The 2018 season was not kind to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2017 draft class. The good news is that most of the members of that class still have a good chance to become foundational pieces for the franchise.
Tampa Bay drafted six players in April of 2017 and by the end of the 2018 campaign only one of them was suited up and making plays. That says a lot more about the injury fortune of that class than it does about its talent. Seventh-round defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu spent a second straight season on injured reserve for the duration; fourth-round linebacker Kendell Beckwith never made it back from the reserve/non-football-injury list after suffering an ankle injury in a spring car accident; and the team's first two picks in 2017, O.J. Howard and Justin Evans, landed on injured reserve after playing in 10 games each.
So, while what follows is an assessment of how each member of the Bucs' Class of '17 fared in their shared sophomore campaign, we'll also need to consider their rookie contributions when discussing what could come next for each of them.
1. TE O.J. Howard, Round 1, Pick 19
Howard did manage to build significantly on his promising rookie season before a freak ankle injury in New York in Week 11 ended his second campaign early. In fact, he was rapidly emerging as one of the league's young stars at the tight end position, and his injury came at the end of a 24-yard catch-and-run and a 78-yard day against the Giants. At the time of his injury, Howard ranked sixth among all NFL tight ends in receiving yards per game and tied for third in touchdown receptions.
Howard has now finished both of his NFL seasons on injured reserve – an ankle injury also felled him in 2017 – but there's no reason to suspect that he is especially prone to injuries. In both cases, he was simply tackled awkwardly at the end of a big play. What _is_ clear is that when Howard is healthy and available, he can stay on the field as a true two-way "Y" sort of tight end, and those are not easy to find. Before his injury, Howard was playing around 61% of the team's offensive snaps.
Even as his blocking progresses, however, it's the downfield plays he can make with his rare combination of size, speed and athleticism that seem to have him bound for stardom. Howard averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2018, best among all qualifying NFL tight ends. That was no fluke; he also averaged 16.6 yards per reception as a rookie. Howard also has 11 touchdowns already in just 24 career games.
What's Next? Howard's injury was enough to cost him six games but it did not require surgery, which means it shouldn't have much of an impact on his 2019 offseason. There's no reason why a change in offensive scheme brought on by the hiring of Bruce Arians should limit his role, either. Howard is poised to thrive in his third season and, if he can avoid another bit of bad luck on the injury front, he could emerge as a top-five tight end in the NFL.
2. S Justin Evans, Round 2, Pick 50
Like Howard, Evans had a promising rookie season in 2017, winning a starting job early and emerging as a rare constant in a secondary that dealt with endless upheaval. He tied for the team lead with three interceptions and was fifth with 65 tackles, earning the beginning of a reputation as a hard-hitter.
And Evans burst out of the gate in 2018, looking as if he was going to quickly develop into an impact player at a position at which the Bucs had been searching for one for some time. He returned a fumble 34 yards for a touchdown in the season-opening win at New Orleans and made an acrobatic interception in a Week Three Monday night matchup with Pittsburgh that led to the game's first touchdown.
Unfortunately, the big plays dried up after that. To be fair, Tampa Bay's defense as a whole went almost two months without generating a takeaway, so Evans' lack of production didn't particularly stand out among his teammates. He remained a consistent tackler and was usually among the team's leaders in that category from week to week, but the impact plays weren't there. After nine games he suffered a toe injury that knocked him for two weeks, and after attempting a comeback he aggravated the injury in his first game back and ended up on injured reserve.
Evans seemed to have a lot of momentum going into the second month of his second season but lost it along the way. The injury didn't help.
What's Next? This is another player whose prospects for 2019 look more promising when one considers his performance both this year and in 2017. Rookie Jordan Whitehead showed some promise as a rookie and in-season acquisition Andrew Adams helped solidify the safety position among injuries to Evans and Chris Conte, but Evans will likely still be considered an incumbent starter heading into the offseason. Unlike, Howard, the arrival of a new coaching staff could affect Evans' fortunes, and likely in a good way as he is a good fit for single-high schemes.
