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NFL Combine Takeaways: Contract Negotiations, A Scout's Perspective, Progression of Young Talent & More 

A look at key topics discussed at the 2024 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis

Combine takeaways

On Tuesday in Indianapolis from the 2024 NFL Scouting Combine, both General Manager Jason Licht and Head Coach Todd Bowles fielded a variety of questions from local media on a plethora of topics. In addition, the club's northeast region college scout, Cesar Rivera, provided unique insight on the interview/evaluation process. From contract negotiations of impending free agents Baker Mayfield and Antoine Winfield Jr to the progression of Calijah Kancey and Yaya Diaby in their first year, here is a rundown of the top quotes from Tuesday's Combine address:

Todd Bowles: Antoine Winfield Jr. Sensational 2023 Campaign

Antoine Winfield Jr. accumulated a career-high in tackles (117), sacks (five), forced fumbles (five), fumble recoveries (four) and passes defensed (12) through 16 games in 2023. He holds the most sacks by a safety in Bucs' franchise history with 14.0 and is the lone defensive back with 10-plus sacks, five-plus forced fumbles, and five-plus fumble recoveries through their first four seasons (since at least 2000). Additionally, Winfield is one of three defensive backs with 5.0-plus sacks, 10-plus takeaways and 350-plus tackles since the start of the 2020 season. For his contributions on the gridiron in 2023, Winfield Jr. was named an AP first-team All-Pro. Offenses around the NFL are forced to adjust their gameplan based on where No. 31 is at on the field – a true testament to his elite level of play. Winfield is an irreplaceable chess piece for the Bucs. He plays with ball-hawking twitch, rare pursuit leverage/angles against the run and pass and unmatched play recognition. Winfield possesses both the range and awareness to man the post and the physicality and downfield trigger to blitz.

"He had one of the best seasons I have seen a safety have as an all-around player," Bowles stated. "It wasn't just in the game; it was in practice as well. He was the only guy that we practiced in the red zone, if he picks the ball off at the five, he is going to run 95 yards and then go back in the game. He is not going to take himself out and go to the water bucket. He picked it off in the end zone, he ran 100 yards…he transferred practice to the game – him and Lavonte [David] – almost better than anybody that I have been around."

Winfield Jr. is an impending unrestricted free agent and one of the cornerstones that the Bucs have prioritized during contract negotiations. Jason Licht confirmed that the team has begun conversations with Winfield. If a long-term extension is not finalized, the Buccaneers could opt to place the franchise tag on Winfield, locking him up in Tampa Bay. When asked about the tag, Licht frankly responded, "we would like to get a deal done."  

Jason Licht: Baker Mayfield Contract Negotiation

Baker Mayfield engineered a stellar comeback in 2023 with the Buccaneers, reigniting his career. He galvanized the Bucs' offense and was selected as 2023's Most Improved Player by the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA). He compiled a 2023 season in which he established career highs in completions (364), passing yards (4,044), passing touchdowns (28) and completion percentage (64.3%). He was one-of-two players this season with 28-or-more passing touchdowns and 10-or-fewer interceptions, joining Cowboys' Prescott. Mayfield ranked among league-leaders in passing touchdowns (seventh), passing yards (ninth), completions (10th) and passer rating (12th). He became the second player in Buccaneers history to throw for 4,000-plus yards, 25-or-more touchdowns and 10- or-fewer interceptions in a single season, along with Tom Brady (2022). He led Tampa Bay to victories in five of the team's final six games of the regular season, recording the club's first four-game win streak since the 2021 season. During that span, Mayfield became the first visiting quarterback in NFL history to post a perfect passer rating (158.3) at Lambeau Field, earning his fourth career Player of the Week honors. Throughout the season, Mayfield's leadership style on-and-off the field bolstered the unit. His fiery disposition, chippy mentality, arm talent, improvisation skills and tight-window theatrics set the tone.  

"We want Baker back," Licht smiled. "Trust me, I cannot go two blocks in Tampa without someone asking me and I totally understand. He has been great for our team; he has been great for the organization, and we would love to have Baker [back]."

Jason Licht: Young Player Ascension

By design and as a byproduct of injuries at certain positions, the Buccaneers had one of the youngest teams in the NFL in 2023. Both rookies and second-year players held significant roles on both sides of the football, spearheading the team. Tampa Bay's young talent stepped up in 2023 and following the draft in April, that nucleus of players will expand.

"We had the second-most play time percentage of players that are in their first three years, so we have a lot of good young players," described Licht. "I think they are all going to take a step up. We are going to try our best to have another great young group of players in this year's draft, free agency, or whatever you can do to help us again."

