Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A Draft with Impact | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Bucs fans have questions about the 2019 draft class and others like it, the upcoming free agency and offseason schedule, and more

MB

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently slated to pick 32nd in the opening round of the 2021 NFL Draft, a fact that will serve as my latest mechanism to shoehorn into every article the other fact that the Buccaneers are the reigning NFL champions. By beating Kansas City, 31-9, in Super Bowl LV, Tampa Bay locked themselves into that 32nd and final spot in the round. You know, because the champions always pick last.

The Buccaneers have made the 32nd-overall pick in a draft before, but it wasn't a first-rounder and it didn't produce a very favorable outcome. That was way back in 1982, when the team traded its 1983 first-round pick to the Bears for their '82 second-rounder in order to grab Booker Reese, a raw defensive end project out of Bethune-Cookman. Reese was a bust and the Bucs' lack of a first-round pick in 1983 compounded their quarterback problems in that era.

The 32nd-overall pick has also been a first-round pick only 18 times because the league didn't expand to 32 teams until 2002. There have been 18 drafts since then, but there were only 31 picks in the 2016 draft because the Patriots were stripped of their first-rounder that year. The 1995 draft made up for it, as the expansion Panthers and Jaguars were each given an extra pick at the end of the first round to make it 32 picks long.

And you know what, the history of 32nd-overall picks in the first round is pretty darn good. It's too early to make a call on the Chiefs' Clyde Edwards-Helaire from 2020 but he certainly had a promising first season. Wide receiver N'Keal Harry, picked last in the opening round by the Patriots in 2019, hasn't really panned out yet, but the four players selected in the slot before him were Lamar Jackson, Ryan Ramczyk, Malcom Brown and Teddy Bridgewater. That's one league MVP, one first-team All-Pro, one Super Bowl hero and another starting quarterback in the NFL.

The Patriots also had good luck with the 32nd pick after their back-to-back Super Bowl victories at the end of the 2003 and 2004 seasons. First they nabbed tight end Ben Watson, who played 15 years in the league, seven with the Patriots. Then they got guard Logan Mankins, who would be an instant starter and a seven-time Pro Bowler (including one as a Buccaneer in his final NFL season).

You know who else was picked 32nd overall? Drew Brees. In 2001, the last year of the 31-team draft, the (then-San Diego) Chargers famously traded the first pick to the Falcons for the fifth pick, a second-rounder, a third-rounder and wideout/return man Tim Dwight. The Falcons made the move to get Michael Vick while the Chargers used the fifth-overall pick to grab Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson and still got their quarterback, a future Hall of Famer, with the first pick of the second round. Worked out for everybody, for the most part.

After Brees, going backward chronologically, there are not a lot of standouts among the Mister 32s of the drafts for a couple decades. There was a nice run around the turn of the 1980s, with the Bills getting defensive tackle Fred Smerlas in 1979, the Colts landing center Ray Donaldson in 1980 and the Rams drafting wide receiver Henry Ellard. In the earlier years of the draft, the most prominent player picked 32nd was probably quarterback (and eventual broadcaster and actor) Don Meredith in 1960. The Bears actually drafted Meredith but basically just to hold him until they could trade him to the expansion Cowboys, who were admitted into the league too late to take part in that year's draft.

Maybe the Buccaneers will stay put and make the last pick of the first round for the first time in their history; maybe they'll trade up or down. If they do end up making the 32nd-overall pick, they'll be trying to live up to a recent history of very good selections at that spot, and to do much better than the franchise did in that spot 38 years ago.

Now, on to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Hi Scott,

As the Bucs progressed through the playoffs and won the Super Bowl, many people talked about all of the veteran players that had a big impact on the team and rightfully so. But I noticed that in the NFL championship game that the Bucs had 5 players from the 2019 draft starting (and a 6th as primary backup). Even in the Super Bowl 4 of that class started the game (and the other 2 had significant roles). I have seen years where 5 draft picks didn't even make the roster. So my question is, was this an unusual occurrence or is it a mark of playoff teams that second year players make such an impact. Maybe you could compare other teams from this years playoffs or maybe compare this years Bucs with other Bucs playoff teams.

Thank you, Jim Griffiths Lenoir NC (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Well, there are a lot of ways to approach this question, but since Jim offered two options I'll do those.

