The 2022 NFL Draft starts in exactly one week, if you're reading this the day it was posted. Barring a trade, the Buccaneers will make the 27th pick in the first round next Thursday night, possibly using it to add young talent to their defensive front.
The end of that sentence above links to my mock draft from a couple weeks ago, in which I had Tampa Bay landing Georgia defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt with that 27th pick. Every mock draft is, of course, an exercise in speculation, and it gets more and more speculative as you move down the road. We've done quite a bit of that over the past couple months here, but what I want to focus on here – in another exercise in speculation – is the first part of that sentence above.
"Barring a trade…" That's a dependent clause I include often when noting where the Buccaneers pick in the first round, because you can't be certain that they will actually be on the clock at that point. Trades happen in the NFL draft. A lot. Even in the first round, those assets get flipped around quite a bit. Over the past 10 drafts, an average of just under 12 of the first 32 picks have switched hands at least once. In the same period, an average of two first-round spots have been traded multiple times.
The Buccaneers have been fairly active traders of draft picks under current General Manager Jason Licht, though not always in the first round. In Licht's eight drafts so far he has made a trade up or down in the first round three times. The Bucs moved down two spots before drafting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves 11th in 2016, slid down five spots to number 12 before taking defensive lineman Vita Vea in 2018 and jumped up one pick in 2020 to nab Tristan Wirfs at 13th overall. The 2018 trade, in which the Buccaneers accommodated a Buffalo team aiming to get quarterback Josh Allen, was particularly notable as it brought back two second-round picks. One of those was used to trade down a bit again and then select cornerback Carlton Davis.
One of the common drivers of first-round trades is a team's search for a franchise quarterback, like the one noted above between the Bucs and the Bills. (And that seems to be working out well for Buffalo, so you're welcome Bills fans.) Now, I am of the strong opinion that the Buccaneers are not in the market for a quarterback in this year's draft, as they have Tom Brady back in the fold for 2022 and they spent a second-round pick on Kyle Trask just a year ago. However, the quarterback position could still be the driving force in a hypothetical Buccaneers trade, either up or down.
Simply put, the Buccaneers could be the facilitator in a deal with another team that is trying to position itself for a stab at a quarterback. To illustrate, I came up with what I think are at least plausible scenarios for both a trade up and a trade down for Tampa Bay next Thursday night, both involving partners who are after passers. It is highly unlikely either one will come to pass, but I contend that they are at least realistic and fair, as compared to similar deals in the past.
Let's start with the trade up. My hypothetical partner in this one is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are picking at number 20. In this scenario, the Steelers have decided they want to draft their quarterback of the future but have already seen Malik Willis and Kenny Pickett come off the board. That's entirely possible with such teams as Detroit, Carolina, Atlanta, Seattle and New Orleans picking before them. Pittsburgh may even try to trade up to nab Willis or Pickett, but in this scenario they fail to strike a deal.
So now you have the Steelers sitting at number 20 and staring at Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder, who I'm going to say they like quite a bit. However, they also know they could probably get him later in the draft. Between picks 20 and 27 are the following teams, none of which seem likely to draft a quarterback in the first round: New England, Green Bay, Arizona, Dallas, Buffalo and Tennessee. Yes, another QB-needy team could trade into one of those spots, but the Steelers are willing to take the risk, maybe feeling they would be alright with Ole Miss's Matt Corral, too.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers have seen a defensive player they like slip a little farther than they anticipated. Maybe Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis or Florida State edge rusher Jermaine Johnson. They don't think either will last to the 27th pick so they decide to get aggressive. What would it cost? I happened to find an exact comparison in the 2014 draft, when the Saints traded with Bruce Arians' Cardinals, moving up from 27 to 20 to get wideout Brandin Cooks. The cost was a 2014 third-round pick. Similarly, in 2018 the Packers moved up from 27 to 18, trading with Seattle to get cornerback Jaire Alexander. The cost there was a third plus a swap of a sixth for a seventh. So, essentially, this trade would cost the Bucs their third-round pick. Could be worth it to add one high-impact player to a roster that already is pretty loaded.
