In some teams' NFL offseasons, the draft is by far the biggest news. That's hard to say, however, about a team that signs the most accomplished quarterback in league history, trades for his all-time favorite target and somehow manages to retain all three potential free agents on their loaded defensive front.
That team is the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose offense now features Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski and whose rising defense welcomes back Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh. Brady and the defensive re-signings were Priorities 1A and 1B for a team that believes it is on the cusp of Super Bowl contention, and the Gronkowski trade was a tasty bit of pre-draft icing on the cake. But that doesn't mean the 2020 draft lacked importance for the Buccaneers. Every draft is critical in a team's development and this one was needed to address some very specific issues on the roster.
The Bucs believe they succeeded in doing that and are welcoming the expectations that come from that run of earlier moves and this weekend's draft efforts.
"I love them," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "I embrace it. I want our guys to feel that we are a team to beat. Everybody that left our locker room in that last meeting knew we should have been playing in the playoffs, and we beat ourselves. If we could correct the turnover ratio we have a chance. So, yeah, I think everybody that walks in our building is expecting to win."
Immediate post-draft emotions are, of course, always positive in 32 different NFL venues every single year, but Arians and General Manager Jason Licht have a particularly affinity for the seven players they added over the weekend.
"We felt like we had the board set really well and the players that we got, they all have some redeeming qualities that we loved, and they really stood out," said Licht. "One thing that they all had in common is that they love football, they're ballers and they're very passionate about the game."
Here is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2020 Draft Class:
The biggest draft news for the Buccaneers came swiftly in the form of big and swift offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs. Tampa Bay just managed to get in on the early-draft run on premier tackle prospects, landing the uber-athletic Iowa tackle they had coveted for some time. Wirfs met what was clearly the number-one need on the depth chart: A right tackle to take over for the departed Demar Dotson and help keep Brady upright so he can utilize team's deep arsenal of weapons.
And that arsenal got even deeper with the selections of Vanderbilt running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn in Round Three, Minnesota wide receiver Tyler Johnson in Round Five and Louisiana-Lafayette RB Raymond Calais in Round Seven. Vaughn joins Ronald Jones in the Bucs backfield and is expected to be a versatile threat who can make an impact in the passing game. Johnson was an extremely productive receiver for the Gophers with a natural ability to get open; he'll have a shot at winning the third-receiver spot along with the Pro Bowl duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Calais averaged 7.8 yards per carry in his collegiate career and was also a productive kickoff returner.
Arians said it wasn't a surprise to exact the draft with two new pieces for the offensive backfield.
"It was kind of the plan. It's just we like two different styles. [Vaughn] can kind of do everything and the other one's kind of a joystick. He's one of those guys – he runs 4.33 and he's a running back/receiver/kick returner. – just one of those guys I love to play with. I think both of those guys are going to find a role on our ball club.
"I think Ke'Shawn Vaughn is a guy that can play every down. I don't consider him a David Johnson. I think that Raymond [Calais] is a very smaller version, but much faster version of David Johnson. He's a heck of a little running back. I wouldn't say he's Tarik Cohen, but he's kind of that style guy, that joystick type guy can go out and play wide receiver and be a mismatch."
The defense got some important help, as well. Before the Bucs tabbed Johnson they first dipped into the Minnesota well in the second round, snaring playmaking safety Antoine Winfield Jr. with the 45th overall pick. Winfield had a school-record seven interceptions last year but he can also help in run support, cover pass-catchers in the slot and even blitz the quarterback. In the sixth round, the Bucs bolstered their interior defensive line depth with the selection of Nebraska's Khalil Davis, another versatile player who has impressive movement skills for his 308-pound frame. And with the first of two late seventh-round picks Tampa Bay added Temple linebacker Chapelle Russell, who overcame two ACL tears to rack up 238 career tackles and 19.5 tackles for loss.
As you might have noticed, the Buccaneers' 2020 draft had a decidedly Big Ten flavor. Each of their first five picks spent time in that conference; Vaughn played two years at Illinois before transferring to Vandy. Licht is a former Nebraska player himself (before it was in the Big Ten), but the Bucs weren't specifically trying to up the Big Ten content on the Bucs' roster. They were simply looking for good players who had excelled against top competition.
"It's just one of those things, you know," said Arians. "The board was set – I thought Jason did a great job with the board and we just kept coming down and guys were fitting needs and were right there to pick. I can't say enough about each and every guy. I think that just like last year's draft, I think each and every one of these guys might have a role on our team."
The Buccaneers' 2020 draft was affected by two trades, but neither of the mid-round maneuvering that Licht has successfully pulled off on repeated occasions. In this case, the trade with New England for Gronkowski on the day before the draft cost Tampa Bay the first of its two fourth-round picks and brought back a seventh-rounder. On Thursday night, to ensure that no team leaped over the Buccaneers to grab Wirfs after Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Willis and Mekhi Becton were all off the board, Licht sent the team's other fourth-rounder to San Francisco to move up one spot and take his man with the 13th pick. That trade also brought back a seventh-round pick so Tampa Bay ended up with two selections near the very end of the draft. That marked the first time in seven Buccaneer drafts that Licht had moved up in the first round. After that maneuver, Tampa Bay merely stayed put and made picks at all of their original spots.
Licht also largely alternated between offensive and defensive picks and ended up with more offensive help after the team's last two drafts were very defensive-heavy. Still, the additions of Winfield, Davis and Russell should have an impact as well on a defense that was among the league's best in the season's second half after its young secondary began to jell.
The selection of Winfield addresses a safety position that was probably the most unsettled part of the defensive depth chart. The team still hopes to get 2017 second-round pick Justin Evans back from the foot problems that plagued his last two seasons and also has recent draftees Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards. But Arians and Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles also like to get creative with their safeties and they'll have a very versatile arrow in their quiver with Winfield.
"He's an extremely bright football player that's got great bloodlines," said Arians. "He is so position-flexible – half-field, deep-field, middle-field, nickel, dime, linebacker – he's got so many positions he can play. We love to mix it up with our safeties when they're interchangeable. He's part 'Honey Badger' [Tyrann Mathieu] and he's part Budda Baker – he's that style of player that we can use in a different type of role along with our other safeties, who are interchangeable."
Davis joins a group headlined by fellow Nebraska product Ndamukong Suh and 2019 first-round pick Vita Vea. Those two helped the Bucs lead the NFL in rush defense and created one-on-one opportunities for an edge rush that produced 44 sacks. Davis can learn from Suh while also keeping the Bucs strong in the middle when he rotates in. His 4.75-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, where he also weighed in at 308 pounds, suggest a later-round prospect who could develop into an impact player.
"He's a very athletic guy, not just in his 40 time, but all his other testing was very good," said Licht. "He's got a good upside, so we'll see how it goes with him. There in those late rounds you want to take a flyer on guys that have traits like that – in addition to being a great kid and all that stuff. Being from Nebraska didn't hurt him."
Like a lot of late-round players on either side of the ball, Russell is likely to get his early opportunities on special teams.
"Well, first of all he's an aggressive player," said Licht. "He has an aggressive mindset and he's an instinctive player. He's tough. He was a guy we had targeted, fits what we're trying to do, and we're trying to bolster our special teams. We feel like that's what he can do first and foremost, but we do see a big upside in him."
No NFL roster is ever set and the Buccaneers still have a lot of work to do, on the field and in meeting rooms, to turn their raised expectations into actual wins. But a newsworthy offseason has raised hopes and the 2020 draft only strengthened them. Hopefully, the whole team can come together soon.