Right now the situation for football in 2011 seems bleak. The NFLPA decertified and sued the NFL, alleging that the NFL is an illegal trust. The NFL has also locked out the players, although the NFLPA filed for an injunction to force the NFL to open its doors again. Clearly the NFL and NFLPA are far apart and engaged in an ugly conflict with no resolution in sight. But it's not that simple, as it seems unlikely the NFL and NFLPA are willing to wait for the lengthy legal process to play out. I don't expect a final verdict to ever be reached, instead I think the dispute will be settled at some point. That settlement will include a rookie salary cap - the NFL wants a rookie salary cap desparately and the NFLPA has no real objections to a rookie cap. While the details of that rookie cap will be disputed, one result will be clear: top picks will demand a lot less money than they do right now. That last part is going to be very relevant for the Bucs this draft.
As we all know, the NFL is a QB-driven league and teams will do a lot to get themselves a franchise quarterback. In the past though, drafting a quarterback in the first round came with significant risk as well as potential reward. Not only was the financial commitment itself a big risk, but teams were married to their first-round pick for at least a couple of years regardless of his performance. That's how Jamarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf lasted 3 years in the NFL, and how Eli Manning could mature enough to lead his team to a Super Bowl. Had those guys been 6th-round picks, they wouldn't have lasted for more than a few games. Now compare this to other positions: teams give up on highly drafted players at other positions much more easily. And even when they don't, the impact a bad receiver or linebacker has is a lot smaller than a bad quarterback.
This is where the labor situation comes in: with a rookie salary cap the financial drawbacks to drafting a first-round quarterback become much smaller. In fact, it's possible that drafting a quarterback first overall may now be cheaper than trading for and extending a more experienced quarterback like Kevin Kolb or Donovan McNabb. If teams are convinced there will be a rookie salary cap in place whenever they're allowed to sign draft picks, they'll be more inclined to draft quarterbacks if their QB situation is less than ideal. This is great news for the Bucs, because they have to hope a quality defensive end drops to them - and if more QBs are drafted early, it's likely defensive ends start dropping. Better yet, there are a lot of quarterbacks in the 2011 draft who are in the running to be picked in the first round. For comparison's sake, last year only three quarterbacks were in the running to be first-round picks (Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow and Jimmy Clausen) and only two of them were picked that high. This year, there could be as many as 7 quarterbacks drafted in the first round. Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett, Ricky Stanzi, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick could all be first-round picks come draft day. To illustrate the effect this could have, I'll give you a quick mock draft up to the Bucs, and I'll be giving a QB to most teams that need one.
#1. Carolina Panthers - QB Cam Newton - Clausen doesn't seem to be the answer and neither does Matt Moore. Cam Newton has a tremendous amount of potential.
#2. Denver Broncos - CB Patrick Peterson - the perfect book-end for Champ Bailey, who has been resigned but is still getting older.
#3. Buffalo Bills - QB Blaine Gabbert - Ryan Fitzpatrick is surprisingly solid, but not a long-term answer. A mobile QB with a high ceiling like Blaine Gabbert fits Chan Gailey's offense well.
#4. Cincinnati Bengals - WR A.J. Green - Mike Brown is a really really cheap owner and will try to work things out with Carson Palmer, in part by bringing in the best WR in the draft.otherwise.
#5. Arizona Cardinals - QB Christian Ponder - this team has no one capable of starting, at all. Last year they went with a number of players that were terrible players but at least had leadership skills. Christian Ponder's intangibles are impeccable, and he's a much better QB than Derek Anderson and Max Hall.
#6. Cleveland Browns - WR Julio Jones - They have no real receiving threats right now. Josh Cribbs can't do it all by himself.
#7. San Francisco 49ers - OLB Von Miller - Miller is a pass-rusher through and through, and that's what the 49ers sorely lack on defense. Jim Harbaugh seems to think Alex Smith isn't entirely lost, and they can always try to get a veteran QB somewhere.
#8. Tennessee Titans - DT Marcell Dareus - Dareus is simply too good to pass up at this point. They'll hope they can pick up a QB later in the draft or in free agency, or they'll make do with Kerry Collins.
#9. Dallas Cowboys - CB Prince Amukamura - The Cowboys secondary was horrible last year. Amukamura will fix that, to an extent.
#10. Washington Redskins - QB Jake Locker - A very talented QB who wasn't a winner in college and isn't the best decision-maker. Jay Cutler anyone?
#11. Houston Texans - DE/OLB Robert Quinn - the perfect player as an outside pass rusher in a Phillips 3-4. They'll move the stronger Mario Williams inside, creating a terror of a pass-rush unit.
#12. Minnesota Vikings - QB Ryan Mallett - The only QBs the Vikings have under contract are Rhett Bomar and Joe Webb. They desparately need someone to step in.
#13. Detroit Lions - CB Jimmy Smith - The Lions secondary was a sieve last year, and Smith could be the most talented corner in the draft. Character concerns keep him out of the top 10, though.
#14. St. Louis Rams - DE Da'Quan Bowers - He's fallen a bit because of his knee injury, but he's still one of the best DEs in the draft. The Rams need a WR but there's no real valid candidate available.
#15. Miami Dolphins - DT Nick Fairley - Not really a need for the Dolphins, but if Fairley falls this far I don't think they can ever pass him up. Fairley is raw, but is very talented.
#16. Jacksonville Jaguars - DE Ryan Kerrigan - A high-character, hard-working but not overly gifted player. A typical Jaguars pick.
#17. New England Patriots - DE Cameron Jordan - another falling star at DE, too talented to pass up. He fits the Patriots perfectly.
#18. San Diego Chargers - DE J.J. Watt - The Chargers have no real holes, so they have the luxury of picking whoever's on top of their draft board.
#19. New York Giants - OT Gabe Carimi - The Giants need a right tackle, and Carimi fits the bill perfectly.
#20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - ???
These are the top pass rushers till on the board for the Bucs in this scenario: Adrian Clayborn, Aldon Smith, Justin Houston, Cameron Heyward, Jabaal Sheard, Brooks Reed. That's a lot of talent the Bucs can pick from.