The Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered the 2018 NFL Draft with a total of seven picks in their possession, but only two in the top 100. They also had a list of needs, one that was more specifically defined than what you might get from the average outside analysis of the roster. They did indeed want a cornerback or two, for instance, but they were searching for one who could specifically play in the slot and one who had the size to match up with the big receivers in the NFC South.
More help for a revamped defensive line would be nice. A running back was a fairly high priority. The safety position needed attention, if possible, and another guard who could possibly compete for a starting job would be a bonus. The Bucs have robust top-end talent at linebacker and wide receiver but a little added depth would ease injury concerns and speak to the future.
That was a shopping list that didn't necessarily match what the Bucs had in their draft wallet, so there was a good chance they were going to finish the weekend with some very valuable additions and some remaining spaces in the cupboard. And yet somehow, through barter or bargain, their cart was nearly full by Saturday night.
"I was just talking with Coach, with Dirk [Koetter], when we went into the first round we thought we were going to have a hell of a lot more needs than we do right now, holes on our roster than we do now and we were trying to put plans into place of how we were going to fill those after the draft," said Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht. "If we just came out with a first-round pick and a second-round pick, it was going to be tough to do that. Now, you can trade down a little bit and pick up a lot of sixth-round picks and things like that but that doesn't necessarily always work. So we feel very good with the quality that we were able to get in the first two days and today."
It was Licht pulling the strings on a 2018 draft that somehow checked off all those needs above. It was his fifth year at the helm of the Bucs' draft, and the previous four had a great number of successes – high-pick hits like Mike Evans and Jameis Winston; later-round steals like Kwon Alexander and Kendell Beckwith; small-school finds like Ali Marpet; valuable middle-round developers like Kevin Pamphile and Chris Godwin. Like every team in virtually every draft, the Bucs had hits and misses in those four draft classes. What they didn't really have before, at least to the extent of their 2018 efforts, was a class that so thoroughly plugged the holes on their depth chart.
The defensive line got a potential game-charger in first-rounder Vita Vea, continuing the overhaul that began in free agency. The secondary got two corners and a safety. The offensive line got another "nasty" mauler to compete for a starting spot at guard. The offensive backfield has a new lead dog and the receiver and linebacker groups each have an intriguing new late-round addition. As Licht readily pointed out, all of the Bucs' gains so far are on paper and there's no guarantee that all of these picks will work out. But in the first blush after their latest draft was complete, the Bucs were thrilled.
"We feel great," said Licht. "I will say this: There is more of a better vibe – not that it was ever bad – but it just seems that there are more high-fives and more energy, positive energy, upstairs with all of the coaches and scouts this year than I can remember. So, everybody's happy right now. I went back to the defensive coaches and I said, 'I don't want to hear any complaining now, all of you should be happy now.' [I was] joking around, but everybody is very, very happy."
Here's what they're happy about. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' draft Class of 2018:
|1 (17)||DT||Vita Vea||Washington||Pac-12 Defensive POTY|
|2 (38)||RB||Ronald Jones||USC||Career 6.1 ypc, 42 TDs|
|2 (53)||CB||M.J. Stewart||North Carolina||Can play slot, CB, safety|
|2 (63)||CB||Carlton Davis||Auburn||At 6-1, Bucs' tallest CB|
|3 (94)||G||Alex Cappa||Humboldt St.||4-time GNAC Lineman of Year|
|4 (117)||S||Jordan Whitehead||Pittsburgh||Played safety and RB for Pitt|
|5 (144)||WR||Justin Watson||Penn||Career 3,777 receiving yards|
|6 (202)||LB||Jack Cichy||Wisconsin||Can play all three LB spots|
The Buccaneers managed to get their man in the massive and powerful Vea in Round One, and also added two valuable second-round picks in a short move down in the first round. On Day Two, another pair of trades allowed them to hit needs at running back, cornerback and offensive guard.
Day Three gave the Buccaneers an opportunity to hit one more significant need in the secondary and add depth at receiver and linebacker. The aforementioned trades had stripped the Bucs of one of their two sixth-round picks and a late seventh-round compensatory selections, but they still nabbed Pitt safety Jordan Whitehead in the fourth round, Penn wide receiver Justin Watson in the fifth round and Wisconsin linebacker Jack Cichy in the sixth round. Though Vea was the weekend's marquee pick and Day Two was what Licht called the "need rounds," the final selections on Saturday were more than just an afterthought. Finding help in the later rounds is the product of deep scouting, and Licht was very pleased with the work of everyone in his department in this year's draft-preparation process.
"I do want to say that our scouts do a fantastic job and I can't leave here and feel good without – I can't mention all their names right now but they do a fantastic job along with all of our coaches," he said. "They really worked their [butts] off this year. I'm very proud of the work that we all did this year."
