The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made four picks in the first three rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, and all four of those players made significant contributions in their rookie seasons.
First-round tight end O.J. Howard started all 14 games in which he played, tied for the team lead with six touchdowns and averaged a robust 16.6 yards per reception. Second-round safety Justin Evans played in 14 games and started 11, tied for the team lead with three interceptions and finished fifth on the team with 65 tackles. Third-round wide receiver Chris Godwin took advantage of a late-season rise in playing time to grab 34 catches for 525 yards and a touchdown, that score coming on the Buccaneers' final offensive play of the season to give them a win over New Orleans. Third-round linebacker Kendell Beckwith started nine games, played multiple positions and was fourth on the defense with 73 tackles, seven of them for losses.
It's safe to say that the Bucs were thrilled with those contributions from their early-round draftees and they expect all four to be core players for some time to come. It's also safe to say that the team expects those rookie-season contributions to be just the baseline for those four. Howard, Evans, Godwin and Beckwith will hopefully put up even bigger numbers in the years to come, and that could happen as soon as 2018. One or more of them – perhaps all four – could be ready to make that proverbial "Year Two Leap."
Head Coach Dirk Koetter said as much about Howard, specifically, earlier this offseason.
"That rookie year is such a whirlwind," said Koetter. "You're a first-round draft pick; everybody's got high expectations. O.J. played in an elite college program in Alabama. I know he had tapes that he was studying over the offseason and I think O.J.'s going to see that his room for improvement is immense. He can do so many things better, and he's capable of doing that. If O.J. comes in with the right attitude about improving, I think he is a player that has a chance to take a big leap in Year Two. And there's nothing that I know about O.J. that wouldn't suggest that he is the type of player that will be ready to do that."
Howard has had a full NFL offseason to hone his game and unleash his considerable talents. Evans will likely head into his second season as a starter after battling for a spot early last year. Beckwith has to overcome his current ankle injury but could produce more if allowed to settle into one position this year. And Godwin, one of the team's most impressive players this offseason, simply needs more snaps to put up bigger numbers.
Will they make the leap? If so, they'll be joining some prominent players in Buccaneers history who did exactly that. Here are five Buccaneers, all players drafted in the first three rounds, who had promising rookie seasons and then delivered on that promise with outstanding sophomore campaigns. All five also went on to long and productive careers in Tampa.
1. Lavonte David, 2012-13
The Buccaneers had their eye on Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David in the 2012 draft, targeting him as a potential second-round pick. On the first night of the draft, however, they seized an opportunity to make a small trade up into the bottom of the second round in order to get running back Doug Martin. That seemed to end their chances of landing David.
However, when David slipped into the bottom third of the second round the Buccaneers made another deal to move up and get him. That's a move the franchise has never regretted. David was an instant starter at strongside linebacker and he had a very good debut campaign, starting all 16 games and leading the team with 139 tackles, including an impressive 20 stops for loss. He only hinted at his big-play ability, however, delivering one interception and two sacks.
David set himself an impressive bar as a rookie but he cleared it with room to spare in 2013. While essentially duplicating his tackle and TFL totals from the year before (144 and 20), David exploded in the big-play category, racking up seven sacks and picking off five passes. Since the sack became an official statistic in 1982, only two players have managed to pile up seven of them and intercept five passes in the same season: David and former Chicago safety Dave Duerson.
Somehow, those exploits didn't earn David a spot in the Pro Bowl in 2013, thanks to the preponderance of votes going to pass-rushing 3-4 linebackers. However, David got an even more exclusive honor as he was named to the Associated Press All-Pro first team. He hasn't slowed down since, eventually getting that Pro Bowl nod in 2015, regularly ranking among the most productive 4-3 outside linebackers in the NFL and last year pulling off another incredible feat of statistics with five forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries in just 13 games. He got a well-deserved new deal in 2016 and is under contract with the team through 2020.
2. Mike Alstott, 1996-97
Tampa Bay selected Purdue fullback Mike Alstott early in the second round of the 1996 draft. That's awfully early for a fullback, but of course Alstott was much more than a blocker; at Purdue, he ran for nearly 4,000 yards and finished as the school's all-time leading rusher.
Alstott also caught 93 passes in his Boilermaker career, and that's how he made his mark in his first year in the NFL, leading the Buccaneers with 65 catches for 557 yards and three touchdowns. He scored another three times on the ground and gave a hint at how unstoppable he would become around the goal line in his career.
The Buccaneers turned their franchise fortunes around in Alstott's second year, breaking a 14-year playoff drought and winning in the postseason for just the second time in team history. Alstott was a driving force in that turnaround, and this time he did much more as a ballcarrier. Splitting carries with speedy rookie Warrick Dunn and forming the memorable "Lightning and Thunder" duo, Alstott nearly doubled his rookie rushing total with 665 yards while adding 23 catches for 178 yards. Most notably, he became the team's top scorer, reaching the end zone 10 times, which would prove to be his second-best single-season mark.
