When Bruce Arians and Jason Licht study their big board on draft weekend this year, they'll be scanning it as much horizontally as they do vertically, maybe more so than ever.
The typical team draft board has prospects grouped by position horizontally and then ranked on a grading scale vertically under each header. Often, especially in the early rounds, a team's selection process involves focusing in on one position and working down the list from top to bottom. That certainly seemed to be the case for Arians' and Licht's Tampa Bay Buccaneers a year ago; a plug-and-play right tackle was clearly the team's biggest need and there were four blue-chip prospects at the top of the board. Licht eventually swung a small trade up to the 13th spot to make sure he got one of them, ending up with a Rookie of the Year candidate in Iowa's Tristan Wirfs.
This year's process will be different. With a loaded roster that just won a Super Bowl and remains almost completely intact after some impressive free agency work, the Bucs don't have to focus in one column on their board in any round, including the first. That means tracking the board horizontally to see if, say, your top-rated defensive lineman is better than you're top-rated wide receiver.
For example, Arians was asked Wednesday if the anticipated return of Leonard Fournette to a backfield that also includes Ronald Jones and 2020 draftee Ke'Shawn Vaughn would preclude the Bucs from drafting a running back at the end of the first round. He did not rule it out.
"Probably not," said Arians to the idea of excluding a first-round back. "This year, going into this draft, it's probably going to be the best player available…I mean, every round. Can't really say I've ever gone into a draft not having a need, a drastic need. So it's going to be fun because there are going to be so many guys available. The beauty pageant part of it – we like this corner better than that back or this defensive end, so… And how much can they help us on special teams right away? That part of it, it won't change."
That doesn't mean the Buccaneers will go into this year's draft without a few guiding principles. Arians was quick to note that the Super Bowl championship belongs to the 2020 team and that the 2021 squad hasn't accomplished anything yet. No NFL roster is ever perfect and Arians says there is plenty to improve upon from last year's performance. He is definitely hoping this year's draft class can make an impact in 2021 and there are some traits and positions he'll be keeping in mind from round to round.
"I think [we'll look for] speed on defense…as long as it's speed, because speed's going to help special teams and speed develops into really good players on defense," said Arians. "I think both lines of scrimmage – I don't think you can have enough depth at both lines of scrimmage. Obviously, a young quarterback. But again, for me it's speed and physicality, a love for the game, which we do every year. We look for guys that just love to go play. I think those things will be the deciding factors in who we're looking for."
The most specific and intriguing part of that list was "a young quarterback," and the word "obviously" attached to it. After leading the Buccaneers to their second championship (and his seventh) Tom Brady signed a contract extension that should keep him under center in Tampa for at least the next two seasons. The Bucs won't be in play for the quarterbacks who are going to dominate the top of the first round this year, most of whom will be expected to get on the field very quickly with their new teams, but they could start preparing for the eventual post-Brady era.
A year ago, Arians and Licht said something very similar, that they would consider drafting a developmental quarterback if the player and the pick intersected just right. It didn't happen and undrafted rookie Reid Sinnett didn't stick (though he did end up on Miami's practice squad for the whole year). Their approach hasn't changed.
"We go into that [process] every year," said Arians. "If the guy's there at the right time, that we really think has a great future. And no better time than to have one sit for a couple years and learn from [Brady]. Each round, there's going to be one of those guys in that picture, to try to see who's the best available right then."
Again, this is where the Buccaneers have the luxury of being more horizontal in their draft board comparisons. The Bucs could think a quarterback is one of the best available prospects at the end of the first round, but they might like a particular cornerback or guard even better at that exact moment. That sort of evaluation will go on every round until the Buccaneers find the right time to pick a quarterback…or maybe not find the right time at all.
"Like I said, if the right guy is there that we think is a developmental guy that has the upside that outweighs every other position, of those five or six guys that we're looking at, then we wouldn't be against it," said Arians of drafting a quarterback. "The same thing in the second round and the third round – if we have five guys and one's a quarterback and we think his development is better than those positions, sure."