Return On Investment: Special Teams

Return On Investment

Article by Scott Smith


In recent weeks, we've noted that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' return-on-investment in the 2016 free agency class has been excellent so far. The additions of Bryan Anger and Josh Robinson instantly transformed the team's punting unit into one of the league's best, which had a noticeable impact on field position on a weekly basis. The signings of Robert Ayers and Brent Grimes succeeded in giving the defense playmakers on the front and back ends and helped manufacture a remarkable midseason turnaround.

General Manager Jason Licht, who led the Bucs' efforts in both free agency and the draft, knows as well as every NFL team architect that a successful team's foundation necessarily must come from the draft. Free agency, when handled well, provides the supplement, fills the gaps.  Licht has been the Buccaneers' general manager for three drafts so far, two (2014-15) with Lovie Smith as the head coach and one (2016) with Dirk Koetter in that role. Like the 2016 free agency class, those three drafts have provided a very strong return on investment. Most notably, there were eight full-time starters from the 2014-16 drafts on last year's squad, nine if one classifies the kicker as a starter, and three others who got occasional starts.

Tampa Bay's offense, in particular, has been reconstructed over the last three drafts, which have provided a 2015 Pro Bowl quarterback in Jameis Winston, a 2016 Pro Bowl wide receiver in Mike Evans, three-fifths of the starting offensive line (Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet and Kevin Pamphile) and a valuable contributor to the backfield in running back Charles Sims.

Those three drafts have also produced defensive starters in Hargreaves and middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, a 2016 Pro Bowl alternate. That number could eventually double depending upon the development of Spence and Smith, the latter of whom will go back to cornerback in 2017 after an attempted conversion to safety. Devante Bond, a linebacker picked in the sixth round last spring, spent his rookie season on injured reserve.

All told, the players from the 2014-16 drafts who were still with the team this past season accounted for 39.5% of the teams' offensive and defensive snaps this past season. On offense, those draftees were responsible for 55.4% of the total snaps

Of particular note is that the Buccaneers had six different players from those three draft classes who started all 16 games in 2016. That's more 16-game starters in 2016 than any other team in the NFL gained from its 2014-16 drafts.

 
 


Four of the Buccaneers' six full-season starters in the above group came from their first four picks in the 2015 draft – Winston, Smith, Marpet and Alexander. No other team in the NFL had more than two players from their 2015 draft class make every start this past fall. Those four Buccaneers combined to produce 36 AV "points" in 2016; only one other team's 2015 draft class was more impactful this past fall. Approximate value is a catch-all metric compiled by Pro Football Reference that is designed to put a comparable numerical value on each player-season in the NFL, dating back to 1950. The higher the number, the better.

 
 


Of all the players drafted from 2014-16 (there were a total of 765), the following were all Tampa Bay selections:

• The player with the most tackles in the NFL in 2016 (Alexander)
• The player with the most passing yards in the NFL in 2016 (Winston)
• The player tied for the most touchdown receptions in the NFL in 2016 (Evans)

 
 


For the purposes of this analysis, we are mostly concerned with what the Bucs' return-on-investment was in 2016 from the players they drafted between 2014 and 2016. As good as Evans has been since Day One, after he was taken seventh overall in 2014, he had his best campaign yet in 2016.

Evans finished the 2016 season ranked sixth in the NFL among all players, not just 2014-16 draftees, in receptions (96), fourth in receiving yards (1,321) and tied for second in touchdown receptions (12). He tied his own franchise record, set in 2014, for touchdown receptions and put up the second-most catches and third-most yards in a single season in team history. In addition, he has scored the second most points of any player to join the league since 2014.

 
 


After using all of their 2014 draft picks on offensive players – a first in the team's four-decade history – the Buccaneers pulled it all together with the first overall pick of the following year's draft, selecting Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. After just two seasons, Winston appears to be well on his way to becoming the most productive Buccaneer passer ever. More importantly, the team believes he can continue to develop into one of the league's elite quarterbacks. That is truly a rare NFL asset and something that has been lacking for most of the franchise's history.

Winston is already the first player in league history to start his career with consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons. In just his second campaign he broke the Buccaneers' single-season records for passing yards (4,090) and touchdown passes (28).

After using the first overall pick on Winston in 2015, the Buccaneers made a point of finding protection for him. Their high first-round pick, #34 overall, was used on Penn State offensive tackle Donovan Smith. Licht then engineered a trade up from the third into the bottom of the second round to grab a small-school prospect the Bucs had become enamored of at the Combine, Hobart guard Ali Marpet, at #61 overall.

