TAMPA — They say you can’t judge an NFL draft class for at least two or three years. Players need time to put their college letter sweaters away and adapt to the cut-throat business of professional football played by men, not boys.
Throw in a pandemic that prevented an offseason workout program and preseason games in 2020 ― well, that transition period inevitably will be longer, right?
If you say yes, then Tristan Wirfs and Antoine Winfield Jr. are unicorns.
Either that, or Bucs general manager Jason Licht and his front office finally have figured out the right formula to select players.
The truth lies somewhere in between.
The Bucs always believed Wirfs was the best offensive tackle in the draft a year ago, which is why they traded up one spot with the 49ers at No. 13 for the Iowa standout and a seventh-round pick.
But Wirfs played like someone who may one day be fitted for a gold jacket. He allowed only one sack and committed three penalties in 1,073 offensive snaps.
Say it all together now: As a rookie!
Winfield, meanwhile, also played well beyond his experience and filled up the stat sheet. He finished with 94 tackles, three sacks, four quarterback hits, one interception, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. In the 19 games he played, Winfield was on the field for 1,246 of a possible 1,275 defensive plays, or 97.7 percent.
In the postseason, the rookie from Minnesota added 18 tackles, including two for a loss and a huge interception in the Bucs’ win over Kansas City in Super Bowl 55. Winfield’s pick, a hustling diving catch of a pass deflected by Mike Edwards in the third quarter, led to a field goal.
“I think we all had high expectations for them,” Bucs director of college scouting Mike Biehl said. “They all kind of exceeded that, especially without having the offseason. You wouldn’t expect them to perform like they did. I would say we really put an emphasis — and we’ve done this since we’ve been here — but we put a refocus on the type of individual and not just the talent of the kid.
“Jason says this a lot. We don’t really miss on the talent. We miss on the person.”
There have been misses, to be sure. Some have gone wide right, like the decision to use a second-round draft pick on Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo in 2016. (Or the fifth-round choice in 2019 for kicker Matt Gay, for that matter).
But Licht and his staff have challenged scouts to put an even greater emphasis on finding talented players who not only love football but are willing to sacrifice for their teammates.
“We’ve done a lot of things within our scouting department, both pro and college, of putting a lot of emphasis on finding out what makes these guys tick,” Biehl said. “It’s getting harder and harder finding guys who really love football and are coachable and who are kind of selfless.”
Wirfs and his sister, Kaylia, were raised by their single mom, Sarah. She worked at Target from the time she was 16 until leaving the job after 28 years to follow her son’s NFL career.
“Guys who have faced things and have been able to overcome at an early age, you have a better feeling that they’re going to be able to handle things that are thrown at them,” Biehl said. “And that’s not to say that guys who grew up without a lot of adversity in life, they can’t be good and can’t handle it. It solidifies a few things.”
Winfield’s father, Antoine Sr., played 14 seasons in the NFL with the Bills and Vikings. The younger Winfield has been training to be a pro football player since he was a toddler. But at Minnesota, Winfield was redshirted twice with injuries.
His transition to the pro game appeared seamless, helped by late night film sessions with his father. But he admits there was a learning curve.
“I would say the biggest adjustment is the mental aspect of the game,” Winfield said.
Player personnel director John Spytek said the Bucs prefer achievers, not just on the field but in the classroom.
“We’ve tried to take a little experimental work like reading about (Spurs coach) Gregg Popovich and the culture he created down there,” Spytek said. “He liked to take guys with good GPAs because they’re kind of achievers and it matters to them. They have some pride to them that if I’m doing something, I’m going to do it well. (Bucs linebacker) Devin (White) was over a 3.0 (grade-point average) guy. A lot of kids at LSU are right around 2.0. Not like any of these things are a litmus test for greatness.”
Wirfs and Winfield weren’t the only good additions from the 2020 draft class. Receiver Tyler Johnson, a fifth-round pick from Minnesota, had only 12 receptions for 169 yards and two touchdowns. But he made an enormous third-down reception in the NFC division win at New Orleans and drew the game-clinching pass interference penalty in the conference title game at Green Bay.
“I feel like people kind of notice our roster now because we won (the Super Bowl),” Spytek said. “We always felt we had a good roster and that’s one of the reasons Tom (Brady) came here. He wasn’t going to a team that wasn’t good. He knows what he was looking for and looking at. This wasn’t a coincidence or an accident it happened. It was very intentional and purposeful on his part.
“I think it’s just a testament to the way (Licht) has tried to run this. We’ve just tried to pick really good players and we’ve been successful the last few years. We’ve certainly had our misses. But the 2016 class, but you learn something from it. Why did we make those mistakes and how can we not repeat them?”
April 29: Round 1, 8 p.m
April 30: Rounds 2-3, 7 p.m.
May 1: Rounds 4-7, noon
TV/streaming: ESPN, ABC, NFL Network
Notable: Bucs pick 32nd (Day 1), 64th and 95th (Day 2), and 137th, 176th, 217th, 251st and 259th (Day 3).
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