First, let's put the names to the players that Jim accurately notes as starters or primary reserves in the last two games of the season. In the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay, the following 2019 draft picks were in the starting lineup: first-round linebacker Devin White, second-round cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, third-round cornerback Jamel Dean, third-round safety Mike Edwards and sixth-round wideout Scotty Miller. The primary backup that makes this group six was outside linebacker Anthony Nelson, a fourth-round selection in 2019.

Dean was in the lineup because the Bucs started in a nickel, but I still think its fair to call the slot corner a primary starter in today's NFL. Miller was in as part of a three-wide package on the first play of the game, and it's uncertain if that would have been the case if Antonio Brown had been active for the game, but that's splitting hairs. And Edwards was starting for injured rookie Antoine Winfield, Jr., but he was seeing regular playing time even when not starting.

In the Super Bowl, White, Murphy-Bunting, Dean and Miller all started again while Edwards saw 35 snaps on defense and Nelson got 18. The Bucs' only other draft picks that year were fifth-round kicker Matt Gay and seventh-round defensive tackle Terry Beckner, neither of whom are still with the team. Still, sizeable contributions from six players in a draft made less than two years earlier is an impressive haul, I would say.

How does it compare? Jim's first suggestion was to compare the 2020 Bucs to the other teams in the playoffs this year, so I'll start there, beginning with the four teams beaten by the eventual champs.

- Kansas City actually had all six of their 2019 draft picks on the Super Bowl roster, but only one of them saw meaningful playing time. That would be seventh-round guard Nick Allegretti, who moved into the starting lineup around midseason after the losses of Kelechi Osemele and Mitchell Schwartz. Allegretti started the Super Bowl but you'd be hard-pressed to find much positive press for the Chiefs' O-Line in that game. Wide receiver Mecole Hardman caught two passes for four yards, safety Juan Thornhill played 18 snaps on defense and cornerback Rashad Fenton only saw action on special teams. Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders and running back Darwin Thompson were inactive for the game. Hardman did have eight catches and a touchdown in the playoffs overall, while Thornhill had five passes defensed and Fenton had an interception.

- Green Bay's 2019 draft class was pretty well represented in this year's postseason. Their best player from that draft is second-round guard Elgton Jenkins, who has started everywhere on the line and was a Pro Bowler this year. Fellow second-rounder Darnell Savage is also a starter and a strong performer, though his playoff output was just four tackles and a pass defensed. First-round defensive end Rashan Gary isn't a full-time starter yet but he plays a lot and had 1.5 sacks in the postseason. Third-round tight end Jace Sternberger had just three catches for 15 yards in the playoffs and was inactive against the Buccaneers. Seventh-round linebacker Ty Summers saw a good amount of playing time and had two postseason tackles. None of the Packers' other three 2019 draft picks – DT Kingsley Keke, CB Ka'Dar Hollman and running back Dexter Williams – played in the postseason. (Keke saw regular playing time during the regular season in 2020 but was dealing with a concussion.)

- New Orleans only drafted five players in 2019, and only two of them are currently contributors. Erik McCoy is the starting center and cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson plays extensively in the secondary. Gardner-Johnson had two tackles and a pass defensed against the Bucs in the Divisional round but didn't manage to goad any Tampa Bay receivers into disqualifying right hooks. The only 2019 draftee on the roster is seventh-round linebacker Kaden Elliss, who plays on special teams.

- Washington's 2019 draft starts disastrously with since-released quarterback Dwayne Haskins but Montez Sweat is a key part of the Football Team's star-studded pass-rush and third-round wide receiver Terry McLaurin has proved to be an absolute steal. Fifth-round linebacker Cole Holcomb is a starter but that's it for 2020 contributions from that draft class. Of the 10 players picked, three (including Haskins) are no longer with the team, two are non-starting offensive linemen and three were on injured reserve before the postseason.

So that this doesn't became a 10,000-word answer, I'll just hit the highlights of the other nine teams that were in the playoffs:

- Seattle had two 2020 starters from its 2019 draft (DE L.J. Collier and WR D.K. Metcalf), as well as two reserve defenders who play a decent amount (LB Cody Barton and S Ugo Amadi), but that's about it from their 11 picks.

- Chicago's starting running back, David Montgomery, is from their 2019 draft, which was only five players long. Wide receiver Riley Ridley started the Bears' lone playoff game in a four-receiver set but didn't play much during the regular season. CB Duke Shelley plays in the nickel. The other two picks from that draft are gone.

