TAMPA — The Bucs entered the NFL draft with clear needs — many on offense — and they addressed them all over the three days, but not necessarily in the order expected.
On Saturday, after making the last of their seven picks in the draft, general manager Jason Licht and coach Bruce Arians were pleased with their class.
“I think one thing that stands out to me is that each and every one of these guys loves to play football,” Arians said. “I mean, they’re ballers. They’ll play for free. They’re going to come out and they’re going to have fun. They’re gym rats, and they’re smart, aggressive-type players. When you have that type of draft, I think each and every guy has a redeeming quality that’s going to give them a chance to make it.”
Draft classes are judged as a whole, so let’s take a closer look at how the Bucs performed. How much better are they now than before names began coming off the board Thursday night?
The Bucs ensured they would get one of the top four tackles in the first round by trading up one spot from 14th to land Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, who has the speed and athleticism to be a difference-maker at right tackle. The 6-foot-5, 320-pounder still must show he’s ready for the physicality of the NFL.
Third-round running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn was overlooked a bit last season in the SEC because Vanderbilt had its usual down season. He is a strong runner with big-play ability who is always looking downfield. He is a solid receiver out of the backfield and should continue to improve. Unfortunately for Vaughn (5-10, 218), his selection will be measured by the careers of the two running backs the Bucs passed on in the second round: Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Florida State’s Cam Akers.
“I think Ke’Shawn Vaughn is a guy who can play every down,” Arians said.
We knew the receiver position was deep in this draft, but the Bucs getting a wideout of Tyler Johnson’s caliber in the fifth round was amazing. Johnson could go down as one of the steals of the draft. If his promise is fulfilled, the 6-foot-1, 206-pounder, who holds no fewer than 22 receiving records at Minnesota, should get lots of passes thrown his way over the middle from Tom Brady.
In the seventh round the Bucs added Louisiana’s Raymond Calais, a 5-foot-8, 188-pound speedy running back who can also be utilized in the passing game.
Those skill-position picks accomplished what the team intended, adding to Brady’s stable of offensive weapons. The Bucs could have used a prototypical speed receiver, but Johnson’s overall game fits this offense well.
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They were looking for a developmental quarterback — and were especially high on Florida International’s James Morgan, who eventually went in the fourth round to the Jets — but the ones they liked went early.
The Bucs surprised everyone by taking Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield Jr. in the second round instead of a running back. But Winfield is a first-round talent, so when he was still on the board at No. 45, the Bucs couldn’t help but take him.
Safety was the Bucs’ primary area of need on defense, and projected first-rounders Winfield and Xavier McKinney of Alabama both slipped to the second round. Winfield is an ideal fit for defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ 3-4 scheme, which requires a lot from its defensive backs. Winfield is able to play both safety spots, line up at slot corner, play in the box and rush the passer.
“He is so position flexible,” Arians said. “Half field, deep field, middle field. Nickel, dime, linebacker, he’s got so many positions he can play. He loves to mix it up with our safeties.”
If Winfield (5-9, 203) is anything close to Tyrann Mathieu of the Chiefs or Budda Baker of the Cardinals, standout players that Licht and Arians reluctantly compared Winfield to, this could go down as one of the team’s best picks that no one expected.
We would have liked to have seen the Bucs address the edge rusher position because they are a Shaquil Barrett or a Jason Pierre-Paul injury away from trouble. Last year’s fourth-rounder, Anthony Nelson, must step up into the rotation.
The Bucs also needed interior line help. Sixth-round pick Khalil Davis from Nebraska is fast for a guy who is 308 pounds — running the 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds, sixth best among defensive linemen at the NFL combine — but he’s kind of stubby and will have to improve his technique against physical offensive linemen to become more than a clogger.
This isn’t an area most teams address directly (well, the kicker-drafting Bucs usually do), but late-round picks tend to make their biggest impact early by contributing on special teams.
Winfield has experience as a punt returner, averaging 36.7 yards as a junior at Minnesota in limited duty, and that’s somewhere the Bucs need help. Their Bobo Wilson experiment failed, leaving them searching for a return man until kickoff returner T.J. Logan settled into that spot. But with the Bucs adding a running back, holding a roster spot for a player such as Logan, who is almost exclusively a special teams player, is a luxury they might not have.
In today’s NFL, returners have to do more, and Winfield does it all. Licht opened the door to experimenting with Winfield in the return game, and he might be the roster’s best option before he steps on the field. He has great speed and footwork in the open field that could make him an elite returner.
Davis and both seventh-round picks, Calais and Temple linebacker Chapelle Russell, can make the team by utilizing their speed on special teams.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s no telling when teams will be able to work with rookies on the field. So the Bucs placed a bigger emphasis on prioritizing players with strong football acumen and leadership abilities. These guys will need to have good knowledge of the playbook before they step on the field.
As a whole, it seems like the Bucs succeeded in drafting strong-character guys.
In Winfield and Johnson, they acquired captains from the same team (Minnesota). Wirfs was not only the first true freshman lineman to start under coach Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, he was on the team’s leadership group as a freshman.
“Coming into the league, we’re going to be rookies, but we’re still going to contribute,” Johnson said of himself and Winfield. “We’re looking forward to bringing the organization a winning attitude. We’re looking forward to going out there and leading by example, being vocal when it’s needed and doing all the right things. That’s where we come from, and we’re going to carry that on.”
Licht predicted that players such as Wirfs, Winfield and Vaughn will earn their stripes quickly, perform on the field and become natural leaders, much as linebacker Devin White did as a rookie last season.
A few years from now, this draft could be lauded for the savvy scouting and patience the Bucs showed. The draft’s offensive line class was elite, and the Bucs knew they needed to get one of the big four. They did with Wirfs.
From there, they knew talented offensive skill-position players would still be on the board later, so they didn’t rush to a running back or receiver. Vaughn and Johnson could become impact players right away. Winfield could become a game-changing defender.
“I thought our board was set up perfectly,” Arians said.
All in all, the Bucs’ message continues to be clear: They want players who can help them now as they try to march to the Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in February. They drafted what appears to be several NFL-ready players.
“I think they all have the confidence that they can be major contributors, and that’s what we look for,” Licht said.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.