“I’m just grateful to be here,” Jason Licht said the day after the end of the 2018 season.
Five years into his tenure, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had lost twice as many games as they won. Most general managers don’t survive results like that.
Licht was on his way to the guillotine, too. Until he whispered a name: Bruce Arians.
One month later, he was considerably more at ease. He stood in front of a standing-room crowd at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa and introduced his friend as the new head coach. “I think we have the core to win here quickly,” Arians told the audience.
There is indeed a core here — about two-thirds of the players Licht has drafted since 2014 remain on the roster — but is it as good as Arians suggested?
To find out, the Tampa Bay Times built a database of every draft pick from the past five years. Then we compared the value of the players the Bucs picked to the value of the players other teams picked.
Because the Bucs, by virtue of their poor regular season finishes, often pick earlier in the draft, you would think that they would land more high-performing players. The numbers, however, show that hasn’t been the case. They show that Licht’s draft record is … not good. And it has gotten worse.
• • •
Twenty-first. That’s where the Bucs rank over the past five seasons in selecting players who beat expectations, according to our analysis.
How did we get that ranking? We consulted Approximate Value, a Pro Football Reference metric that puts a single numerical value on a player’s season, much like baseball’s Wins Above Replacement. AV, which weighs factors such as individual statistics and playing time, gives us an objective way to compare players across seasons and positions.
Mike Evans, for example, led Tampa Bay with an AV of 11 last season. In his five seasons, the former seventh overall pick has accumulated an AV of 46. The expected AV after five seasons for a player drafted seventh overall is 35. In other words, Evans has been an exceptional value for the Bucs, giving them a 31 percent return on their investment of draft capital.
We made the same calculations for the other 1,273 players drafted since 2014. (Of course not every player in our database accumulated five years worth of AV. To account for this, we prorated the expected value of more recent draft picks.) In that span, the Bucs have drafted 34 players. Their combined expected value: 296. Their actual value: 299. That’s a break-even performance. Not so bad, right? Hold that thought.
The chart below shows the expected value of teams’ draft picks since 2014, from greatest to least. Think of it as a ranking of draft capital. The Browns had the most, followed by the 49ers and Ravens. The Bucs had the 10th most.
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The next chart is essentially a ranking of return on draft capital, from greatest to least. In this context, Tampa Bay’s performance has not been good enough, especially if the goal is to build a playoff contender.
Consider the Chiefs. Thanks largely to the production from picks such as Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt and Patrick Mahomes, they beat expectations over the past five years by 43 percent. They’ve reached the playoffs four seasons in a row. At the other end of the spectrum: the Jets, who fell short of expectations by 32 percent. They haven’t reached the playoffs since 2010.
Of more immediate concern to the Bucs is that the other teams in their division have been outperforming them in the draft. The Panthers beat expectations by 27 percent, the Falcons by 18 percent and the Saints by 8 percent. In fact, Atlanta and New Orleans produced two of the five best classes since 2014. In 2016, the Falcons landed safety Keanu Neal, linebacker Deion Jones and tight end Austin Hooper with their first three picks. In 2017, the Saints landed cornerback Marshon Lattimore, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, safety Marcus Williams and running back Alvin Kamara with their first four picks. It’s no wonder Tampa Bay has finished last in the NFC South in four of the past five seasons.
• • •
In 2015, it seemed as if the Bucs’ fortunes were starting to turn. Jameis Winston inspired hope, setting new team single-season records in passing yards (4,042), passing touchdowns (22) and passer rating (84.2) by a rookie. So, too, did Kwon Alexander. In a breakout performance against the Falcons halfway through the season, the linebacker, a fourth-round pick out of LSU, recorded 11 tackles, intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble. That season’s draft class also produced two starting offensive linemen, tackle Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet. Tampa Bay improved from 2-14 to 6-10. The rebuild was on track.
Then, suddenly, over a three-day stretch in late April 2016, it collapsed quicker than Chris Conte after a Vance McDonald stiff arm. Having focused almost exclusively on the offense during his first two drafts, Licht turned his attention to drafting defenders that didn’t fit the team’s scheme. His first pick, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, excelled in press coverage while at Florida; the Bucs asked him to play several yards off the line of scrimmage. His second pick, edge rusher Noah Spence, was “better suited” — Licht’s words — to play as a standup linebacker in a 3-4 defense; the Bucs used him as a hand-in-the-ground situational defensive end in a 4-3 defense.
Licht’s explanation on why the Bucs drafted Spence anyway: “I just happened to think, we knew at the time, that he was probably better suited for a 3-4, but we still saw the value where we took him as an edge rusher, subrotational (designated pass rusher). So, I don’t think (playing in a 4-3 defense) really delayed his development. I just happen to think in his case that playing in a 3-4 is probably what he is more ideally suited for.”
After checking the “cornerback” and “defensive end” boxes off his list, Licht delivered the coup de grace: He traded the 74th and 106th picks for the 59th, which he used on … kicker Roberto Aguayo. Aguayo struggled from the moment he set foot in training camp and was cut after one season.
The Bucs’ 2016 class was a devastating setback from which the organization has yet to recover. Over the past three drafts, no team has fallen short of its expected AV by a greater margin, and that’s including contributions from 2017 picks O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin. It’s far too early to write off the 2018 class — headlined by Vita Vea, Ronald Jones, M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis — but it’s on track to be as underwhelming as the 2016 class.
So while Arians is optimistic about the season ahead, based on the Bucs’ recent draft performance, caution is in order. He is a lot of things — a coach-of-the-year award winner, a Super Bowl winner, a quarterback whisperer — but one thing he is not is a magician. Sudden turnarounds happen in the NFL, but usually they’re set in motion long before we realize what’s happening.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.
|Year||Draft picks||Expected AV||Actual AV||Value gained/lost|
|2014||Mike Evans, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Charles Sims, Kadeem Edwards, Kevin Pamphile, Robert Herron||93||89||-4.3 percent|
|2015||Jameis Winston, Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Kwon Alexander, Kenny Bell, Kaelin Clay, Joey Iosefa||87||133||+52.9 percent|
|2016||Vernon Hargreaves, Noah Spence, Roberto Aguayo, Ryan Smith, Caleb Benenoch, Devante Bond, Dan Vitale||59||35||-40.7 percent|
|2017||O.J. Howard, Justin Evans, Chris Godwin, Kendell Beckwith, Jeremy McNichols, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu||32||29||-9.4 percent|
|2018||Vita Vea, Ronald Jones, M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis, Alex Cappa, Jordan Whitehead, Justin Watson, Jack Cichy||24||13||-45.8 percent|