NFL DRAFT Links
In NFL Draft parlance, the optimal pick occurs when greatest team need meets maximum player talent. And in the NFL in general, there is no greater need than franchise quarterback.
Not among the select few teams blessed with such an asset – and in fact, a franchise that has essentially never had that asset – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in position in 2015 to make that optimal pick. Believing that Jameis Winston had the talent, drive and leadership skills to develop into that elusive franchise quarterback, the Buccaneers made the Florida State star the very first player off the board on Thursday night.
Time will tell if the Buccaneers did indeed make the optimal pick for their franchise at #1, a draft position they hadn't found themselves in for nearly three decades. There are no guarantees at any spot in the draft, but the team is obviously confident that Winston will deliver on his vast potential.
"We're so excited to get a guy like Jameis to be our future – start a new era," said General Manager Jason Licht. "Any time you get an opportunity to get a franchise quarterback – that we believe and are very confident is a franchise quarterback – it excites you. I'm beyond excited, as [is] the entire [draft] room up there. He's a champion, he's a leader, he's a winner, he's got tremendous football character and tremendous intelligence and work ethic. His work ethic was one thing that really, really put him over the top for us."
Time will also be the judge of the rest of the Buccaneers' 2015 draft efforts, but one thing is for certain: The team identified one other area of great need and hit it hard during the all-important second day of the draft. With a minor trade to turn the first pick of the third round into a second choice in Round Two, Tampa Bay spent both selections in that stanza to shore up its offensive line. Penn State's Donovan Smith, who is ticketed for left tackle and Winston's blind side, came off the board at #34. Ali Marpet of Hobart and William Smith Colleges will try to go from the curiosity of the highest-drafted Division III player in 25 years to a starting guard spot on the same line as Smith.
Locked in to Winston at #1, the Buccaneers had anticipated that the very deep class of offensive blockers in this year's talent pool would serve them well on Day Two, and indeed that bit of fortune came to pass. Now the quarterback and his young protectors can grow together as the Bucs try to put together a dynamic offense.
"We went into the draft knowing that we had to shore up the offensive line," said Licht. "We needed to bring in some guys and we didn't want to reach for these guys. They were on our board exactly where we took them. We took two guys in the second round. We moved up to get one. I think it was pretty important. When you're bringing guys in, young guys, especially when you're bringing a quarterback in and you're bringing the O-line in with him, these guys grow together and gel together. Usually that works out better and you can build something special. These guys coming up together, it's like a fraternity."
Day Three of the draft began with a familiar bit of draft-pick maneuvering to set up what has actually become an unfamiliarsort of selection for the Buccaneers, at least in the last two years. After spending the first nine draft picks of the Lovie Smith/Jason Licht era on offensive players, including all six in 2014, the team traded up five spots in Round Four to nab LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander. That started a run on defensive players that lasted all of one round, as the team then spent its final three picks on skill-position players to help Winston. The results are the following 2015 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Draft Class:
That he was the first defensive player in 10 draft picks for Smith and Licht is nothing more than a bit of trivia for Alexander; of more importance is that he may have landed in the perfect spot to develop his skills. The Tampa Two defense that allowed fast and "undersized" linebackers like Derrick Brooks to excel could draw out the best in Alexander, who fits that description. The LSU product is quick and rangy can could even add a pass-rush element to the Bucs' linebacking corps. He certainly should help immediately on special teams.
"[We] wanted to ensure we got a guy that a lot of us, including myself, had ranked as one of the top outside [linebackers] in the draft," said Licht, referencing the trade that moved the team up five spots in the fourth round at the cost of a seventh-round selection. "We were surprised and all of us [were] obviously excited that he was there for us. We moved up – we thought we had to a little bit, just to ensure to get him. Kwon Alexander: explosive, fast player that's going to get a shot at starting outside for us."
Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell adds depth and big-play ability to a receiving corps that could be among the most dangerous in the NFL. Tampa Bay was one of only four teams in the NFL that had two wide receivers crack 1,000 yards last season, as breakout rookie Mike Evans proved to be a the perfect pairing with fellow 6-foot-5 pass-catcher Vincent Jackson. If 2014 rookies Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Charles Sims provide the expected receiving production from the tight end and running back spots, respectively, and Bell helps out of the slot or as an outside deep threat, Winston could end up with an embarrassment of targets.
"He is a fast player, ran a 4.34 [40-yard dash] for us," said Licht. "He's 6-foot-plus, almost 200 pounds, one of the best receivers to ever come out of there, in a long time [and] one of the most productive. He's also a kick returner. He's a team leader, captain, he's all of the above. Really excited to get him and have him compete for a role for heavy rotation or what have you – eventual starter, hopefully."
Just 22 picks after the Bell selection, the Bucs dipped right back into the receiver well with Utah's Kaelin Clay. Given Clay's limited big-college experience – he played just one year at Utah after transferring from Mt. San Antonio Junior College – and his four kick-return touchdowns last fall, the Bucs may find an important job for him on special teams while he has the chance to develop as a wideout.
"We need a returner, as everybody knows on this team," said Licht. "With Kaelin Clay, he was a guy that we targeted early. We were hoping to get him right about where we did, so it worked out for us. Another fast, explosive guy, [he's] got a great background in terms of his speed and his production. He was, I think, third place in California coming out of high school in the 100-meter [dash]. Out there, they have fast guys, so that's pretty fast. Right now, it's his job to lose, combo punt/kickoff returner. He's got a little value on offense as well."
Every draft eventually comes to an end, often with late-round selections who have an uphill battle to win a job in the starting lineup. The Bucs' finished their 2015 draft work with the seventh-round selection of Hawaii running back Joey Iosefa, a player they believe can legitimately compete for a starting job as a rookie. Though he was heavily involved in the Warriors' rushing attack the past four years, Iosefa has the size, thump and pass-catching ability to make him a candidate for the fullback job in the Bucs' backfield.
"[He's a] big running back, big thick kid, runs well for his size, 240-plus [pound] guy," said Licht. "He's got great hands, he's a really good athlete. We're going to give him a shot at the starting fullback role and he's going to compete for that. We're excited for him too."
Actually, the Iosefa selection did not complete the Bucs' draft work for the night. As always, the hours following the final picks were some of the busiest of the weekend, with team scouts and coaches calling players of interest who had slipped through the seven rounds. Convincing priority free agents to come to town is what is commonly known as the "eighth round," and it can yield some very important pieces on the roster.
In addition, the Buccaneers' number-one position in this year's draft order will continue to have an impact in the months to come. Tampa Bay will retain the first spot on the NFL's waiver wire through the first three weeks of the regular season, which the team views as a significant advantage. If any players they had hoped to land during draft weekend become available through waivers, the Bucs will be able to claim them without worrying about another team getting in the way.
"We know that we can compete for this division with what we've got and we'll continue to add those pieces here incrementally," said Licht. "As we're seeing some of these guys get drafted that we liked in the later rounds at any position, we also know that we'll get the first shot at them when their team lets them go. So we'll have a chance at some of these guys again."
That advantage will likely be felt in late August and early September. Even before those potential additions, however, the Buccaneers believe they significantly improved their roster during the 2015 NFL Draft. In fact, Licht said the team's moves in the draft and in the free agency period that preceded it have made the team "remarkably better."
"[We needed] to get faster, more athletic up front, but also we needed to get tougher and we needed to get more physical and we needed to get mature guys and smart guys," said Licht. "We accomplished that, that's for sure."