The Tampa Bay Buccaneers own the 19th-overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, and as the big event draws near analysts are coming to at least a mild consensus on what the team may do with its top draft asset. While there's the occasional Hendon Hooker or Bijan Robinson pick out of left field, most mock drafts are pairing the Buccaneers with an offensive lineman, an edge rusher or a cornerback.
If Tampa Bay does in fact target an offensive lineman, particularly a tackle, in the first round, they're likely to have a lot of competition for the top prospects. It's a relatively strong O-Line class but there are plenty of teams that appear to have a pressing need at the position. Tackles such as Ohio State's Paris Johnson, Northwestern's Peter Skoronski, Georgia's Broderick Jones, Tennessee's Darnell Wright and Oklahoma's Anton Harrison – and perhaps even Syracuse's Matthew Bergeron and Johnson's Buckeye teammate Dawand Jones – could all hear the names called in Round One.
At some point in the first round, if a run on blockers predictably develops, a team in that market may feel the need to trade up. While only General Manager Jason Licht and his player personnel crew know what the Bucs' draft strategies really are, it's possible the Bucs could be one of those teams. Fortunately, Licht and company have experience in this very situation.
In the leadup to the 2020 draft three years ago, four offensive tackles emerged as the blue-chip prospects at the top of the class: in the order they would eventually be drafted, Georgia's Andrew Thomas, Alabama's Jedrick Wills, Louisville's Mekhi Becton and Iowa's Tristan Wirfs. With the departure of long-time right tackle Demar Dotson and no obvious replacements on the depth chart, the Buccaneers were thought to be focusing on that position in the first round. In this instance, the analysts had it right. However, these were four very coveted players and the Bucs had no guarantee one of them would make it to their spot at pick number 14. And, in fact, none of them did.
The Giants took Thomas with the fourth pick but it wasn't until Cleveland in the 10th spot that Wills became the second one of the board. Becton went to the Jets with the very next selection, leaving only Wirfs on the board and two more times scheduled to pick before the Buccaneers. Licht and his team – including Vice President of Player Personnel John Spytek, Director of Player Personnel Mike Biehl, Director of Player Personnel Rob McCartney and Senior Director of Football Research Jackie Davidson – had been preparing for that scenario since well before the Browns and Jets' selections.
"Well, you never know exactly when it's going to be, but that year tackle happened to be a very good, very deep and one of the top positions in the draft that we felt, and it was a need for us, too," said Licht. "We knew there would be a run at some point, so we had to go through every slot in front of us from…we started at, like, slot five all the way down to our pick, [which] eventually was 13, and what we would give up and what player would it be.
"How many players would be remaining that we would want to move up to that? If there's only one remaining, then obviously you want to give up more. If there were four remaining, you would give up less or maybe not move up. There was just a lot of strategy involved that Mike and John and Jackie and Rob and the scouts put in. It was a time-consuming process."
Eventually, the Bucs made the relatively uncommon move of trading up just one spot, sending their number-14 pick and a fourth-round selection to the San Francisco 49ers for number 13 and a seventh-rounder. The move was designed not to beat the 49ers to Wirf but to keep them from trading that pick to a different team that wanted the Iowa star. Several other teams refused to bite before the Bucs got San Francisco to agree to the deal.
"Well, we started trying to move up before that and we were striking out," recalled Licht. "So was it stressful? Yeah, it was stressful. We got some wind that another team was trying to get into San Fran's spot and their need was tackle as well. One of their needs that we projected, their top need, was tackle. So we went, and we had to do it. I know it looked a little [strange]. 'Why are you moving up just one spot and giving up a fourth?' But we just wanted to make sure we got our guy. It worked out, but there was a good hour, hour and a half or so, of a lot of phone calls and a lot of cursing and a lot of, 'What do you mean you're not going to take our trade?' It was proof that it takes two teams to want to do a trade."
Licht said on Thursday that Wirfs was the Bucs' top-rated tackle prospect, but then also laughed a moment later, so it's not likely we'll ever know for sure how that draft board was arranged. It's hard to dispute, however, that Wirfs has worked out the best of those four so far. He is the only one of the four to be named an Associated Press first-team All-Pro or make a Pro Bowl, and his dominant rookie season helped the Buccaneers win Super Bowl LV.
The Buccaneers, in fact, have experienced a lot of success drafting offensive linemen during the first two days of the draft during Licht's now decade-long tenure as general manager. The most recent picks in that category are 2021 third-rounder Robert Hainsey and 2022 second-rounder Luke Goedeke, and it's fair to say the final evaluation isn't in on them yet, though they both figure prominently in the team's 2023 plans up front. Meanwhile, 2015 second-rounders Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet and 2018 third-rounder Alex Cappa all joined Wirfs in developing quickly into above-average starters or better.
"There's no secret to it," said Licht of the Bucs' success in drafting linemen, though he once again credited his staff. "It seems like the offensive linemen that you mentioned, like Tristan and Ali [Marpet] and [Ryan] Jensen – that's free agency – the guys we just had fun watching while we're evaluating, have fun watching them, those are the guys that we've hit on. It's not that you don't have fun watching some others, but sometimes they can kind of put you to sleep. Okay, he's doing his job. But the one that is getting that little extra in at the end – legal, but just that little extra in at the end – or having a lot of fun playing, because you can tell, those are the ones that you usually hit on."
Three years ago, the Buccaneers were moving on from Dotson; now they're looking to replace Smith, who missed just six of a possible 137 starts, postseason included, over the past eight seasons at left tackle, and rarely even missed a snap. Since Wirfs is likely capable of playing left tackle at the same level he has played right tackle, the Buccaneers do have some flexibility regarding the prospects they will consider. Even so, it's quite possible none of them will get to pick number 19. If a trade is necessary and the Bucs are dead set on a top tackle prospect, they certainly know how to get one done.