- Buffalo has three starters and a sometimes-starter from their 2019 draft in DT Ed Oliver, G Cody Ford, RB Devin Singletary and TE Dawson Knox, but Ford was on injured reserve by the time the playoffs started.

- Indianapolis had one 2020 starter from their 2019 draft in fourth-round safety Khari Willis, plus reserve linebackers Bobby Okereke and E.J. Speed. Okereke didn't start the Colts' playoff game but played 73% of the snaps, while Speed was just on special teams.

- Only one of the Rams' eight 2019 draftees started in the playoffs, though that was partially due to injuries. Fifth-round pick David Edwards started at left guard but was later replaced by 2019 third-round pick Bobby Evans when he left with an ankle injury. DT Greg Gaines got a handful of snaps on defense.

- Wide receivers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin, both 2019 draft picks, were starting receivers for Baltimore in the playoffs and fourth-round pick Ben Powers was the starting right guard. Running back Justice Hill barely played in a crowded backfield. That's pretty much it from that class.

- Tennessee got big contributions in the 2020 playoffs from their 2019 draft class, including four starters: DT Jeffery Simmons, WR A.J. Brown, RG Nate Davis and LB David Long. CB Amani Hooker got a handful of defensive snaps.

- Cleveland had two defensive starters in the playoffs from their 2019 draft: LB Sione Takitaki and S Sheldrick Redwine. Reserve LB Mack Wilson got a couple defensive snaps, too, but that's it from that seven-person class.

- Pittsburgh's 2019 draft class representation would have been better in January if first-round linebacker Devin Bush hadn't been lost to injured reserve in October. Still, wideout Diontae Johnson was a starter and had 11 catches for 117 yards in the Steelers' only playoff outing. Running back Benny Snell got two carries and one catch. That's about it.

So, what do you think, Jim. In my opinion, none of the other 13 playoff teams got as much from their 2019 draft class in the playoffs as the Buccaneers did. Tennessee probably got the closest, followed by Buffalo and Green Bay.

As for former Tampa Bay playoff teams, there isn't one that had as much depth of contributors from the previous year's draft class as this 2020 squad, though I'd say the 1996 draft class came pretty close in 1997.

The 2007 Bucs had a pair of offensive line starters in Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood from the 2006 draft, but no other core players. WR Michael Clayton was the only starter on the 2005 playoff team from the 2004 draft. The Super Bowl XXXVII-winning team from 2002 started 2001 first-round pick Kenyatta Walker at right tackle, while Dwight Smith was the nickel corner and the Super Bowl hero. Also from the 2001 class, safety John Howell, fullback Jameel Cook and defensive end Ellis Wyms were all on the Super Bowl roster and Wyms had a sack in the big game.

The 2001 team didn't get much from the 2000 draft unless we count wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who cost the Bucs two first-round picks. Cosey Coleman was the starting right guard. The 2000 team got quite a bit from the 1999 draft, though, with DT Anthony McFarland, QB Shaun King and K Martin Gramatica all starting (if one wants to consider a kicker a starter). S Dexter Jackson didn't start but played a decent amount. And the 1999 team had five players on their playoff roster from the 1998 draft: WR Jacquez Green, CB Brian Kelly, LB Jamie Duncan, OL Todd Washington and DT James Cannida. Green was the only starter but Kelly played quite a bit and even had an interception in the 1999 NFC Championship Game in St. Louis.

The 1996 draft produced four starters on the 1997 playoff team: DE Regan Upshaw, FB Mike Alstott, CB Donnie Abraham and T Jason Odom. That's pretty solid, and this group might have been able to unseat the 2019 draft had Marcus Jones not landed on injured reserve. Still, it's pretty close and it's probably not a coincidence that the 1997 and 2020 teams were the ones that broke the longest playoff droughts in franchise history.

The 1979, 1980 and 1981 Buccaneers also went to the playoffs. The 1979 team had 1978 first-round pick Doug Williams at quarterback but not much more of impact from that class. The 1980 draft produced 1981 starters Ray Snell, Kevin House and Andy Hawkins but it took a little longer for Scot Brantley to crack the starting lineup. The 1981 drafted started strong with Hugh Green and James Wilder, but that was about it from that group in terms of 1982 impact.

Whew, I went a little long on that one but Jim had some pretty specific instructions so I wanted to be thorough. I think the final answer is that the Buccaneers 2019 draft class is probably the one that had the most impact on a playoff run the following year.

What is the offseason schedule like with a deep playoff run? How long do players have until they get back to work?

