The 2018 NFL Draft begins on the evening of Thursday, April 26, with the execution of the first round. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are slated to pick seventh overall, which means they can confidently narrow down their first-round wish list to a maximum of seven players. Given the anticipated early run on quarterbacks, they can realistically focus on three or four top candidates.
After that, obviously, things rapidly become less certain. The Buccaneers will definitely have a plan – and multiple contingency plans – for the 38th pick early in the second round on Friday night, but it's impossible to predict exactly which 30 players will come off the board after their first choice. Then, after their second-round decision (barring a trade of some sort) the Bucs will spend the rest of that evening observing and updating their draft boards. Tampa Bay has no third-round pick after shipping their own to the Giants in March in exchange for edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul, and the final four rounds take place on Saturday.
What is a little different about this year's draft for the Buccaneers is that, by Saturday morning, they will suddenly have even more clarity than they took into the first round on Thursday night. Because Tampa Bay owns the second pick in the fourth round – another result of that Pierre-Paul trade – General Manager Jason Licht and the rest of the team's brain trust can really hone in on their preferred selection to start Day Three. Licht and company can spend all night Friday and all morning Saturday pinpointing one player, with only the slightest worry that he will go to the Packers with the first pick of the day.
"It's kind of a unique situation where we have that second pick on the last day, so when we go into the third day of the draft, if there's no more trades, Jason's going to be able to narrow it down to two guys and know he's going to get one of them," noted Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter.
This might not seem like a particularly unusual situation, but it really has not been a common experience for the Buccaneers. It's definitely the first time it has happened under Licht's watch, which began in 2014. The Bucs would have had the fourth pick on Day Three that year but the team's previous management had shipped it out the year before in the blockbuster Darrelle Revis trade. They also would have had the second selection of the fourth round in 2015 but Licht had moved it the previous August to acquire Logan Mankins from the Patriots. It was a good deal; Mankins made the Pro Bowl as a Buccaneer before retiring.
Tampa Bay did make the third selection in the fourth round in 2013, but only after an on-the-clock trade with the Raiders bumped them up a dozen spots. The Buccaneers moved aggressively that year to get defensive tackle Akeem Spence, but that's not the same as heading into Day Three with the certainty of a very early pick.
The last time Tampa Bay had a top three pick in the fourth round heading into the day and kept it was 2009, when they pounced on Syracuse wide receiver Mike Williams. That was probably the top choice on their board, but it's worth noting that another wideout, Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard, was the first pick of that day. The Buccaneers ended up with the far better performer out of those two, but they didn't really control their own destiny in terms of adding a receiver in Round Four.
The last time the Buccaneers went into the final day of the draft with either the first or second pick already in hand was 1996, 22 years ago. The previous August, they had sent defensive tackle Marc Spindler and wide receiver Charles Wilson to the Jets for their '96 fourth-round pick, another deal that worked out well for Tampa Bay. Spindler spent two seasons in New York but produced just half a sack and Wilson would be out of the league a year later. Neither helped the Jets avoid a 3-13 campaign and the top spot in the 1996 draft. As such, New York's fourth-rounder was also the first pick in that frame, and it belonged to the Buccaneers, who used it on offensive tackle Jason Odom. Odom quickly developed into a solid starter at right tackle, though his career was cut short by a back ailment.
The draft was only a two-day affair in 1996, but it was split roughly in half, with Rounds 4-7 on the second day. The last time the Buccaneers had exactly the second pick in the fourth round was in 1992, but that was the NFL's last 12-round draft and the first day included Rounds 1-6. In essence, this year marks the first time the Buccaneers have been in exactly this situation, heading into the final day of the draft as the second team scheduled to be on the clock.
It's an enviable position for Licht to be in. With only two players added on the first two days of the draft (barring trades), the team will likely have a very specific position they still need to target at the beginning of Day Three. Most mock drafts of recent vintage have the Buccaneers selecting either a cornerback or safety in the first round, and the mocks that try to predict Round Two often pair the Bucs with a running back. Even if you agree that those are three top needs for the team, only two of them can be addressed before Day Three. It's also possible the team will prioritize looking for help on either the offensive or defensive line.
No matter the target, the Bucs can feel almost certain they'll get their man early on that Saturday. And Licht has shown considerable fourth-round drafting acumen. Although he's only made two such selections as the Buccaneers' general manager, thanks to a variety of trades, he's found two players who have developed into starters in linebacker Kwon Alexander and cornerback Ryan Smith. Alexander made his first Pro Bowl appearance this past season.
"I think he's got a really good system of how he does it and how he ranks the players," said Koetter of Licht's draft preparation. "He can move quickly, and then Jason's really good at targeting certain guys that he wants to get and figuring out a way to get them."
Alternately, Licht could use the hours between the final pick on Friday night and the beginning of Round Four on Saturday to work the trade lines. The top of the fourth round has been an incredibly fertile ground for draft trades through the years, perhaps because teams do have that extra time to study their boards and pinpoint players they want badly enough to trade up.
For instance, seven of the top 10 picks in Round Four traded hands last year, including the second pick in the frame. The second pick of the fourth round has been traded six of the last 10 years, and in each of the four years it was not moved, the first pick of that round was traded. At least four of the first picks of the day were traded in each of those 10 years. Some of those were two-day drafts and some were three-day proceedings, but they all started with Round Four on the final day.
"If something presents itself on draft day or before, you have to entertain it," said Licht. "There's always moving back in other rounds, too. Everybody wants to take about the first-round pick but you can make some hay in the other rounds, too, moving up and back."
The NFL Draft receives months' worth of wall-to-wall coverage, and more and more every year. The vast majority of that analysis focuses on the first round, and indeed that is where teams are most likely to find their next star players. However, top performers come from every round, and internally, teams spend as much or more time on the later rounds as they do on their Thursday night decision. In this particular year, the Buccaneers will have an excellent opportunity to put some extra thought – and gain some extra clarity – on what could be a very important fourth-round pick.