S.S. Mailbag: Offseason Work

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Last season, M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead combined to log 29 starts in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' secondary, together contributing 127 tackles, two interceptions and 28 passes defensed. If Jason Licht hadn't been willing to roll the dice a little bit on the evening of April 26, 2018, Stewart, Davis and Whitehead might have never been Buccaneers at all.

That was the first night of the 2018 NFL Draft, and Licht's calculated gamble was to trade down five spots from the seventh-overall position in the first round, hoping his top target would still be on the board at number 12. The Buffalo Bills were coveting a quarterback and Licht took advantage, shaking a pair of second-round picks out of the Bills for that short move down in the first round.

The Bucs were thus loaded with three second-round selections, their own at number 38 and the two new ones at numbers 53 and 56. Licht would later move down again from that final second-round pick, sliding seven spots and picking up yet another new pick, number 117 in the fourth round. Tampa Bay used its own second-rounder on USC running back Ronald Jones but the three additional selections generated by those trades during into Stewart (53rd pick), Davis (63rd pick) and Whitehead (117th pick).

As I noted about a week after that draft, Licht's maneuvers led to the Buccaneers adding more draft-pick capital from the beginning of the 2018 draft to its end than any other team. In his first six drafts as Tampa Bay's General Manager, Licht has used a trade down in the first round twice to add capital in this way. Surprisingly, that hadn't been a particularly common strategy in franchise history prior to 2014; in fact, in the first 38 Buccaneer drafts the team had made a trade down at some point in the first round just five times.

So that's seven times in total. How did it work out each time? Mostly good, one historic, a couple forgettable. Here they are in reverse chronological order. In some cases, we had to follow another subsequent trade or two to see what the Bucs ended up with.

2018. I already gave you the details of this one above. It definitely seems like a win so far, as Vea looks like a budding star and both Davis and Whitehead have quickly become fixtures in the secondary.

2016. Tampa Bay was originally set to pick ninth but Licht agreed to a small move down with the Chicago Bears, who were in the 11th slot. That move netted the Bucs an extra fourth-rounder, number 106 overall. Now at 11, the Bucs selected cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. Later, Licht used that added pick as the capital necessary to swap picks with the Kansas City Chiefs, moving up from number 74 in the third round to number 59 in the second round. That pick was used on kicker Roberto Aguayo. The draft pick maneuvering was deft but since neither Hargreaves nor Aguayo worked out in the long run we can't look back at this draft too fondly.

NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah breaks down this year's draft.

2012. Tampa Bay held the fifth pick to start the night but quickly struck a deal with the Jaguars, who wished to move up from the seventh slot to land wide receiver Justin Blackmon. At number seven, Tampa Bay selected safety Mark Barron after picking up an extra fourth-rounder (number 101) from the Jags. Before the first night of the draft was over, Mark Dominik then used that extra pick to trade up five spots and back into the bottom of the first round, selecting running back Doug Martin at number 31. That trade with Denver didn't even cost the Bucs a pick because Dominik also got a fourth-round pick back from the Broncos, number 126 overall. Deep breath because we're not done yet. On the second day of the draft, with Lavonte David surprisingly still on the board in the latter half of the second round, Dominik used that number 126 pick to trade up 10 spots to number 58 to grab the Nebraska linebacker. The Bucs also got a seventh-round pick back in that deal, which was used on Northwestern tight end Drake Dunsmore. All in all, it was an impressive round of dealing and a pretty good overall return. David is one of the best players in team history and Martin had a couple really productive seasons. Barron was traded in his third year and later morphed into a linebacker with the Rams, and Dunsmore never played in the league.

1998. This is the only time the Buccaneers have ever traded down in the first round on the day of the draft and gone all the way out of the round. Tampa Bay owned the 23rd pick (in a 30-team draft at the time) but took a sweet offer from the Raiders, who were trying to move up to get tackle Mo Collins. To move up from pick number 34 – just 11 spots – the Raiders coughed up pick number 59 in the second round. The Bucs went on to select Jacquez Green at number 34, then traded the 59th pick to San Diego for the Chargers' first-round pick in 2000. That pick was later packaged in a trade to get Keyshawn Johnson from the Jets. Green had a decent run as a receiver and return man and Johnson was a starter on the 2002 Super Bowl-winning team.

1997. Rich McKay got creative again on this draft weekend. He first traded up from the Bucs' original spot at number eight, jumping two spots to get the sixth pick from the Jets, who had earlier traded down from the first pick with the Rams. The Bucs' trade up cost them a fourth-rounder but McKay recouped that pick and made it even better with a trade back down to number 12, as the Seahawks were eager to move up to get tackle Walter Jones and were willing to part with a third-rounder. That was an astute move by Seattle – Jones is now in the Hall of Fame – but the Bucs did quite well too with running back Warrick Dunn at the 12th spot. The whole process turned the 104th overall pick into the 63rd pick, which the Bucs used on guard Frank Middleton. Middleton also started in the Bucs' Super Bowl…albeit for the Oakland Raiders.