Both Smith and Marpet won opening-day starting jobs as rookies, at left tackle and right guard, respectively. Except for three games that Marpet missed due to injury in 2015, they have proceeded to start every contest together throughout their first two seasons. Smith, in fact, has played every one of the Bucs' offensive snaps since he arrived.

Three times in their draft history, the Buccaneers have selected two offensive linemen within the first 70 picks in a given year, and all three times it has succeeded in producing a pair of starters, most recently with Smith and Marpet. The team started its 2006 draft with guard Davin Joseph at #23 and tackle Jeremy Trueblood at #59. Joseph started 99 games over seven seasons (plus one on injured reserve) and went to two Pro Bowls. Trueblood started 84 games over seven seasons. In 1997, the Bucs had a clutch of early picks and used #37 on tackle Jerry Wunsch followed by guard Frank Middleton at #63. Wunsch started 46 games over six Buc seasons, Middleton 50 over four.

However, no previous Buccaneer draft has ever produced as many games started on the offensive line through the following two seasons as the 2015 effort.

 
 


After nine straight picks devoted to the offense over the first five days of the 2014 and 2015 drafts combined, the Buccaneers finally gave the defense some help in Round Four in 2015 with the selection of LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander. Alexander immediately won the team's starting middle linebacker job as a rookie and has turned into one of the team's top playmakers on that side of the ball. Alexander was voted a Pro Bowl alternate in 2016 after leading the NFL in solo tackles.

Alexander missed the last four games of his rookie season on a league suspension but has started the Buccaneers' other 28 games over the past two campaigns. In that span he has racked up 167 solo tackles (among 238 total tackles), three interceptions, 16 passes defensed, two fumble recoveries and six sacks. Only two other players, one of whom happens to be Alexander's teammate, have at least 150 solo tackles, three interceptions and six sacks over the past two seasons. Even if one sets the bar at 125 solo tackles, there are only five names on the list.

The other four players on that list were all taken in either the first or second round in their respective draft years. Alexander, as noted above, was a fourth-rounder, selected #124 overall. In fact, according again to Pro Football Reference, only one player drafted in the fourth round or later in 2015 has, to this point, produced more Approximate Value than Alexander.

 
 


After two offense-heavy drafts in 2014 and 2015, the Buccaneers understandably turned their focus to defense this past spring, using their first two picks on cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive end Noah Spence. Hargreaves was the 11th overall selection while Spence went eight picks into the second round, at #39.

Hargreaves started every game for the Buccaneers' defense and finished fourth on the team (first among corners) with 76 tackles along with three tackles for loss, one interception, nine passes defensed and one forced fumble. According to PFR, that production translated into six AV. Only one defensive back drafted in 2016 ended up with more in his rookie campaign, #5 overall pick Jalen Ramsey.

 
 


Hargreaves was an essential part of the Bucs' defense who essentially never left the field. He started the season in a dual role, playing outside cornerback in base packages and then moving into the slot for the nickel. Eventually, the coaching staff chose to allow the rookie to focus solely on playing the outside, elevating Jude Adjei-Barimah to the slot role. Hargreaves did later seem some more action in the slot after Adjei-Barimah was suspended. All told, Hargreaves played about 97% of the team's defensive snaps. He also saw more snaps than all but two defensive rookies in the league in 2016; the top five all happened to be defensive backs.

Spence began the year as a pass-rush specialist but a rash of defensive-line injuries forced him into a bigger role for a good portion of the middle of the season. Despite playing most of the year with a harness after a shoulder dislocation, the rookie end finished third on the team with 5.5 sacks. He ranked sixth among the league's rookies in that category and was third among players selected after the first round.

 
 


As noted earlier, the Buccaneers also got contributions from 2016 draft picks Roberto Aguayo, Ryan Smith and Caleb Benenoch. Aguayo struggled at times during his rookie season but had a midseason stretch in which he made 10 of 11 field goals, only missing from 50 yards. He scored a team-high 98 points and ranked seventh in the league with a kickoff touchback percentage of 68.4%. Smith played extensively on special teams and could make a bigger mark on defense in 2017 as he moves back to cornerback from safety. Benenoch started one game at left guard.

As is the case with many draft classes, the 2016 group was limited by opportunities, with the exception of the first two selections.  The Buccaneers hope the later picks can still help form the team's long-term foundation, as so many from the 2014 and 2015 classes have already done. Tampa Bay used the 2016 free agency period to great effect, adding four key contributors. It is the draft, however, that forms the backbone of the team, and the Bucs' last three April efforts appear to be a great combined success.

Story by Scott Smith. Graphics by David Sharpensteen. Web Design by Eric Rook.
Additional Research and Concepts by Eric Holland. Video by Josh Lane.