The NFL expanded to its current ranks of 32 teams in 2002, which in turn increased the first round of the draft to 32 picks that spring. The New England Patriots, winners of Super Bowl XXXVI, were the first defending champs to be slotted 32nd and last in the draft's opening round. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, winners of Super Bowl LV, are about to become the 20th to do so.
The Patriots didn't actually pick 32nd that year, instead trading up 11 spots to grab Colorado tight end Daniel Graham; more on him in a bit. However, they've had five more chances to do so since, with mixed results that we will be examining below.
General Manager Jason Licht has about three more weeks to determine what to do with this year's 32nd pick. Recently, he said the Buccaneers have the "luxury" this year of choosing a prospect who may take a while to develop into an impact player for the franchise, since there are no glaring holes in the team's current depth chart.
"Of course, in the perfect world you'd want to pick players that can come in and help and contribute right away," said Licht. "But we do have the luxury of having guyrs sit back and learn and get developed by our coaching staff and veteran players."
So the Buccaneers don't really need to land an instant contributor with their first-round pick – like they did last year when they traded up a spot to secure Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs – but they certainly wouldn't mind if that happened. The question is, should they expect to get one?
Licht is certainly realistic about the vagaries of the NFL draft, knowing full well that stars and busts can come from any slot in the first round. He knows he has a chance of building on his deep success in recent drafts even if the Bucs are picking lower than they have at any point in his tenure.
"Picks one through 32, they all have a 50 percent chance of being a player, so I think the chances of being good, being a very good player are just as good at 32 as they are at one," said Licht.
The specific question at hand, though, is how much should the Bucs expect to get out of their first-round pick in this upcoming season? Obviously, most defending champions have strong roster cores, though most don't completely stave off free agency losses the way the 2021 Buccaneers have. Let's look at what those previous round-ending picks have done since the draft expanded to 32 picks per round in 2002. We'll group them into categories, starting with the teams that stayed put at the 32nd spot* and then examining the clubs that traded up, down or out instead.
(While the Denver Broncos were slotted 32nd in 2016 they actually owned the 31st pick in the first round because New England had forfeited its first-round pick that year.)
Strong Rookie Contributions
2020 Chiefs – RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire
2015 Patriots – DT Malcom Brown
2005 Patriots – G Logan Mankins
Though Edwards-Helaire could eventually make a case, Mankins is the class of this bunch in terms of his full NFL career. But he was also very good as a rookie, stepping right into the left guard spot vacated by Joe Andruzzi and starting all 16 games for a Patriots team that went 10-6 and won the AFC East. A tackle in college, Mankins was a natural at guard and he earned all-rookie honors from Pro Football Weekly. Mankins went on to play nine seasons for the Patriots plus two more in Tampa, earning seven Pro Bowl invitations.
Brown also was an instant starter and contributor for the Patriots on the other side of the line. He played in all 16 games and started 12, notching one of his three sacks in 2015 in his very first regular-season contest, against Pittsburgh. Brown finished that season with 48 tackles and five quarterback hits to go with those three sacks and proved to be a very good run-stopper. Though he didn't quite make good on his post-draft proclamation that he was "the best player the Patriots ever drafted," he did start for four seasons in New England before signing with the Saints in 2019.
Edwards-Helaire joined an already-loaded Chiefs offense, and while his production did go through some peak and valleys last year he did finish the regular-season with 1,100 yards from scrimmage. He was Kansas City's leading rusher by far with 803 yards and four scores on 181 totes, and he also caught 36 passes for another 297 yards and a touchdown.
Decent Rookie Contributions
2013 Ravens – S Matt Elam
2012 Giants – RB David Wilson
2010 Saints – CB Patrick Robinson
2008 Giants – S Kenny Phillips
2007 Colts – WR Anthony Gonzalez
From a career longevity standpoint, Robinson is easily the standout in this group. He played five seasons for the Saints, bounced around to three other teams from 2015-17, and has since returned to play three more years in New Orleans. Phillips also played seven seasons in the NFL, five with the Giants, but the other three had brief careers.
Still, all five did make something of an impact as rookies. Elam started 15 games and while his rookie season was considered a mixed bag by observers at the time he did contribute 77 tackles, one interception, three passes defensed and two fumble recoveries for the Ravens. His playing time went downhill from there, including one season spent on injured reserve, and he wasn't re-signed by Baltimore or picked up by anyone else after hitting free agency in 2017.
Wilson's rookie rushing totals were something of a disappointment, with 358 yards and four touchdowns on 71 carries, but he did lead the NFL in kickoff return yards that year. Gonzalez joined a Colts team that already had Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison, who had combined for 181 catches, 2,676 yads and 21 touchdowns the previous year, but still managed to carve out a decent role, particularly because Harrison would be limited to just five games. Gonzalez made nine starts and contributed 37 catches for 576 yards and three scores, plus one more touchdown in the playoffs.