Now the trade down. In this scenario, I have multiple teams possibly looking to trade up from high-ish in the second round to get back into the first and take a quarterback. The purpose of such a move is not only to leap-frog other teams that might get to their man first but also to secure that fifth-year team option that are included in the contracts for all first-round picks. This has been true since 2013 and we've seen two examples: the Vikings trading up to #32 in 2014 to get Teddy Bridgewater and the Ravens doing the same in 2018 to get Lamar Jackson.
The Vikings' trade with the Seahawks (who are addicted to trading down) was a move up of eight spots and it cost them a fourth-round pick. The Ravens' trade with Philadelphia was a move up of 20 spots and it cost them a second-round pick in the following year's draft.
The scenario I'm drawing up here involves picks number 40 through 43 overall in the second round. Seattle has the first of those four picks, followed by Indianapolis and Atlanta. It's reasonable to think that any or all of those three teams would be looking for a long-term answer at quarterback in this draft after they all moved on from their previous passers earlier this offseason. It really doesn't matter which team it is, so let's just say the Bucs are trading with one of them, which would be a move down of 13 to 16 spots. That's about right in the middle of the two trades listed above, one of which cost a fourth and one of which cost a second. So let's split the difference and say the Bucs get a third out of this.
Tampa Bay's motivation in this scenario is the opposite of the one in the trade-up scenario. There were no surprise fallers in the third round and the Bucs are staring at a board that has a group of similarly graded players at a position of need. They might have missed out on Davis and Wyatt, but they can slide down a bit and possibly land Travis Jones of UConn or Phidarian Mathis of Oklahoma. If the top tier of edge rushers has run dry they could move back and possibly target someone like USC's Drake Jackson or Houston's Logan Hall. Maybe the Buccaneers are even interested in a running back or a tight end but don't think there are any that would require a first-round investment. They could slide back to 40 or 41 and potentially still be the first team to draft at either of those two positions.
So, trade up and surrender a third-round pick to get what they hope is an instant-impact defender? Or trade down and gain a third-round pick to increase their chances of landing a player who can make a difference as a rookie? Which scenario would you prefer?
And now on to your questions.
A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Should the Bucs be viewed as favorites to win the NFC ahead of the draft?
-clasrado28 (via Instagram)
I originally misread this question as "favorites to win the NFC South" and I was well into a paragraph supporting the idea when I realized my mistake. As the defending division champs and the team in the division with the most settled quarterback situation, you'd have to give the Bucs good odds of repeating. (I guess the Saints QB situation is pretty settled, too, with Jameis Winston re-signed, but you can find plenty of mock drafts that have New Orleans taking a quarterback in the first round).
Favorites to win the entire conference? That's a much tougher question. I can tell you this much to start with: The Buccaneers are not currently the consensus conference favorites by the national media, but they are definitely one of the favorites. I found a good number of power rankings on major sports sites with a quick search from within the last month, and it's pretty clear that the Buccaneers and Rams are considered the top two teams in the NFC at the moment. (It's important to look at more recent rankings because the return of Tom Brady from his brief "retirement" drastically changed the national opinion about the Bucs, as you would expect.)
The power rankings on NFL.com, ESPN.com, SI.com and USAToday.com all have the Rams ahead of the Buccaneers but do have Tampa Bay second among NFC teams. NFL.com and ESPN.com have the Rams second overall and the Bucs fourth; SI.com ranks them first and third, respectively; and USAToday.com puts L.A. first and the Tampa Bay fourth. Sportingnews.com has the Bucs ahead of the Rams, putting them second and fifth overall, respectively. The rankings on Yahoo.com and NBCSports.com are both NFC specific, not the NFL overall, and in each case the Bucs rank first and the Rams second.
