Several months ago, with the 2017 NFL Draft still far off in the distance, Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht left a reminder for himself on the grease board in his office: Add Team Speed.
That draft is now in the rearview mirror, and while speed was a primary goal and a key result of the Buccaneers' selection, patience proved importance, too. Picking at #19 in the opening round, Licht's team took advantage of the surprising availability of Alabama's O.J. Howard, one of the most coveted tight end prospects in recent years. Tampa Bay also held its ground at picks #50 and #84 in the second and third rounds, simply taking advantage of this year's impressive depth at two areas of need. Round Two brought Texas A&M safety Justin Evans, who was then joined in Round Three by Penn State wide receiver Chris Godwin. One thing the 6-6, 250-pound Howard, the 6-1, 200-pound Evans and the 6-1, 205-pound Godwin have in common – lots and lots of speed.
"You can't have enough speed," said Licht. "During this year – I know I've mentioned this before – speed was one thing that we felt like we needed to add … to this team. [Head Coach] Dirk [Koetter] and I talked about it numerous times. [We] just kind of left [the note] up there after a meeting and we did just that with the tight end, with the safety and Chris. We're excited about that – not that we're just looking for that attribute in a player whatsoever. They have to be good players as well, but we felt like we added to our team's speed."
In Howard and Godwin, the Buccaneers also added to what is becoming an impressive array of targets for third-year quarterback Jameis Winston, already the first player in NFL history to start his career with consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons. Howard's size-speed combination makes him a threat to exploit the seams and when he combines with Cameron Brate (eight touchdowns in 2016, tied for NFL lead among tight ends) the Buccaneers' two-TE packages will be loaded with danger for opposing defenses.
Take a look at all of the Buccaneers 2017 draft picks.
Godwin's role is not as easily defined in late April, but he brings speed, toughness and downfield agility to a receiving corps that already includes Pro Bowler Mike Evans, big-play specialist DeSean Jackson and productive slot receiver Adam Humphries. On paper, at least, the Buccaneers look like they have the necessary parts to put together the most explosive passing attack in franchise history.
Meanwhile, Evans joins a safety group that already has three proven NFL starters but was still in need of long-term help. The Buccaneers did the same thing to their linebacker room when they finally did start maneuvering in the draft, as a last-minute trade to secure the final pick of Day Two produced LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith. Beckwith gives that group an infusion of size and talent, though a knee injury suffered late last year makes it difficult to predict when he will first have an impact. Licht doesn't think the team will have to wait for long.
"We've done thorough work on him," said Licht of the second LSU linebacker he has drafted, after 2015 fourth-rounder Kwon Alexander, a steal of a pick. "We felt good enough with him to take him where we did. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We're not necessarily taking guys to come in and play and contribute, and it be an impact their first year. But, it's reasonable to think that he'll be back soon enough. But we're going to be cautious and conservative with him, make sure that we don't put him out there too early."
The Buccaneers traded up from the middle of the fourth round to get the Beckwith pick, giving up their sixth-rounder to the New York Jets in the process. That left the team with only two more selections to make on Day Three, but Licht still thinks the team improved its roster with the fifth-round choice of Boise State running back Brett McNichols and the seventh-round pick of USC defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu. McNichols fits into the speed profile and was extremely prolific for the Broncos, scoring 43 rushing touchdowns the last two years. Tu'ikolovatu meets the team's desire for more functional size in the middle of their defensive front, where they were often too susceptible to the run last year.
McNichols and Tu'ikolovatu were also two more players that the Buccaneers had rated as high-character guys. That proved to be a uniting factor in much of this year's draft. The weekend started with a surprise windfall with Howard and proved satisfying throughout.
"Overall, starting with O.J., that was great," said Licht. "We're still coming off that high. Hopefully we don't come off that for another decade. We were really happy with all the picks that we got. I don't think you'll ever find a general manager say, 'You know, we had a crappy draft.' But we were really happy with the picks that we got. We weren't necessarily going after guys that we thought would be great locker room guys, but we want that and we want it also with a good player, and we felt like we got that.
Here's a rundown of the Buccaneers' 2017 Draft Class:
Despite Brate's breakout performance in 2016, tight end was definitely a position of need for the Buccaneers. Veteran Brandon Myers hit free agency and has not been re-signed. Beyond Brate, the only other tight end with real NFL experience on the roster is Luke Stocker, who is primarily valued for his blocking skills. The Buccaneers did not have a true "Y" tight end who can play all three downs, help in the run game with his blocking and put up big receiving numbers. In truth, many teams are lacking in that player; they're hard to find, which is why Howard was widely expected to be a top-10 draft pick.
"Yeah, I just think this guy's a throwback to what tight ends – [there] used to be a lot more of them around the league and there's just not as many anymore," said Koetter. "If you have a guy like O.J., who we feel like what he can do for us, it just puts a lot of stress on the defense. Then you can dictate what you're doing and they have to figure out how they're going to cover it. Hopefully once things get humming, it's going to open up every area of the offense. It's going to help your run game, help all of your outside receivers, help your slot, help everything."
Specifically, the Bucs expect Howard's arrival to help Brate rather than cap his impressive development. The presence of a dangerous "Y" tight end makes it much harder for defenses to predict whether the next play will be a run or a pass, particularly in a "12" package that has two tight ends can work the seams. The Bucs were easier to read with the combination of Brate and Stocker.
