 with the next four players comprised of some combination of four of the following players: QBs Matt Barkley and Robert Griffin III, OT Matt Kalil, WR Justin Blackmon, CB Morris Claiborne, and RB Trent Richardson.
Now the question becomes what those four teams will do with their picks. First we have the Colts. The consensus that the Colts will select Andrew Luck is overwhelming. Luck is considered to be the best quarterback prospect in years and the 2011 Colts have amply demonstrated that without an elite quarterback, their team can't function. Manning is 35 and may have a few good years left, but he can't play forever, and until he takes another snap his status of recovery from his neck fusion surgery remains questionable.
Next we have the Rams, currently ahead of the Vikings due to a strength of schedule number of 106 versus 115. Of the teams preceding the Bucs, the Rams are likeliest to trade down: they seem likely to stick with Sam Bradford at QB and have several key needs to address. If they use the pick, Kalil, Blackmon, and Claiborne would all be excellent choices for their needs. Of the three, Kalil seems the best fit- Jason Smith can safely be considered a flop at this juncture and elite left tackle prospects are rarely available except at the very top of the draft.
Picking third, we have the Vikings. With Kalil off the board and the Vikes presumably sticking with Ponder for at least one more year, Minnesota will have two clear needs/value options: Blackmon and Claiborne. Which will they choose? Hard to say, really. At wide receiver, the Vikings have nothing apart from Percy Harvin. At cornerback, the Viking have....well, no one. Seriously- name a CB who plays for the Vikings (not currently under indefinite suspension for domestic assault). It's hard to separate my biases from this choice, as it would greatly benefit the Bucs if they chose Blackmon, in my opinion. Therefore, I'll leave this as an open question for the moment.
At fourth, the Browns. Some still have Richardson mocked here. I doubt it. The Colt McCoy era hasn't been auspicious for Cleveland. It's hard to see how they'll turn down the opportunity to draft a potential franchise quarterback. I think they'll pick either Barkley or RG3, depending on who they think will better fit their scheme.
So finally, we're here at the Bucs' pick, #5 overall. Luck and Kalil are off the board, as are Claiborne or Blackmon and Barkley or Griffin III. Who do we choose? Only one option seems like a no-brainer. If the Vikings pick Blackmon and Claiborne is still on the board, I think that the Bucs need to take him without hesitation. Cornerback is arguably our biggest need and Claiborne is the consensus number one cornerback in the draft. Claiborne measures in at 6'1", 185 lbs., and is projected to run a 4.40 40. This season he notched 6 interceptions, 5 passes broken up, and 46 tackles (28 solo). If Claiborne is off the board? Things get more interesting.
One option that's worth seriously considering? Look for a team that wants to trade up to take Barkley/RG3 and grab as many extra picks as we can. We've got a lot of holes to fill on our roster, and with Claiborne gone there's no perfect needs/value match at #5 overall. Possible trading partners could include Miami, Washington, Seattle, and Kansas City. Miami and Washington are particularly intriguing as they will likely pick only three to eight spots behind us. Depending on how far back they are, we could gain a second or third round pick and a fourth round pick, and still land one of our top targets at a key need position. I personally hope that St. Louis doesn't trade away their pick and we're in a position to do precisely this, if Claiborne is off the board.
If we can't find a trading partner or Bucs management is averse to the idea, what would be our options under this scenario if we keep the pick? A couple of names stand out. Justin Blackmon, the sensational wide receiver from Oklahoma State, would be an excellent choice if we want to go with the BVA. He's 6'1", 208 lbs, projected to run a 4.48, and had 113 receptions for 1,336 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. Do we need another wide receiver badly enough to burn a first round pick on one? I don't think so, but others disagree. Trent Richardson, the Alabama star running back and Heisman finalist, is another great value who could bring an instant spark to our offense. He's a more complete back than Blount and would likely get the starting position. Again, I feel that using a first round pick on a position where we already have a quality starter is a luxury- but others may disagree. Jonathan Martin, the OT who's protected Andrew Luck's blind side, deserves consideration. He's 6'6", 305 lbs., and performs well in both pass blocking and run blocking. He'd be a solid long term investment in our O-line, but #5 overall seems far too high for a player who would likely play as right tackle for the foreseeable future.
Other players who would meet our needs include Luke Kuechly (ILB from Boston College), Dre Kirkpatrick (CB from Alabama), and Zach Brown (OLB from North Carolina). All of these players would fit our needs well and be instant starters, but any of them would likely be considered a stretch at #5 overall. If we can trade down with Miami or Washington, at least one of these guys should still be on the board when we pick.
What's your take?