TAMPA For weeks, the talk focused on Louisiana State cornerback Morris Claiborne, sprinkled with speculation about Alabama tailback Trent Richardson.
But Thursday night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran a misdirection play moving down two slots on the first-round ladder while three other teams climbed ahead of them and landed the player they said they were targeting all along.
Shunning Richardson and dealing their No. 5 pick that would have guaranteed Claiborne, general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Greg Schiano zeroed in on safety Mark Barron, the two-time captain of two-time national champion Alabama.
And then, before Round One was done, they ran a surprising reverse.
They packaged their second-round pick and a fourth-rounder they'd acquired early in the evening with Jacksonville and traded back into the first round to get the 31st pick owned by Denver. That move allowed them to draft highly regarded Boise State tailback Doug Martin, a stocky 5-9, 215-pounder who gained more than 1,200 yards in each of the past two seasons, a team captain like Barron and the second-ranked running back in the draft behind Richardson.
Who knew, Part Two?
Until that moment, it appeared that the Bucs might have been out-played by the Cleveland Browns, who traded the fourth-pick minutes before the start of the 8 p.m. NFL Draft with No. 3 Minnesota in order to secure the ballyhooed services of Richardson?
You could wonder if they had misstepped when they ditched the fifth position and passed on drafting Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon an impact offensive player who might have filled some seats at Raymond James Stadium.
You could make a case that they fumbled when they swapped positions with No. 7 Jacksonville, allowing the Dallas Cowboys a sudden opening to trade up to the No. 6 position with St. Louis and grab Claiborne.
But with a little late-night trickery of their own, the Bucs came away with a pair of first-rounders for only the fourth time in their history (joining the ill-fated 1986 tandem of tailback Bo Jackson and cornerback Rod Jones, the gold standard set in 1995 with linebacker Derrick Brooks and defensive tackle Warren Sapp and the 1997 mixed bag of tailback Warren Dunn and wide receiver Reidel Anthony).
And they came away with reason to smile. They got a top-tier running back after all and filled a need at safety, having recently parted ways with Tanard Jackson.
"I just feel really blessed at the end of this night to have the two guys we have," Schiano said. "You're talking about captains, leaders of very, very good football programs. Having just come from college, Alabama and Boise State those are the programs that have won consistently over time. And to have the two guys who are the leaders of those programs on our football team, I can't wait to get them in here."
That said, the selection of Barron came out of the blue, given all the pre-draft predictions that focused on Claiborne as the logical man for the Buc defense.
Still, Dominik and Schiano insist they got the man they wanted all along a 6-1, 213-pound player known for his strong leadership qualities, good character and physical playing style on a unit that led the nation in rush defense, pass defense, total defense and scoring defense.
"He's a very productive football player at a very important position in the National Football League a position we value and other teams value," said Dominik. "We felt like we got an extremely productive guy who has a lot of leadership (ability) and everything is needed on the this defense to continue to build this defense."
Schiano echoed the sentiment. "I can tell you from the first video I watched of Mark Barron, I thought I'd randomly selected his best game, but this guy plays at a high level in what is arguably the most competitive college football conference," he said. "I can't tell you how excited I am to get him down here."
So was Claiborne just a smokescreen all along? We may never know. If the Bucs thought they could still get Claiborne with the seventh pick while adding a fourth-rounder from the Jaguars in the trade then were indeed burned by the Boys.
But the fact that they were willing to part with their fifth pick a pick that would have guaranteed them Claiborne suggests that they'd ultimately decided he wasn't as good a fit for the young Buc defense as Barron.
So drafting the best college safety and a player projected as a high first-round pick by many draft pundits may well make sense in the Buc scheme of things. He won't sell tickets and stir excitement in the fan base like teammate Richardson would have. But there's still something to like in Barron's aggressive style of play that made him a two-time All-American.
"I think you'll see an athletic range, speed and physical (play)," said Dominik. "If you saw highlights of him you're going to see a guy who's a physical football player who has range. I love the way he tackles and he's a force. He has great size to him. He's a smart football player. And people who know him see the toughness and the dedication he brings to the football team."
Assuming he was definitely the top DB on the Buc board, Dominik played a risky game to get him. By trading down to the seventh position with Jacksonville, that allowed the Cowboys to jump ahead of him into the sixth spot and conceivably have a shot at stealing Barron out from under them. (Of course, in that case, they could have audibled to Claiborne).
Dominik insisted that he had Barron in mind all along at the fifth pick, but he wanted to add the high fourth-rounder in the trade with the Jags and thought he could still get the Bama safety in the process.
"I will absolutely say I was a little nervous when the Dallas Cowboys traded to sixth, but I was very excited that our guy was there," Dominik said.
Patched in by conference call, Barron expressed his excitement as well.
"As a rookie, I want to come in and establish myself as one of the best players in the league, and hopefully win the rookie of the year award," he said. "It's a great opportunity to go down there and prove I'm worth that seventh-round pick."
At that point in the proceedings, it appeared that the Bucs' work was done in the first round. For all his merits, Barron's pick alone wasn't likely destined to fire up the fan base.
But then came rumblings of another move. Suddenly the Bucs were back on the Round One board, thanks to the additional pick Dominik had secured in the trade with Jacksonville early in the evening. He swapped that fourth-round pick for Denver's lower fourth, added in Tampa Bay's second-round pick, and pulled off a potential coup in landing Martin.
"He's a guy we targeted and had a lot of interest in," Dominik said. "For a couple of reasons we made that trade for Doug Martin. No. 1, who he is. He's a great young man. A team leader at Boise State (in) a fantastic football program. Voted team captain. A productive football player. A guy who can play all three downs for us, can work with (starting tailback) LeGarrette Blount. A guy who we really think complements (Blount). That's really important. He's got good explosion numbers. He catches the ball really well in his workouts and when you watch him on tape. That's the exciting thing about it."
Dominik also had grown concerned that there could be a run on tailbacks and didn't want to miss the chance to selecting Martin if he waited until Round Two. Second, by making him a first-rounder, Dominik could sign him to a five-year contract in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement, as opposed to a four-year deal for second-rounders.
"That's extra value you get that sometimes isn't seen," he said. "The other thing is that we just took the fourth that we acquired when we made the trade for Mark Barron and we moved from the top of the fourth to the bottom of the fourth (with Denver's pick). So we didn't lose a fourth-round pick. We just moved down in the fourth. And I felt like that was good value, too."
Martin, talking by conference call, hopes to fulfill that value and looks forward to teaming with Blount.
"I think it's going to be an awesome partnership back there," he said.
Added Schiano: "I have experience with his coach and I just love this kid. We evaluated him and as the round kept going down and he was still there, it got exciting. And I can't tell you how happy I am to have him here. He and LeGarrette can really be a great team. And in this league, I don't think you can do it with one back. You need two, and these guys will work together and competition is great for everybody. He is a three-down back. He can pass-protect, and there's not a lot of them in college football. He can catch the football and do it all. He was also a great special teams player in college. He's one of those guys you love to bring into your organization."
In the end, the Bucs brought in a pair of guys they love. And, with a nice late-game maneuver, generated some much-needed buzz in the process.