Photos of the Buccaneers 2017 rookies.
Last December, Alabama and Florida met in the SEC Championship Game for the second year in a row. The combined rosters for the Crimson Tide and the Gators at that time featured 18 players who would be drafted the following spring, including five eventual first-round picks.
Alabama tight end O.J. Howard and Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis were two of those future first-rounders, with Howard going to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at #19 and Davis coming off the board just two picks later thanks to the Detroit Lions. Unfortunately for Davis, an injury kept him off the field for that game last December, while Howard caught two passes for 41 yards in Alabama's lopsided 54-16 victory.
Both the Buccaneers and the Lions hope their prized first-round rookies are still on the field to face each other this coming December, almost exactly a year after that 2016 SEC Championship Game. In fact, Howard-vs.-Davis is just one a number of potential all-rookie showdowns that could have a big impact on Tampa Bay's 2017 season. Below, we list one such rookie duel for each of the Bucs' six 2017 draft picks, assuming they all make the regular-season roster. The matchups are listed in chronological order, ending with that potential Howard-Davis matchup.
1. Buccaneers RB Jeremy McNichols vs. Dolphins LB Raekwon McMillan, Sept. 10
Tampa Bay drafted McNichols in the fifth round, making him the 17 running back selected overall. The rookie from Boise State joins a crowded backfield that also includes two-time Pro Bowler (and fellow Boise State product) Doug Martin, Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber. It remains to be seen how big of a role McNichols will carve out, though his complete skill set of running, receiving and pass-blocking should definitely have him in the mix.
However, Martin will face a three-game suspension to start the season, meaning McNichols might actually get a significant amount of playing time right away. Rodgers may end up getting the start against the Dolphins in Week One after his excellent relief performance in the absence of Martin last year, but McNichols could still steal some snaps in that scenario, particularly on third downs.
If so, he'll face a Dolphins' linebacking corps that may have a very new look in 2017. In addition to signing former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lawrence Timmons, Miami also used its second-round pick on McMillan. The Ohio state product could challenge for an immediate starting job at either outside LB spot; six different players started at linebacker for the Dolphins last year, with only Kiko Alonso opening 10 or more games.
McMillan's strength is in pursuit rather than standing up to blocks from offensive lineman, so he could be particularly effective in passing downs. He displayed strong coverage skills at Ohio State. If McNichols is sent out of the backfield into a route on third downs, he may very well find himself matched up with McMillan.
2. Buccaneers DT Stevie Tu'ikolovatu vs. Vikings C Pat Elflein, Sept. 24
Tampa Bay wanted to get more stout against the run in 2017, which is why they traded away a 2018 seventh-round pick in order to move up 14 spots in the seventh round and land Tu'ikolovatu, the massive defensive tackle from USC.
Tu'ikolovatu tips the scales somewhere between 320 and 350 pounds, and he combines enormous power with surprisingly nimble feet. He was considered one of the best run-stuffers in the nation in 2017 and the Buccaneers hope to put him in their D-Line rotation for that exact purpose. Tu'ikolovatu would likely see the field almost exclusively in likely running situations, which could be somewhere between 15 and 25 snaps a game.
If "Tu'i" is in the Bucs' front-line rotation early in the season, he could find himself battling former Ohio state offensive lineman Pat Elflein, whom the Minnesota Vikings drafted early in the third round. The Vikings clearly made it a 2017 offseason priority to upgrade their offensive line, signing tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers in free agency and then targeting an interior linemen on Day Two of the draft. Brandon Fusco, the Vikings' starter at right guard last year, was not re-signed so Elflein could battle for that or perhaps slide in at center if Minnesota moves Joe Berger out to guard.
Elflein is considered versatile enough to play any of the three interior-line spots. He's strong on technique, so he may be able to make a quick transition to the NFL and be in the starting lineup when the Buccaneers come to town in Week Three. If so, he'll be trying to help fellow rookie Dalvin Cook, the former Florida State star, give the Vikings the strong rushing attack they had for so many years with Adrian Peterson. If the 301-pound Elflein ends up in a one-on-one blocking situation with Tu'ikolovatu, it will be matchup of power against finesse.
3. Buccaneers S Justin Evans vs. Giants tight end Evan Engram, Oct. 1
When Tampa Bay took Howard off the board at #19 it was a gift to the Buccaneers' safeties, who won't have to match up against the speedy big man down the seams (except in practice, of course). The next tight end off the board after Howard was Mississippi State's Evan Engram, and Buccaneer defenders will get an early-season dose of him when they welcome to the New York Giants to town in Week Four.
Engram may not be quite the in-line blocker that Howard is but he's a very potent receiving threat, something the 2016 Giants were lacking in the tight end spot. Will Tye did catch 48 passes but he averaged just 8.2 yards per grab and scored only a single touchdown. Engram should be featured immediately in the New York passing game, which looks a lot more intimidating with the addition of him and former Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
Engram is fast and he runs great routes. Like former New Orleans star Jimmy Graham, he is the type of weapon who can be moved all around the formation in order to get desirable matchups. If Evans, the Buccaneers' second-round pick out of Texas A&M, can emerge from a crowded battle at safety with an early-season starting spot, he'll have to prove he's not a mismatch against Engram.
