The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV in February, and while the community celebrated General Manager Jason Licht got to work on the team's attempt at a title defense in 2021. With some deft maneuvering through free agency, Licht and his staff managed to bring back every Super Bowl and virtually every key contributor. The free agency losses essentially boiled down to a special teams ace (Ryan Smith), a fourth-string safety (Andrew Adams) and a reserve offensive tackle (Joe Haeg).
After that was taken care of, Licht and Head Coach Bruce Arians helmed a draft that brought in seven more players. After getting huge contributions during their Super Bowl run from 2020 draftees Tristan Wirfs and Antoine Winfield, Jr., the Buccaneers may find it tougher to get their rookies involved in 2021. It's a good problem to have, but it just makes the fight for roster spots and consequential jobs a little tougher for this year's draft class than some in the past.
That fight started in earnest this week when the Buccaneers convened their 2021 training camp. We're now four practices in and the players are enjoying their first day off after four very steamy mornings. And how are those 2021 draftees faring so far?
It's a little too early to tell but several of them have been topics of discussion in post-practice interviews. First-round pick Joe Tryon looks like "the real deal" to fellow edge rusher Shaq Barrett but the real work doesn't start for the men on the line of scrimmage until the pads go on Saturday. Second-round quarterback Kyle Trask has been working primarily on Field Two with the reserves but is "growing" and "in no hurry," according to Arians. Versatile third-round offensive lineman Robert Hainsey is learning the center position and getting most of his work with Blaine Gabbert.
Fourth-round wide receiver Jaelon Darden has probably cut the highest profile of the seven draftees so far mostly because of the position he plays. He's been given some work with Tom Brady and the starters – always a good sign – and has quickly shown a talent for getting open, though early-NFL jitters may have led to a couple drops. Fifth-rounder K.J. Britt and seventh-rounder Grant Stuard, both inside linebackers, have gotten a lot of snaps on Field Two with the reserves and have led the way as that group has executed well and with few mental errors, according to Arians. Seventh-round cornerback Chris Wilcox has not yet practiced after starting camp on the active/PUP list.
Wilcox, obviously, is in the toughest situation in that group. He's one of 10 cornerbacks on the roster but he can't really earn a spot of any significance if he gets on the field. The fact that he started camp on the active/PUP list means it's possible he will also start the regular season on the reserve/PUP list, which would put him out for at least the first six games.
The thing is, the situation for this year's draft class as a whole really isn't much different from ones in the past. It simply is not common for every player a team drafts to immediately find some role on the team as a rookie. Some never do. The Buccaneers had conducted 45 NFL drafts before this last one; do you know how many times every player in a particular draft class played in a regular-season game as a rookie?
Every player the Buccaneers drafted got into a regular-season game as a rookie in 1996, 2013 and 2018. That's it.
Now, it actually makes sense that this never happened before the 1990s because until 1992 the draft was 12 rounds long. A team might occasionally hit on a pick in the 10th round and beyond – such as 12th-rounder David Logan in 1979 – but it pretty much never unearths a gem with all of them. Before the Bucs drafted Logan in the final round in '79, they landed in the 11th round on Bob Rippentrop, a blocking tight end out of Fresno State. He did not make it.
The 1996 draft is best known as the one that produced Mike Alstott and Donnie Abraham in the second and third rounds. Before that, Tony Dungy's first team doubled down on the defensive line in the first round with Regan Upshaw and Marcus Jones, and both worked out okay, particularly Jones. Fourth-round pick Jason Odom became a starting right tackle before his career was cut short by back injuries. After that, we get to the finish line with a handful of technicalities. Fourth-round safety Eric Austin played in two games as a rookie, and in his career. Fifth-round defensive tackle Jason Maniecki stuck around a bit longer, with five games as a rookie and 18 over three seasons. Sixth-round wideout Nilo Silvan, a return specialist, got into seven games in 1996 but none after that. Seventh-round Reggie Rusk completed the set by playing in exactly one game as a rookie, though he stuck around in the NFL through the 2000 season.
Fast-forward another 17 years until the Bucs put together a 2013 draft class of second-round cornerback Johnthan Banks, third-round quarterback Mike Glennon, the fourth-round D-Line duo of Akeem Spence and William Gholston, fifth-round defensive end Steven Means and sixth-round running back Mike James. Banks, Glennon and Spence all became starters quickly though none were Bucs for the long haul. Gholston only started two games as a rookie but has since enjoyed a very good and ongoing career in Tampa. Means didn't last long with the Bucs – 11 games in two years – but is still in the league, currently with the Falcons. James got a golden chance to start as a rookie due to injuries at his position but then got hurt himself after three starts. He played 15 more games over the next two years.