3. WR Chris Godwin, Round 3, Pick 84
This was the last man standing for the Class of '17 at the end of 2018. Or perhaps we should say last man running because Godwin was all over the field in the season finale, finishing the year on a high note of six catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns.
That outburst brought his second-season totals to 59 catches for 842 yards and seven touchdowns. That represented the third-highest yardage total among all wideouts who were selected in the 2017 draft; only Pittsburgh's JuJu Smith-Schuster and Detroit's Kenny Golladay had more. Godwin's seven TD grabs were tied for the second most among all players in his draft, trailing only Mike Williams' 10. Godwin did all of this on a team that had plenty of other viable targets for the quarterbacks; in fact, the 2018 Bucs were just the fifth team ever to have four different players surpass 750 receiving yards in the same season.
Through two seasons, Godwin has been everything the Buccaneers could have hoped for from a third-round pick, and more. He has essentially only started games when DeSean Jackson has been injured, but this past year he was listed as a co-starter with Jackson the depth chart and certainly got the type of playing time a starter usually does. It helps that Godwin can play all three receiver positions and is a threat on the outside or in the slot. He has proved to be a precise route-runner with good hands and he showed that he can pick up significant yards after the catch on several occasions in 2018.
What's Next? Godwin clearly profiles as a long-term starter for the team. After a fine rookie season he upped his yardage total by another 317 in his second campaign, and he has a robust two-year average of 14.7 yards per catch. Godwin was much more of a threat in the red zone in his second season. The sky appears to be the limit for Godwin, even as the Buccaneers install a new offense under Arians.
4. LB Kendell Beckwith, Round 3, Pick 107
Beckwith made a big splash as a rookie as he returned to the field unexpectedly quickly after his final year at LSU ended with an ACL tear. Beckwith was one of the team's most pleasant surprises in 2017, excelling at several different positions and even calling defensive plays for a stretch when both Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David were hurt.
Unfortunately, Beckwith suffered another bit of injury misfortune before his second season and this one proved harder to overcome. He sustained a serious ankle injury as the passenger in a car crash in the spring, which wiped out most of his pre-camp preparation time and made him a question mark heading into August. As it turned out, he never made it back onto the field in camp and had to start the season on the non-football-injury reserve list. He eventually returned to the practice field in November but after his three-week window to potentially return to the roster was over it was determined that he was not yet ready for game action.
What's Next? Obviously, Beckwith will be a question mark until he is cleared for a full return to action. That return would give the Bucs a big boost at a position where they struggled for depth in 2018. Assuming a return to full health, he could be a candidate to start either in the middle or the strong side, depending upon what happens with the pending free agency status of Alexander.
5. RB Jeremy McNichols, Round 5, Pick 162
McNichols was the one member of the Bucs' 2017 draft class who didn't either make the active roster or end up on injured reserve in 2017. He ended up on San Francisco's practice squad and later saw action in two games without a carry. He played one game for Indianapolis this past fall and logged two runs for four yards.
What's Next? McNichols signed with Tennessee last December, coming off the Denver Broncos' practice squad, so he will presumably get another shot with Titans in 2019.
6. DT Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, Round 7, Pick 223
Tu'ikolovatu's second season, like his first, was spent entirely on injured reserve. In both cases, the injury occurred during the preseason, as a knee ailment cost him the 2017 season and a triceps injury did the trick in 2018.
The Buccaneers' drafted Tu'ikolovatu late in the 2017 draft after he had graded as one of the best run-stopping defensive tackles in college football at USC in 2016. After his lost rookie season he came to camp about 15 pounds lighter (though still at around 340), hoping to be quicker, but never got a full opportunity to compete for a roster spot.
What's Next? Tu'ikolovatu would presumably get a third chance to compete for a roster spot next summer, though after two years without him seeing the field it's hard to predict what lies ahead for the 27-year-old defender.