So that's pretty encouraging overall. And it's pretty hard to complain about the rankings that have the Rams just ahead of the Buccaneers. After all, Los Angeles is the defending Super Bowl champion and they also happened to have defeated Tampa Bay twice last year. The regular-season meeting in Los Angeles in Week Three was a pretty convincing win for the home team, and the rematch at Raymond James Stadium in the Divisional Round of the playoffs was shaping up as a blowout until Brady engineered a stunning comeback that was unfortunately upstaged by the Rams walk-off field goal. At the very least, you can say that the 2021 Rams seemed to match up pretty well against the 2021 Buccaneers, who were the previous defending Super Bowl champs.
But, of course, we're not talking about which team was best in 2021. That's been decided. The question here is who do we consider the most likely team to win the NFC in 2022. For the record, the most recent Super Bowl LVII betting odds I could find (updated on April 16) has the top five favorites in this order: Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Green Bay and the L.A. Rams. San Francisco is sixth and Dallas is eighth.
So let's start with those five NFC teams – the Bucs, Packers, Rams, 49ers and Cowboys – and see how each team has changed since the end of last season. All of those teams made the playoffs last year; all but Dallas (beaten by San Francisco) made the Divisional Round. It was the 49ers and the Rams in the Conference Championship Game.
The Buccaneers' most notable losses this offseason are guards Alex Cappa and Ali Marpet and safety Jordan Whitehead, but the team has responded pretty well by trading for Shaq Mason, re-signing Aaron Stinnie and bringing in safeties Keanu Neal and Logan Ryan. You could also throw in the late-season departure of Antonio Brown, since Brown spent most of last season as the Bucs' third receiver, but that too has been balanced by the underrated signing of Russell Gage. Tampa Bay notably was able to retain Chris Godwin, Carlton Davis, Ryan Jensen, Leonard Fournette and Will Gholston.
The Buccaneers also have not yet re-signed Ndamukong Suh, Rob Gronkowski or Jason Pierre-Paul, so there could be some depth issues on the defensive front and at tight end, particularly with O.J. Howard now in Buffalo. Of the three, Gronkowski seems like the most likely to return, and if that's the case the Buccaneers still look pretty strong at tight end with him and Cameron Brate.
Tampa Bay is also the only one of these five teams that has changed head coaches, but that shouldn't be nearly as much of a culture change as most coaching turnovers are. Todd Bowles, who is highly respected by the Bucs' current roster of players, is no newcomer, and his predecessor, Bruce Arians, is still around to lend a hand. Notably, those Super Bowl odds I referenced early did not go down when the Bucs promoted Bowles to the top spot.
And, of course, the most important development was Brady's decision to return for the 2022 season. The NFL's leader in passing yards and touchdown passes in 2021 doesn't seem to have lost any heat on his fastball, even at the age of 45 (by August), and I think the overriding opinion is that he will still be at the top of his game in 2022. If the Bucs can make the changes at guard fairly seamlessly and still have one of the NFL's most effective offensive lines, the offense should be as potent as ever.
How about the Rams? Well, their offseason losses have been a little more significant. L.A. also has to replace two O-Line starters, as left tackle Andrew Whitworth retired and right guard Austin Corbett signed with Carolina. Postseason hero Von Miller proved to be a half-year rental (and well worth it), as he left for Buffalo. Cornerback Darious Williams and defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day also found paydays in new NFL homes. The Rams' most notable retentions in free agency were offensive linemen Brian Allen and Joseph Noteboom, though wideout Odell Beckham Jr. remains unsigned and is also coming back from an ACL tear in the Super Bowl.
Los Angeles did make a couple nice additions with the signings of wide receiver Allen Robinson and linebacker Bobby Wagner. Robinson's arrival means a potential Beckham departure wouldn't sting as much. The Rams signed Wagner after he was cut by Seattle and the size of his deal makes it clear that his new team still thinks he has some Pro Bowl-level play left in his tank. In addition, quarterback Matthew Stafford and head coach Sean McVay now have a full season together under their belts and Year Two in L.A. could be even better for the long-time Lion.
The Packers, of course, traded away Davante Adams, perhaps the NFL's current best receiver and certainly the best one in Green Bay by a wide margin. Green Bay will probably always be among the conference favorites as long as they have Aaron Rodgers, the two-time reigning league MVP, at the helm of the offense, but they really do have an underwhelming receiving corps. Green Bay is taking a shot on Sammy Watkins and will probably address that issue in the draft, but this question specifically referred to the conference favorites "ahead of the draft."
