Immediate Impact: Which Buccaneer Draft Classes Have Had the Most Combined Rookie Success?

All six players the Buccaneers drafted last month hope to step right into significant roles as rookies, and there’s plenty of reason to believe they can do so.  Second-round cornerback Johnthan Banks and fourth-round defensive tackle Akeem Spence, in fact, might have the inside track at a pair of open starting spots on Tampa Bay’s defense.

However, that group – which also includes third-round quarterback Mike Glennon, fourth-round defensive end William Gholston, fifth-round defensive end Steven Means and sixth-round running back Mike James – will have a tough time matching the rookie-season impact that the Buccaneers’ 2012 draft class made.  Led by safety Mark Barron, running back Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David, who combined to make the maximum 48 starts, the 2012 class produced 1,454 rushing yards, 49 receptions, three kickoff returns for 55 yards, 12 touchdowns, 228 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, 15 passes defensed, one forced fumble and three stops on special teams.

Was it the most immediately impactful draft class in the Buccaneers’ nearly four decades of drafting?  It would certainly be in the discussion.  Let’s take a look at some of the other candidate classes.

Obviously, there have been many impactful rookies in team history, from Lee Roy Selmon to Hugh Green, from Santana Dotson to Cadillac Williams.  But we’re only going to consider classes in which at least three draftees played significant roles (bad news for the incredible duo of Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in 1995), and we are only concerned with their rookie-season production.  There have also been plenty of rookies who went undrafted but still contributed right away, such as Clifton Smith and Karl Williams and even Leonard Johnson just last year, but this comparison is only going to consider players who were actually drafted.

In reverse chronological order, and graded on immediate impact on a 1-10 scale:

2011: Adrian Clayborn led the team with 7.5 sacks and Mason Foster stepped right in at starting middle linebacker and led the team in tackles.  This class might struggle to find a third, however, as Da’Quan Bowers was brought along slowly from his knee injury and made only six starts with 1.5 sacks, while TE Luke Stocker contributed just 12 catches.  Impact: 5.

2010: Gerald McCoy and Mike Williams led a class that got at least nine starts from four different players.  McCoy had three sacks as a rookie and started the first 13 games before an injury, while Williams led the team with 964 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.  Arrelious Benn formed the starting receiver duo with Williams for more than half of the season and seventh-round pick Cody Grimm surprisingly emerged as the starting free safety, contributing 61 tackles and two interceptions in nine starts.  Dekoda Watson and Erik Lorig immediately emerged as core special teamers.  Impact: 7

2007: Second-rounder Arron Sears ended up starting all 16 games at left guard.  First-rounder Gaines Adams started eight games and tied for second on the team with six sacks.  After converting from cornerback to safety, Tanard Jackson started all 16 games and had a very strong rookie season , with 78 tackles, two sacks and 12 passes defensed.  LBs Quincy Black and Adam Hayward excelled on special teams.  Impact: 7.

2006: The team’s first two picks, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood, were the starting right side of the offensive line by Game Five.  Though it was more a matter of necessity than rapid ascension, sixth-round QB Bruce Gradkowski ended up starting 11 games and throwing nine touchdown passes.  Impact: 4.

2005: Cadillac Williams’ cleats were in the Hall of Fame by the end of September, thanks to his record 434 rushing yards in his first three games.  He established a then-Buc rookie record with 1,178 yards and was second on the team with six touchdowns.  TE Alex Smith scored two touchdowns in his first NFL game and finished with 41 receptions, second on the team.  Fourth-rounder Dan Buenning started all 16 games at left guard.  Impact: 6.

1999: Third-round K Martin Gramatica easily won the job and kicked his career off with a great season in which he made 27 of 32 field goal tries and scored 106 points.  Second-round QB Shaun King had to wait awhile to get his chance, but he started the last five regular-season games and both playoff contests.  The Bucs won five of those seven games with King at the helm and came within minutes of making it to the Super Bowl.  First-round DT Anthony McFarland did not start a game and had just one sack, however, and fourth-round S Dexter Jackson was still a couple years away from starting, so this class has a shaky third candidate.  Impact: 4.

1997: Warrick Dunn made the Pro Bowl and had 1,440 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns.  WR Reidel Anthony was second on the team with 35 catches and scored four times.  Third-rounder Frank Middleton was starting at right guard by the end of the season and in the playoffs.  Fifth-rounder Patrick Hape played a lot in two-TE sets.  Had Ronde Barber, a third-round pick destined for one of the greatest Buccaneer careers ever, gotten a chance to play as a rookie, this class might take the cake.  Impact: 7.

1996: The Bucs took two defensive linemen in the first round in Tony Dungy’s first draft but it was the second and third rounds, which produced Mike Alstott and Donnie Abraham, that really made this class.  Alstott led the team in receiving and scoring and was a good complement in the running game to Errict Rhett.  Abraham quickly took over the starting right corner job and led the team with five interceptions.  Those two first-round linemen, Regan Upshaw and Marcus Jones, didn’t have an enormous impact, but Upshaw did start all 16 games at right end and had four sacks.  Fourth-rounder Jason Odom started six games at right tackle and one at left tackle.  Sixth-round WR Nilo Silvan was the team’s primary kickoff return man.  Impact: 8.