He has the skills to do so. Expected to fight for the free safety spot, Evans has good range and is a natural centerfielder. He's also a very aggressive player who will happily try to contest any downfield seam passes Eli Manning tries to get to this rookie tight end.
4. Buccaneers LB Kendell Beckwith vs. Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey, Oct. 29
Tampa Bay's backloaded slate of intra-division games means the Bucs won't get a look at the draft's #8 overall pick until Week Eight. The Buccaneers' first game against an NFC South foe is in late October, when the Carolina Panthers and McCaffrey come to town.
By then, the league as a whole may have a better idea of what the Panthers have planned for their two new and incredibly versatile weapons, McCaffrey and second-round Curtis Samuel of Ohio State. McCaffrey may be best described as a running back who could also easily start at wide receiver, while Samuel is a wide receiver who is also capable of playing running back. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has relied heavily on tight end Greg Olsen in recent years, but he now has a much more diverse and potent array of targets around him. McCaffrey, in particular, can run between the tackles, catch passes out of the backfield or even line up in the slot.
The later date of this Bucs-Panthers matchup also increases the chances that Beckwith is in the defensive mix for Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers traded up into the bottom of the third round in order to nab the former LSU standout, wanting to add size, power and run-stopping ability to their linebacking corps. At 6-3 and 247 pounds, Beckwith is already the Buccaneers' biggest linebacker and he had a reputation as a sound and powerful tackler at LSU.
Beckwith also has rehab time left on the ACL he tore last November. He hopes to be ready by the start of training camp and, if so, he will definitely be in the competition for the opening at strongside linebacker, a job held down in 2016 by the since-departed Daryl Smith. Even if he's not the starting SAM on opening day, he might be more involved by midseason when the Panthers come to town.
The difficulty for Beckwith and the rest of the Bucs' defense is in diagnosing what the Panthers will do with McCaffrey (and Samuel). The SAM linebacker will be on the field only for likely run downs, with Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander staying in for snaps in the nickel. If Carolina brings "21" or "12" personnel into the game and the Bucs counter with their base defense, the Panthers could try to create mismatches by putting McCaffrey at receiver. That makes this particular matchup a potentially tricky one for Beckwith.
5. Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin vs. Packers CB Kevin King, Dec. 3
The Buccaneers have Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson in their two starting receiver spots, but they spent a third-round pick on Godwin, who was very productive at Penn State, so they surely will look for a way to get him into the lineup as a rookie. By December 3, when Tampa Bay braves a potentially frigid Lambeau Field, Godwin's role should be pretty well-defined.
Whatever that role is, King could be opposing him. The Packers traded down from the back end of the first round into the top spot on Day Two and used the 33rd overall choice on King. That was part of the draft's early run through a deep field of cornerbacks, and Green Bay got a big and physical one in the former University of Washington star. King has played every position in the secondary, including in the slot, so there's a chance Godwin will be his assignment wherever the Bucs employ their rookie receiver.
Godwin can definitely handle physical defenders. He was good at getting off the jam at the line of scrimmage while at Penn State, he's not afraid of going over the middle and he'll fight for contested passes. At 6-1 and 210 pounds, Godwin is two inches shorter but nearly the same size as King, so a battle between the two would certainly be entertaining.
6. Buccaneers TE O.J. Howard vs. Lions LB Jarrad Davis, Dec. 10
As noted above, these two players were practically drafted back-to-back in the first round, and their first meeting in the professional ranks should be a good one.
That matchup won't always be contested downfield, either. Davis is considered a strong blitzer but Howard has advanced blocking skills, which is one of the reasons why he was the most coveted tight end in this year's field. If the Lions decide to bring Davis off the edge, he might have to work his way around a 6-5, 256-pound blocker with nimble feet.
Of course, Howard is also a seam-stretcher who showed up big in Alabama's most important games. By Week 14, when the Lions come to Raymond James Stadium, the Buccaneers hope they'll be playing big games during the league's playoff stretch run. By that point, Howard should also have a strong rapport with quarterback Jameis Winston, making him a threat to every defense the Bucs' face.
In coverage, Davis will have his hands full with Howard, if he draws that assignment. Getting Howard to the ground can be a chore not only because of his size but because he runs so well with the ball after the catch. And, of course, his combined blocking and receiving skills mean it will be difficult to know what the Buccaneers have planned for Howard when they have him in the game. Davis will have to react fast when Howard leaves the line, and he's capable of doing so. At the NFL Scouting Combine, both Howard and Davis logged the best 10-yard split time for their positions, 1.52 for Howard and 1.57 for Davis.