The 2021 NFL Draft has arrived and, for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it will be the eighth one run by General Manager Jason Licht, who arrived in 2014. In a way, though, it will be a little bit of a new experience for Licht since the Buccaneers will be less driven by positional need than in any of the last seven years. The Bucs can adhere to the "best-player-available" approach more closely than ever before and target just about any position on their board. Frankly, it sounds like fun.
Said Licht: "It is a really good feeling this year that, literally, just about any player at any position we could take."
I don't know about you, but if I were an actual G.M. running an actual NFL team's draft, and not a wannabe fantasy football player, I think the most fun aspect of draft weekend would be swinging trades. I don't know if Licht feels this way but I do know this: He is definitely not afraid to make trades, and ones of all variety.
Licht has made at least one trade in every Bucs draft he's conducted so far. Undoubtedly, all of them felt either necessary (in terms of a trade up) or too good to pass up (in terms of a trade down) at the time, and most of them still look pretty good with some years in between to evaluate them. Let's take a look at the Bucs' history of draft-weekend trades since Licht took over as general manager. Keep in mind, we're only discussing trades made while the draft was in motion, not deals made at other times of the year, like the one that landed Logan Mankins in August of 2014.
1. Traded a 2015 fifth-round pick and a 2014 seventh-round pick to Buffalo to get a 2014 fifth-round pick (#149). That pick was used to select Purdue offensive tackle Kevin Pamphile.
This was the only trade Licht swung during the 2014 draft and it's an unusual one. The Bucs had just drafted Tennessee State guard Kadeem Edwards six picks earlier but apparently wanted to double up on the line. It's not terribly common to trade picks in the same round but a year apart but it apparently was worth it to the Bills to get an extra seventh. Fifth-round linemen are certainly no guarantee to make an impact but Pamphile did provide depth for two seasons and then start at left guard for two more, so it was a relatively valuable selection.
Side note: the fifth the Bucs gave up in the following year's draft proved to be the first one in that round, number 137 overall. It was traded two more times before the Falcons finally used it on defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who has turned into one of the best defenders in the Bucs' division.
1. Traded up with the Colts from pick number 65 in the third round to number 61 in the second round, with the cost being a swap of fourth-round picks. Indianapolis got number 109 and the Bucs got number 128 back. The Bucs' target was guard Ali Marpet.
2. Traded up with the Raiders from no. 128 to no. 124, giving up a seventh-round pick. The Bucs used the 124th pick on linebacker Kwon Alexander.
This was clearly a pair of instances in which Licht had his eye on a specific player and was apprehensive that he wouldn't last on the board much longer. In such deals, especially relatively small ones like these, it's impossible to know if the trade was necessary. No other guards were taken between picks 61 and 65, though two did go in succession at 66 and 67. There was a linebacker drafted between the two spots involved in the second deal, with Dallas drafting Damien Wilson at pick number 127.
In terms of the players drafted, Licht's aggressiveness looks like a good thing here. Ali Marpet has started since Day One and manned three different positions and appears to be on the verge of Pro Bowl notoriety. Alexander left after four seasons to cash in on a lucrative free agency deal but made the Pro Bowl as a Buccaneer before he did.
1. Traded down from no. 9 to no. 11 in the first round, with the Bears moving up to draft edge rusher Leonard Floyd. The Buccaneers picked up a fourth-round pick, no. 106, then took cornerback Vernon Hargreaves with the 11th pick.
2. Traded up from the third round into the second, swapping no. 74 for no. 59 and sending that just-acquired fourth-rounder to the Chiefs. The Bucs then selected kicker Roberto Aguayo.
These haven't aged as well as most of the rest, though that's almost solely due to Aguayo not working out as the Bucs' kicker. The pick the Buccaneers used to move up to get Aguayo was an extra asset gained at the expense of a very small trade down that probably didn't affect who they were going to take in the first round. The Giants did draft a cornerback, Eli Apple, with the 10th pick after the Bucs moved down to 11, but it's widely believed the Bucs had Hargreaves targeted the whole team. Since neither of those two corners proved to be long-term assets for their drafting needs, that's a mostly moot point anyway.
