Did a lack of grit drop Tristan Wirfs to fourth-best lineman in the draft?

For some, it was a bit of a surprise that the Bucs’ new offensive tackle was still available at No. 13 on the first day of the draft.
There's no doubting the athleticism of Tristan Wirfs (74). But is he too nice of a guy to truly excel in the NFL?
There's no doubting the athleticism of Tristan Wirfs (74). But is he too nice of a guy to truly excel in the NFL? [ STEPHEN MALLY | ]
Published Apr. 24, 2020|Updated Apr. 25, 2020

TAMPA — Projecting the top four offensive tackles in the NFL draft was very much in the eye of the beholder. Going into the draft, the only consensus was that there was no consensus at all on how they would peel off the board.

The Giants took Georgia’s Andrew Thomas at No. 4, falling in love with game film that showed him dominating in the college proving ground that is the SEC.

The Browns believed Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr., their selection at No. 10, had the best combination of strength, technique and consistency to handle a switch to left tackle.

And for the Jets at No. 11, the freakish combination of size and speed possessed by Louisville’s Mekhi Becton (who boasts a 6-foot-7, 363-pound frame and a 5.10-second 40 time) was too good to pass up. Even after he had a drug test flagged at the combine.

That left Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, a versatile three-year starter in a pro-style offense as the consolation prize for the Bucs at No. 13 after they traded up a spot. Bucs general manager Jason Licht said the four linemen’s rankings were “very close."

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The 6-foot-5, 320-pound Wirfs drew notice at the combine in February after running a 4.85-second 40-yard dash, the top time at his position and one of just three sub-5.00 times run by linemen. Wirfs’ vertical jump of 36.5 inches broke the combine record for offensive linemen, and his broad jump of 121 inches tied the combine record.

That performance made him an early favorite.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projected Wirfs to be the first offensive tackle off the board, going to the Giants, explaining that all of his experience at right tackle (22 combined starts there in 2018 and 2019) would allow the Giants to easily slot him there.

But Kiper also suggested heading into the draft that the offensive tackle class might be a “a little overrated.”

“Some of these guys are getting pushed up because they’re needed,” Kiper said. “But they’re still really good prospects … Teams are forcing things (with) needs. Needs are winning out.”

With Wirfs, some analysts weren’t convinced his NFL future would be at tackle, that he might be a better fit as a guard.

“When I first watched (Wirfs), I thought he was going to be a guard, just because he has some issues oversetting,” said the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout with the Eagles, Redskins and Ravens. “He got beat on a bunch of up-and-under moves, which worried me and concerned me a little bit, but I thought he got better as the year went along.”

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Related: Nationally, Bucs' selection of Tristan Wirfs gets high grades

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz doesn’t buy that as a reason for Wirfs to drop to the fourth-best tackle in the draft. In fact, Wirfs was the first true freshman to ever start at offensive tackle for Ferentz, who has coached the Hawkeyes since 1999.

“Some teams talked about moving him to guard or whatever,” Ferentz said. "But he can play either tackle. You tell me. I don’t really get into what the scouts or anyone else says.”

A common criticism of Wirfs is that he needs more of a nasty streak to him on the field to succeed in the NFL. They don’t ignore his talent — “He’s somebody that can really move people in the run game,” Jeremiah says — but because of his genteel manner, they pick apart his temperament.

One former NFL executive also said Friday that he ranked Wirfs third of the four linemen because he didn’t finish blocks as well as other linemen.

Wirfs said he has been told by teams that they want to see him finish more and be meaner.

“I’ve been hearing that for I don’t know how long,” he said. “I tend to open up in my pass sets a little bit."

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But how can he be meaner?

“You tell me. I don’t know,” Wirfs said. “I’ve never really been a mean person. That’s a testament to my mom (Sarah) and how she raised me. I think they want to see me get more pancakes and I think I did a fair amount this season. Last year against Nebraska, I had 14 knockdowns. I can try to get a little meaner. We’ll see.”

Ferentz says no attitude adjustment is needed, just time.

“I think the only negative, in my mind, he’s a three-year guy,” Ferentz said. “I know a little something about playing offensive line and every year is important because it’s the repetition. ... Next year alone will be really exciting. What you see two years down the road, he has a chance to be even greater.”