Otherwise, it has been a typically quiet offseason for the Packers, who don't dive deep into free agency most seasons but also do well to retain their own top players. Wideouts Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown also left but shouldn't be too hard to replace. Ditto for nickel back Chandon Sullivan, now a Viking. Meanwhile, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, cornerback Rasul Douglas and tight end Robert Tonyan all chose to re-up in Green Bay after surprise breakout seasons in 2020 (for Tonyan) and 2021 (for Campbell and Douglas). Defensive tackle Jarran Reed was a nice value addition. And while tackle David Bakhtiari and ultra-versatile lineman Elgton Jenkins are not newcomers, they would feel like big-time additions if both could play full seasons in 2022. That would make a massive difference for the Packers' offensive line.
The 49ers are everybody's 2022 darlings after they finished the 2021 season on a tear. That said, they are likely to hand the offensive reins over to the extremely-unproven Trey Lance and move on from Jimmy Garoppolo. I would say that Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch know what they're doing, but it's still hard to think of the 49ers as the conference quarterback with such a big question mark at the game's most important position. One can also wonder if a contract dispute with Deebo Samuel will turn into a bigger problem. Still, this is a very talented roster that could come together quickly if Lance is up to the task.
The Cowboys have taken some hits due to salary cap issues, most notably trading wideout Amari Cooper to Cleveland and cutting tackle La'el Collins. Both of those positions actually sustained double losses, as receiver Cedrick Wilson and guard Connor Williams signed with the Dolphins. The Cowboys also saw defensive end Randy Gregory make a last-minute detour to Denver, though they did re-sign Demarcus Lawrence. The Cowboys have added wide receiver James Washington and edge rusher Dante Fowler, but I don't think either of those players are as good as the ones they're ostensibly replacing. Dallas still has a ton of talent and a superstar on each side of the ball with Dak Prescott and Micah Parsons, but it's hard to look at them as being better now than they were three months ago when they got bounced from the playoffs by the 49ers.
Given all that, I think it's fair to agree with the power rankings I linked to above and put the Rams and Buccaneers at the top of the NFC list, though I am obviously biased. I can't quite get myself to put the Buccaneers over the defending champs, given the outcomes of their three meetings in the last two years (including a Rams win in Tampa in 2020). I think the most aggressive assessment you could make here is to call the Bucs and Rams co-favorites in the NFC, here in this period before the draft.
After that, it's worth noting that the Rams have no first or second-round pick this year and only one selection in the top 140. The Buccaneers pick in each of the first four rounds and have three in the top 91.
Although many predict that the Bucs will draft an offensive or defensive lineman in the first round next week, could you see them drafting a player at another position like cornerback or wide receiver?
-its_titan813 (via Instagram)
Oh, for sure.
I tend to agree with the analysts who match the Bucs up with a player for their defensive front, whether that be a down lineman or an edge rusher. It looks to me like those could be two spots where at least a medium-sized need intersects with prospect value. It will be hard for any rookie to immediately win a starting spot in the Bucs' lineup in 2022, like Tristan Wirfs and Antoine Winfield Jr. did in 2020, so the best way to add a player who can make an instant impact on a win-now team is to find one who can step right into a positional rotation. Shaquil Barrett and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka are the likely starter at outside linebacker but a quality edge rusher would have no trouble finding immediate playing time.
All of that said, I could definitely see the Buccaneers taking a cornerback, even though they were able to retain Carlton Davis and thus have an apparent starting trio in him, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting. I say this for three reasons.
