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Is it time to give Bucs general manager Jason Licht some credit?

Rick Stroud | Licht has virtually nothing left from his 2016 draft. But oh, those last two!
Rookie linebacker Devin White is starting to have the kind of impact in Tampa Bay as he had at LSU. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Rookie linebacker Devin White is starting to have the kind of impact in Tampa Bay as he had at LSU. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Dec. 14, 2019

TAMPA — Cornerbacks are so isolated from the defense at times that they are said to play on an island.

But Ryan Smith can’t help but feel more secluded as the only remaining member of the Bucs’ 2016 draft class.

Once the Bucs put cornerback Vernon Hargreaves on waivers Nov. 12 to be claimed by the Texans, that was it.

Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo, whom the Bucs traded up for in the second round of that draft, was out of football in a year. Hargreaves was the fourth player from the ’16 class to be released this year, a list that includes outside linebacker Noah Spence (second round) and tackle Caleb Benenoch (fifth round). They waived linebacker Devante Bond (sixth round) before the NFL suspended him four games for using performance-enhancing drugs.

Tight end Danny Vitale (sixth round) is a fullback for the Packers.

General manager Jason Licht and the Bucs entire front office have rightfully taken their share of scorn for the vaporizing class. Not many NFL teams can lose an entire draft and recover from it.

Related: Predictions for Bucs-Lions

But every thorn has its rose. Just check out the Bucs’ last two draft hauls.

In fact, 15 of the Bucs 16 players selected in the last two years are on the 53-man roster. The exception is Missouri defensive tackle Terry Beckner, Jr., a seventh-rounder in 2019 who was released after serving a suspension for PEDs.

The only other player not participating is linebacker Jack Cichy, who is on injured reserve after undergoing surgery on his elbow.

What about the rest?

They’re providing major contributions, either as a starter or backup.

From defensive tackle Vita Vea, the first-round pick in 2018, to linebacker Devin White, the fifth overall selection this season, the Bucs first and second-year players are paying off.

How do they stack up against the rest of the league?

Exactly 94 percent of the players selected by the Bucs the past two years are on the roster, which ranks fifth in the NFL.

The 2018 draft class has combined to play 2,940 snaps this season, which ranks third overall and fifth by percentage (14.5 percent).

The 2019 draft class has played 2,948 snaps this season, which ranks ninth.

If you add it up, those players have played more than a quarter of all the defensive snaps, ranking fourth in the league in that category.

“It’s just the talent they have and how quickly they mature,’’ linebacker Lavonte David said. “It’s how they’ve taken to all the coaching and the advice from veterans. It’s great, see how they pan out.

“You can tell they want to be great at what they’re doing and they want to help out as much as they can.’’

Individually, it’s even easier to see growth in players. Here’s a sampling of some of them:

2018

Vita Vea: A year ago he missed a lot of time with a knee injury, but Suh has taken him under his wing and the results have been startling. The Bucs have the league’s top defense against the run, allowing 75 yards per game. He’s also served as a fullback in goal-line situations and caught a touchdown pass.

Ronald Jones: The second-round pick from USC had a washout rookie season, rushing for only 44 yards. This season, he outplayed Peyton Barber to take over the starting tailback job and leads the Bucs in rushing with 518 yards and five touchdowns.

Carlton Davis: The cornerback, who went his first 21 games without an interception and drew a lot of pass interference penalties, leads the team with 17 passes defensed.

Alex Cappa: A third-rounder from Division III Humboldt State, he didn’t really play as a rookie, but now he is a solid starting right guard.

Jordan Whitehead: He isn’t the biggest safety in the league, but at 5-foot-10, he’s been a two-year starter and a guy who isn’t afraid to root out ballcarriers.

2019

There wasn’t a seismic shift when Bruce Arians arrived, although that coaching staff has been together on other stops and knew what kind of player would fit the scheme.

Once a player is drafted, it’s up to coaches to develop him. Arians’ staff has a willingness to give this rookie class a chance to win starting jobs and the patience to allow it to overcome early mistakes.

“Their work ethic I would say is No. 1 and the way they absorb information and get better and they take it and study on their own and they want to be better and want to be great,’’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said.

Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, a second-rounder from tiny Central Michigan, seemed overwhelmed by the bright lights. He had one tackle through the Bucs first four games. But he started in Week 5 at New Orleans and recorded his first INT. He has six passes defensed.

Jamel Dean, who did not play much until he was pressed into action at Seattle, overcame yielding three touchdown passes to the Seahawks in his first start. Now he leads the team with 14 passes defensed and an INT.

“We kind of knew that we have a talented group, a great group of rookies,’’ said safety Mike Edwards. “You got to play guys that can play. I feel like we’ve filled in well. We’ve got a little learning curve going into the season. But for the most part, we’re making some plays, learning a lot and learning from our mistakes.’’

Of course, White and kicker Matt Gay have been all the Bucs hoped and more.

Related: What kind of Ndamukong Suh returns to Detroit Sunday?

Once White overcame early knee problems he became the big-time player he was at LSU. He had two sacks in a win over Atlanta. The next week, he returned a fumble for a touchdown and had his first career interception.

Gay’s big missed field goal in Week 2 cost Tampa Bay the Giants game. But he’s rebounded nicely. Gay has made 24 of 27 field goals and 34 of 39 extra points.

The NFL draft is an inexact science. The New England Patriots have struggled with the draft as well. The Patriots’ first-round pick, receiver N’Keal Harry, has played only 113 snaps all season. Running back Damien Harris, a third-round pick, has played five snaps all year. All told, Pats rookies are playing just 2.3 percent of the team’s offensive and defensive snaps. Of course, some of that could be owed to the veteran presence on a 10-3 Patriots team.

“I can only speak really about this class, but there are common threads with those guys,’’ Arians said. “They love to play (and) they’re smart players. A lot of them were captains. You always look for that trait when you’re evaluating guys, not just the ability.’’

• • •

Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: Previewing Bucs-Lions

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