1. Traded up with the Jets from no. 125 to no. 107, giving up a sixth-round pick (no. 204) and drafting linebacker Kendell Beckwith.
2. Traded up with the Dolphins in the seventh round, from no. 237 to no. 223, giving up a 2018 seventh-round pick and drafting defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu.
Beckwith had a very good rookie season and looked like a potential star before an offseason ankle injury suffered in an auto accident before his second year derailed his career. Tu'ikolovatu stuck around in Tampa for a couple years but never got on the field. It's worth noting that there were three more off-ball linebackers taken in the picks between 107 and 125. Green Bay took Vince Biegel at no. 108 but he played for three teams over his first three years before spending last year on injured reserve in Miami. Minnesota took Ben Gedeon at no. 120; Gedeon started 22 games over three years but is not currently on an NFL roster. The Lions took Jalen Reeves-Maybin at no. 124 and he has developed into a special teams ace but not yet a starter.
1. Traded down with Buffalo in Round One, moving from no. 7 down to no. 12 and picking up two second-round selections (nos. 53 and 56). The Bucs used no. 12 to take defensive tackle Vita Vea and no. 53 on cornerback M.J. Stewart. The 56th pick was later traded again.
2. Traded down with New England in Round Two, taking that 56th pick just acquired and flipping it for no. 63 and a fourth-rounder (no. 117). The Bucs took cornerback Carlton Davis at no. 63 and safety Jordan Whitehead at no. 117.
3. Traded up with Minnesota, acquiring no. 94 late in the third round for no. 102 early in the fourth. The deal cost a sixth-round pick and the Bucs picked guard Alex Cappa at no. 94.
This was some adept maneuvering around the board that produced the most added draft capital by any team during the 2018 draft. In addition, the players the Bucs eventually selected with those rearranged and magnified picks included four starters on their 2020 Super Bowl team. Vea, Davis, Cappa and Whitehead should remain core players in Tampa for years to come. Stewart didn't work out but an 80% hit rate in an NFL draft is fantastic.
As for the trade down in the first round, it probably didn't cost the Bucs a targeted player, though only Licht and the others in the draft room that year know for sure. The Bills were moving up for a quarterback (Josh Allen) and the Bucs were not in the market for one of those. The players taken from picks eight to 11 were linebacker Roquan Smith, tackle Mike McGlinchey, quarterback Josh Rosen and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Bucs were thought to be interested in a safety but they notably took Vea here over Derwin James, so it's not likely they were targeting Fitzpatrick over Vea.
1. Traded down with the Rams in the third round, from pick no. 70 to no. 94, acquiring another third-rounder, no. 99. The Bucs used picks no. 94 and 99 on cornerback Jamel Dean and safety Mike Edwards, respectively.
The Rams moved up to get running back Darrell Henderson, and the Bucs had already taken their own back, Ronald Jones, in the second round the year before. Dean has become a starter in the Bucs' young and impressive secondary while Edwards has been a part-time starter and an oft-used rotational player.
A move down of 24 spots is quite a lot, but it appears that it probably didn't cost the Buccaneers a better player. Only two cornerbacks were taken between picks 70 and 94, and neither has yet to see the amount of playing time that Dean has. The Rams took David Long at no. 79 but he has so far logged just one start with no interceptions and two passes defensed. The Steelers took Justin Layne at no. 83 and so far Layne has played 117 defensive snaps and has no starts, interceptions or passes defensed.
1. Traded up with the 49ers from no. 14 to no. 13 in the first round, giving up a fourth-round pick (no. 117) and selecting offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs. The Bucs also got a seventh-round pick back in the deal (no. 245) and used it on running back Raymond Calais.
