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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Combine Notes: Bucs Counting on Second-Year Leap from 2022 Draft Class

General Manager Jason Licht and Head Coach Todd Bowles were pleased with much of what their 2022 draftees did as rookies but are expecting significantly more from that group in 2023


Every general manager and head coach who attends the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis spends 15 minutes at the podium during a media session that essentially lasts all of Tuesday. The questions can be about any topic – salary cap issues, pending free agents, coaching changes, etc. – but the overall point of the Combine is draft preparation, so that is an obvious place to start. This particular Tuesday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers team architect General Manager Jason Licht voiced something almost every GM says at some point in his tenure: draft and development is the key to successful roster construction.

"Well yeah, you want to draft really well, you want to develop, and you want to sign your players back that have developed well," said Licht. "In a perfect world, you can do that, but it doesn't always work out that way. You're not going to be able to sign everybody back. But yes, you do want to draft and develop your own. I think that is the key. Then add pieces here and there in free agency – but in free agency, the big, mega deals don't always work out. You want to be responsible."

This thought is topical at the moment mostly because a handful of players the Buccaneers drafted in 2019 and were able to develop quite well – Jamel Dean, Mike Edwards, Scotty Miller, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Anthony Nelson – may soon hit free agency. Draft, develop and keep – the Buccaneers now at Stage Three with these five players, and there's no guarantee they'll be able to re-sign them all, particularly with a tight cap situation.

But this is an ongoing process, year after year, and for it to work to any notable level of success you have to get the first two stages right. Every team will have hits and misses among their draft picks, but if you hit more often than you miss, you have a chance to build a sustained period of competitiveness. It's safe to say that 2019 class – which also includes Devin White, who has a fifth-year on his deal as a first-round draft pick and thus won't hit free agency until 2024 – was a big hit, top to bottom.

So this begs the question, will the Buccaneers be feeling the same way at this time three years from now? One season is definitely insufficient to declare a draft pick a hit or a miss, but the Buccaneers feel good about the early returns of their 2022 draft class. After trading down, the team ended up with no first-round picks, so every player from that class who makes it through his full rookie deal will be approaching unrestricted free agency in early 2026. So far, the Bucs have held on to seven of the eight players they drafted last April: defensive lineman Logan Hall, offensive lineman Luke Goedeke, running back Rachaad White, tight ends Cade Otton and Ko Kieft, punter Jake Camarda and cornerback Zyon McCollum.

"Rachaad is a good, young back that is just scratching the surface of what he can do," said Licht. "Cade and Ko – Ko, for minimal playing time compared to some of the others, made a big impact in his role," said Licht. "Then Jake Camarda, [I'm] extremely happy with him on our roster. I think the arrow is definitely going up. I think Luke and Logan are going to take big steps this year."

Added Head Coach Todd Bowles, who also had his 15 minutes at the podium on Tuesday: "For a rookie [Otton] played very well, you didn't know he was a rookie – he plays very smart, he plays very tough, he's a heady ball player. He's only going to get stronger and better and I'm excited to see him."

The Bucs got a bit of an unusual return from their latest crop of rookies in that some of the later-round picks ended up with more obvious production than the two second-rounders, Goedeke and Hall. White eventually emerged as the starter in the backfield, Otton took over as the number-one tight end relatively early, Camarda performed like a top-10 punter in the league and both McCollum and Kieft were big-time contributors on special teams.

Goedeke, meanwhile, started the first seven games at left guard before sustaining a foot injury and did not get the job back from Nick Leverett upon his return. Hall played in all 17 games but didn't start and drew about 36% of the defensive snaps, finishing with 2.5 sacks.

If those outcomes were maybe a bit less than what the Bucs had hoped for at the beginning of the season, it does leave a lot of room for both players to contribute significantly more in 2023 if they can make that fabled second-year leap.

"Well, I think Luke last year – as a rookie coming in from playing right tackle at Central Michigan to left guard, which is a move to the other side which is never easy – started the season off well, but then went through a gauntlet of some of the top premier three-techniques in the NFL," said Licht. "He was maybe a bit unfairly evaluated for a rookie. I think he is going to take a big step up.

"[Hall] needs to add some good weight but he has to get some strength. I think he's so athletic and he's doing all the right things. I definitely think we're going to see progress this year."

Bowles echoed Licht's thoughts on Hall, the 33rd-overall pick in last year's draft and potentially a much more pivotal part of the plans up front given the potential free agent status of Will Gholston, Akiem Hicks, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Patrick O'Connor and Deadrin Senat.

"[I] expect him to be more of a steady presence on the defensive line," said Bowles. "I thought figuring out the run game defensively and the blocking schemes slowed him down a little bit. I thought he started showing up at the end of the year, probably not in the stat column, but he showed up in the defensive meeting rooms and he started making a positive effect on us. So, I just look for him to trend upward."

McCollum, too, may have to take on a much bigger role on defense in his second year depending upon what happens with pending free agents Dean and Murphy-Bunting. McCollum filled in for injured starters on various occasions as a rookie but was much more active on special teams, which is what the team expected. His rare size-speed combination made for an excellent gunner on punt coverage.

"First of all, Zyon did an incredible job on special teams for us," said Licht. "He's learning the position in the NFL, he's where I thought he would be coming out of his rookie year. We knew it would take some time; it doesn't happen all the time where you see a late-round pick become a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Kudos to teams that did get that, but I do think he's got the potential to be a starting corner in the league."

During the Combine and the week that follows, Licht, Bowles and the rest of the Bucs' brain trust will be contemplating two major issues: Who they will target in the draft, and which of their current free agents they can retain. That's the beginning and end of that aforementioned three-step process. It's the "draft" part and the "keep" part. Soon, though, they will be focusing on the middle stage, the "develop" part, and how well they are able to do that with their draft class from last year may be critical to the team's fortunes next fall.

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