And then just three years ago the Bucs put together a 2018 draft class that paid immediate dividends and eventually produced five starters still on the roster: first-round defensive tackle Vita Vea, second-round running back Ronald Jones, second-round cornerback Carlton Davis, third-round guard Alex Cappa and fourth-round safety Jordan Whitehead. Second-round cornerback M.J. Stewart is now in Cleveland but did play 21 games over two seasons in Tampa, including 11 as a rookie. Fifth-round wide receiver Justin Watson played 12 games as a rookie and is back to try to make the roster for a fourth season, though currently on active/PUP. Sixth-round linebacker Jack Cichy never shook his unfortunate injury luck from college but completes the set by playing in six games as a rookie and 16 over three seasons.
Could the 2021 draft class become the fourth one on this list. History suggests the odds are heavily against it as a group, but I'm sure each individual draftee is going to battle hard to hold up his end of the bargain.
And now on to your questions.
A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to email@example.com.
Thanks for all the effort you put in to answer even the most difficult questions. It's always fun to read The Mailbag.
I was thrilled that Mike Evans had another 1000 yard season, and I hope he'll get his 8th one this year. But Mike is not only great with receptions; it seemed like he got us a lot of yards drawing penalties from our opponents. Is that a measurable statistic? It would interesting to see what we gained from him in that way too.
Hope you and Kasey and Carmen and Jeff are having a good summer. Best wishes to all of you, and of course to our World Championship Bucs!
Rusti in Altamonte Springs (via email to firstname.lastname@example.org)
It's good to hear from you again, Rusti. And I think you know me well enough to know the kind of question I'll really enjoy digging into. Like this one.
That said, I think you're going to find my research on this one a little thin and yet still providing a pretty clear answer to your question. And that answer is: Yes, Evans adds more hidden penalty yardage than your average receiver, at least in the last two years. Quite a bit more.
To answer your first question, yes that is a measurable statistic. In a play-by-play for a game it looks like this:
1-10-TB 25 (13:13) T.Brady pass incomplete deep left to M.Evans (M.Williams).
PENALTY on NO-M.Williams, Defensive Pass Interference, 45 yards, enforced at TB 25 – No Play
All of the information in there can be compiled and various organizations compile all of it. In this case, we can see that Evans drew a penalty that was worth 45 yards. If we go through all the play-by-plays and add up every time this happened, we would know how many yards Evans gave the Bucs through drawing penalties. In fact, I could do that pretty easily and it would probably only take 20 or 30 minutes. I don't need to do that, though, because I know of several places I can look up the specific penalty details for any given player.
The problem is, to answer your question I need to know how many penalties every pass-catcher drew and for how many yards to answer your question. You want a comparison. If Evans drew five penalties for 130 yards last year, is that a lot? Or is that low compared to what, say, Michael Thomas or Julio Jones draws?
And that's the difficult part. That sort of database is probably out there, but I have not found it yet. However, on the excellent Football Outsiders site, I did find (in an area for which you need a subscription to access) a table of receiver statistics that includes the number (and yards) of defensive pass interference penalties they drew. And, really, I think that's what you're looking for with this question, Rusti. I mean, Mike probably drew a couple defensive holding penalties along the way, perhaps an unnecessary roughness call or two, but it's DPI that we really care about. Those are the big ones.
So by looking through those tables for the past seven years, I was able to compare Evans' number of DPI calls to all other receivers and tight ends. (FO does not have that column for running backs but I doubt any back would rank high on a list of DPI's drawn anyway.) And the information is overwhelming: Mike Evans is by far the NFL's best at drawing defensive pass interference penalties, but only over the past two seasons.
In 2019, Evans tied for first with Odell Beckham and Courtland Sutton by drawing eight DPIs. His 139 total yards on those penalties was second to the 150 drawn by Sutton.
In 2020, Evans ranked first in the NFL with nine DPI's drawn, one more than rookie Chase Claypool. His 171 yards on those penalties were second to the 185 for Claypool. T.Y. Hilton and DeVante Parker were next with seven each.
Beckham was limited to seven games last year and Sutton suffered a season-ending injury in Week One, so neither was able to duplicate their high DPI numbers from 2019. Hilton drew three more calls in 2019 and Parker drew four. And that's the thing that stands out the most here: Mike Evans was the only player to draw at least five defensive pass interference calls in both 2019 and 2020.
As such, he's well ahead of the pack over the last two seasons combined. Here are the only four players who hit double digits in that category in 2019-20:
Now, this part might come as a surprise, Rusti: This is a relatively new phenomenon for Evans. The only other year he was in the top 10 in this category was 2015, his second season, when he drew five DPIs for 113 yards to rank seventh and fourth in the NFL, respectively. In the other four seasons he didn't even crack the top 20 or get more than three DPIs in any given campaign.
Or maybe that's not a surprise; I know I remember Mike rather frustratingly getting hit with a lot of offensive pass interference calls on him. He's so big and physical that plays with a lot of contact are inevitable over the course of the season. Maybe he's just getting more respect now and seeing the flags come down on the side of the defender. Whatever the case, I hope the trend continues in 2021 and beyond.
What's the biggest takeaway you have had from training camp so far?