1995. This was McKay's finest draft moment. He traded down from the seventh pick to number 12, as the Eagles were after Combine workout warrior Mike Mamula. The Bucs then saw future Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp fall to them at the 12th spot. The Eagles gave up two second-round picks in the deal and the Bucs sent back a third. Those were the 41st and 63rd overall picks, which McKay later sent to Dallas in exchange for the 28th overall pick late in the first round. He then used that pick on another future Hall-of-Famer, linebacker Derrick Brooks. The net result was turning the seventh and 72nd picks into Sapp and Brooks. Not too shabby.

1978. This was another watershed trade for the Buccaneers. They came into the draft with the first-overall pick for the third straight year, after landing Lee Roy Selmon and Ricky Bell at the top of their first college drafts. This time, the Bucs used that top asset to bring in a haul of players instead of just one. By moving all the way down to the 17th pick, the Bucs were able to collect tight end Jimmie Giles and three additional draft picks over the next two years. Houston surely didn't regret the deal, as they used the top pick on future Hall-of-Famer (I'm using that term a lot) Earl Campbell. But the Bucs also succeeded in landing a franchise quarterback at number 17 in Doug Williams, while Giles blossomed into a full-blown star in Tampa. Both Williams and Giles are in the Bucs' Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. The whole exchange could have been a huge win for the young Tampa Bay team, but unfortunately it squandered those three additional picks. A 1978 second-rounder (44th overall) was used on guard Brett Moritz, while third and fifth-rounders in 1979 turned into defensive end Reggie Lewis and quarterback Chuck Fusina, respectively. Not one of those three players ever made a single start for the Buccaneers and they combined to play just 35 games in Tampa between them.

Trading down in the first round? Often a good idea if you're not too invested in one particular prospect. You may not always pick the right players but you can definitely increase your chances by adding more draft-pick capital.

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 tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Are you going to work on your offensive line or defensive line in the offseason?

- @upercuthook_ko_maby_tko, via Instagram

Wait, is that an either-or question? Can't I have both?

That's my answer, actually: Yes to both. In a way, that's the only possible answer because the Buccaneers have one starting offensive lineman and four of their key front-seven defenders potentially ticketed for free agency. (In this case, I'm assuming that you're using the term "defensive line" to include both down linemen like Vita Vea and outside linebackers/edge rushers like Shaq Barrett.) I'm talking about Demar Dotson on offense and the quartet of Barrett, Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib on defense. Whether the Buccaneers are trying to re-sign those players or finding players to replace them – or some combination of both, which is likely – they will be "working on" those positions.

The emphasis on the defensive side will be on bringing as many of those players back as possible, because the defensive front performed very well last season. General Manager Jason Licht was asked specifically about the team realistically being able to retain the trio of Barrett, Suh and Pierre-Paul and he said he did believe it was possible. That's a good sign. If Licht and the Buccaneers didn't think there was a realistic way to re-sign all three, I'm sure we'd be hearing talk trying to prepare us for the eventual departure of one or more of those guys. You know, "We love all these players and would like to have them back but sometimes you can't get everything that you want and you have to make some tough decisions." Stuff like that.

Even if the Buccaneers do get three or four of those front-line defenders back, there will still be some work to do at the position. You need depth, and both Beau Allen and Rakeem Nunez-Roches are free agents as well. There are some interesting defensive line free agents likely to be available come March 18, and the 2020 draft in April could also offer the Bucs an opportunity for a down lineman or an edge rusher with the 14th overall pick.

Now, if by "work on" you mean find a way to improve the play of the position from 2019 to 2020, then I think the focus will be more on the offensive line. If the Bucs can retain the basic core of what they had in their front seven last year, there isn't too much room for improvement. Barrett was the NFL's sack leader with 19.5 QB takedowns and he and Pierre-Paul combined for eight sacks in the last two games alone. As a team, the Buccaneers recorded 47 sacks, their second-highest single-season total ever. Meanwhile, Suh and Vea keyed the NFL's best run defense. Let's keep the gang together!

Depending upon whom you choose to believe, the Buccaneers' offensive line either needs a little bit of work or a lot. Pro Football Focus ranked Tampa Bay's line seventh-best in the league in 2019 and raved in particular about the pass protection provided by the interior linemen. However, Football Outsiders had Tampa Bay ranked 23rd in run blocking and 22nd in pass protection.

The raw numbers paint a middle-of-the-road picture. Tampa Bay ranked 17th in sacks allowed per pass play and 28th in yards per carry. However, one should probably factor in that Tampa Bay's passing attack has more long-developing plays than most offenses, and the running backs share part of the blame for the subpar rushing attack.

The Buccaneers will likely be looking for a new right tackle, with Dotson's contract expiring. Head Coach Bruce Arians said it was possible the team could bring Dotson back, but even if that happens they will probably be adding somebody to compete for the job and to lock it down long-term. And the team was happy with how second-year man Alex Cappa performed in his first year as the starting right guard but surely will be working to help him take his game up a notch in his third season.

Update on the quarterback situation?

