Mock drafts are like a funnel. At the top, there's room to pour in everything without much precision, but by the time the funnel has done its job the output is much more precisely focused.
I have been recording the results of various mocks for the first round of the NFL's 2020 draft since January 6, a week after the end of the 2019 regular season. I've confined the search primarily to national sources such as NFL.com, CBS Sports and USA Today, skipping the local papers, and even so I've recorded 137 predictions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in less than three months. This includes separate versions by the same analysts, but only if their pick for the Buccaneers changed from one version to the next.
In the last 10 days, the funnel has begun to narrow considerably.
The reason: Tampa Bay's incredible run of moves before and after the start of free agency on March 18. The clear demarcation point is Monday, March 16, which is when the Buccaneers made the first of a series of maneuvers that nailed their top-tier priorities of solving the quarterback situation and keeping last year's defensive front intact. Here are the key dates and moves:
• March 16: Placed the franchise tag on OLB Shaquil Barrett
• March 17: Re-signed OLB Jason Pierre-Paul
• March 20: Officially signed QB Tom Brady
• March 26: Re-signed DL Ndamukong Suh
The overall result: The large majority of draft analysts now believe the Buccaneers will use the 14th overall pick (or another pick if a trade is projected) to draft an offensive tackle.
Prior to the moves above, the mock draft predictions for the Buccaneers were largely spread over four positions: Tackle, Quarterback, Edge Rusher and Defensive Tackle. Tampa Bay also signed former Indianapolis Colts tackle Joe Haeg but that has not convinced the mock drafters that the Buccaneers have addressed that position as thoroughly and effectively as it did the other three.
In addition to those four positions, the Buccaneers have also been variously connected to four other positions: cornerback, running back, safety and wide receiver. That's a total of eight positions where these 137 predictions for the Bucs have fallen. Below is how they were distributed before and after March 16; there were four mock drafts published on March 16 exactly but presumably they were written before the Buccaneers announced they were using the franchise tag on Barrett that afternoon.
137 Mock Drafts from Jan. 6 to March 16:
CB: 5 (4.4% of all picks)
DT: 24 (21.2%)
EDGE: 28 (24.8%)
QB*: 18 (16.8%)
RB: 1 (0.8%)
S: 5 (4.4%)
T: 30 (26.5%)
WR: 1 (0.8%)
(Includes one mock draft in which the Bucs traded the 14th overall pick for Matthew Stafford.)
24 Mock Drafts from March 17 to March 26:
CB: 0 (0.0% of all picks)
DT: 5 (20.8%)
EDGE: 0 (0.0%)
QB: 1 (4.2%)
RB: 1 (0.8%)
S: 0 (0.0%)
T: 15 (62.5%)
WR: 1 (4.2%)
Offensive tackle was already the most common position picked for the Buccaneers before all those free agency moves. Even then, it was clear that Tampa Bay had a need at the position and the draft was well set-up to deliver a strong prospect at pick number 14. But prior to those moves, those OT picks still only accounted for a little over a quarter of all mock-draft selections. After the Bucs started making those moves, tackle became the favorite by a long shot, taking 62.5% of all picks. With Barrett and Pierre-Paul returning, not a single analyst has paired the Bucs with an EDGE defender, while that accounted for 24.8% of all picks prior to those moves.
Only one analyst has stuck to the idea of Tampa Bay using its first-round pick on a quarterback. Kevin Hanson of SI.com paired the Bucs with Utah State's Jordan Love on March 20, and while that was the same day as the official announcement of Tom Brady's signing, that move had been solidly reported for days. Hanson thought the Bucs would still be thinking of the future at the quarterback position, writing:
View photos from DL Ndamukong Suh's time with the Bucs so far!
"Given Love's live arm, plus mobility and improvisational skills, Bruce Arians may be willing to take a chance on his traits as a quarterback to develop behind the soon-to-be 43-year-old new Buccaneer Tom Brady."
The most popular positional pick for the Buccaneers in the post-March 16 range besides offensive tackle is defensive tackle. However, only one of those came after news of Suh's imminent return broke. NFL.com's Chad Reuter just thought the opportunity to nab Auburn's Derrick Brown was too good, even with the need on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Reuter wrote:
"The Bucs can find a right tackle later in the draft -- in fact, they might draft two outside linemen this year. Getting a stud like Brown with the 14th pick is too rich to pass up, even with Ndamukong Suh returning to the Bucs on a one-year deal."
The signing of Brady not only threw some analysts off the QB scent for the Buccaneers but also made them more convinced that the pick would be an offensive tackle. NFL.com's Charley Casserly was representative of this idea, writing:
"Protecting Tom Brady has to be a high priority. Wirfs fills the bookend hole opposite LT Donovan Smith."
Another thing that the mock drafters agree on is that, while the offensive tackle position is top-heavy with prized prospects this year, the Buccaneers aren't likely to get their choice of the "Big Four" unless they're willing to make a move up. Of those 15 mock drafts of the last 10 days that gave the Buccaneers an offensive tackle, 12 of them had the choice as either Louisville's Mekhi Becton, Georgia's Andrew Thomas, Alabama's Jedrick Wills or Iowa's Tristan Wirfs. In every single one of those cases, the Buccaneers' pick was the fourth player chosen out of those four.
If those predictions prove accurate, the Buccaneers will be playing with a slim margin if they truly do want to get one of the top four tackles (by popular opinion). DraftWire's Luke Easterling gave the Buccaneers Andrew Thomas on March 21, with the 14th pick, but isn't convinced it will play out that way in the real draft next month. Easterling wrote:
"Tampa Bay desperately needs a starting-caliber tackle at this pick, which means they may get nervous and have to move up to make sure they land one of the top four. Thankfully in this scenario, that doesn't prove necessary."
In the other three cases, the Buccaneers got either the fifth or sixth offensive tackle off the board. Two of those three paired Tampa Bay with Houston's Josh Jones. The third mock drafter, CBS Sports' Josh Edwards, took a different approach, figuring the Buccaneers could tap into the next tier of tackle prospects and pick up some extra draft capital in the process. In Edwards' version, the Bucs let Philadelphia trade up to get one of the top receivers and then landed USC tackle Austin Jackson at the 21st pick. Edwards explained:
"No. 14 overall was too early for Tampa Bay to dive into the second wave of offensive tackles, so they traded back a bit and still landed a quality player. Jackson is trending up after being less than 100 percent in 2019."
With four weeks still to go before the 32 teams conduct the actual 2020 NFL draft, the prevailing opinion about the Buccaneers' plans with the 14th pick could easily shift several more times. For now, however, with the team's bold moves in and around free agency still fresh on everyone's minds, there is a growing belief that pick number 14 will be an offensive tackle.