One, you can never have enough good cornerback depth. Never. That is something that is difficult to cultivate and to keep. There's a chance Davis might have moved on in free agency if Brady hadn't returned and amped the team's urgency back up in a big way. A team should never pass up the chance to beef up its cornerback room. Two, it's a little naïve to expect the Davis-Dean-SMB trio – or any set of three cornerbacks – to be fully intact for 17 games. Last year was a good example, as injuries knocked Murphy-Bunting out for eight games, Davis out for seven and Dean out for two. If you draft a cornerback in the first round and consider him the fourth man on your depth chart, he's going to get in the game at some point as a rookie. And three, both Dean and Murphy-Bunting have just one season left on their rookie contracts. The Bucs were able to keep Davis but there's no guarantee they'll be able to do the same with Dean and/or Murphy-Bunting. Having a replacement ready to step into a larger role would make for an easier transition if one or both departs.
As for receiver, I'll also say yes, but without as much logical backup as I had for the cornerback position. The Bucs appear set at the top with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Russell Gage, and I'm of the belief that Godwin will make it back from his late-2020 knee injury in time to miss little if any of the regular season. There's depth there, too, with the likes of Tyler Johnson, Scotty Miller, Cyril Grayson and Breshad Perriman. Taking a receiver in the first round seems a little like a luxury for the Buccaneers this year, and he would have to quickly be better than Gage to get significant playing time.
The reason for my yes here boils down to Jason Licht's repeated statements about "trusting the board" in the Bucs' draft room and avoiding pushing a need to high. By that I mean, even if a defensive lineman or cornerback might better meet a need, Licht won't force a player with a lower-round grade into a first-round spot. Licht and the Bucs obviously want to win now, but they also have to keep an eye on the future as well. They don't want to make a pick, or not make a pick, that a year or two from now they will regret. If a wide receiver is definitely the highest-rated player on their board, and there isn't a prospect that's really close at a position of greater need, I believe Licht would pull the trigger on that receiver.
Could the Bucs address the tight end position in the draft given that Gronk hasn't said whether or not he's coming back?
-tylerlapresti (via Instagram)
I'm just a 'yes' machine today. Yes, I could definitely see the Buccaneers picking up a tight end in this year's draft.
I would be surprised, though not completely blown away, if the Bucs chose one in the first round. Most mock drafts are projecting the tight end position to be completely shut out of the opening round this year. (Running back is largely getting the same treatment.) I just went over to NFLMockDraftDatabase.com (a really useful resource, by the way) and scanned through the 20 most recent mock drafts on their list. I found nary a single tight end lurking in the first round of any of them. Mock drafts aren't the ultimate source, of course, but the general managers aren't talking – or to be more accurate, they're all talking without trying to say anything that would tip their hands – so we'll go with the media consensus. It would at least be a surprise to most NFL observers if a tight end snuck into the first round this year.
If one did make it up that high, it would probably be Colorado State's Trey McBride, who is a good pass-catcher who has a chance, at 6-3 and 259 pounds, to develop into a plus blocker. That type of two-way tight end isn't easy to find. Still, he projects more as a second-round pick. Still, the Buccaneers could target him or another tight end in the second round, or even – as a I wrote about at length above – trade down and out of the first round before addressing a position like tight end or running back.
On Tuesday, Jason Licht said that this year's draft might not have 30 players who carry a first-round grade but it's got enough depth to deliver good players in the middle rounds. That is likely true at the tight end position, where the Bucs could wait until the third round and still potentially land a player like UCLA's Greg Dulcich or Washington's Cade Otton. As a matter of fact, Tyler, when I did an All-Bucs mock draft back in March I had the Bucs landing Otton in the fourth round. I don't know if he'll actually last that long, but he'd probably be available in the third round.
I wouldn't put it past the Bucs to draft a tight end even if Gronkowski did return. I'm in the camp that has my fingers crossed that he will, and he's just biding his time to focus on other things this offseason, but even if he does you probably can't count on more than one more season in Tampa. Meanwhile, Cameron Brate has crossed into his thirties and the only other tight end on the roster is the largely untested Codey McElroy. At some point, the Bucs are going to need a youth infusion at the position, and if the right value is there at the right time, that could be found this year.
But the more likely scenario is that the Buccaneers will still not know for sure about Gronkowski's status as they start the draft next week. To me, that makes it more likely that they keep their eyes on the position as the draft progresses.