1993: First-round DE Eric Curry is rightfully known as a bust, but he did have five sacks as a rookie in just 10 games (all starts).  Sixth-round DT/DE Chidi Ahanotu was one of the best late-round picks in team history and he started 10 games all over the line as a rookie.  Fourth-round WR Horace Copeland brought a big-play element to the offense, averaging 21.1 yards on 30 catches and scoring four times.  Third-round safety John Lynch started four games, though the team hadn’t yet figured out the best way to use him so his impact was somewhat limited.  Impact: 3.

1992: The Bucs didn’t have a first-round pick in ’92 but still found a new pair of starting defensive tackles in Mark Wheeler (Round 3) and Santana Dotson (Round 6).  Dotson set a Buc rookie record with 10 sacks while Wheeler added five of his own.  TE Tyji Armstrong started seven games and contributed rugged blocking and a few big plays.  Fullback Anthony McDowell started eight games and was one of three players taken in the eighth round or later to make the team, along with RB Mazio Royster and LB Elijah Alexander.  Impact: 6.

1991: The Bucs got four rookie starters out of this class: Third-round WR Lawrence Dawsey, third-round FB Robert Wilson, fourth-round safety Tony Covington and eighth-round safety Marty Carter.  In addition, first-round T Charles McRae got four starts, though it was a slow beginning to what would be a disappointing career.  Dawsey led the team in receiving and Covington and Carter were third and fourth, respectively, in tackles.  Covington led the team with three interceptions.  Several late round picks, including DT Rhett Hall, LB Calvin Tiggle and LB Al Chamblee saw playing time.  Impact: 6.

1988: Future Ring of Honor inductee Paul Gruber went from the fourth overall pick to the starting job at left tackle without pause, beginning an ironman streak in which he wouldn’t miss an offensive snap for five years.  Lars Tate led the team in rushing and scored a then-Buc rookie record eight touchdowns.  DL Pig Goff started six games and pitched in with two sacks and three fumble recoveries.  G Robert Bruhin also started six games on the offensive line.  Fifth-round RB William Howard not only became the starter at fullback but got almost the exact same number of carries and yards as Tate.  Putting this one over the top was ninth-round find Reuben Davis, who immediately became the starter at LE in the Bucs’ 3-4 front and had three sacks.  Even 11th-round pick WR Frank Pillow found his way to 15 catches and 206 yards.  Impact: 8.

1987: This was a huge draft class – 20 picks in all – and it includes a lot of memorable names in franchise history: Vinny Testaverde, Ricky Reynolds, Winston Moss, Mark Carrier, Bruce Hill, Ron Hall, Harry Swayne.  Of those, Reynolds made the most immediate impact, starting right away and tying for second on the team with 70 tackles.  Carrier and Hill would have bigger seasons together the next two years, but they did combine for 49 catches, 826 yards and five touchdowns.  Testaverde started only four games but had some big performances late in the season and made it clear that he would be starting in 1988.  Impact: 5.

1985: First-round DE Ron Holmes started the whole season and had 4.5 sacks while third-round LB Ervin Randle started half of the season.  Tenth-round K Donald Igwebuike won the job and had 96 points, though he was shaky from beyond 40 yards.  Impact: 3.

1981: One of the best college football players ever, first-round LB Hugh Green started out his NFL career well, taking over at ROLB and producing 151 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions.  Second-round RB James Wilder gave a taste of his enormous seasons to come with 370 rushing yards, 48 catches and five touchdowns while playing primarily at fullback (and starting).  Fourth-round CB John Holt figured into both the punt and kickoff return rotations and got six starts at CB.  This class suffers from the lack of a third option and thus barely makes it on the list.  Impact: 4.

1976: Though he was limited to eight games and six starts by injury as a rookie, first-overall pick Lee Roy Selmon still picked up five sacks, an early glimpse at his eventual Hall of Fame career.  His brother, second-round pick Dewey Selmon, started five games and third-round pick Steve Young (not that one) became the starting left tackle for most of the season.  Sixth-round pick Curtis Jordan started nine games at left cornerback and tied for second on the team with two picks.  Obviously, there was plenty of opportunity for young guys to play on this expansion team, and the team got varying contributions from OL Steve Wilson, QB Parnell Dickinson and RB Jimmy DuBose.  Impact: 4.

The big gap between the 1976 and 1981 seasons was due to a string of classes that had two impact players (Ray Snell and Kevin House; Greg Roberts and Jerry Eckwood; Doug Williams and Johnny Davis; Ricky Bell and Dave Lewis) but no viable third choice.

Judging from our hasty “impact” grades at the end of each choice, the most immediately impactful Buccaneer draft classes before 2012 were those of 1988 and 1996. Here’s how I would rank them:

1) 1988

2) 2012

3) 1996

Feel free to disagree in the comments below.

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