The first big rush of free agency is behind us and we're now full-on into draft season. It's the first day of April, which is the month the birds migrate back north, the Titanic sunk and the NFL puts on the best offseason show of any sport. This year, the NFL Draft will be conducted from Thursday, April 29 through Saturday, May 1.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, winners of Super Bowl LV and owners of the last pick of the first round, are in the uncommon position of truly getting to follow the proverbial "best player available" strategy. They are also on a bit of a roll, draft wise, with the last four classes having produced around 10 starters on the Super Bowl LV team. That includes their first two picks from last year's draft, first-round tackle Tristan Wirfs and second-round safety Antoine Winfield, Jr.
Wirfs was drafted with the full intention of putting him directly into the starting lineup at right tackle to replace the departed Demar Dotson. Winfield had a bit more competition to earn a starting spot right away but was given every opportunity to prove he should be on the field. Earlier this week, Head Coach Bruce Arians was asked if the Bucs could possibly duplicate that kind of instant success in the 2021 draft. He was optimistic but also realistic, given how loaded the current roster is.
"I would expect the same type of thing," said Arians. "Now, whether or not the opportunity is there for those guys like it was for Tristan and Antoine [remains to be seen]," said Arians. "I would hope this class is as good and by November you start to see them show up, and in big ways."
Truth be told, it's nearly impossible to see how the first two picks of the 2021 draft could make the same impact as Wirfs and Winfield, at least in terms of time on the field. Each of those two started every regular season game, a total of 32 starts in which they were on the field for a combined 2,108 of a possible 2,137 offensive/defensive snaps.
How rare is that? I decided to look it up, both in terms of the Bucs' own draft history and last year's draft across the NFL. First, have the Buccaneers ever had their first two picks in a draft class make all 32 starts (or all 28 in the 1976-77 seasons, which were each 14 games long)? My guess before I looked it up: yes, but not very rarely. Second, did any other team get 32 starts out of its first two picks in 2020? My guess: Yes, but maybe only one or two.
Starting with the Bucs, there is one very obvious and recent example: Jameis Winston and Donovan Smith in 2015. Winston was an instant starter at quarterback and Smith is famous for almost never missing a game. They combined for 32 starts in their shared rookie year. After that, my next guess was Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood in 2006, but neither of them started all 16 and they combined for 25. Many Bucs fans would probably guess the Hall of Fame duo of Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, but I happened to remember that Sapp wasn't an instant starter (though close) and that 1995 was the only year in his career that Brooks didn't start every game. They combined for 21 starts.
In the process, I completely missed the 2012 first-round combo of safety Mark Barron and running back Doug Martin. Barron never really panned out in Tampa and Martin had an up-and-down career but they both started every game as rookies. The only other pair on the list over 45 years of Bucs drafts is the 1981 combo of linebacker Hugh Green and running back James Wilder, who actually started his career playing fullback, which got him on the field right away with tailback Jerry Eckwood. I also think the closest near miss after those four duos will surprise you, especially since it came in a year in which the Bucs didn't have a first-round pick. That would be 2013, when second-round cornerback Johnthan Banks and third-round quarterback Mike Glennon combined for 29 starts. No other duo comes in higher than 25.
As for the rest of the league in 2020, I probably could have saved myself some time and made a more accurate guess if I had first looked up how many members of the 2020 draft class even started all 16 games. There were only nine! I'm not talking about just the 64 players who made up the top two picks for each team, but every player picked. The Bucs were the only team with two of them, so obviously they were the only team to get 32 starts out of their top two picks.
The Chargers, however, came very, very close. They would have had it if they had put eventual Rookie of the Year quarterback Justin Herbert in the lineup on Day One, but he only got his shot after the bizarre sideline lung incident with Tyrod Taylor. He made 15 starts and linebacker Kenneth Murray started all 16 games for a total of 31. It helps that both of those players were among the first 23 drafted.
Next was Minnesota, which got 14 starts from immediate-star wideout Justin Jefferson and 15 from cornerback Jeff Gladney. No other team came in higher than 25. The league average for starts made by a team's first two draft picks last year, with the Bucs' 32 included, was just a smidge under 16, which is actually higher than I would have guessed. At the very bottom of the list was Green Bay, which met the Bucs in the NFC Championship Game despite getting no starts from first-round quarterback Jordan Love and second-round running back AJ Dillon.
My usual knee-jerk reaction to hearing a team got 32 starts from any pair of rookies would be that it was probably not a very good team and those starts were probably as much about opportunity as talent. But obviously, while there was a clear spot for Wirfs, the Buccaneers were a very good team and those two rookies helped put them over the top.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you see us getting a QB at pick #32? With Gabbert and Griffin not re-signing (yet, at least) would it be more important to get a QB in free agency or the draft?