The Buccaneers needed secondary help after finishing last in the NFL in pass defense in 2017. They had already addressed that issue in an indirect but critical way in free agency and the first round of the draft, beefing up their defensive line and the pass-rush capability, but the back end of the defense needed an infusion of young talent, too. After taking a pair of cornerbacks with differing profiles in Round Three – M.J. Stewart is versatile enough to play the slot, on the outside or at safety while Carlton Davis provides much-needed size at 6-1 – the Bucs used their first pick on Saturday to add Pitt safety Jordan Whitehead, who hails from a football hotbed in Pennsylvania.
"Those guys from Aliquippa, it's like those Miami guys, football means everything to them," said Licht. "He certainly is one of those guys. He's a gym rat, he's a film junkie. He is tough and he plays like he loves it. He's going to play safety; he does have some versatility though. He played inside. He played nickel. We're going to play him at safety. He's not the biggest guy; he doesn't know that though, he doesn't play like that."
Whitehead knows that he and his fellow rookie DBs face a steep learning curve as they join a division that includes Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, but he's eager to face the challenge, particularly because he thought he was talented enough to be drafted earlier.
"It definitely makes me really competitive right now," said Whitehead. "Thank you to the Bucs for picking me. Thirty-one teams passed up so it's just a chip on my shoulder coming in already. I'm really ready to play, ready to do anything, special teams, to contribute to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Coming in and playing those great quarterbacks, it's going to be a lot of different things. A lot of film studying I'm going to have to do, a lot of working with the older guys, following their lead."
In the fifth round, Licht landed one of his favorite sleepers in the draft, selecting an Ivy Leaguer and FCS All-American in Penn wide receiver Justin Watson. Watson had nearly 4,000 receiving yards in his college career and he gives the Bucs' varied receiving corps yet another type of pass-catcher.
"He's big, he's athletic," said Licht. "He's one of those guys that, we talk about him a lot during the process just because of everything-the way he's wired is just exactly how you want them. He just loves the game."
Watson's outsized production in the Ivy League got him invites to the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, where he was eager to test his talents against Division I defensive backs. The Shrine game was held in St. Petersburg and included some involvement from Buccaneer coaches. Watson worked with Skyler Fulton, who is going into his first year as Tampa Bay's wide receiver coach, and the experience helped him hone in on the traits that could help him get his initial foothold in the NFL. Obviously, the Buccaneers believe he can succeed because they have brought him back to the Bay area.
"It helped me so much," said Watson. "One thing for me, my athletic ability definitely helps me. Especially those two weeks where I noticed when I used my speed and my power for releases and to get open and really just stuck to those strengths, I don't think I was covered at all at the East-West Game or at the Senior Bowl when I was doing that. So, talking to Coach Fulton and Coach [Todd] Monken and the staff, they said the plan coming in is to work those strengths, use those strengths and continue to develop everything else as a receiver in the meantime."
Finally, the Buccaneers finished their own efforts a round early, as their selection of Wisconsin linebacker Jack Cichy at #202 in the sixth round rounded out the Class of 2018. Cichy could prove to be a value pick thanks to his own bit of misfortune – an ACL tear prior to the start of his senior season kept him from suiting up in 2017, and he had already used his redshirt year in 2014. Cichy took his rehab at a steady and deliberate pace and believes he'll be fully ready to go when the Bucs start practicing this month. Licht thinks Cichy would have gone earlier in the draft had he been healthy in 2017.
"I won't put a [draft-round] number on it but I certainly think he would have been drafted a lot higher," said the Bucs' G.M. "We feel good about it, where he's at. [He's] working out, moving around. He's full-speed. Once again, you can't go wrong with him. He's an alpha personality. His dad's a football coach. He got the most votes on the team as a captain and he doesn't take any 'BS' from anybody. He's one of those all-business type guys that just loves the game and he's a good football player."
The Buccaneers have a star-studded linebacking corps, headlined by former Pro Bowlers in Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander, along with the breakout rookie from 2017, Kendell Beckwith. However, Beckwith fractured an ankle in an auto accident in April and the exact date of his return to the field hasn't yet been determined. And, regardless of Beckwith's status, a linebacker who can fill in at all three spots and potentially develop into a starter is a valuable addition to that group.
"I'm right where I want to be right now and I'm confident going forward," said Cichy. "I think an NFL WILL [weakside linebacker] is most like me, but from my talks with Coach [Mark] Duffner, I think they're going to expect me to learn all three and hopefully be able to be a kind of plug-and-play guy. I'm ready to do whatever is asked of me."
Cichy is surely eager to get back on the field after a frustrating fall of watching from the sideline. He loves the game of football, which is a trait the Buccaneers were looking for in all of their draft picks.
"Guys that don't necessarily love it, if things aren't going well, they're not going to give their best effort I've found in the past," said Licht. "So we want guys [who love the game.] They've got to be football guys though, too. They've got to be able to play, so you've got to try to combine the two. We felt like we were very successful with that with this class. Time will tell, but right now we feel really, really good about it."