When Licht made this deal last year, he wasn't necessarily concerned about the 49ers taking Wirfs but rather the possibility of some other team using San Francisco to leap over the Bucs for the Iowa tackle. It's obviously impossible to know if that deal was necessary, but you can bet Licht would do it again 10 times out of 10. That's because Wirfs was even better than the Buccaneers could have expected in his rookie season and is clearly a star on the rise.
Calais didn't make the team and Licht otherwise sat on the team's other original draft spots, most notably taking safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. in the second round.
All in all, that's a good – and busy – record of draft-weekend trading by the Buccaneers in Jason Licht's tenure as the general manager. It would clearly not be surprising to see Licht move some picks around again this weekend, nor would it be surprising to see the Bucs come out looking good in those deals.
Now … I know, finally … 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.
How many of rookies do you think can really make the new roster with us re-signing so many free agents?
- @kal_huison05 (via Instagram)
That's a very good question, and that topic is one reason it's not crazy, in my opinion, to think the Buccaneers could trade up in the first round on Thursday even though they don't have a glaring need to chase. Jason Licht has said this is going to be a draft of "wants," not "needs" for the Buccaneers, but maybe there will be one player they really want still hanging around when we get into the 20s in the draft order.
Okay, now take that scenario and throw Kal's question into the mix. The Bucs depth chart is pretty loaded, even beyond the starters, and even the very few free agency defections they've had (Ryan Smith, Andrew Adams, etc.) are at spots where there are some intriguing internal candidates already in house. After all the re-signings of the last six weeks or so, the Buccaneers' roster includes players who accounted for 13,792 of the 14,808 individual offensive snaps taken last year. (it will be 14,178 of 14,808 when and if the reported new deal for Antonio Brown is signed.) It's even more remarkable on defense, where the returning players account for 14,707 of the 14,774 individual snaps taken.
So it's not going to be easy for any rookie to crack the starting lineup, but it might also be harder than in most years to even make the active roster. The Buccaneers currently have eight draft picks, one in each of the first six rounds and two late in the seventh (including the last pick of the whole draft). Last year, six of the team's eight draft picks made the opening-day roster. In 2019, it was seven of eight. In 2018, it was eight of eight. This year, it might only be five.
So if you think it's going to be harder for some of these rookies to make the team, don't you feel a little better about using a third or fourth-round pick to move up, say, seven or eight spots in the first round to get a coveted prospect. Basically, you're just using two picks on one guy you're certain will make the team rather than taking two guys and not being certain about the second one.
Does that mean, barring trades, the Bucs should just skip some of their picks, or that those players should come to Tampa thinking they have no hope? Absolutely not. First, any and/or all of the new draftees could perform well enough that they supplant a returning player. It can't be ruled out, even if we are talking about the odds of all of them making it. Second, and more importantly, there are lots of practice squad spots available. I think every player the Bucs draft this weekend will have a good chance of sticking on either the active roster or the practice squad.
Prior to the pandemic, the NFL and NFLPA had agreed on a new CBA last March that included a gradual expansion of the practice squad. It was originally going to be 10 players in 2020, 12 in 2021 and then 14 in 2022 and beyond. Last year, the roster rules were modified in a number of ways over the summer to give teams more flexibility while trying to operate within that pandemic. One of those modifications was to make the practice squad a robust 16 players. It's possible the league will go with those rules for one more year, stick with 12 or split the difference and accelerate to 14 one year early; those decisions are still being made. Either way, there are going to be a good number of spots available for the team's newest players.
So I would probably guess that five or six draftees will make the active roster to start the season, and that may not leave too many out if draft-weekend trades reduce the Bucs' overall number of picks.
What are your thoughts on the new rule expanding eligible jersey numbers?
- @william4pf_ (via Instagram)
I already gave some rudimentary thoughts on this topic when the new rules were passed last week. I wouldn't say it was such a no-brainer positive change as eliminating overtime in the preseason, but my thoughts were mostly positive.
