S.S. Mailbag: Roster Decisions Drawing Closer

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Almost two weeks ago, on January 11, James Madison played for the 2019 FCS National Championship, seeking the third title in school history and the second in the last four years. The Dukes won 14 straight to get to the championship game but came up just short in a 28-20 loss to North Dakota State, which captured its third straight national title.

Why are you reading about the James Madison-North Dakota State championship game in a mailbag about Tampa Bay Buccaneers topics? Well, this game came just two days before that other big college battle: Clemson vs. LSU for the FBS national championship. That contest was of particular interest in the Buccaneers' locker room, which by the end of the 2019 season featured four former LSU Tigers: linebackers Devin White and Kevin Minter, tackle Jerald Hawkins and wide receiver Cyril Grayson. White and company didn't have many Buc teammates to trash talk before the game; at season's end, the only Clemson players on the roster were punter Bradley Pinion and practice squad tight end Jordan Leggett.

But in this particular version of the Bucs' locker room, there was probably as much interest, if not more, in the FCS playoffs, and for a strange reason. In 2019, there were seven former James Madison players who saw regular-season action in the NFL. Incredibly, four of them were Buccaneers: offensive linemen Jerald Hawkins, Aaron Stinnie and Earl Watford and wide receiver Ishmael Hyman. Their contributions ranged from Watford's 15 games and two starts to Hyman's two games and two catches, but on one glorious (for the Dukes) Sunday in Detroit, in Week 15, all four played together as Buccaneers. In a win, no less!

How unlikely was this? Well, prior to 2019, the Buccaneers had close to 1,200 players on their all-time roster and not a single one of them had come from James Madison. Tampa Bay had four former Dukes join their roster in one year, and that's as many players as the franchise has ever had, in 44 years, from such schools as Utah, Marshall, SMU, Colorado State and nearby Central Florida. Pro Football Reference lists 22 former James Madison players who made it to the NFL (but doesn't have Hyman on the list, for some reason). For four of those 23 to end up on the same roster – and three of the four in the same position group – in one season surely defies some very steep odds.

That's all. There's no real significance to this information; I just found it interesting. By the way, while we're on the subject of James Madison, the most notable product of that football program is Charles Haley, who won five Super Bowl rings with San Francisco and Dallas and is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Of course, this is also one other former James Madison who figures very prominently into Super Bowl lore as well: Scott Norwood.

Okay, thank you for indulging me in my diversion. Now on to your questions.

View pictures of LB Shaq Barrett at Pro Bowl practice at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando.

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.

"What positions are we targeting in the draft?"

- @adilieber via Instagram

I often give a disclaimer when answering questions like these so hopefully it's clear by this point: I can give you my opinion of what the Buccaneers could and should do in the draft but please don't mistake it as a direct answer from General Manager Jason Licht on what the team's plans are. For obvious reasons, no team gives away its draft strategy. If Jason Licht did for some reason decide to tell me who the Bucs hope to get in the first round I certainly would not be at liberty to share it!

So, that said, I'll repeat what I've said a few teams recently in print and on our live shows: This year's draft seems to me to be a good opportunity to do something Tampa Bay hasn't done in nearly two decades: pick an offensive tackle in the first round.

The last time the Buccaneers used a first-round pick on an offensive lineman of any variety was in 2006, when the choice was Oklahoma guard Davin Joseph. That worked out very well. The last offensive tackle picked by Tampa Bay in the opening round was Florida's Kenyatta Walker in 2001. Walker's career wasn't as highly-regarded as Joseph's but he was the starting right tackle on the 2002 Super Bowl team.

That doesn't mean the Buccaneers have ignored the tackle position for 20 years. The team is fortunate to have found two undrafted gems in Donald Penn and Demar Dotson who combined to make 214 starts at offensive tackle for them. Tampa Bay also used the 34th-overall pick in 2015 on Donovan Smith, which was very close to a first-round selection, and Smith has started 79 of a possible 80 games at left tackle since that day.

Smith is still under contract for two more seasons and is well-respected inside team headquarters for his play and his durability. However, Dotson is a pending unrestricted free agent who turned 34 last October. If Dotson is not re-signed, the Buccaneers will need a new starter at a right tackle position that Dotson has locked down for most of the past decade.

This year's draft appears to be relatively deep in blue-chip tackle prospects. There are four who routinely land in the top half of the opening round in mock drafts, although often in different orders: Louisville's Mekhi Becton, Iowa's Tristan Wirfs, Georgia's Anthony Thomas and Alabama's Jedrick Wilks. Others who could make it into the first round include USC's Austin Jackson, Georgia's Isaiah Wilson and Houston's Josh Jones.