"We love Cameron," said Licht. "Cameron is a heck of a player. In our offense and a lot of offenses in today's day and age, you have two tight ends: one 'Y,' one 'F.' If you can establish that, then it really – you can dictate what you're doing with the run and passing game."
Howard and Brate can thrive together but the Bucs probably won't be able to get four safeties on the field at once. That means a competition right off the bat for Evans, who joins a group that includes Chris Conte, Keith Tandy and J.J. Wilcox. Conte was re-signed when he hit free agency in March, Tandy was the Bucs' most productive defender during the last five weeks of 2016, and Wilcox was a player targeted early in free agency. Obviously, there are things the team likes about all three of those players.
Still, Evans brings a lot of promise to the position as a potential all-around safety who can patrol centerfield and still lay big hits closer to the line of scrimmage. The former Aggie professed that he would arrive with a humble attitude but still considers himself a starter until proven otherwise.
"He's a big hitter," said Licht of Evans, just the second safety the Bucs have drafted among the top 50 picks in the last 22 years. "He's a tough guy, he's smart. We spent a lot of time with him during this process, had him in for a visit, workouts, combine, all that stuff. [he] just kept growing on us more and more. He's not afraid to stick his head in there, that's for sure. He's rangy, he makes a lot of plays on the ball, he plays with a lot of anticipation. He's got good speed, ball skills, so he's going to be in the mix too, to compete for a starting role."
Godwin, too, will find himself in a competition for playing time and targets, one that can only benefit the Buccaneers. A very productive receiver at Penn State, he played primarily on the outside as an "X" but seems to have the build and skills to potentially work the middle of the field out of the slot.
"We felt like he was a great addition to our depth," said Licht. "He's got a big upside, he's a tough guy as well. He's got good hands, tore it up in that bowl game versus USC. But he also played well throughout the year, nice two-year career as a starter there. He's got an upside, he's going to compete for a role."
The Godwin pick seemed to end the second night of the draft for the Buccaneers, but as the league worked through a total of 11 compensatory picks at the end of the third round, one name began to stick out on the draft board at One Buc Place. Fortunately for Licht and his crew, the league changed a rule in 2017 to allow compensatory picks to be traded. The Bucs found a partner in the Jets, who were supposed to make the last pick of the night, and grabbed the 6-3, 247-pound Beckwith. He immediately became the biggest linebacker on Tampa Bay's roster by a good margin.
When he's ready to return to the field, Beckwith will likely compete for the starting strongside linebacker (SAM) spot vacated by free agent Daryl Smith. He also provides insurance in the middle, where Alexander roams.
"Yeah, he was sitting up there on our board high enough to where we wanted to go up there and get him," said Licht, who has shown repeatedly over the last four years that he'll make such a trade in order to avoid missing a targeted player. "He's a physical guy, he's a big guy. We wanted to add some size and physicality at that position. We're happy with the guys that we have, obviously Kwon and Lavonte [David] are good players. We're also happy with Devante Bond as well and [Adarius] Glanton. We've got some guys that we like, but any time you can add a guy that we feel at some point is going to compete for a starting job, in our case SAM, with Devante, you want to go up and get him. He's also got the ability to play MIKE. You're always looking for versatility and injuries happen, so he was a guy that we obviously wanted to go up and get."
The Bucs dipped into a heavy run on tailbacks in the fourth and fifth round, getting a player in McNichols who ran for 3,046 yards and 43 touchdowns over the past two seasons. The Boise State product has a very well-rounded game that could buy him playing time early, even in what is now a crowded backfield with Doug Martin, Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims and Peyton Barber.
"Jeremy's a three-down guy, he can do a little bit everything," said Koetter. "Really good production, scored a lot of touchdowns. He started off his career as a wide receiver. They moved him around a lot. Really good pass-blocker. Every running back in college, that's their Achilles heel. Good pass-blocker, good chipper, he can catch – just a solid three-down player."
Tu'ikolovatu was a rotational lineman at Utah but after graduating he transferred to USC as a post-graduate player. He blossomed with the Trojans and had a great outing in the Rose Bowl win over Penn State, taking home Defensive MVP honors. He stood out again at the Senior Bowl in January, both on the scales (reportedly 350 pounds) and on the practice field.
With all of the speed the Bucs added on offense and in their secondary on draft weekend, Tu'ikolovatu was the second front-seven defender the team drafted who adds a great deal of size to his positional group.
"With Kendell and with Stevie, we got big, physical guys," said Licht. "Nobody's guaranteed a spot right now on this roster, but right now we like the competition they're going to bring and those assets they're going to bring."
The Buccaneers were originally slated to pick 237th in the final round but Licht was compelled to trade with Miami in order to move up 14 spots and land the big USC defender. The Buccaneers gave up next year's seventh-rounder to swing the deal. It was worth it to Licht to make sure he came away with a player he thought could be an important part of what the defense is trying to do in 2017.
"You get the itch," said Licht. "You look at players that you are hoping come to you. Jeremy came to us and Stevie we moved up a few spots in the seventh. You get anxious, you get excited. I get just as excited with a guy like Jeremy and Stevie like I do with O.J. It's the same feeling in the moment. You're competitive and you want to get the best value you can over your colleagues."