The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could hardly be more pleased with the contributions they've gotten from their first two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. Soon, they could find out how much their next two 2020 draft picks can contribute to their playoff chase.
Tristan Wirfs, the 13th-overall pick in the draft, has started at right tackle from day one and has impressed with his solid play against a collection of dangerous pass rushers. Antoine Winfield, the team's second-round pick, is rapidly emerging as a play-making star and was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for September. Wirfs and Winfield already look like they'll be cornerstone players for the Buccaneers for a long time.
Tampa Bay's next two picks in April were Vanderbilt running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn in the third round and Minnesota wide receiver Tyler Johnson in the fifth round. In addition to the tough road that all 2020 rookies faced with the cancellation of offseason programs and preseason games, both Vaughn and Johnson saw their progress slowed even more by health issues. Vaughn started training camp on the COVID list and had to quarantine himself for about a week. Johnson suffered a soft-tissue injury in the early going and missed almost all of the Bucs' camp practices.
As such, neither Vaughn nor Johnson had a real opportunity to carve out a role in the Bucs' offense before the season started, and it was easy for the team to move on without them because it had so many other talented options. The Bucs never stopped believing that the two rookies would become important contributors to their offense, but there was reason to believe it would take a while for that time to come.
That still may be true, but the timetable could be starting to accelerate thanks to the inevitable injuries that an NFL season brings. As the Buccaneers prepared for their Week Four game at home against the Los Angeles Chargers, they had to adjust for the absences of wide receiver Chris Godwin and running back Leonard Fournette due to hamstring and ankle issues, respectively. It was the signing of Fournette just before the season that made it easier for the Buccaneers to wait on Vaughn.
On Friday, Head Coach Bruce Arians mentioned both Johnson and Vaughn as players who could be more involved in the offense this week. It wouldn't be the debut for either player, but it would be close. Johnson was active for the first time in Week Three and saw his first 21 snaps on offense after Godwin left the game. Vaughn was active for the Bucs' first two games but his playing time was limited to five snaps on special teams in Week Two.
Johnson would appear to have the best chance of playing a significant number of snaps, given that wide receiver Scotty Miller is also battling through injuries, and that Johnson was very good out of the slot in college. When he got his 21-snap salute in Denver, Johnson actually saw action at three different positions. Head Coach Bruce Arians says Johnson has been working in a variety of ways to catch up and that he showed on Sunday that he was ready to hold his own in the NFL.
"It's a little bit of all the above," said Arians. "Learning the speed of the game – I think he's getting there. [The] game wasn't too big for him last week. [I] would have liked to see him catch that one ball – we had a penalty anyway – but get him a ball before this week. I think Ke'Shawn will be in there this week, also. He's more than ready. I think rookies now have had close to a month – they've seen what it's like. They should be able to contribute when their number is called."
The Buccaneers have been splitting the carries between Fournette and Ronald Jones, with 24 so far for the former and 37 for the latter. Veteran LeSean McCoy has narly 2,500 career carries but so far is being used almost exclusively as a pass-catcher. Arians and play-caller Byron Leftwich may choose to let Vaughn step into Fournette's role on Sunday and keep McCoy as the third-down back.
Johnson is still looking for his first NFL catch; he did have one ball thrown his way in Denver but, as Arians noted, he couldn't hang on. Vaughn is still looking for his first NFL run. Clearly, though, both have begun to show up more on the practice field.
"[I'm] basically coming out there every day trying to make an impression, not only to [Tom Brady], but pretty much everybody. You want to go out there and prove that you deserve to be out here, so just going out there, doing your best everyday – no matter what it is – whether you're blocking, whether you're running routes, you want to do it at 110 percent."
Johnson and Vaughn may soon make an impression on Buccaneers fans, as well.