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Inside the Bucs’ trade with the 49ers to select Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs

The 49ers nearly took the Iowa offensive tackle in the first round, but were confident they could land Washington tackle Trent Williams in a trade.
Before he officially became a Buccaneer, Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs almost came off the board on draft night to the 49ers.
Before he officially became a Buccaneer, Iowa Hawkeyes offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs almost came off the board on draft night to the 49ers. [ MAX ALLEN | ]
Published Apr. 27, 2020
Updated Apr. 27, 2020

TAMPA — As the first round of the NFL’s only virtual draft unfolded Thursday night, general manager Jason Licht conducted the Bucs business from a converted playroom of his home that normally buzzes with activity from his kids — Charlie, Zoe and Theo.

Instead, the Bucs IT expert, Spencer Dille, had equipped Licht with a few new toys: three monitors, including one that contained the Bucs’ draft board visible to Bruce Arians and the rest of the front-office staff, as well as several telephone lines.

The Bucs had all but advertised they were desperate to select one of the four elite tackles in the draft, but owned the No. 14 overall pick and might miss out.

They had not bothered to retain right tackle Demar Dotson in the offseason, and their signing of Colts free agent Joe Haeg was more about securing depth with someone capable of playing all five offensive line positions.

Related: The driving force behind Bucs first-round pick Tristan Wirfs

But Georgia offensive tackle Andrew Thomas went to the Giants with the No. 4 overall pick. He was the highest-rated player at that position by many on the Bucs’ coaching staff.

Licht figured he caught a break when the next tackle didn’t come off the board — until Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr. was selected No. 10 by the Browns. Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, who had a flagged drug test at the NFL scouting combine, went 11th overall to the New York Jets.

Now it was nail-biting time for Licht. The Bucs were still three picks away, with only Iowa tackle Tristan Wirfs remaining of the big four.

As usual, Licht was working the phones. The Raiders and 49ers stood between the Bucs and Wirfs.

Jon Gruden couldn’t pass up the chance to get a speed receiver and quickly snapped up Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III, bathrobe and all.

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

Prior to the draft, the 49ers had gotten a lot of action from teams wanting to move up to their No. 13 overall selection.

Here was the problem. San Francisco general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan knew that offensive tackle Joe Staley was going to retire after 13 seasons. They had kept it quiet while trying to strike a trade with Washington for left tackle Trent Williams.

You have to remember that both Kyle and Mike Shanahan worked for Washington owner Daniel Snyder, who probably wasn’t inclined to help the 49ers. But Lynch and new Washington coach Ron Rivera have always had a pretty good relationship.

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Even so, no agreement had formally been struck when the 49ers were on the clock Thursday night.

Licht’s right-hand man, player personnel director John Spytek, called Adam Peters, who holds the same position for the 49ers. Lynch, meanwhile, was on the phone with another team picking in the 20s wanting to move up.

The 49ers loved Wirfs. Lynch had visited Iowa and spent a lot of time talking to Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz about him. With Staley gone, it might be smart for the 49ers to take Wirfs right there and give up any hope of landing Williams.

Related: Bucs get their big man at tackle in Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs

But having traded DeForest Buckner to the Colts for the 13th pick in the first round, Lynch wanted to use that selection to add a piece to the 49ers’ relentless defensive line.

His target was South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw, a powerful defensive tackle with a huge upside as a pass rusher.

The 49ers had three or four players they would be happy with if they moved down, but they didn’t want to drop too far. They figured the Falcons, at No. 16, would definitely take Kinlaw.

Even though they didn’t have a deal with Washington for Williams at the time, they decided to take a leap of faith that it would materialize.

The 49ers believed it was possible the Bucs could take Kinlaw. But everything for weeks had indicated the Bucs needed to add some protection for new quarterback Tom Brady.

The 49ers made the trade, receiving the Bucs’ Nos. 14 and 117 overall picks (fourth round) in exchange for the Nos. 13 and 245 overall (seventh round) selections.

Lynch eventually got the deal done for Williams, sending a fifth-round pick in 2020 and a third-round selection in 2021, to Washington.

The 49ers used the fourth-round pick acquired from the Bucs as part of a deal to trade up for Arizona State receiver Brandon Aiyuk.

It was a trade that worked out for both San Francisco and Tampa Bay, but it almost didn’t happen.

When Wirfs became a Buccaneer, Charlie, Zoe and Theo celebrated with dad in their playroom.