The 2019 NFL draft has come and gone, and though it’ll take some time before we can determine whether the Buccaneers’ class is a good one or a bad one, we were able to learn a few things about the team and how it thinks. Here are some takeaways:
The Bucs feel the need … the need for speed
Considering Tampa Bay’s many needs, some fans have questioned the wisdom of spending three early picks on defensive backs. The Bucs certainly could have used an edge rusher or an offensive guard, but they couldn’t afford to leave the draft without reinforcements for their suspect secondary. Heading in, their only viable starters at cornerback were Carlton Davis and Vernon Hargreaves. Two won’t cut it; in the modern NFL, teams need three and sometimes more.
As defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said Wednesday, “You can’t have enough corners. You can’t have enough depth.”
What was the alternative? Relying on virtually the same crew as last season, the one that quarterbacks torched week after week? By season’s end, Tampa Bay allowed a 72.5 completion percentage, 4,151 passing yards and 34 touchdowns to nine interceptions. That’s a Drew Brees-like stat line.
With their selections of Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards, the Bucs filled the void, or at least they tried to. Watch each player’s highlights, and it’s clear Tampa Bay was targeting players with a very particular set of skills: fast, ball-hawking DBs. Davis, M.J. Stewart and Whitehead, the defensive backs the Bucs drafted last year, ran 40-yard dashes in the low 4.5s. Murphy-Bunting ran it in 4.4 seconds, Dean in 4.3 seconds and Edwards in 4.5 seconds. In their final seasons in college, Davis, Stewart and Whitehead intercepted two passes total. Murphy-Bunting, Dean and Edwards intercepted two passes each.
#WeaponsForWinston: Defense edition
Two years ago, the Bucs tried to surround Jameis Winston with pass-catching playmakers. This offseason, the goal has been to help the offense by helping the defense.
At a team event in February, coach Bruce Arians blamed some of Winston’s interceptions on unfavorable game situations. “When you’re 21 down and you’re throwing it 50 times, you’re going to throw some damn interceptions,” he said.
“21 down” is a gross exaggeration, but Arians’ point — that the Bucs defense put pressure on the offense — is valid. At the start of drives last season, the offense trailed, on average, by 3.6 points, the eighth-greatest deficit, according to Football Outsiders. It trailed by 4.1 points in 2017, by 2.3 points in 2016 and by 4.5 points in 2015.
During his career, Winston has thrown 41 interceptions when the Bucs are losing, five times as many as when they are winning.
The Bucs will live or die with Winston
During the second day of the draft, the Cardinals traded 2018 first-round pick Josh Rosen to the Dolphins for the bargain-basement price of the No. 62 pick and a fifth-round pick in 2020. As far as we know, Tampa Bay didn’t submit a bid, which isn’t necessarily a surprise given Arians’ steadfast commitment to Winston this offseason.
The Bucs don’t understand positional value and opportunity cost
After the Bucs drafted kicker Matt Gay in the fifth round — the second time they’ve picked a kicker in four drafts — general manager Jason Licht said, “The kicker is a very important position. It’s one of the most important positions on the team. Right now we have a coach who really believes in kickers and the importance of it and stresses it.”
Very important? Actually, kickers are becoming less important. That’s not to say they don’t matter — they do — but teams aren’t relying on them to score points as much as they used to. Last season, the percentage of points scored via extra points and field goals dipped to 29.9 percent, the lowest in more than 30 years.
That’s not random. Last season, teams attempted a record 129 two-point conversions, a 57 percent increase over 2017. Expect more attempts over the next few seasons. Why? Because more teams are heeding the math, which says that going for two improves a team’s chances of winning as long as it succeeds about half the time.
By taking a kicker in the fifth round, Tampa Bay not only wasted a pick on a position in which supply exceeds demand but also passed up the opportunity to add a player that could have helped it in, say, two-point conversion situations.
Innovative strategies, the spread of college-style offenses and rule changes have reshaped the NFL. Look at the safety position. Defenses have phased out the heavy hitters that once patrolled the field and replaced them with more athletic types who can cover, blitz and defend the run. “It’s just like in basketball,” Bucs assistant coach Nick Rapone said Wednesday. “The big man is no longer important because of the what? The three-point play. The big man is gone.”
Shouldn’t we be thinking that way about kickers?
Contact Thomas Bassinger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @tometrics.