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We’ll go ahead and grade it: Bucs aced 2021 draft

Jason Licht and Co. achieved their objective, adding depth and enhancing special teams.
Published May 1
Updated May 2

Residing on each side of the NFL draft weekend are two of pro football’s most prevalent exercises in fun and futility.

Mock drafts beforehand, draft rankings afterward.

The mousse hadn’t dried in Mel Kiper Jr.’s hair when the initial set of team-by-team — or round-by-round — rankings began surfacing. By Friday’s wee hours, the league’s fan base at large already was being told which teams nailed it — and which blew it — in the first round.

Of course, the weekend’s true winners and losers won’t be known for a few seasons. But in the Bucs’ case, an unprecedented draft lends itself to stout conclusions.

And this much we can say with minimal fear of rebuttal: The Bucs got deeper, and better on special teams, this weekend.

Bank on it.

Such were the clear objectives for a franchise that returns all 22 starters, all three primary specialists and several key backups from a Super Bowl championship team. Barring a fluky rash of injuries, a typhoid outbreak in the rookie mini-camp or a chunk of the draft class washing out of the league at once, the Bucs now possess more insurance at critical positions.

They also have reinvigorated their return and coverage units in both kickoffs and punts.

Analysts appear to like the Bucs' first-round addition of edge rusher Joe Tryon (9).
Analysts appear to like the Bucs' first-round addition of edge rusher Joe Tryon (9). [ STEPHEN BRASHEAR | Associated Press (2019) ]

“Like all of our picks, these guys don’t have to go in right away and play, and we’re not relying on them,” general manager Jason Licht said Friday evening. “So we have the luxury of developing these guys into their future roles whether it’s offensive lineman, starting guard, starting right tackle — whatever it is.”

For what it’s worth, the early returns on the reinforcements were favorable. Veteran NFL writer Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com gave the Bucs a B for selecting Washington edge rusher Joe Tryon with the 32nd overall pick. NFL.com’s Chad Reuter gave them an A for the first two days, which included taking Florida quarterback Kyle Trask and Notre Dame right tackle Robert Hainsey.

“With the entire team back, it makes sense to draft another edge player (Tryon) with Jason Pierre-Paul getting up in the years,” Prisco wrote.

Coach Bruce Arians made it clear Tryon will be summoned for special teams duty. Similarly, the Bucs reaffirmed the prioritizing of special teams on Day 3 by trading their fourth- and sixth-round picks (No. 137 and 217) to the Seahawks to select fleet, 5-foot-7 North Texas receiver Jaelon Darden at No. 129.

Similarly, fifth-round pick K.J. Britt shapes up as a kicking- and punting-game enforcer. So too does Houston linebacker Grant Stuard (259th overall), whom Kiper called a “special teams dynamo” early in his Cougars career. Seventh-round pick Chris Wilcox — a Brigham Young cornerback who reportedly ran a 4.31-second 40-yard dash at his pro day — likely will be looked at as a gunner in punt coverage.

“We definitely wanted to get fast, faster,” Licht said. “We wanted guys that played with big heart. In the case of Grant, play with big hair — don’t care.”

Back to Darden. The Mean Green’s all-time leader in receptions (230), receiving yards (2,782) and receiving touchdowns (38), he also averaged 9.3 yards on 31 career punt returns.

The Bucs averaged 5.9 yards per punt return in 2020, when opponents averaged 10.3.

“Definitely I don’t have any problem with (returning punts),” said Darden, listed at 174 pounds. “I feel confident in coming in right away and being able to help however’s needed.”

The Bucs added some beef on the offensive line by drafting Robert Hainsey of Notre Dame in the third round.
The Bucs added some beef on the offensive line by drafting Robert Hainsey of Notre Dame in the third round. [ RUSTY COSTANZA | Associated Press ]

Thing is, the needs are minimal right now.

Related: NFL draft photo gallery: Bucs picks round by round

The Bucs have had more tense draft weekends, with far more glaring needs and more jobs — both on the field and in the front office — at stake. In those terms, this draft was more of a P.E. pop quiz than a molecular science midterm.

They aced it nonetheless. Before dusk Saturday, they had fortified their overall depth chart, invested in a promising quarterback they needn’t rush along, and added a burner and perhaps even a gunner.

“(Special teams) was one area we wanted to upgrade,” Licht said. “So we feel pretty good about what we’ve done.”

Hard for even the knee-jerk reactions to ooze negativity.

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