Twelve different rookies saw action – many of them a significant amount of action – for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the 2016 regular season, continuing a youth movement that has transformed the roster over the past three years. That the Buccaneers were able to post a winning record while breaking in so many new contributors is impressive, and a great sign for the near future of the franchise.
"Really good, really good," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter, when asked how well the team is positioned to add to a talented roster core. "We mentioned some of that yesterday, that I think on both sides of the ball, [we have] a good, young talent base. Both sides – proven guys that can play at a high level and, shoot, [we have] 70 million or whatever it is in cap space. Yeah, we're in good shape."
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Sometimes a team plays a large number of rookies because those young players are too good to keep off the field. Sometimes it's a matter of necessity. While there was some of the latter during the Bucs' 2016 season – such as the rookie-laden defensive line the team ran out in a Monday night win at Carolina – most of it was the former. A third straight productive draft and some astute rookie free agent pickups meant the Class of 2017 was just as impactful as its two predecessors.
Those 12 rookies – kicker Roberto Aguayo, running back Peyton Barber, guard Caleb Benenoch, tight end Alan Cross, cornerback Javien Elliott, running back Russell Hansbrough, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, defensive end DaVonte Lambert, defensive back Ryan Smith, defensive end Noah Spence, defensive tackle Channing Ward and offensive tackle Leonard Wester – combined for 120 individual games played and 28 starts.
The offensive subset of those 12 saw a total of 432 snaps when the Bucs had the ball, which is not an overwhelming high number. Tampa Bay's offense is already loaded with second and third-year players who have established themselves quickly. The defensive subset, on the other hand, combined for 11,671 snaps, or just under 20% of the team's total on that side of the ball. Aguayo obviously played on 100% of the team's placekicking snaps and the Bucs also got big special teams contributions from Smith, Barber and Cross, in particular.
The Bucs' first two picks of the 2016 draft were, unsurprisingly, the biggest contributors. Hargreaves started every game and finished with 76 tackles, an interception, nine passes defensed and a forced fumble. Spence started out as a pass-rush specialist and developed into a more complete end, all while playing most of the season with one shoulder in a harness after it was dislocated in Week Four. Spence finished third on the team in both sacks (5.5) and quarterback hits (12).
"The thing I always said this year is that we're only as good as our young guys, and that's what's making us so good," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, a team captain and the Bucs' sack leader. "Our young guys, they have a vet's mentality with how they approach the game and how they prepare. I'm excited about it, because most of our young guys are beyond their years. They just do everything right and they're going to help us move forward."
Twenty-eight of the 53 players on the Bucs' season-ending roster – 52.8% of the whole – were third-year players or younger. That includes a few very late additions, like Hansbrough, but also discounts that another five players in that category finished the season on injured reserve. In addition, the Bucs had several young players on the practice squad they are high on, including rookie safety Isaiah Johnson.
The most important one of those 28 youngster, simply due to the position he plays, is quarterback Jameis Winston, who just finished breaking franchise records in his second season and expects much more out of himself in the years to come. He is surrounded by young players that can be part of the offensive core for years, including wide receiver Mike Evans, offensive linemen Ali Marpet, Donovan Smith and Kevin Pamphile and running back Charles Sims. Those were all 2014 and 2015 draft picks; the Bucs also have unearthed major undrafted finds in tight end Cam Brate and wide receiver Adam Humphries. Evans, Humphries and Brate, not one of them older than 25, combined for 208 of the team's 355 receptions, 2,623 of its 4,165 passing yards and 22 of its 29 touchdown catches.
"I'm very excited," said Winston of the young core around him. "That's all I can think about right now – when is our next game? When is the offseason going to be over with? The future is bright. I'm happy that our young guys gave so much to the team."
The Bucs will have seven picks in the 2017 draft to try to add to that young core, although at some point it's going to become much harder for newcomers to find significant playing time. That would be especially true if the team can get even more from some of the current youngsters who haven't yet carved out a big role.
For instance, the coaching staff plans to move Ryan Smith, a fourth-round pick in 2016, to cornerback after trying him out at safety in his rookie season. Smith excelled on special teams, especially after Russell Shepard's playing time on offense increased, and that was evident on game days. Smith didn't play a single snap of defense as a rookie but he got plenty of action on the practice field, and the Bucs came to the conclusion that he has a bright future at cornerback.
"We're going to move Ryan back to corner full-time," said Koetter on Monday. "He played both in college. We originally thought because of his size that we wanted to try to play him as a safety. "Over the course of the year, through his play on scout team, it became apparent that we have very high hopes for him, long-term, at corner. So yeah, I think that draft pick there is going to turn out just fine. He's going to be a corner long-term and behind Hargreaves and [Brent] Grimes, we feel like we've got good depth at that position."
If the Bucs are right, they'll end up with another success story from their recent drafts, and another part of their new, young core. And if 2017 is any indication, that young core has the franchise pointed in the right direction.