In 2021, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers followed up their victory in Super Bowl LV with a stunning offseason of roster management. Despite facing a long list of potential free agency defections among core players, General Manager Jason Licht and company managed to bring back every Super Bowl starter and nearly every key role player as well. The result was a loaded depth chart that gave Licht and the Buccaneers a lot of freedom on draft weekend.
Tampa Bay is in something of a similar situation a year later, having successfully retained Chris Godwin, Ryan Jensen, Carlton Davis, Leonard Fournette, Will Gholston, Aaron Stinnie, Blaine Gabbert, Giovani Bernard and a few others. In addition, quarterback Tom Brady followed up his apparent decision to retire in late January with the news 40 days later that he would in fact play for the Buccaneers in 2022. That revelation came right before the start of free agency and undeniably played a role in the aforementioned success in bringing back core players. The Bucs also did a little more in free agency with outside players than they had the year before, landing safeties Keanu Neal and Logan Ryan and wide receiver Russell Gage while also trading for guard Shaq Mason.
The roster is, once again, loaded and Tom Brady is still at the helm. Still, no team is ever completely the same from one year to the next – the 2020 and 2021 Bucs came about as close as you could get – and so no two draft strategies are ever the same. The Buccaneers did lose both of their starting guards, Ali Marpet to retirement and Alex Cappa to free agency, and as of yet have not re-signed either Ndamukong Suh or Rob Gronkowski. Hard-hitting safety Jordan Whitehead got a well-deserved payday with the Jets, while tight end O.J. Howard went to Buffalo and running back Ronald Jones joined the Chiefs.
So 2021 presents a somewhat different landscape for Licht as he prepares to lead his team's draft efforts. It's a little easier to spot a hole here or there on the depth chart, or at least what outside consensus would consider a hole. Perceptions inside and outside the AdventHealth Training Center don't always precisely match, but it's fair to say the Bucs' list of needs is a little longer now than it was a year ago.
And that creates a trap that Licht is always trying to avoid. For instance, if neither Suh nor Gronkowski returns prior to the draft, that would make the depth chart a little lighter at interior defensive line and tight end than it was a year ago. Licht acknowledges this but doesn't want it to be an all-consuming thought on draft weekend.
"Well, you have to keep that in mind but you also never really want to push a need, or a perceived need, too high up," he said. "That's where you start making mistakes."
Licht says the Buccaneers' player personnel and coaching staffs will have 98% of their work for the draft done by the time the picks begin next Thursday evening. He estimates that this effort is currently at about 90% finished, with a few medical assessments and other issues to button up. The big board in the Buccaneers' draft room has been "prepared for need and for best player." The perfect pick is when the top spots on both lists intersect when it's time to hand in a card. If the 'need' column pulls you too far away from the top of the 'best player' list, that can lead to regret.
"You have to trust your board," said Licht. "You can't push players – like I said before – of a perceived need too high just because you need that position. Otherwise, they're going to trump other really good players at different positions. We could take a player literally at just about any position on our team and I think if they're a great player we're going to be happy we did it."
It's fair to say that quarterback would have been one of those 'perceived needs' of which Licht speaks if Brady had gone through with his retirement. But the Buccaneers did draft Florida passer Kyle Trask in the second round last year and had already vowed to turn over every stone in search of finding the right replacement for Brady to keep the Buccaneers in contention in 2022. As such, Brady's very welcome return in March, while a boon for the Bucs' free agency efforts, may not have drastically changed the team's approach to the draft.
"It changed maybe a little bit of how we went about free agency," said Licht. "We had a lot of players that we wanted to bring back, which we were successful in doing. With the draft, I'll be sitting here next year talking about it if we still try to take and force a need. We'll be wishing that we drafted a different player if we didn't respect our board."
The additions of Ryan and Neal would seem to balance out the loss of Whitehead and the swipe of Gage from the Falcons gives the Buccaneers a very good trio of receivers with Godwin and Mike Evans, with some depth behind them as well. The trade for Mason and the team's belief in Stinnie after his strong run in the 2020 playoffs eases the sting of the Marpet and Cappa departures, and Licht also pointed to such depth as Nick Leverett and Robert Hainsey. With Gholston returning and Vea getting a new long-term deal at the end of last season, the Buccaneers have a good rotation on the defensive interior along with Rakeem Nunez-Roches. The Bucs might very well still try to add to either line in the draft but the main point stays the same for Licht – he won't push any need too far. There are other ways to build a depth chart, after all.
"You always want to upgrade your trenches. It's a position that we'll continue to look for, but we have the draft, we have a period after the draft, there's still trades. The trade deadline's not for months and months away. So there's different avenues and different paths that we can take to upgrade there and upgrade our depth and get more players in there."