The league took notice. Alstott made the first of six consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl after the 1997 season and also earned a first-team _AP_ All-Pro nod. He would repeat that latter honor in 1998 and 1999 and increase his rushing yardage total in each of those two years, as well. And he never stopped scoring touchdowns. Alstott finished his career with 71 regular-season TDs, by far the most in franchise history. He is also the team's all-time leading touchdown scorer in the postseason, with seven; no one else has more than two.
In addition to setting the team record for TDs, Alstott also ranks second in franchise annals with 5,088 rushing yards and fourth with 305 receptions. He was inducted into the Buccaneers' Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium in 2015.
3. Warren Sapp, 1995-96
The Bucs made a pair of trades on the first night of the 1995 draft, maneuvering around the first round to land both Miami defensive tackle Warren Sapp and Florida State linebacker Derrick Brooks. Those two now represent two-thirds of the Buccaneers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Both Sapp and Brooks quickly become foundational pieces in one of the best defenses in NFL history. Sapp's rookie season, while quite good, still only hinted at what was to come. He started half of the Bucs' 16 games and recorded his first three NFL sacks, along with 27 tackles and one interception, which he returned for a touchdown.
Sapp's reign of terror in NFC Central backfields began in earnest in 1996, his second year. He tripled his sack total to nine and nearly doubled his tackles total to 51. He had nine tackles for loss to lead the team and even blocked a field goal. Though the Buccaneers wouldn't begin their run of annual defensive finishes in the top 10 until the next year, Sapp clearly found his place in his sophomore year in the defense imported by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin.
That '96 campaign, while a massive breakout, was just the beginning. In 1997, he would begin a run of seven straight Pro Bowl seasons, and four of those would also bring _AP_ All-Pro honors. In 1999, Sapp racked up 12.5 sacks to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. In 2000, he would set a single-season Buccaneer record with 16.5 sacks.
Sapp had 77 tackles in nine seasons as a Buccaneer, second-most in team history (more on that below). He was inducted into the Ring of Honor in 2013.
4. Kevin House, 1980-81
The Buccaneers made a remarkably quick rise from expansion team in 1976 (and loser of their first 26 games) to division winners and playoff participants in 1979. That run to the postseason in '79 was built mostly on a stifling defense and a strong running game; Tampa Bay's passing attack never finished higher than 18th in the rankings in its first four seasons despite the presence of first-round quarterback Doug Williams.
In the second round of the 1980 draft, the Bucs tried to get Williams a deep threat in Southern Illinois speedster Kevin House. It worked to a pretty fine degree, as House averaged 22.1 yards on his 24 catches and the Bucs' passing attack cracked 200 yards per game for the first time and finished in the NFL's top 10.
House also tied for the team lead with five touchdown catches as a rookie, but he was only the fifth-leading pass-catcher on the Bucs' offense. He missed two games and only started once, and he averaged 37.9 yards per game. Still, it was a promising first season and House delivered on his potential in his second year.
In 1981, House became the first player in team history to crack 1,000 receiving yards in a season, more than doubling his rookie total with 1,176 yards on 56 catches. He more than doubled his reception total, too, without sacrificing his role as a downfield threat, as he averaged 21.0 yards per grab. House also scored nine touchdowns to lead the Buccaneers as they returned to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. House's yards-per-catch mark ranked third in the entire NFL and he also placed sixth in receiving yards and tied for fourth in touchdown catches.
In six-and-a-half seasons in Tampa, House racked up 4,928 receiving yards, which still ranks second in franchise history. His mark of 17.2 yards per catch as a Buccaneer also remains the best in team annals among qualifying players.
5. Lee Roy Selmon
It was really only injuries that held the first-overall pick in the 1976 draft – and the first college draftee in franchise history – to a merely good rookie campaign. Knee and elbow ailments kept him out of six of the team's 14 games but he still led the Bucs' defense with five sacks (though that was not yet an official statistic) and won multiple all-rookie honors.
Selmon was perfectly healthy in his second season and nothing could hold him back, particularly opposing offensive linemen. He started all 14 games and rang up 13 (unofficial sacks). He also had 110 tackles, a fairly remarkable total for a defensive end, and he forced a pair of fumbles.
Pro Bowl honors wouldn't come to Selmon until 1979, even though he had another 11 sacks in his third season. After that, however, Selmon would never again finish a season without an all-star nod; he retired after the 1984 season, his last game a Pro Bowl. The Buccaneers credit him with 78.5 sacks, counting those that he notched before it was an official statistic, and that is still the highest career total in franchise annals.
When the Buccaneers introduced their Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium in 2009, Selmon was the natural first choice for induction. That was the proper honor to bestow upon the first Hall of Famer in team history; Selmon got his bust in Canton in 1995, 11 years after his retirement.