- @spombo2010 (via Instagram)
Honestly, I'd be surprised if the Buccaneers drafted a quarterback with the 32nd pick. It is not out of the question, however, according to Arians. Here's what he said to that exact question during a Zoom call on Tuesday (read more about his thoughts on the draft here):
"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. 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."
So will there be a quarterback available for the Buccaneers who they will consider the best prospect on the board and the best use of the team's top draft asset at that time? That may depend on your feelings about Kyle Trask. And, yes, I have learned on Twitter that there are plenty of you out there very high on Trask, though I wonder how much of that is Florida bias – that's a very strong fanbase!
Looking at it dispassionately, the general consensus on Trask is that he's more likely a second or third-round pick. In fact, maybe that could be a consideration for Tampa Bay if he's still on the board at 64. Other considerations include Texas A&M's Kellen Mond, Wake Forest's Jamie Newman, Stanford's Davis Mills and Arkansas's Feleipe Franks. Again, though, the general consensus on all of those quarterbacks is that they will likely late-Day Two or Day Three picks.
To me, this is a team still very much in win-now mode. Arians and Jason Licht have made it clear (and did so last year as well) that they would like to find a young quarterback to begin developing, but I also think their first priority is making the 2021 roster as strong as possible. The Bucs don't have any really pressing needs going into this draft, but that doesn't mean they can't make the team better right now with a couple of their picks. I'm of the opinion that there will be several players available at the end of the first round who could make an impact right away: an edge rusher to add to the rotation, another down lineman, a pass-catching running back, a speedy receiver who can also return kicks, a cornerback to build depth in case of injury to the top three guys. Et cetera. The Bucs' flexibility this year only enhances the chance that they can get a really good player at one of a number of positions other than quarterback.
As for the primary backup, you are right that neither Blaine Gabbert nor Ryan Griffin has re-signed to this point, and obviously the Bucs' salary cap belt isn't getting any looser these days. But I think there was a clue in something Arians said on Tuesday when answering a question that mentioned Gabbert and also the idea of drafting a quarterback. I've added emphasis to the part to which I'm referring.
"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 those two. 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."
Those "two?" There is only one quarterback on the Bucs' roster right now, and he's named Tom Brady. It seems to me that Arians was referring to Brady and Gabbert, and that he believes there is at least a possibility Gabbert will be back with the team in 2021. And really, it makes the most sense. This is Brady's team, obviously, but I think Arians would like to have a veteran with starting experience as Brady's primary backup. Gabbert is that, plus some of his starting experience is in Arians' offense.
Which skill position is the biggest need in later rounds of the draft this year?
- @mccann_ty15 (via Instagram)
I mean, none of them, really. With Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and Leonard Fournette all back in the fold, the receiver, tight end and running back spots all remain completely loaded. Even if Antonio Brown does not end up back on the team, you still have Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller to pick up bigger roles. I feel pretty good about that. You've got two starting-caliber running backs, at least, and Arians talked up second-year man Ke'Shawn Vaughn a lot on Tuesday. Assuming good health, it would be hard to find any snaps for a tight end behind Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, especially if Howard has better injury luck this year and is the "huge addition" Arians expects him to be.
All of that said, if I have to pick one, I'd say wide receiver. (I'm assuming by "skill position" here you mean the offensive players who catch and run the ball.) It seems like that position is pumping out one very deep class after another these days, which is giving teams a better shot at grabbing a useful one in the mid to later rounds. For reference, see Miller in the sixth round in 2019 and Johnson in the fifth round last year.
I would like this especially if it's a receiver with very good speed and one who can make an impact on special teams. That was another thing that Arians emphasized on Tuesday, finding players who can help right away in that phase of the game. If the Bucs could add a receiver who might need some time to develop and carve out a role of any significance on offense but who could also help immediately as, say, a dynamic return man, I'd be all onboard for that. In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing that happen in the earlier rounds.
With last year's draft class making an immediate impact, do you see us having as much success with this years?
- @christophergrint (via Instagram)
I probably should have read through this week's questions before writing the intro to this mailbag, since it's pretty much a dead-on answer to Christopher's query. Anyway, see above, Christopher.
How does the addition of the 17th game really change things during the season? Do we see starters playing less during the season to save their bodies?
- @dstiles19 (via Instagram)
That's a good question and I probably don't have a good enough answer to match it just yet. From the standpoint of how it affects the games and the players, I think we'll be finding that out as we go along. In a way, it's a bit like the COVID-influenced season we just had. Teams were figuring out best practices as they went along and it went better for some teams than others. In a year or two, we'll probably have a concrete idea of how the 17th game impacts the sport and what the best ways to handle it are.