And then somebody who clearly knows a whole lot more about football than I do came down very strongly on the other side, and that has to give one pause. Here is that somebody and his opinion:
So the NFL has utilized a fairly rigid numbering system since 1973, with only a few tweaks along the way. For instance, linebackers had to wear numbers in the 50-59 range, until the option of numbers 90-99 were added in 1984, and then 40-49 were added in 2015. Receivers originally had to find a spot in the 80-89 range and could only wear numbers in the 10-19 range if their team had no 80s jerseys left. In 2004, the 10-19 range was opened for all receivers, regardless of their teams availabilities in the '80s.
The new system allows a much wider range of available jerseys to players, including the single-digit jerseys for quarterbacks, punters and kickers, wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, linebackers and defensive backs. Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette has already made it clear on social media that he is interested in switching from 28 to his LSU number of 7.
So, the issue for Brady and any other quarterbacks, linemen or blocking backs who don't like the rule is the identification of players at certain positions when the offense is at the line of scrimmage. Will a wider jumble of numbers in a quarterback's field of vision make it more difficult to make pre-snap reads and call out blitz protections? That's clearly a concern for Brady and, like I said, he would know. There are certainly plenty of analysts who think the adjustment really won't be that hard, and obviously Brady has shown he's excellent at making adjustments. We'll have to wait until the season to see how much added chaos there really is.
Actually, we might have to wait a couple seasons. The real winners here are the incoming rookies, more of whom will be able to get their number they want right from the beginning. Switching jersey numbers for established veterans is more complicated. Any veteran staying on the same team who wants to change his number will be required to purchase the existing inventory of his jerseys in the old number, at retail prices. Depending on how many that is, the cost can be prohibitive, which is apparently what kept Dalvin Cook from switching. On the other hand, Cook's new teammate, former Cardinal Patrick Peterson, is planning to switch to adopt jersey number 7 on his new team and won't have to pay as there are no existing Vikings jerseys in his old number of 21.
After the 2021 season, veteran players can change their numbers without having to buy their unused inventory, so if there is a big wave of changes it will probably come in 2022. Meanwhile, even with this year's rookies coming in and possibly bringing a bunch of single-digit jerseys with them, it probably won't have too big of a change on what Brady and other quarterbacks see in 2021. The vast majority of opposing defenders are going to be veterans wearing the same numbers they always have.
All of that said, you asked me for my thoughts on the new jersey number rules, and while I obviously have to acknowledge that if Brady is concerned there's something there, I do personally like it. Assuming that widespread chaos and sloppy football does not follow, or at least proves very temporary, then it seems like a lot of fun to me. It will be weird, in an enjoyable way, to see a tight end wearing #8 or a cornerback wearing #15 or a RB wearing #87, for example.
I will also be very interested to see the gradual evolution of what is considered "cool" by NFL players. Since the league opened up the 10-19 range for receivers 17 years ago, we've seen a slow but steady exodus from the 80s down to that lower range, to the point now that it's almost complete. In 2003, the top 10 wideouts in terms of receiving yards all wore numbers in the 80-89 range; last year, the top 10 wideouts in terms of receiving yards all wore numbers in the 10-19 range. One of those 10 was Brandin Cooks, whose repeated trades around the league have had him choose a jersey number four different times already. He's had four different numbers, all of them between 10 and 14. These guys won't even give the 80s a look anymore!
Because of that, the 80s have become the home almost exclusively of tight ends, with a few receivers like Antonio Brown mixed in with old-school choices. That's led to an underutilization of that range of jerseys, which is frustrating when players and teams are having difficulty finding room in other 10-number ranges. Perhaps now that running backs can also wear numbers in the 80s we'll see that range become a bit more popular again.
With Justin Fields dropping in mock drafts and with rumors… do you think there's any possibility he would be available at 32? Good investment player?
- @bluelightcomedy (via Instagram)
Um, no. To the first question, that is.
