TAMPA — Tristan Wirfs will garner a lot of attention this season. Attention from Bucs fans eager to see whether the first-round pick will have the makings of a franchise fixture. Attention from opposing defenses looking to see if they can expose him because he is a 21-year-old rookie.
As it turns out Wirfs, the team’s new starting right tackle and 13th pick in April’s draft out of Iowa, is at his best when he is not being noticed.
“The best thing I can say about Tristan (is) you don’t really say his name too much,” Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “As a rookie offensive lineman, that’s a beautiful thing, right? Any time you have to say his name a lot, that’s probably an issue. But with Tristan, I haven’t really had to say his name but once or twice so far. … He’s playing well for us right now.”
Offensive line is one of the toughest positions to make the transition from college to pro, so it’s far too early to tell whether the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Wirfs can become the anchor of the Bucs’ line for years to come (he agreed to a four-year, $16.23 million contract). But the early reviews are very promising. And it’s becoming clear that Wirfs will put in the work both on and off the field needed to become great.
After signing Tom Brady in March, the Bucs’ main draft goal was to take one of the top four offensive linemen in the first round, and they even traded up a spot to ensure they would be able to slot Wirfs into the starting right tackle spot vacated by Demar Dotson.
“That’s kind of how my college career started — I was kind of just tossed in there,” Wirfs said. “I’ve just got to go out there and do my best — that’s all I can ask of myself. You’ve got to prepare every week and come out and execute. That’s really what it comes down to. If that’s the case where I have to get tossed in there, then so be it. I’ll be as ready as I can be.”
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, especially this season. This year’s rookie class enters the regular season at a disadvantage. The pandemic prevented organized team activities, rookie camp and preseason games. Wirfs and his fellow first years won’t have the opportunity to gauge themselves against another opponent until the regular-season opener Sunday against the NFC rival Saints in New Orleans.
“When we first came back, I asked (coach Bruce Arians) how he wanted to handle (Wirfs),” said Bucs assistant head coach and run game coordinator Harold Goodwin. “He said, ‘Take the kid’s gloves off and let him play.’ We’re trying our best to push him every day. He’s done an excellent job of learning our offense and understanding what we’re trying to do from a schematic standpoint. He’s physical, he’s strong and he’s a kid that’s probably going to be pretty good here if we keep coaching him the right way and don’t screw him up.”
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The Bucs certainly haven’t brought Wirfs along slowly. Coaches and teammates applaud his acumen, and he has held his own going against the Bucs pass rushing combo of Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul every day in practice.
And Wirfs, realizing getting ahead was important, moved to Tampa in early June, working out at Skyway Park to get acclimated to the Florida heat while spending his time off the field buried in his playbook.
“He’s really mature, and he’s smart and he’s obviously very physically talented, so he’s going to have a much smoother transition than I did for sure,” said right guard Alex Cappa, who lines up next to Wirfs. “He’s a guy that’s really ready to go, understands things well and is obviously a good player. He’s going to be good — you could see it early.”
Wirfs has been asked many times about lining up against Saints defensive end Cam Jordan in his NFL debut. The Bucs likely will give him some help by putting a tight end next to him as an extra blocker.
After squaring off against Wirfs all through training camp, Barrett, last year’s NFL sack king, believes the rookie will hold his own.
“Tristan is the real deal,” Barrett said. “He’s going to be a problem out there for a lot of edge rushers and whoever is going against him. He’s ready for sure.”
Four more rookies to know
S Antoine Winfield, Jr.
Height/weight: 5-9, 203
Drafted: Second round, 45th overall
Winfield very well could end up being the star of this class. He performed as advertised during camp. He is a ball hawk who manages to find his way into a play. He constantly is around the ball, and his versatility makes him such an intriguing prospect. Ideally, he is more of a free safety, but he can play both safety spots and line up at the nickel position as well. He already is pushing second-year safety Mike Edwards for playing time, and he should see some snaps at corner because the Bucs want to get him on the field. He should grow into a player the Bucs design some of their defensive plays around because he has both the athleticism and acumen to handle a lot of responsibilities. He plays bigger than his size, but we’re looking forward to seeing how he handles the physicality of the pro game.
RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn
Height/weight: 5-10, 214
Drafted: Third round, 76th overall
Vaughn had an underwhelming camp, struggling to stand out among a crowded group of running backs. He had a slow start, missing the first few days because he was on the reserve/COVID-19 list, so that could have played a role. He struggled in the team’s scrimmage, getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage twice and fumbling on another carry. With Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy in the mix, he won’t be forced to contribute right away. But the Bucs want to know that he can carve a niche for himself, even if only on special teams for now.
WR Tyler Johnson
Height/weight: 6-2, 206
Drafted: Fifth round, 161st overall
Johnson was expected to compete for the No. 3 receiver role coming into camp, but he ended up sidelined most of the preseason with an undisclosed lower body injury. Like all rookies this year, he was already at a disadvantage without organized team activities, rookie camp and preseason games, but now that he’s missed so many snaps in practice, he’s far behind. Considering how much catching up he has to do, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Johnson open the season on injured reserve. The Bucs still like him, and believe they got a steal by taking him in the fifth round. Now it’s up to Johnson to get on the first team and show the Bucs there were smart by drafting him.
DL Khalil Davis
Height/weight: 6-1, 308
Drafted: Sixth round, 194th overall
The Bucs were really impressed by Davis’ progression over the course of camp, and he could contribute quickly in the defensive line rotation because it’s an area where the team lacks depth. In college, Davis showed he could rush the passer, but Bucs coaches like his ability to defend the run. And in Todd Bowles’ defense — on a unit that led the lead in rush defense — that’s how you get on the field. He seems to be a heady player who can adapt quickly and he really took to the idea of “stacking days” and finding ways to get better in every practice. Because of that, the Bucs love his work ethic.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.