- @moni4 (via Instagram)

…and…

Can you explain the free agent schedule a bit? When can we start making offers to our own free agents?

- @allurgic_2_hate (via Instagram)

These are both questions about the Bucs' upcoming schedule so I thought I would lump them together.

Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, and every previous Super Bowl team, you don't get any special dispensation for playing into late January or early February. This is the first time the Bucs have ever played a game in February (hey, undefeated in February all-time!), so they are really finding out what a compressed offseason is like.

So there simply won't be as much time off for Buccaneer players before the start of the voluntary offseason program this year…although I should also point out that it would be no surprise if the ongoing pandemic has some impact on that schedule. As it stands now, the Bucs can start their offseason program on April 19, as can all teams with returning head coaches. Teams with new head coaches are permitted to start on April 5. Here is a look at all the key dates on the NFL's calendar for the spring.

And again, nearly all of the work in a typical NFL offseason is voluntary.

As for the free agency schedule, it too is barreling down on the Super Bowl champions. The NFL's 2020 league year ends at 4:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 17, and after that any player without a contract for 2021 becomes a free agent of some sort. The Buccaneers have A LOT of those players. Teams can begin contacting the representatives of free agent players on Monday of that week to discuss potential contract terms.

However, until that three-day window opens on March 15, teams retain exclusive negotiating rights with the players on their 2020 rosters. There is no set date for when the Buccaneers could start negotiating new deals with the likes of Lavonte David, Chris Godwin, Shaquil Barrett, Ndamukong Suh and so on. They might already be doing so, in fact. They could have been doing so for months.

There is one upcoming date – or range of dates – that could have an impact on that issue. Starting on February 23 and ending on March 9, teams can put a franchise or transition tag on one player. Tampa Bay did that last year with Shaquil Barrett. Often, that is a great way for a team to extend its exclusive negotiating position with a player, with both sides hoping to get a long-term deal done instead of the free agent playing on the one-year tag. It didn't work out that way last year with Barrett, probably in part due to the difficulties caused by the pandemic.

Sometimes the Bucs get a pending free agent signed before the free agency period begins, as was the case last year with Jason Pierre-Paul. Sometimes the player actually hits the open market but negotiations continue and the player eventually re-signs, as was the case last year with Suh.

So the players do get a much-deserved and relatively long rest before the work starts up again for 2021. However, there is really no time to relax for Jason Licht and his staff.

If Fournette doesn't resign, would we need to add another veteran free agent or could Vaughn and Jones be our running back duo?

- @jamesi_0, via Instagram

The Bucs probably could go into 2021 with Ronald Jones and second-year man Ke'Shawn Vaughn as their two primary running backs, but after watching 2020 unfold, I doubt they will.

I mean, we've kind of already seen the answer to this question in action. After the departure of Peyton Barber and the drafting of Vaughn last spring, the Buccaneers only had three running backs on the roster, and probably didn't expect to put Dare Ogunbowale into a featured role. Jones was the returning starter and Vaughn appeared likely to share the backfield load.

Licht and Head Coach Bruce Arians were apparently not comfortable without a contingency plan behind that, as the Bucs signed veteran LeSean McCoy near the beginning of training camp. It's hard to say if McCoy would have eventually usurped Vaughn's complementary role because before the season began another back was added after the Jaguars chose to let Leonard Fournette go.

As we now know, Jones would emerge as the clear number-one back for most of the regular season, with Fournette and Vaughn alternately getting the call as the number-two. However, when Jones missed time in December and January for a variety of reasons, "Playoff Lenny" emerged and Fournette became a huge part of the team's offense in the postseason. Vaughn found himself inactive for the last three playoff games after getting five carries in the Wild Card win at Washington.

Now, it's true that the Buccaneers never really rotated more than two backs in any given game, and so it's easy to project that they could make the offense work with a Jones-Vaughn combo if Fournette is no longer on the team. I don't think Vaughn is necessarily the same style of running back as Fournette is, but I do think he showed promise in his rookie season and could develop into a player who can help in both the ground and air games, as Fournette did. I just think the Buccaneers are likely to carry at least one more experienced veteran than Jones in 2021, whether that be a returning Fournette or somebody else.

That said, if the Buccaneers use their late first-round pick on a back like Travis Etienne or Najee Harris, then a trio of that player plus Jones and Vaughn would seem to make a lot of sense and a veteran addition might not be necessary.

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