- @tyler.gillick, via Instagram

It's a holding pattern for now, Tyler. A holding pattern. But things are going to start happening soon. With the start of free agency just 13 days away and the end of the window to apply franchise tags just six days away, we're either going to get some action or get some answers based on inaction.

Obviously, both Licht and Arians were asked about the Bucs' quarterback situation in a variety of ways at the Combine, and the basic gist of the answer was that there were still too many undetermined variables to know what the best answer is. Arians has used the "Door Number Two" phrase on several occasions to emphasize that the Bucs need to look at all possible options to see if Jameis Winston is the best one.

When asked why he has been clear that the team doesn't plan to let Shaq Barrett go while reserving judgment on Winston's return, Arians said this:

"One is the sack leader, and they're hard to find. And I know he wants to be in this defense. The other is an unknown quantity to me still. You know, 5,000 yards and 30 touchdowns is awesome…30 interceptions. Can we win with Jameis? Hell, yeah. There's no doubt. But as a coach, a head coach, you've got to decide, is there a better option? And we'll see if there is."

In the meantime, we wait for dominoes to fall. A couple already have, such as Drew Brees choosing to return to the Saints for at least one more year. With Brees starting and the team likely also to retain restricted free agent Taysom Hill, it seems likely that Teddy Bridgewater will be allowed to test free agency and find his own starting job somewhere. The Lions are publicly adamant that rumors of a Matthew Stafford trade are absurd. The Tom Brady Watch continues; if he were to actually leave New England, that might knock another starting quarterback loose. Where will Philip Rivers land?

We're likely not going to get too much more useful information until next week. When the franchise tag deadline passes we'll know that either the Bucs are making sure they have a way to keep Winston around (by applying a tag) or making it so that they can't stop him from testing the market (by not applying a tag). It's been a long and information-starved wait since the end of the 2019 season, but at least we are closing in on some answers.

Scott,

I believe this offseason has been the most crucial offseason for the BUCS in a while. The decisions they have to make with Free Agents are very difficult. The good thing is I believe they are all good players, and not players to keep for status-quo. I think in the past our Free Agents have had a hard time finding work after leaving the organization. I believe this year is different, and they would all find jobs rather quickly. That leads to my question. With the current FA situation, does that mean the team has finally "arrived", and will be extremely competitive next year?

Rodney

You make a good point, Rodney. There have definitely been some years in which the Bucs' own list of free agents didn't draw much attention league-wide. Just two years ago, the players who made up the team's list of unrestricted free agents were the likes of DE Will Clarke, CB Brent Grimes, CB Robert McClain, DT Clinton McDonald, G Kevin Pamphile, RB Charles Sims, G Evan Smith, S Keith Tandy and S T.J. Ward. No offense to any of those players or the contributions they made as Buccaneers but none have really gone on to prominent roles elsewhere. That would suggest the Buccaneers' 2017 roster had a good chunk of players who were near the end of their careers or no longer among the best at their positions.

You saw that start to change a little bit last year when both Kwon Alexander and Adam Humphries got very big deals and priced the Bucs out of keeping players they had developed in-house. But this year is bigger. On this list of the top 101 potential free agents in 2020 published by a pair of NFL.com writers last week, there are Bucs ranked fourth (Barrett), 25th (Winston), 31st (Pierre-Paul), 65th (Suh), 78th (Breshad Perriman) and 82nd (Demar Dotson). That's six. Only Dallas has more players on the list with seven, and otherwise only the Saints match the Bucs with a half-dozen. These are coveted players who will find a job somewhere, and several of them will get lucrative deals for sure.

So you're right, this year is a little different. The Bucs don't just need the likes of Barrett and Suh back because they're roster filler but because they were a big part of what went right in 2019 and would go a long way towards helping the team take another step forward in 2020. Does all of this mean that the Bucs have "arrived" as you say, that they are on the doorstep to being a playoff team again? I think it's a little too early to tell. Obviously, the quarterback situation has to be figured out. And while the defense played well in the second half of the season it still must prove that the midseason turnaround will last and that they can play an entire season that way.

I can tell you that the team-builders are thinking the way you're thinking. They believe they are on the cusp of something very good and that's why they're so motivated to keep many of those potential free agents around. Below is what Licht recently had to say about the 2019 season and the team's potential going forward. It's a long quote but I highlighted the two parts I think are most relevant here.

"You know, it was a strange year because so many good things [happened]," he said. "The defense was as good as it's been since I've been here and I think we have a chance to surpass good and be great next year. I think the last eight games we ended up in the top three in a lot of categories, top five in a lot and top 10 in most. It was really great seeing that. It was fun to go to the games just to watch our defense because we knew we were going to have a chance. Our offense obviously put a lot of points on the board and had a lot of yards. There were a lot of things that didn't go our way on that side of the ball. We put our defense on the field too early and got behind in too many games. But I just loved the fight of the team. I think it's a different vibe than I've ever seen here and I give Bruce all the credit, and his staff. We're excited. We think that we have a chance to be special."

I think it would probably not be wise to start saying the Buccaneers have arrived, even if we are confident in this team, like Licht is. I'd rather be quietly optimistic and then talk about the team's arrival when it actually happens.

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