The Buccaneers are slated to pick 14th in the first round. I think that could be a sweet spot for getting value at the tackle position. Beyond that, my next guess would be a down linemen or an edge rusher on defense. That could become more of a priority if the team has any trouble re-signing its long list of potential free agents in its defensive front seven, a group that includes NFL sack king Shaq Barrett as well as Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh and Carl Nassib.

Oh, and I guess it must be said: If the Buccaneers do not end up re-signing Jameis Winston, another potential unrestricted free agent, I would amend my list to make the quarterback position much more prominent.

I'm guessing your question was about the first round, but if you want to consider some potential target positions for the second day I would suggest that running back, wide receiver and safety would make a lot of sense.

"What are the chances Ndamukong Suh will stay?"

- @victorunchained_luv

Well, I can't speak for Suh himself. He can hit free agency again on March 18 and it seems far more likely that the Bucs would devote any potential franchise/transition tag(s) to Barrett and/or Winston. So this decision will be very much a two-way street and I won't presume to speak for Suh and what he wants next in his career. He's played the last two seasons on one-year contracts; does he want to continue with that year-to-year approach or will he be focused on a new longer-term deal.

I can speak for the Buccaneers, or rather I can let Bruce Arians speak for them. At his last 2019 press conference the Bucs' head coach was asked how high of a priority it was to retain Suh, and he said this:

"He's one of the top three. You can start with Shaq, JPP [Jason Pierre-Paul] – either one – and Suh. I want to keep this front seven together. They've proven to be pretty dominant."

Indeed, if the Buccaneers did anything consistently well from the very beginning of the season in 2019 to the end, it was to hold strong up front on defense. Tampa Bay had the NFL's best run defense and allowed the fewest yards in a single season in franchise history. Suh drew frequent double teams and was given a lot of credit for that stout run defense. And while he finished with a career-low 2.5 sacks his presence almost certainly helped the edge rushers get one-on-one opportunities and, as a team, Tampa Bay recorded 47 sacks, its second-highest total ever.

The Bucs have a lot of work to do in free agency and they may not be able to keep the whole gang together. But I believe Suh will be high on their list of priorities; hopefully Tampa is high on his list, too.

"Who's the funniest Buc?"

- @ianslayter

I'm not sure I can definitively answer that question because there are definitely players I've spent more time with than others. I don't get to see a lot of these guys in their downtime, hanging out with buddies, which is where you'd be able to get a better feel for their personalities and senses of humor. So I can only go with what I've personally seen and heard, and in that case tight end Cameron Brate would be high on my list. The Harvard product has a sharp wit and seems to be in a joking mood a lot of the time.

I asked around a bit among the people who have worked with the players a significant amount in the locker room and on special projects, and one name that came up more than once was that of cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who is definitely open and upbeat and fun to be around. Here's a bit of evidence in his corner:

It's a little harder to answer this question in the offseason, with no players around. In-season, I could ask around and see who the players consider to be their funniest teammates. But in addition to the two names above I also heard these from fellow employees: guard Ali Marpet, tight end Tanner Hudson and Vita Vea.

Hey salty dogs

Big fan of the show.

Couple of questions to get your opinion or thought on.

1. Justin Evans being hurt all year what is the plan with him? Is he coming back as the starter and if so do you think he will mess up the chemistry with this young secondary?

Thanks for the great podcast

Bucs fan from Indianapolis, IN

Justin Whitaker

Go Bucs

As you can tell, this question was actually addressed to our Salty Dogs podcast, but we won't be recording another one of those for quite a while so I thought I could drag it into the mailbag. Justin had three questions but I'll just start with one this week and maybe get to the others later.

I doubt there is a set plan for Evans yet, beyond the remainder of his rehabilitation. Arians said Evans had another surgery on his foot towards the end of the season and that it went well. Arians also said it was too early to set a specific timeline for when Evans could return to action on the field, but said it would be "a couple months." The Bucs' 2020 offseason program will begin in April this year, so there's a chance Evans will be able to take part in it right from the beginning.

When he does, it will essentially be Evans' first real opportunity to show Arians and his coaching staff what he can do. He was supposed to be part of a wide-open safety battle last year but never got healthy enough to take part in it, which led to Jordan Whitehead, Mike Edwards and Andrew Adams making almost all the starts at the two safety positions.

Edwards and Whitehead will be back and could be considered incumbent starters heading into the next offseason, particularly if Adams, a pending free agent, is not re-signed. The only other Buc to make a start at safety last year was veteran Darian Stewart, who is also due to become a free agent. Arians made a point of saying how much he liked 2019 undrafted free agent D'Cota Dixon, who also missed all of last season due to a shoulder injury.

So, it's not very specific but I think the plan with Evans would be to make sure he's fully healthy again and then give him a chance to compete with the others at the position. He was a starter during his first two seasons when healthy but after all the time he's missed he likely wouldn't just walk back into a starting role when he returns. I'd expect him to have to fight to get that job back, but he's a talented player so he shouldn't be counted out.

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