The Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2017 “Fine Wine” Class

1st round pick OJ Howard. Image from WFLA.com

1st round pick OJ Howard. Image from WFLA.com

In the first three drafts of the Jason Licht era, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were spoiled with a group of day one starters that included Mike Evans, Jameis Winston, Kwon Alexander, Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Vernon Hargreaves, and Noah Spence (to name a few).

Though each has gone through expected growing pains in their respective adjustments to the NFL, the early success of these players and the subsequent bar set by them may have created some unreasonably lofty expectations for the incoming 2017 Draft Class.

Looking at the Buccaneers’ draft haul, on paper and college game tape alone, the players selected are nothing short of impressive. Looking at our roster needs pre-draft, I dismissed even the remote possibility that OJ Howard (TE – Alabama) would fall to the 19th pick, writing: “OJ Howard is one of the “safest” players in the draft, and while taking a TE early would be more of a luxury pick, using a first rounder on him would be a no-brainer should he fall (he won’t).” Lo and behold, after 18 teams passed on him, there he was, falling right into our laps.

In Round 2, with rumored targets Forrest Lamp and Budda Baker off the board, the Buccaneers went with Texas A&M’s hard hitting Safety Justin Evans, addressing a consensus need for a team that was starting one of the weakest Safety tandems in the league with Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald.

And with the third round, the Bucs double-dipped with picks. Addressing a serious hole in WR depth, first off the board was Penn State’s speedy WR Chris Godwin, followed by Kendell Beckwith, a LB out of LSU who is expected to compete with Devante Bond for the starting SAM role.

Rounding out the draft, the Bucs finished with Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols (RB) and USC’s space eating DT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu.

Assessing the class, I had two thoughts that came to mind: first, was that I was satisfied with the direction of the front office and the decisions they made here. Secondly? 

That I have little to no expectations for these guys as rookies.

The 2017 Draft is what I’ll refer to as “The Fine Wine” class, a group of rookies who we won’t be able to expect immediate impact performance from, but investments who we hold and reap long-term capital gains from as they grow and develop.

Offense

Starting with OJ Howard, history has shown that rookie TE’s have a steep learning curve to adjust to the NFL, and early production from them has been traditionally weak. Eric Ebron, for instance, was a top ten pick to the Lions who finished his rookie season with a mere 25 catches for 248 yards. Tyler Eifert was limited to 39 catches for 445 yards and 2 TD’s, and Greg Olsen, now a dangerous receiving threat for the Panthers was limited to 39 catches for 391 yards and 2 TD’s.

Howard’s true value as a rookie will come in his ability to block, but Cameron Brate will likely see the majority of TE targets. In his third season with the Bucs, Brate finished with an exceptional 57 catches for 660 yards with 8 TD’s, establishing a rapport with Jameis Winston. Brate appears to be nowhere near his ceiling, and if his 81 targets last year are any indication, it’s that Jameis will continue leaning on him heavily moving into this upcoming season.

There’s another variable worth noting here, and that is that the Buccaneers are likely to use a variety of packages next year that will rotate between 1-2 TE sets, slot receivers in and out, and perhaps even empty back sets. It’s likely that Monken will keep Evans (949 snaps in 2016), Brate (705 snaps), and Desean Jackson (712 snaps) on the field as much as possible, while rotating Humphries in the slot (646 snaps) and OJ Howard depending on the defensive personnel, coverage, and game scenarios. Both Luke Stocker and Alan Cross combined for 458 snaps last year, mostly on run blocking plays, and I’d venture to guess Howard will see the field just as much, primarily on 1st and 2nd down as an extra blocker.

I suppose that’s a nice Segway into Chris Godwin and where he fits in, which is to say, barring injury or a display of superiority to Humphries, his chances to see the field much as a rookie are pretty limited. Needless to say, his selection is a welcome one. With V-Jax’s injury last year and little to no WR depth, Jameis had to turn to a variety of unexpected WR targets and outcasts, including Cecil Shorts III, Josh Huff, and even Freddie Martino. The end result was Mike Evans often facing double (or sometimes triple) coverage and the stifling of our passing attack. Godwin represents a significant upgrade to our WR corps whose ceiling is a medium-term replacement for Desean Jackson at WR2. But like Howard, I envision Godwin’s use to be limited as a rookie, but a prospect who will become a viable receiver down the road.