- @kimmicos (via Instagram)
I'd say number one is that everyone here is following Bruce Arians lead and repeatedly noting that there is no room for complacency for the defending champs, and that last year's Super Bowl win has nothing to do with this season. Arians has been preaching that mantra since about the time the Lombardi Trophy was being tossed across open water. The message has clearly gotten through. These Bucs are hearing over and over that they have to start again from the ground floor and work even harder than they did last year if they want to have any chance at repeating as champs. They are repeating that message in virtually every interview. Nobody is reading his own press clippings right now.
I'd say another one is how difficult it is to get acclimated to practicing in the summer heat and humidity in Tampa, even for those players who have been through it before. Only a couple of guys have had to miss time because they were overcome by the heat, and none of those were veterans, but Arians has bene harping on the quality of play dropping in the latter half of practices as guys get fatigued. But this is an annual process and they'll get through it and come out better on the other end.
As far as on-field performance, I'd say the biggest takeaway (literally) is that Vita Vea is way quicker than any 347-pound individual has any business being. The single most talked-about play of camp so far is one from Tuesday in which Vea pursued Ronald Jones well downfield and caught him near the sideline. Chase-down plays are sometimes exaggerated; no, Vea is not likely to beat Jones in a head-to-head 40-yard dash. Angles and other defenders are involved. Still, Vea's stunning quickness was very much on play and his teammates are still talking about it. Everyone is very excited to see what he can do in a full 17-game season in 2021.
Which rookie has impressed you the most?
- @jakaii_lowe2 (via Instagram)
I'll go with fourth-round wide receiver Jaelon Darden, but with the caveat that he plays a position most likely to stand out in the first week of training camp. If you read the intro above (and I don't blame you if you skipped straight to the questions), you probably could have guessed that would be my answer.
On Wednesday, tight end Rob Gronkowski, who often has to block edge rushers, said this about first-round pick Joe Tryon: "He looks like he can play. He has explosion coming off the line, no doubt about that. He's big and lengthy, which is what you want, but he's strong too. We'll see what he can do when the pads go on."
That last sentence is the key. Tryon has certainly made a good first impression but it's hard for him to make any head-turning plays until the pads go on. Even then, pass-rushers are told never to hit the quarterback, but you can still see big wins and losses when the OL and DL start doing one-on-one drills with those pads on. The team first puts on pads on Saturday. Check back after that.
For the same reason, it's hard to get much of a feel for third-round offensive lineman Robert Hainsey just yet. As I noted above, linebackers K.J. Britt and Grant Stuard have impressed with their playbook retention but I don't recall a whole lot of splash plays just yet. And cornerback Chris Wilcox is still on the PUP list.
But Darden has had an opportunity to shine, mostly because receivers don't have to have pads on to show how fast or quick or sure-handed they are. Darden had some drops early in the week, as noted above, but he clearly knows how to get open. Darden has got to work some with Tom Brady and the first team, a good sign, and he's gotten a lot of targets, which means he's finding ways to beat the coverage. That's what the Buccaneers thought they could do when they drafted him due to his shiftiness and impressive lateral movement.
Darden is also competing for the punt and kickoff return jobs, but there's not much you can see about that in practice other than whether or not they are sure-handed. That's something we'll get a much better feel for when the preseason games roll on. Still, overall it's been a good start for Darden and I'm excited about his future with the team.
Who do you think took the biggest leap in the offseason ?
- @karsten2578 (via Instagram)
I think it's still a bit too early in camp to give a really strong answer to that question, and even if a young player or two was standing out more than they did last year I would still want to see how it translates to the preseason games before making any lasting judgment. All of that said, one young player to keep an eye on is second-year defensive lineman Khalil Davis.
On Wednesday, Davis, a sixth-round pick out of Nebraska in 2020, described his first NFL season using a college term: a "redshirt year." Indeed, he only played in two games and logged a total of 37 defensive snaps as a rookie. The Buccaneers had plenty of interior D-Line depth in 2020 – even balancing out the loss of Vita Vea with a quick trade for Steve McLendon – and they really didn't need to throw the rookie into the fire at any point.
On one hand, all of that depth still exists after an impressive run through free agency by Jason Licht. The starting trio of Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and Will Gholston returns. Back to are McLendon, the steady veteran, and Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who became a starter for most of last season after Vea's Week Five injury. Back, too, are Patrick O'Connor and Jeremiah Ledbetter, as well as 2020 practice squad player Kobe Smith. First-year man Sam Renner and rookie Elijah Ponder were also added to the mix.
That's a lot of competitors for what will probably be three reserve spots, possibly four. But the Tampa Bay coaching staff thinks Davis has real potential, particularly in terms of his pass rush from the inside. Davis is working to get better against the run on the inside – something the Bucs obviously hold as a high priority for their defense – but he might already be intriguing enough to the coaches to get some more playing time on obvious passing downs.
Davis said he is very much looking forward to the preseason games as a chance to prove himself in live action, something he (and all rookies) were robbed of last year. He also thinks he's made good strides in his game overall during his first real NFL offseason. Like I said before, it's hard for any lineman to stand out until the pads go on, but there's good buzz around Davis and we'll see if it builds during the preseason.