WVU FOOTBALL: Sims, Clarke connected in NFL Draft

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — How Charles Sims and Will Clarke came to be drafted out of West Virginia on Friday is more than merely the result of two picks made in the third round of the seven-round NFL draft.

It all goes back to a pair of injuries for Tampa Bay during the fall and a pair of free-agent signings by the Buccaneers in March.

Things started when Buccaneers running back Doug Martin, a first-round pick in 2012, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in October. His backup, Mike James, was lost for the season three weeks later with a fractured ankle.

So with the 69th pick, Tampa Bay selected Sims, who in his one season with the Mountaineers was the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2009, the Big 12 newcomer of the year and first-team all-conference.

Sims joins Martin and James, as well as Bobby Rainey, who happened to lead the team in rushing last season.

“It just had everything to do with (how) you can’t have enough of those good players, and I’ve been with some organizations where we had three backs, four backs and you can’t go into a season relying on one guy to be the workhorse nowadays,” Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said. “You have to have different backs with different skill sets.”

Sims was the third offensive player taken by Tampa Bay, which picked receiver Mike Evans in the first round and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the second round. It was the first time in franchise history the Buccaneers used their first three picks on skill position players, and it was made possible by some of the things the team did in free agency.

On March 11, the Buccaneers signed defensive tackle Clinton McDonald from Seattle and defensive end Michael Johnson from Cincinnati, which opened up their options in the draft renowned for defensive linemen. Five were taken in the first round and 17 were picked in the first three rounds.

“We weren’t pigeonholed into having to get one particular thing,” Licht said. “It allowed us to take the tight end, which wasn’t a big area of need, and running back, which definitely wasn’t a big area of need.”

Licht said the strategy for his first draft and for the new coaching staff’s first draft together became to take the best player available — and Tampa Bay ended up taking only offensive players. That includes Sims, who has been compared to Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte by many NFL people, including Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith, who coached Forte in Chicago.

“We had a plan in this draft and that was to get great football players and it wasn’t necessarily ‘We’re just going to address the offense,’ but it just so happens (to be) the way it fell,” Licht said. “I always talk about having the best player available versus need where they converge. It may seem to the outside that running back was a pretty strong position we had, and we still feel that way, but this one kind of stood out like the tight end did. ‘Hey we have a chance to get a back that has a versatile skill set that can score points for us,’ and we didn’t want to turn it down.”

While signing Johnson early in free agency affected Tampa Bay’s draft and Sims’ future, it also unknowingly shaped Clarke’s life.

Cincinnati was looking to replace Johnson on the defensive line. The 6-foot-7, 270-pound Johnson went from 11 1/2 sacks in 2012 to just 3 1/2 last season, but was still a presence and thus a loss for the team, which invested a third-round pick in Johnson in 2009.

The Bengals used the 88th pick this season on Clarke, who is 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds.

“Will Clarke has the dimensions of a guy that fits that bill for us, no doubt about it,” Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “We really feel that his future is ahead of him to continue to grow into his body, to mature, get stronger and continue to play with the speed and athleticism that he’s played with at West Virginia. I’m really excited about him and adding him to the mix here with the rest of our defensive line group. We’re really fortunate.”

The Bengals have one of the most productive and most revered defensive lines in the NFL, and it’s a group that includes Margus Hunt, who was drafted in the second round last season. Cincinnati, which took cornerback Darqueze Dennard in the first round and running back Jeremy Hill in the second round, was nevertheless sold on Clarke and his potential.

The team even gave Clarke No. 93, which had been Johnson’s number.

“I think there are some comparisons, but let’s compare him in two or three seasons, which will be the biggest thing and the challenge for him,” Lewis said. “Michael grew into that and did a nice job here, which is what we want. We want to continue to grow great players, and we’ve been fortunate enough to do that with the guys we’ve had.”

Clarke and Sims were the only WVU players drafted. Through the first two days and three rounds, the Mountaineers were the only Big 12 team with multiple draft picks. Nose guard Shaq Rowell signed as an undrafted free agent with the Carolina Panthers and offensive lineman Curtis Feigt signed with the Bengals.

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.

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