1. Bucs

Bucs hope to build on successes of 2015 draft

Jameis Winston was drafted first overall last year and went to the Pro Bowl.
Jameis Winston was drafted first overall last year and went to the Pro Bowl.
Published Apr. 24, 2016

TAMPA — Some things can only happen once. Like donating a kidney. A first kiss. Or pulling four All-Rookie first team players from the same NFL draft class.

That's what the Bucs accomplished a year ago when general manager Jason Licht presided over the selection of the fantastic four: quarterback Jameis Winston, left tackle Donovan Smith, guard Ali Marpet and linebacker Kwon Alexander.

Licht and his front office, including new player personnel director John Spytek and college scouting director Mike Biehl, are really good at evaluating players. But even coach Dirk Koetter says the Bucs will use a different set of chains to measure their forward progress in the draft this year.

"It would be fantastic if we could do that every year, but I think that's unrealistic to say that we're going to get the same four (starters) like that every year," Koetter said, "To get Kwon Alexander, that type of player, in the fourth round? But the draft is still an inexact science. There are plenty of examples.

"I think we just did a tremendous job in the draft last year, and it's important every year. … That's what's going to get us over the top as a football team, so it's very, very important, but I think it's probably unrealistic to think that we're going to be able to do that every year."

For starters, the Bucs aren't picking No. 1 overall, where they handpicked Winston, and therefore won't own the first or second choice in every round. This year, they are selecting No. 9 overall. They can safely predict the Rams and Eagles will take quarterbacks with the first two picks, but after that, it's all guesswork.

While some luck is involved in any draft, it's not like the Bucs brass is in the war room playing rock, paper, scissors.

The plan the past two years was to find a franchise quarterback and build the offense. This year, improving the defense will be Tampa Bay's biggest priority, though not at the exclusion of passing up an exceptional offensive player.

"I think when teams say they will take best player available, the more you try to hold true to that philosophy, the fewer mistakes you will make," Biehl said. "We knew we had needs on the offensive line. But we had other positions that we considered. Just because we took Jameis, we didn't say, 'We have to take offensive lineman.' "

Licht and then-coach Lovie Smith did exhaustive research on Winston, choosing him over Marcus Mariota. The onfield decision was easy, but they had to consider character concerns.

"That was by far the most comprehensive study I've been a part of," Biehl said. "That was such an important pick for this franchise, for Jason, for everyone."

Smith was targeted for early in the second round, where the Bucs got him 34th overall. "The biggest thing with Donovan initially was size and athletic ability," Biehl said. "He's such a big man. Not many can move like he can move."

After that, the Bucs didn't just stand pat. Marpet, who played tackle for Division III Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., was first discovered by scout Andre Forde. After impressive showings at the Senior Bowl and the NFL combine, Marpet's stock rose quickly. The Bucs traded with the Colts to move back into the second round at No. 61 overall, and also got the 128th pick, in exchange for the 65th and 109th selections.

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"We thought he would be in our wheelhouse," Biehl said.

Finally, the Bucs had a much higher grade on Alexander when he unexpectedly fell to the fourth round. Granted, they didn't know he would be second on the team in tackles. "We had a lot higher value and he was just sitting there," Biehl said. "It's an example of taking best available."

So they traded up four spots in the fourth round with the Raiders to take Alexander.

Licht set the bar pretty high last season, and the Bucs would do well to add two or three rookie starters to the defense. But Koetter might be right. It might be unrealistic to match 2015.

"We always strive for that," Licht said. "I want to do better than we did last year, so does my staff. We're confident that we can do it. To get four starters out of a draft is pretty good. Hats off to those guys for everything they did. We strive every year to do better than we did the year before."