Two of the players in the aforementioned young pool that made an impact in 2023 were Calijah Kancey and Yaya Diaby. Kancey, the team's first-round draft pick out of Pittsburgh, was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for November. He became the first interior defensive lineman in team history to win Rookie of the Month honors, recording 10 tackles (seven for loss), four quarterback hits, 2.0 sacks and one pass defensed through four games in November.  Following that month, Kancey was the only rookie with 25-or-more pressures on fewer than 350 defensive snaps per TruMedia data. He concluded his rookie season with 10 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hits and 4.0 sacks. The explosive three-technique utilized first-step quickness and superb contact balance to invade the backfield. He routinely collapsed the pocket, quickly bypassing leaning blockers with a lethal pass rush arsenal. With top closing burst, understanding of angles to exploit and a relentless motor, Kancey helped fortify the Bucs' defensive line. Yaya Diaby, the Bucs' third-round draft pick, led all rookies in 2023 with 12 tackles for loss. Originally brought in to rotate in sub-packages due to his prowess against the run, Diaby earned a starting role opposite Shaquil Barrett with his development as a well-rounded outside linebacker. He showcased his skills as a power rusher and lateral quickness. Diaby quickly separated at the point of attack with a menacing punch. Both Diaby and Kancey solidified Todd Bowles' front and only scratched the surface in 2023.

"He [Kancey] is super explosive and very smart," stated Licht. "I think he is ahead of the curve for a rookie, and he will be even further ahead next year. He is a super competitive guy. Usually, your whole draft class kind of takes after the first pick and Calijah is the perfect example of what you want the rest of the class to fall in line on because he is always in the building, and he is always trying to improve, and he is always asking questions. He and Yaya were two best buddies running around all the time and it is fun to see how those two are going to grow together and be dominant players."

Jason Licht: Where is the 2024 Draft Class Deep At?

Every year, the draft shifts and certain position groups seem to monopolize draft boards and mocks. This year, offensive tackle, receiver, quarterback and cornerback have been regarded as the 'deep' position groups of the 2024 class in first-round projections. Due to a myriad of factors, including Combine metrics and Pro Day performances, players will rise and fall on boards across the NFL as information is gathered through exposure. Jason Licht shared his thoughts on which position groups stand out in 2024.

"Well, offensive tackle, offensive line, there are a lot of interesting players. I think the receiver group is very good. There are some defensive linemen that are maybe not strong, strong in terms of numbers at the top, but throughout once again. So, I do not like to talk about weaknesses in the draft because you can always find some sleepers."

Cesar Rivera: Elimination is Part of the Process

The pre-draft evaluation is a month-long extensive process. Not every prospect is an ideal match for the Buccaneers and through the process of elimination, the right players emerge. At the Combine, Bucs' football staff, scouts and front office personnel undergo interviews with prospects to get a feel for who the individuals are as men and their makeup on the field. The Bucs place a premium on high-character individuals and at the Combine, the gut is either validated or additional research is required to make a comprehensive decision. Cesar Rivera discussed the attributes he prioritizes throughout the interview process in Indianapolis.

"The interviews play a big part in the process, including all-star games and combine. Often it is the first time we are actually face to face with the prospects. We have collected information on them throughout the year via our sources, but this is the chance we get to talk to them, to feel them out, close some loops on things that we have questions on. Really, just using the opportunity to fill in the gaps of the character profile and at times even confirm the concerns. I think it goes without saying that not everyone is who we are looking for - so, as much as we are looking for guys who fit us, elimination is just as much part of the process. As far as actual traits - I think a lot of it is feel. You want to get a good understanding of general intelligence, ability to communicate, their presence, etc. Certain positions definitely have different traits you are looking for. For example, with quarterbacks, I think intelligence is at a premium, communication too. I want to sense confidence and a presence is important. It is always good when you can match what you see on the field with who you meet off the field, it helps you feel better as things align."

Cesar Rivera: Effort and Toughness

A plethora of factors will weigh on the ultimate question: Is this player a fit for the Buccaneers? Whether it is work ethic, fiery disposition, character intangibles - all are studied at length to create a thorough examination of each prospect that is on the team's radar. Scouts spend countless hours watching film, going on campus visits and interviewing teammates/sources to build an all-inclusive report of each prospect to determine whether or not the individual should be on the final draft board come April. In deciding which players align with the Bucs' mold, Cesar Rivera looks at "effort and toughness."

"I think at the core of it all is that we have relied heavily on our 'I Am That Man' premise. That has been well documented before. For me, the thing that stands out in the evaluation process beyond character and ability is effort and toughness: Playing to the whistle, straining to chase down the field for a tackle, finishing your blocks, not running out of bounds and playing behind your pads as a ball carrier to get the extra yards. Those are the little things; those are the things that win games and those are all things you can control. To me, that is the stuff that's non-negotiable and fits what we are trying to find in a Buc."

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