The consensus is Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson. The smarter choice might be Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams.
There may be no more prevalent need on the Tampa Bay roster than the defensive line. The Buccaneers' top three ends — Simeon Rice, Greg Spires and recent free-agent signee Kevin Carter — are 33 or older. Tackle Ellis Wyms is injury prone. The only lineman that played at an acceptable level last season was tackle Chris Hovan.
So, with the No. 4 pick in the draft, a defensive player makes sense. And no defensive player in this draft better fits the Bucs' needs — and the value of a No. 4 pick — than Adams.
So why does everyone believe the Bucs will take Johnson? Scout.com's personnel guru Tom Marino — a NFL scout for the past 30 years — considers Johnson a once-in-a-generation player at his position. But he also believes that Johnson should be the No. 1 overall pick. And if Adams slides to the Bucs, he believes they'd be getting a fine player.
"You draft him to be a pass rusher on the right and a good run down player," Marino said. "He has a good feeling for pressure. I thought he kept good pad level. On secondary action on plays away from him took intelligent angles and made his presence known."
The 6-4 ¾, 265-pound Adams had his best season as a senior at Clemson, finishing with 12.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss, accounting for nearly a third of his production. Scouts love his first step, his quickness and ability to shed blocks. He gains ground, not loses it. He's already powerful, and Marino said Adams can gain the necessary 15 pounds to be a full-time starter at end (most teams like their ends to be at around 280 pounds) and not lose any speed.
The biggest concern is character, and that's something that the Buccaneers gauge heavily in their decision-making during the draft. Adams already had some debits coming in. He was a non-qualifier at Clemson and had to attend Fort Union Prep for one year to get his grades up. He did get his degree at Clemson in sports management.
Additionally, some believe he played harder as a senior, the motivation being that a possible first-round contract was dead ahead.
Finally, there's last week's revelation that he, Johnson and Louisville defensive tackle Amobi Okoye — another player that interests the Bucs — smoked marijuana in college.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock believes the NFL's new conduct policy will have more of an effect on the more serious offenders — especially in the way of on- and off-the-field violence — and less effect on a situation such as Adams'.
"I think the most obvious guy is Marcus Thomas from Florida," Mayock said. "I think he's a guy with first day ability that may not even get drafted and if he does it's going to be very, very late. Regarding (Miami's Brandon) Meriweather, the perception, the feeling I get from around the league is that we all know what happened against FIU. But I don't sense that teams are taking him off their board. And I still think — I've got him as my No. 2 safety in this draft. I still think he's going to go somewhere between about 17 and 27."
So this week's revelation means Adams probably won't fall far in this draft. That means the Bucs, if they want him, will have to take him at No. 4.
So is he worth the pick? To begin with, as I did in trying to gauge Johnson's possible value to the Bucs, I looked at the track record of defensive ends drafted in the past five years. Some things to consider:
No one's had a freakish season since, well, "The Freak."
Philadelphia's Jevon Kearse had 14.5 sacks his rookie season with the Tennessee Titans in 1999. That season, plus his 11.5-sack follow up in 2000, may have single-handedly raised the expectations for rookie defensive ends in the NFL. Everyone has been trying to find lightning in a bottle since, and few ends have measured up.
In fact only four ends have hit double digits their rookie year — Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney (13, 2002), Carolina's Julius Peppers (12, 2002), Baltimore's Terrell Suggs (12, 2003) and Chicago's Mark Anderson (12, 2006). All but Anderson were first-round picks.
What constitutes a successful rookie year?
Good question, and there's really no true "definition." But we can gauge average production for all rookie defensive ends the past five years, and average production for the Top 5 ends the past five years.
For all defensive ends, here are the numbers:
57 sacks, 23 drafted ends in 2002
23 sacks, 24 drafted ends in 2003
40 sacks, 23 drafted ends in 2004
20.5 sacks, 20 drafted ends in 2005
76.5 sacks, 19 drafted ends in 2006
Average: 1.99 sacks.
As you can see, the weight of unproductive rookie ends brings this down. So, let's look at the production and average of the Top 5 ends each year:
46.5 sacks, 2002
21 sacks, 2003
29 sacks, 2004
16.5 sacks, 2005
37 sacks, 2006
Average: 6.0 sacks.
Based on this math, the average season for a productive rookie end the past five years is about six sacks. Remember — these are players drafted as ends, as catalogued on NFL.com's draft site.
And, as always, one year does not a productive end make.
The road is littered with players that blossom late. One that immediately comes to mind is Green Bay's Aaron Kampman.
Kampman was the Packers' 156th overall pick in 2002, the first year of the sampling. His rookie sack total — 0.5. Last year Kampman registered 15.5 sacks for the Pack.
And for every Freeney and Peppers, there's a Michael Haynes. He was the Jets' 14th overall selection in 2003. His four-year sack total — 5.5.
Defensive end is one of the most important positions on the field, according to every scout in football. It's right up there with quarterback, left tackle and cornerback. And that's why teams will take their shots early in the draft for an end that can be their next Simeon Rice. Adams is well aware of that. He was asked if he had noticed that some of the game's best defensive ends had been slapped with the franchise tag — which basically takes away their free-agent rights, but also provides a fat paycheck. Adams grinned and nodded in approval.
"It gave me the goose bumps," was his reply.
But would Adams give Bucs fans the goose bumps if he comes to town?
We've already outlined what the Bucs have at the position. So how would Adams fit in. Well, Marino believes Adams would need time to bulk up, but he could be an immediate contributor on third downs and in nickel and dime situations, mostly backing up Rice.
At the least he can give you 25 snaps a game (to start) and that's pretty damn good," Marino said. "You're basically a starter. The problem is he'll give up 50-60 pounds to everyone he goes against. They're (offensive linemen) stronger people. It's a question of whether he'll wear down."
But the Bucs can't afford for Rice to wear down, either. So a rotation between the two suits both ideally. Rice needs a spell and Adams isn't quite physically ready for the full-time grind. They both seem to play at similar energy levels, and that left tackle doesn't leave the field. So as he gets tired, Rice and Adams can stay fresh. Marino said Adams can play the left side, too, which would allow line coach Larry Coyer to mix and match his four top ends and put them in schemes that maximize their talent and effectiveness.
His education will be a key, too. He admits that at Clemson he just got in his stance and ran after the quarterback. That's as difficult as his role got with the Tigers. The Cover 2 is more nuanced than that, and that's where the question about Adams' intelligence may factor in to how successful he is. Marino said that on the tape he's seen, Adams seems a good instinctual player.
"It's not a question of intelligence," Marino said. "He might not read as well on tests. I don't know. I like his feel for the game, (he) has good instincts."
Should Adams join the Bucs, he becomes an instant contributor. Not a starter, but certainly an instant contributor. I think it's likely that, given his ability, a softer schedule and that there won't be a massive amount of pressure on him to be "The Man," it's likely Adams will produce similar to the average of the Top 5 rookie ends of the last five years. That would net at least six sacks, and that's more than Dewayne White had a year ago in place of Rice. That would certainly soften the blow of losing White to Detroit, and bode well for the future.