We can certainly make some educated guesses. Given that very few games go by without someone incurring at least a minor injury, it seems obvious that increasing the season from 256 total regular-season games to 272 would necessarily create at least a slight rise in injuries. The counterargument is that with the preseason shortened to three games it's still the same total number of games across 20 weeks. In addition, studies have apparently shown that injuries are more frequent preseason games. However, teams don't play their starters and core players nearly as much in the preseason, so shifting one game from preseason to regular-season means shifting some of those injuries to those players. That's not to say that an injury to any player is more or less important than another, but we're talking about this will affect the teams. Losing a starter would obviously have a larger effect.
What will likely change more than playing time in games is how much practice time players get, at least full-speed practice time. Full-speed practices add to the injury risk and season-long wear-and-tear on players. Here's Arians explaining what I mean:
"It probably wouldn't change anything in the offseason. We limit the number of snaps we get once we get into preseason games. I think depending on your open date…if you have an early open in a 17-game schedule, that's going to be a grind in December. Last year I didn't like having a Week 13 [bye] but I'd probably have a Week 10-13 open day with a 17-game schedule. Once you get to Thanksgiving you start limiting the number of snaps on the practice field, as far as full-speed versus walk-through. You should be ready to go by then and not have to physically go out there and do as much. We did that last year, cutting back some reps in practice. But, yeah, it will be different."
Players certainly may prepare for a 17-game a little differently. Fournette said on Wednesday that players will need to work even harder in the offseason to get their bodies into shape in order to handle the longer regular season. I think there's reason to believe most of them can successfully make the adjustment. Think about the players transitioning from an 11 or 12-game college season to a 16-game NFL season. There has always been that concept of a "rookie wall," when an NFL newcomer starts to fade late in the season, but I think you're seeing less and less of that these days. It sure didn't seem like Tristan Wirfs or Antoine Winfield hit any kind of wall, and they actually played 20 and 19 games, respectively. In 2019, Devin White, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean were all playing their best ball in the final month of the season.
So to get to your point, no, I don't think you'll see an appreciable difference in how much coaches choose to play their starters during the regular season. Even with 17 games now, every single one is so critical because the margin for error between making the playoffs and not making them can be very slim. In addition, coaches and players frequently mention how hard it is to win any NFL game because every team is so talented. I just don't see coaches giving up any advantage they have in that balance of power on game day. Sure, it would make sense to rest starters during a blowout, but there just aren't very many of those and teams already do that anyway.
After hearing Coach's thoughts on O.J.'s return this week, how do you see our tight end room shaking out this year? Is there still a possibility we would cut anyone?
- @kingstonmawson (via Instagram)
I guess that's always a possibility if there is a salary cap motivation, but the Bucs haven't had to resort to any of that yet. I will concede that this is a legitimate question because, with Howard's fifth-year option kicking in with a big raise, all three of the Gronkowski-Howard-Brate trio now have significant cap hits. Still, the team's current management has repeatedly shown a desire to keep all of its good players if possible.
From a purely depth chart standpoint, I can't see any reason why the Bucs would need to release any of their current tight ends. With Antony Auclair an unrestricted free agent and still unsigned, the Bucs have five tight ends on the roster: the three noted above, Tanner Hudson and Codey McElroy. Last year, they took six tight ends to training camp (all of the above, including Auclair) so they actually might want to add one if Auclair does not return.
The Buccaneers then broke camp and kept four tight ends to start the season, with Hudson going to the practice squad and McElroy being waived. Later, Hudson got promoted and the team briefly carried five tight ends before Howard suffered his season-ending injury in Week Four. McElroy also returned to spend much of the season on the practice squad.
The Buccaneers also took six tight ends to training camp in 2019, Arians' first year at the helm, and started the season with four on the active roster, so I think we have an established pattern here. Here in 2021, the Bucs could conceivably get one more tight end in the draft or as an undrafted free agent, or bring in an inexpensive veteran (like Jordan Leggett in 2019) and take six to camp again. That could lead to a regular-season foursome of Gronkowski, Howard, Brate and Hudson. The first three could all reasonably be expected to play at roughly the same level they did last year (with hopefully more playing time for Howard) and Hudson has some untapped potential.
In the past, Arians has said that "12" personnel (two tight ends on the field together) is his base offense. Like almost every team, the Bucs put three receivers on the field most often, but their usage of 12 personnel did go up in 2020 from 2019. In addition, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, it was a more effective grouping than 11 personnel in 2020. The Bucs averaged 6.55 yards per play in 12 personnel and had a success rate of 54% on those plays, as compared to 5.92 and 49% with 11 personnel. I think Arians would like to keep all his tight end talent on hand, particularly so that the team could weather any injury issues at the position. Again, that's all from a straight football point of view. We'll see if the salary cap comes into play.