Finishing up on the offensive side of the ball is Jeremy McNichols, the Buccaneers’ 5th round pick. With fellow Boise State alum Doug Martin suspended for PED’s, there’s a lot of uncertainty with how the Buccaneers intend to use their RB’s while Martin is out of commission. I’ll be honest—but McNichols was probably the pick I’ve been least excited about. There seems to be a itsy-bitsy hype train around him, but having now watched a few hours of his game tape, a few things about him stand out to me: his strength is primarily as a receiver (so is Charles Sims’). He’s got extremely slow burst out of the backfield, his vision is suspect, and I noticed a tendency to make multiple cuts before turning upfield. And unlike his fellow Bronco alumnus Doug Martin, McNichols seemed to go down easy after initial contact. When it comes to later round picks, you usually get what you pay for, and McNichols isn’t going to see a lot of playing time—and certainly not as the feature back.

Defense

I’m very happy with the moves we made on the defensive side of the ball. While CB remains a position group with razor-thin depth, I saw Safety, SAM, and DT depth as holes that needed filling in the draft, and we addressed those positions (to an extent) in Justin Evans (S, Texas A&M), Kendell Beckwith (SLB, LSU), and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (DT, USC).

Justin Evans looks like the ultimate boom or bust prospect. With proper coaching and a little more discipline in his play, he looks like he has the ceiling of Troy Polamalu, but perhaps the floor of Taylor Mays, who I saw similarities to from his game tape. Evans plays with a level of intensity and passion that fits right in with the character that Mike Smith is trying to build on defense.  

Should he fail in the NFL, it won’t be from a lack of trying. /u/Gator7862 wrote a thorough analysis of Evans’ play worth reading, but one thing worth noting: Evans missed 38 tackles in the last two years. He often goes for the bone crunching hit over the conservative one, and that simply won’t do in the NFL.

What’s encouraging, however, is that he can get to the ball and tackle with absurd speed. With the signing of Wilcox, having Chris Conte as depth (please God, not a starter) and the emergence of Keith Tandy last year, there’s enough pieces in our secondary that we won’t need to throw Evans to the wolves from day one.

I envision Smith slowly easing him onto the field, and make no mistake of it: there will be face palm worthy plays, but we won’t have to lean on him as a starter just yet, and are unlikely to do so unless he shows enough promise to take Tandy off the field.

For more obvious reasons, Kendell Beckwith is a player likely to ride the bench, at least to start the season. Beckwith is currently recovering from an ACL tear suffered from his Senior season against Florida. While Beckwith played at ILB, he’s expected to do a reverse Kwon and bounce to the outside where he’ll compete with Devante Bond for the starting SAM role. If Daryl Smith’s usage last season is any indication, SAM is primarily on the field on first and second down for obvious run plays and more often than not, off the field on third down. Beckwith is not expected to be ready until training camp, and even that may be an aggressive timeframe given how recent his injury was. Combine that with the fact that he’ll have to learn a whole new position, and you begin to see why Beckwith seeing the field might be less soon than one would think. With Bond finally returning from injury and with the SAM position having lesser importance in Smith’s defense, a conservative approach to Beckwith’s placement on the field may be the best one. I liked the move as an investment and think it will pay off.

Finally, USC’s DT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu in Round 7 was a good move—but with 7th round picks, they’re always longshots to make the roster. Tu’ikolovatu, for lack of a better way of describing him, is a large, large man. He’s a bit of a one trick pony who can eat space in the run game, but if his 2.5 career sacks are any indication, his pass rush is lacking. At the end of last year’s training camp, the Buccaneers kept four DT’s on the final roster. Gerald McCoy and Chris Baker are of course locks for the first two slots, but for the remaining spots, it’s a wide open race between Lambert, Siliga, and even Clinton McDonald who may be a longshot to make the team with his cap figure and the fact he’s in the final year of his deal. In the event Tu’ikolovatu does make it, expect him to be used in a limited capacity, most likely on obvious run downs.

Overall

It’s hard to see much of our 2017 draft haul turning into instant performers, but we’ve gotten to the point where we can afford BPA drafts instead of plugging up glaring holes. The real value of these players will emerge with time, but it’s important to set expectations accordingly, especially given how spoiled we’ve been with the early returns from some of Jason Licht’s other drafts.

Don’t expect a Kwon-like steal to emerge immediately, and don’t expect Godwin to be the 1,000+ yard rookie receiver that Mike Evans was. Expect to see valuable role players from our rookie class, coming on the field periodically and adjust to the nuances of the pro game. But down the road? Expect greatness. It was nothing short of an excellent draft.