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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Draft Musings: Quarterbacks, Return Men on Bucs' Radar?

The Buccaneers are still scouting this year's quarterback draft class despite locking in Baker Mayfield as their starter long-term, and they also could pay more attention to prospects with return skills


As General Manager Jason Licht pointed out on Thursday in his pre-draft press conference, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2024 roster still has plenty of needs. He even suggested that was a good thing, in that a team that was good enough to get to the Divisional Round of the playoffs in 2023 can be even better with a few key additions. Licht was specifically asked about such positions as cornerback, offensive line, edge rusher and receiver and agreed that a top prospect at any of those spots would be very tempting in the first round.

Of course, Licht also said that it was impossible to hit all of a team's needs in one draft. Fortunately, free agency comes before the draft and the Buccaneers' series of key re-signings (Mike Evans, Baker Mayfield, Lavonte David, et al.) plus outside additions have given Licht flexibility on draft weekend. The Buccaneers have a hole to fill at left guard and could target that position early in the draft, but they also have two new starting candidates in Ben Bredeson and Sua Opeta. Cornerback depth became an issue when Carlton Davis was traded to Detroit, but the signings of Bryce Hall and Tavierre Thomas gives the Bucs numbers and options at that position, too. Evans' new multi-year deal makes receiver a less pressing concern. And so on.

Now, the most significant fulcrum on which the Bucs' draft needs rested was the status of quarterback Baker Mayfield, whether he would return after his big rebound season in 2023 or find a new NFL home. When he did commit to a three-year deal to stay in Tampa, the Bucs were essentially bumped out of that group of teams that would clearly be hunting a quarterback early in the draft.

But did the Bucs just cover up the quarterback column on their draft board and bump that discussion to another year? That's one of our pre-draft musings following Licht's meeting with the media.

How closely are the Buccaneers looking at this year's quarterback class, and could they be a surprise team to take a passer in the 2024 draft?

The Bucs fell in love with Mayfield in 2023 and he's the clear starter in 2024 and hopefully for at least three more years. Mayfield set career highs in his first season in Tampa with 4,044 passing yards and 28 touchdown tosses, he ranked eighth in the league in EPA per pass play and he led the Bucs back to the playoffs in the post-Tom Brady era. Any quarterback the Bucs would add would not be immediately competing for a starting job.

The Buccaneers also already have a quarterback they took as a developmental project in the second round in 2021 in Kyle Trask. However, Trask is entering the fourth and final season of his rookie contract and has not gotten much of an opportunity to play in the regular season. Tampa Bay also re-signed third quarterback John Wolford, who is valued not only for his NFL starting experience but also his contributions as something of an extra coach in the meeting room. That's the trio the Bucs ran with last year and they would be perfectly satisfied to do it again in 2024.

However, the Bucs' scouts aren't getting a year off from studying passers.

"We look at all of the quarterbacks," said Licht. "We spend a lot of time looking at the quarterbacks. I would never say that we wouldn't take a quarterback because you could take one and be glad that you did at some point. Now, we like our room right now, but we will take a look at all of them, or we already have. It's a little bit top heavy this year, but there is always that instance if we like somebody, and like I said, if we think he's better than the other positions on the board that we would consider."

Licht referred to this year's group of QB prospects as "a really good class," but also acknowledged that opinions can change over time.

"I really like them," said Licht of a group headlined by USC's Caleb Williams, North Carolina's Drake Maye, LSU's Jayden Daniels and Michigan's J.J. McCarthy, all of whom could be top-10 picks. "But then you go back 10 years, and I said the same thing about another class and only one of them worked out. What makes it kind of fun, and at the same time is challenging, is that there are so many factors that go into it – the city that they go to, the coaching staff, the players around them, just what is going on with that player's life at the time. Do they play right away, or do they sit?

"There are so many factors that go into whether a quarterback succeeds. I mean, we saw Baker have a great year early in his career and then come here and revive himself. It's interesting. If anybody can ever nail it and figured it out, then they're going to be a wealthy person."

Will the new kickoff rules increase the possibility of the Bucs' drafting players with return skills?

The NFL's dramatic reworking of the kickoff process has created an air of mystery about what the results on the field will look like, but one thing is certain: There will be more kickoff returns in 2024 than in 2023, when the league registered all-time lows in both returns and touchdowns on that play. That alone would suggest teams will put more of a premium on finding players with return capabilities, though strategies are still being formulated as to what type of returner will be best suited to the play's new format.

"Yeah, for sure," said Licht when asked if the new kickoff rules would increase the importance of returners. "It's going to become kind of more of an offensive play, almost, with the way that teams are going to scheme it. None of us really know exactly how it's going to look, because we haven't done it yet, but we have a thought of what it's going to be like. We've had a lot of discussions about it. It's going to put a premium on that type of returner, whether it's a punt returner or a kick returner. Like I said, it's going to be kind of an offensive play."

Ideally, the Buccaneers will be able to land some players in the draft who can contribute at another position while also presenting an option in the return game. For instance, Texas wide receiver Xavier Worthy, who led the FBS in punt return yards in 2023, probably raised his draft stock when he broke the Combine record with a 4.21-second 40-yard dash. That kind of speed is an awful nice trait to have when one break in a coverage line could lead to 70 yards of open grass in front of a return man.

Clemson running back Will Shipley is regarded as a potential Day Three pick but might move up into Day Two if teams like his return ability. He averaged 26.6 yards on 34 kickoff returns in 2023. Texas A&M wide receiver Ainias Smith might be a late-round pick after he was pressed into a hybrid receiver/running back role last year, in part because he has shown the ability to return both punts and kickoffs.

Are there some positions, such as off-ball linebacker, at which the Buccaneers will be thinking more about the future than filling current needs?

The Buccaneers re-signed franchise cornerstone Lavonte David in March and anticipate him playing at the same impressive level he did in 2023 at the age of 33, hopefully on his way to being a "Buc for life." However, David's current deal, like his last one, covers only the upcoming season, so it's reasonable to start planning for a (hopefully somewhat distant) future in which David will have hung up the cleats.

There's also potential current need at the position, given that Devin White signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency. The Bucs have already done some planning at linebacker in recent years with a pair of fifth-round picks, first Auburn's K.J. Britt in 2021 and then Pitt's SirVocea Dennis last year. Those two will be the prime competitors to take over White's spot, but even more talent at the position would be welcome if the draft falls that way.

"There are probably a few positions like that, but you can't fill them all," said Licht. "You can't fill all the needs with the draft. We only have so many picks. You have post-draft, you have trades… we will be adding players in August and September, and throughout the year. Last year, we took 'Voss' and we really like 'Voss.' We think 'Voss' has a really bright future, so we took some steps to hopefully take care of that [need] in the future, but I'm hoping Lavonte plays another seven years, to be honest with you."

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