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What if the Buccaneers hadn’t traded for the pick that landed Derrick Brooks?

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It’s “What if...” Week at SB Nation, so we’re taking a look at how things would be if Tampa Bay hadn’t made the move that landed an eventual Hall of Famer.

New Orleans Saints vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers - January 1, 2006 Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

“Who’s my favorite player?”

“Mr. Derrick Brooks!”

That question and answer became iconic in Tampa Bay. There aren’t a ton of players in Buccaneers franchise history that have been universally-loved by the fan base. For both his Hall of Fame career on the field and the class he has always shown off it, Derrick Brooks is one of those guys. But have you ever thought about what Tampa Bay’s history would look like without him? It’s “What if...” Week across the SB Nation NFL network, so we’re exploring that alternate universe a bit here.

In the 1995 NFL Draft, the Bucs spent their first-round pick on Warren Sapp, who of course went on to have a Hall of Fame career of his own. But Tampa Bay decided it wasn’t done with round one. General manager Rich McKay and his staff made a trade, giving up both of Tampa Bay’s second-rounders in exchange for Dallas’ first-rounder, which was the 28th overall pick. With that pick, the Bucs selected Brooks.

You all know the rest. Brooks was an 11-time Pro Bowl selection and was an All-Pro selection nine times (five times on the first team, four on the second team). He won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2002, racking up 117 tackles (87 solo, seven for loss), a career-high five interceptions and four defensive touchdowns. And yes, that was the same season he helped lead Tampa Bay to its first and only Super Bowl victory. In 14 seasons, Brooks totaled 1,715 tackles, 25 interceptions and 24 forced fumbles. He is now in the Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium (with his number retired) and has a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There has never been — and there probably never will be — another Buc like Derrick Brooks.

But what if that trade on draft day never happens? What if Brooks ends up with the Cowboys or some other team? Buccaneer history wouldn’t be nearly the same. That elite defense fielded by Tampa Bay in the late 1990s and early 2000s? It probably never reaches that all-time great level. It could’ve still been a very good defense (maybe even great), but would it have been elevated to elite? The impact Brooks had on the defense — and the franchise as a whole — can’t be overstated.

Without Brooks, are the Bucs still searching for their first Lombardi Trophy today? He was a difference-maker throughout his whole 14-year career, but that 2002 season was something else. He played at a ridiculously high level that year, impacting games week in and week out. Is that defense as dominant without him? It’s actually an interesting question. Again, that group was talented in its own right, so the unit likely would’ve been very good regardless. With Sapp, Simeon Rice, John Lynch and Ronde Barber at the core, you’re still going to have an excellent defense. But picturing that defense without Brooks just doesn’t feel right. It’s hard to quantify or explain his impact. He was just THE guy for that defense.

According to Pro Football Reference, Brooks’ approximate value (AV) in 2002 was a career-high 22. That doesn’t tell us everything, obviously, but it’s notable that his value was at a personal-best level the year that Tampa Bay won it all.

Are the 2002 Bucs a championship team without Brooks? I certainly don’t have the credentials to say one way or the other. But one thing is for sure. Without him, we don’t have this unforgettable moment/picture:

Brooks fourth quarter touchdown off a fumble Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

If that trade doesn’t happen, Brooks isn’t all over Tampa Bay’s record books. The Tampa Bay community wouldn’t be the same either. Brooks was the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award winner in 2000, and his outstanding work in the community is still going on to this day. It’s probably safe to say that Brooks is the most beloved Buc ever. And it’s hard to see anyone ever passing him for that title.

This whole “What if...” theme, by its very nature, is abstract. There’s no way of knowing what Bucs history would be like without Derrick Brooks. But it’s just plain crazy to think about a world where that 1995 trade doesn’t happen. Thankfully, we don’t live in a world where Brooks is some other team’s legend. That trade happened, and it changed Bucs history forever.

Who’s my favorite player?

Because of that fateful trade, I can always answer...

Mr. Derrick Brooks.