Look, the first question is whether Fields' "stock" is actually dropping as we approach the 2021 NFL Draft, and if so, how dramatically? You make the distinction – and correctly so – in your question: He's dropping in mock drafts. We don't know if he's really falling on the 32 boards that matter in NFL team draft rooms. Are the rumors, as you put it, and the sudden areas of concern coming from within those war rooms (they certainly will never be attributed), and if so what's the purpose of those leaks. It certainly could be that teams hoping they have a shot at him outside the top five are hoping to drive down his value a bit.
It's all a bit strange to me. At the end of the 2021 NCAA season, it seemed as if Fields was the only player who had even a small shot at surpassing Clemson's Trevor Lawrence for the top pick in the draft. There was certainly some talk of that when Fields torched Clemson for six touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl as Ohio State beat Lawrence and the Tigers. Now he's frequently the fourth or even fifth quarterback off the board…again, in mock drafts. The most common line of thinking as we count down the days and hours to the real thing, is that the 49ers are debating between Alabama's Mac Jones and North Dakota State's Trey Lance after trading up to pick number three. That's presuming the Jaguars and Jets start the round with Lawrence and BYU's Zach Wilson, which seems ironclad at this point.
So maybe Fields is sliding, and maybe he isn't. But if he does have to wait longer on Thursday night to hear his name than was expected even just a month ago, I'm sure it will be a relative slide. It's the kind of slide that will potentially benefit teams like Detroit, Denver, New England, Chicago or … ugh, maybe even the Panthers.
On Wednesday around noon I looked at 61 mock drafts that had been posted between Monday morning and Wednesday morning. Yes, SIXTY ONE mock drafts in the span of about 48 hours. It wasn't hard to find them. Everybody wants to post one more version on the actual week of the draft, so at this point you can't leave your house without tripping over one. In none of those drafts was Fields drafted later than 15th overall, and in only four did he go later than ninth.
The most popular prediction, though very far from a majority, is still that San Francisco takes him third, which was the result on 17 of those 61 drafts. The next most popular prediction is that he slides to Denver at the ninth pick. Here's the breakdown of the different scenarios for Fields' landing spot and how many of the 61 drafts made each prediction:
· San Francisco takes him 3rd (17)
· Denver takes him 9th (9)
· Atlanta takes him 4th (6)
· Detroit takes him 5th (5)
· New England trades up with Detroit to take him 7th (5)
· Carolina takes him 8th (4)
· Denver trades up with Detroit to take him 7th (4)
· Denver trades up with Atlanta to take him 4th (4)
· New England takes him 15th (2)
· New England trades up with Atlanta to take him 4th (1)
· New England trades up with Carolina to take him 8th (1)
· Denver trades up with Miami to take him 6th (1)
· Chicago trades up with Minnesota to take him 14th (1)
· Chicago trades up with New England to take him 15th (1)
The teams that would benefit most from even a small slide by Fields on draft night seem to be the Dolphins, Lions and Panthers. If he goes fourth to Atlanta or a team trading with the Falcons, I wouldn't really consider that a slide. But if he makes it past that spot, he isn't going to the Bengals at the fifth pick. I would be surprised if Cincinnati trades back since they'll be in position to get either a much-needed tackle like Penei Sewell or an offense-changing pass-catcher like Ja'Marr Chase.
The Dolphins seem to be content with Tua Tagovailoa but could still trade down to get more picks. Then you get to the Lions and Panthers, both of whom could either draft Fields as their presumptive quarterback of the future or use their spot to leverage a big deal out of competing teams trying to trade up. Yes, Carolina traded for Sam Darnold, but probably under the assumption that a player like Fields wasn't going to be on the board with the eighth pick. If he is there, that could be a tough decision for the Panthers.
In any case, I would be stunned beyond belief if Fields made it anywhere the Bucs' pick at the end of the night. I guess you could argue that if he falls into the 20s the Bucs could be motivated to trade up, but I don't really buy that scenario, either. This is Tom Brady's team for the next two seasons and the Buccaneers are in win-now mode. (Maybe we should be saying, "win again mode.") I could see them trading up for a player who could help right away, like an edge rusher, but not for a first-round quarterback who most teams would want to get on the field as soon as possible.