The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started their 2020 draft by picking two players they could easily envision being in the starting lineup a few months later. And, in fact, first-round tackle Tristan Wirfs and second-round safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. were Week One starters in 2020…and Super Bowl starters as well. Wirfs and Winfield combined to make 32 regular-season starts, and that is something that doesn't happen often with rookies in the NFL.
The Buccaneers were clearly looking for an instant starter at right tackle when they targeted Wirfs with their first-round pick. This year, the Bucs may be thinking more about the 2023 starting lineup when General Manager Jason Licht pulls the trigger in the first round.
"It's a luxury we have this year that we can pick who we think is going to be the best player in two years," said Licht. "That's what we always kind of set our draft board [as], is what this guy's going to be in two years. In today's day and age, everybody wants it two be in two games, but we're going to take the long view here and bring in the player that we're going to be happy with for the long haul."
Licht conceded that it was possible the Bucs could find a 2021 starter in the draft, depending on the position, but it doesn't seem particularly likely. The Bucs drafted Wirfs after letting former right tackle Demar Dotson walk in free agency and ended up with a seamless transitions. Thanks to the tireless and creative work of Licht and his staff in free agency over the last month, there are no such job-creating departures this year.
To say the Buccaneers will have continuity as they attempt to defend their Super Bowl LV title would be putting it mildly. The Buccaneers played 20 games on their way to the Super Bowl, which means there were 440 individual game starts on offense and defense over the course of the season. Players already under contract for 2021 accounted for an incredible 426 of those starts. No starting job is ever fully safe, but neither are any of last year's starters looking to give up their spots.
And that puts Tampa Bay in position to draft a player with the 32nd selection (barring a trade) that might have needed a little more time to crack the lineup anyway. Licht was asked Thursday if the Bucs could use that pick on a "developmental" player, and his answer was an emphatic yes.
"Absolutely. Absolutely," he said. "It's a luxury that we can have this year. Of course, in the perfect world you'd want to pick players that can come in and help and contribute right away. But we do have the luxury of having guys sit back and learn and watch and get developed by our coaching staff and veteran players. We've said it over and over again: We've got a great locker room. These guys are going to embrace anybody that we take, at any position. It is a luxury."
The first position that comes to mind when the term "developmental" is thrown around is quarterback, and on Tuesday Head Coach Bruce Arians didn't rule out the Bucs adding one with an early pick. But given the solid upper crust of the team's depth chart Licht could be thinking about many different positions in that regard.
For instance, Tampa Bay is returning its entire starting offensive line plus key reserves Aaron Stinnie and Josh Wells this season, so a tackle, guard or center drafted at number 32 would almost surely not start right away, barring injuries. Offensive line is one of the more difficult positions for rookies trying to make the transition to the NFL (though nobody told Wirfs that, apparently), so a little extra time to develop such a player could play dividends in 2022 or 2023.
The Buccaneers could also use put some future consideration into their defensive front seven, which features a lot of well-established veterans in starting spots. Knowing there would be no real rush to get those players into the rotation, the Bucs might feel more comfortable drafting an edge rusher with tools that impress the scouts but not over-the-top production in college, like Penn State's Jayson Oweh or Michigan's Kwity Paye. Similarly, it might make the team more willing to select a player who has had strong previous production but who opted to sit out the 2020 season, like Miami's Gregory Rousseau. That latter sort of prospect is a different kind of challenge for scouts in 2021.
"You're watching tape from 2019 [and] a lot can change with a player between 2019 and now, especially if they haven't been playing and they've just been training," said Licht. "It just makes it a little more challenge. But once again, that's what we're dealing with, that's what every team is dealing with this year."
That said, the front seven isn't so much of a need right now that the Buccaneers will focus solely in that area while taking the long view.
"Yeah, we have to look at that, we have to take the long view," said Licht. "But there's other positions as well that we're going to need down the line, in the future. So we don't want to pigeonhole ourselves into saying we have to take a certain position high in the draft. I think that's one of the good things about our situation right now, we can take best player. We've been saying that."
Licht agreed with the description of the Buccaneers' current draft situation as 'liberating' compared to some other seasons when clear needs put him in danger of reaching at a certain position at the expense of higher-rated prospects elsewhere on the board. He did, however, rule out one position as a draft target this year.
"It is a really good feeling this year that, literally, just about any player at any position we could take," said Licht. "I guess I'll say I won't take a kicker."