NFL mock drafts are constantly evolving organisms, feeding off whatever information trickles in across four months of speculation and growing through big events like the Scouting Combine and Pro Days. The final mock drafts that emerge into the sunlight right before the real thing in April won't look much like the ones that were just peeking out from under a rock in mid-January.
Take ESPN's Mel Kiper, perhaps the biggest name in NFL mock drafting. Last year, in his first round of predictions in January, he had the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton at pick number 19 in the first round. Kiper stuck with that choice until about mid-February, after which he switched his pick for Tampa Bay to Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis. That prediction lasted through the Combine and the month of March, but in early April, as the 2017 NFL Draft approached, Kiper moved the Bucs' needle to Miami tight end David Njoku. Finally, about a week before the real first round, the ESPN expert paired Tampa Bay with Washington wide receiver John Ross.
Kiper's third pick in that progression came the closest, as it got the position right. To be fair, most mock drafts are blown up early by a few unexpected picks and the resulting chain reaction. In addition, virtually nobody had Alabama's O.J. Howard, the most coveted tight end in the draft, lasting all the way to the Bucs' pick. The point is simply that mock drafts in January and February are more of a feeling-out process than a set of predictions that should be taken very seriously.
That said, there is at least a trend in this year's early mock drafts regarding the Buccaneers that is worth watching, and that may hold even as specific picks evolve. It appears that most analysts are convinced that Tampa Bay will address the trenches – either on offense or defense – with their first-round pick. The fact that the Bucs pick quite a bit higher this year, number seven overall, also means that there are fewer variables that these analysts have to consider.
There are an endless number of mock drafts out there, easily found with a quick web search. There are entire sights devoted to the annual process of predicting the NFL Draft. For the purposes of this early look at mock draft trends, we've stuck to the most recognizable sights and names, from Kiper and ESPN.com to NFL.com, CBS Sports, USA Today and the like. We chose a collection of 20 mock drafts, all of them posted between January 9 and the beginning of this week.
Of those 20 mock drafters, 16 believe that the Buccaneers will select either an offensive or defensive lineman with the seventh pick. While many Tampa Bay fans may be clamoring for pass-rushing help, the assembled analysts are leaning towards the other side of the ball, with nine giving the Bucs an offensive lineman. The four exceptions to this emphasis on front-line play all believe Tampa Bay will look for secondary help instead.
Here are the seven different names that emerge as possible Buccaneer picks from those 20 early mock drafts, listed in order of total number of predictions:
1. Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame offensive guard (6)
Sample text: "The Bucs couldn't run the ball in 2017, averaging only 3.7 yards per carry and 90.6 yards per game. Was it the running backs, the offensive line or both? Nelson is a plug-and-play starter who would be an upgrade for almost every team."
- Mel Kiper, ESPN.com
2. Bradley Chubb, North Carolina State defensive end (5)
Sample text: "Quenton Nelson would be a strong option here, but Tampa Bay's biggest need is bolstering their lackluster pass rush. Chubb is a top-vie player in this draft, making him a steal at this pick and a perfect fit for what's ailing the Bucs defense."
- Luke Easterling, USA Today
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama defensive back (3)
Sample text: "Fitzpatrick is a versatile defender who can be used around the field in a variety of spots that put him near the football."
- Lance Zierlein, NFL.com
4t. Marcus Davenport, UTSA defensive end (2)**
Sample text: "Davenport reminds me of Ziggy Ansah coming out of BYU, and the Bucs need to add some life to their pass rush."
- Daniel Jeremiah, NFL.com
4t. Connor Williams, Texas offensive tackle (2)
Sample text: "The Bucs really want to find some offensive line support this offseason, and after spending big last year and having more contracts to work on offense, using the draft may be their best move. Williams wasn't great in 2017, but he has great left tackle upside."
Eric Galko, Sporting News
6t. Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame offensive tackle (1)
Sample text: "Tampa Bay's offense has plenty going for it through the air. On the ground, not so much. With running back Saquon Barkley gone in this mock, the Bucs can upgrade the offensive line. McGlinchey, Texas's Connor Williams and Oklahoma's Orlando Brown will battle for first tackle selected honors."
- Ben Standig, NBC Sports
6t. Derwin James, Florida State defensive back (1)
Sample text: "Perhaps the best defensive playmaker in the draft, James is the new NFL prototype as a safety capable of producing against the run or in both man and zone coverage. Florida State also used him as a pure edge rusher, where he regularly pressured the quarterback."
- Steve Palazzolo, Pro Football Focus
As it is not yet February, draft analysts are working with a relative scarcity of information. At this point, the process of mocking a first round is essentially matching perceived team needs with the top available talent. Therefore, it's not surprising that the Bucs have largely been pegged as a team looking for help in the trenches.
Tampa Bay's offense put up some of the best numbers in franchise history and ranked in the top 10 in such categories as net yards, net passing yards, first downs and third-down rate. The pass protection was middle of the pack but had also been in the top 10 before a rash of injuries in December and higher sack numbers down the stretch. However, the Bucs' running game stagnated, finishing 27th in the NFL.
On defense, the Buccaneers finished last in the NFL in sacks produced. Their best pass-rusher was defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, which explains why draft analysts believe the team will be looking for help on the edge. The Buccaneers also finished last in net passing yards allowed – a result obviously impacted by that pass-rushing deficiency – and are not yet certain if cornerback Brent Grimes will choose to play another season. Therefore, it's not surprising that four analysts see the Bucs aiming for help in the defensive backfield.
North Carolina State's Chubb is widely regarded as the top edge rusher in the draft, though of course there are still several months of evaluation to go. It's worth noting that all 15 analysts in this group of 20 who paired the Buccaneers with a player other than Chubb had him already off the board by pick seven.
By far the most common predicted landing spot for Chubb is with the Indianapolis Colts at pick number three, usually after quarterbacks were taking with the top two picks. For our mock drafters, that may be a lesson learned from two years ago. Dramatic pre-draft trades made it clear that the first two picks were going to be quarterbacks (Jared Goff and Carson Wentz) but there was a wide variety of predictions as to who the San Diego Chargers would take with the third pick. In the end, it was Ohio State edge rusher Joey Bosa, who has quickly devolved into one of the NFL's best pass-rushers. If Chubb is indeed considered the best pass-rusher in this year's draft by the time April rolls around, his draft stock will likely be similarly high.
Davenport's stock in the mock drafts has already been on the rise, and he could eventually be seen as the second choice for any edge-rush-needy teams that miss out on Chubb. He is notably the only other defensive lineman paired with the Buccaneers by the assembled mock drafters. In contrast, there is a lot of perceived depth on the offensive line, making it a near certainty that the Buccaneers could get a very highly-regarded blocker if they chose to go that route in the first round.
Again, most of these draft analysts will refine their predictions in the months ahead. A roundup of mock drafts in April will likely produce a different set of results for the Buccaneers at pick number seven. However, given the apparent strengths and weaknesses of the 2017 Tampa Bay squad, it's likely that this early trend of matching Tampa Bay with big men in the trenches will hold strong.