Robinson started four games as a rookie and had 28 tackles and two passes defensed. Phillips made three starts for the Giants in his rookie year and racked up 67 tackles to go with one interception, five passes defensed and two quarterback hits.
Minimal Rookie Contributions
2019 Patriots – WR N'Keal Harry
2011 Packers – T Derek Sherrod
2009 Steelers – DT Ziggy Hood
2004 Patriots – TE Ben Watson
In the long run, Hood and Watson gave their teams the most value for the picks, though Harry has only been in the league for two years so far. Hood also played in all 16 games as a rookie, though he made no starts and finished with just one sack, eight tackles and five quarterback hits. He enjoyed an 11-year NFL career, the first five with Pittsburgh where he was a starter for the majority of that time. He never topped 3.0 sacks in a season, however.
Watson had an even longer and more productive career in the NFL, lasting 15 seasons, including seven with the Patriots. He returned to new England for one more season in 2019 after spending time with the Browns, Ravens and Saints. He was generally productive throughout his career, though he only topped 50 catches in two of his 15 seasons. It's possible he would have made a big impact as a rookie, as he won the starting job from Daniel Graham (more on him below) but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener.
Sherrod only played in five games as a rookie and made just one start over nearly four seasons in Green Bay. He was released in November of the fourth season and was able to get a spot in the Chiefs' camp the next summer but he didn't make the team. Harry caught just 12 passes for 105 yards and two scores as a Patriots rookie despite playing in 15 games with seven starts. His numbers went up a bit last year to 33 catches for 309 yards and two touchdowns, but he has not yet proved to be a prolific pass-catcher.
2018 Eagles – Traded down (TE Dallas Goedert)
2017 Patriots – Traded out (WR Brandin Cooks)
2016 Broncos – Traded up (QB Paxton Lynch)
2014 Seahawks – Traded down (WR Paul Richardson)
2006 Steelers – Traded up (WR Santonio Holmes)
2003 Buccaneers – Traded out (Jon Gruden)
2002 Patriots – Traded up (TE Daniel Graham)
That's seven times in 19 seasons that the defending champs have traded the 32nd pick in one way or another, though in the 2003 Buccaneers' case that trade took place long before they knew it was going to be number 32.
Tampa Bay's trade, of course, was the deal in February of 2002 that bought them the rights to hire Gruden away from the Oakland Raiders. The Bucs sent over their first and second-round picks in 2002, their first-round pick in 2003 and their second-round pick in 2004 to swing the deal. It paid off, obviously, because that '03 selection became the last one in the round when Gruden led the Bucs to victory in Super Bowl XXXVII in his first season at the helm.
The three defending champs that have traded up from number 32 have gone one-for-three at the plate. The Steelers hit a solid double when they moved up seven spots to land Holmes, the standout Ohio State receiver who would catch 49 passes for 824 yards and two touchdowns and score one more time on a punt return. Three years later, Holmes was the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII after he caught the game-winning touchdown against Arizona at Raymond James Stadium.
Holmes played four seasons in Pittsburgh, all of them productive, and he peaked with 1,248 yards on 79 catches in the last of those four campaigns. He would go on to have a nine-year NFL career and finished with more than 6,000 receiving yards.
On the other hand, the Broncos trade up of five spots to land Lynch proved to be quite ill-advised. Lynch played just two seasons in the NFL and made a total of four starts, going 1-3. Graham actually stuck in the NFL for 11 seasons, so he certainly wasn't a bust, but the fact that the Patriots were trading up to take another tight end in the first round two years later is an indication of what the team thought of his potential at that point. Graham never had more than 38 catches or 409 yards in a single season.
Trades down the draft can't totally be judged by the player the team moving down eventually takes because the point of such deals is to add extra draft picks. Still, the two picks in this group produced middling rookie-year results. Goedert joined a team that already had star tight end Zach Ertz but still made eight starts and caught 33 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns. Goedert has 137 catches over his first three seasons and will likely be more of a focal point moving forward with Ertz expected to move on.
Richardson caught 29 passes for 271 yards and one touchdown in his rookie season in Seattle. The best of his four seasons with the Seahawks saw him catch 44 passes for 703 yards, which earned him a deal with Washington in free agency. After two seasons of minimal production for Washington he was released, landed back with the Seahawks briefly last summer but did not make the roster or play in the league last year.
Other than the Buccaneers, the 2017 Patriots were the only team to trade away their number-32 pick, and they did know where they were slotted when they made their deal. New England sent that selection in March of 2017 to New Orleans to get Cooks, who caught 65 passes for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns that season. The Patriots essentially rented that production because they were able to flip him to the Rams for a first-round pick the next year.