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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sprinting Towards Free Agency | S.S. Mailbag

This week, as the start of unrestricted free agency looms, Buccaneers fans have questions about positional depth, Julio Jones and more


In the "Free Agent Focus" series running on in the leadup to the start of the new league year on March 15, we are looking at 10 of the 22 potential unrestricted free agents on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' current roster. Our next entry, due to be published on Friday, concerns veteran defensive lineman Will Gholston.

Gholston, who was a fourth-round draft pick in 2013, has already lasted a decade in Tampa and has played in a total of 153 games. That's the ninth most in franchise history, five more than Shelton Quarles and five fewer than Mike Alstott. Surprisingly, though, Gholston is not the former fourth-round pick with the highest number on that list. That would be former Pro Bowl center Tony Mayberry, who played in all 160 Tampa Bay games from 1990-99 after also being selected in the fourth round.

The Buccaneers have actually on a bit of a roll with their first-round picks recently. The two players they selected in that frame last spring, tight end Cade Otton and punter Jake Camarda, look like definite keepers and the team may try to re-sign 2019 fourth-round edge rusher Anthony Nelson after he had a bit of a breakout season. Jordan Whitehead, a fourth-rounder in 2018, was an impact starter during his four years in Tampa, performing well enough to land a lucrative second contract with the Jets.

You could say pretty much the same thing about 205 fourth-rounder linebacker Kwon Alexander, who eventually signed with the 49ers. Jaelon Darden never really developed into the splashy return man or run-after-the-catch receiver the team envisioned when they took him in the fourth round in 2021, but CB Ryan Smith (2016), defensive tackle Akeem Spence (2013), tight end Luke Stocker (2011) and wide receiver Mike Williams (2010) were all useful players at the very least.

Noting that Gholston could pass Mayberry and several others on that games played list if he returns for at least one more season in Tampa, got me thinking about this: Who are the most productive fourth-round draft picks in franchise history. I know that's a pretty arbitrary topic but once I hit on it I needed to know. So here are the leaders in a variety of categories in Buccaneers franchise history among players drafted by Tampa Bay in the fourth round:

  • Games Played: 160, Tony Mayberry
  • Games Started: 145, Mayberry
  • Passing Yards: 6,094, Craig Erickson
  • Touchdown Passes: 34, Erickson
  • Rushing Yards: 34, Horace Copeland
  • Rushing Touchdowns: N/A
  • Receiving Yards: 2,947, Mike Williams
  • Receptions: 215, Williams
  • Touchdown Receptions: 25, Williams
  • Sacks: 19.5, Will Gholston
  • Interceptions: 10, Tanard Jackson
  • Tackles: 401, Gholston

Of course, I have some notes about that list. Most interesting are the rushing records. Buc fans of a certain vintage will certainly recall that Horace "Hi-C" Copeland was not a running back. He is a receiver. Yet he is the former Buccaneers fourth-rounder (1993) with the most rushing yards because Tampa Bay has essentially never hit on a fourth-round running back. Not that they've tried very often. Third on the list is Darden, with 13.

The Buccaneers have spent a fourth-round draft pick on a running back only four times in franchise history. Two of them, Travis Stephens in 2002 and Dave Barrett in 1982, never took a handoff as a Buccaneer. Rudy Harris, who was really a fullback who was drafted in 1993, had 29 rushing yards for Tampa Bay. Michael Gunter, a fourth-rounder in 1984, had 12. That means the Bucs have a total of 41 rushing yards in their history from running backs they took in the fourth round. (Michael Pittman, whose 3,362 rushing yards for Tampa Bay is sixth in team history, was a fourth-round pick, but by the Cardinals, not the Bucs.)

Gholston's longevity helps him take the clear lead in the sacks category, though it's interesting that Anthony Nelson is second on the list with 11.5. Gholston barely beats out Kwon Alexander in the tackles category, 401 to 380.

Mike Williams get a clean sweep of the receiver categories but he had some pretty tight competition from Bruce Hill in yards and touchdowns and Ron Hall in receptions. Both Hill and Hall were fourth-rounders in 1987.

Okay, that's it. Maybe next week I'll do fifth-rounders.

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

What area do you feel we need the most depth?

- bucs_uk (via Instagram)

I'm not sure if this question is asking "at what position does the team need depth in general," or "where does the team most need to add depth?" Probably the latter but we can address both.

Ideally, you want to have quality depth at every position. That's very hard to do, and even the best teams usually have some thin areas. The Chiefs were starting three rookies at cornerback in the Super Bowl and the Eagles had to work with a patchwork offensive line down the stretch due to injuries. But both of those teams had excellent depth overall – particularly Philly on the D-Line – and it showed in their results.

In general, though, if I had a team and could guarantee quality depth at a couple positions I would choose cornerback first and probably edge rusher second. Those are not easy positions to cultivate and keep depth; look at the Bucs potentially losing Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting after spending four seasons watching them develop them into good cornerbacks. Maybe it's just recency bias but I feel like the Bucs have spent the last two seasons rotating their corners due to a string of injuries. It's a very difficult position to play, and if you don't have a quality backup ready to step in when one of your starters gets hurt, the opposing offense is going to pick on that weakness in your defense.

Now, to the question of where are the Bucs potentially going to need to find some depth this offseason, there's several answers depending upon what happens in free agency. Given the team's difficult salary cap situation and long list of pending unrestricted free agents, it's inevitable that some core players are going to depart. I already mentioned Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting, but five of the seven defensive linemen who got snaps for the Buccaneers last year are due to become free agents. Only Vita Vea and Logan Hall are under contract for 2023 at this moment. So whether it's re-signing most of those players are finding replacements, the Bucs will be searching for depth at CB and DL in the months ahead, including in the 2023 draft.

One more position I would add to that is quarterback. For the first time since, I believe, 2009, the Buccaneers won't have a concrete answer at the start of May as to who will be their Week One starting quarterback in September. Currently, third-year man Kyle Trask is the only QB under contract with the Bucs for 2023. Obviously, the team will add at least two more, whether through the draft or free agency (including incumbent backup Blaine Gabbert, who is a pending UFA). It was clear from the podium sessions for both General Manager Jason Licht and Head Coach Todd Bowles at the NFL Scouting Combine on Tuesday that the team has high hopes for Trask but that it will be a wide open competition once some more passers are rostered.

My question is, are we bringing Julio Jones back?

- Leonardo_Michelangelo (via Instagram)

I want to make it clear that this answer is just my own musing and is not meant to reflect the thoughts or strategies of Licht, Bowles and the rest of the team's decision makers. I also want to point out that, when his knee was feeling right, Jones showed that he could still be a valuable asset to a passing attack, at the very least as a third man in three-receiver sets. Look no further than the recent playoff game against Dallas, in which Jones caught seven passes for 74 yards and a touchdown.

All of that said, the addition of Jones last July feels like a one-year arrangement. I say that mostly because, as noted above, the Buccaneers have a very difficult cap situation to work out and it's going to take a lot of maneuvering just to get in compliance with the limit before the start of the new league year on March 15. Creating a good amount of cap space to sign or re-sign free agents will take even more work, and I think the team is going to have to prioritize who they try the hardest to bring back. With Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Russell Gage all under contract for 2023, receiver is not the position that is screaming out for more depth, especially compared to the ones I identified above. I'm sure there is some number at which staying together makes sense for both Jones and the team, but he will have the opportunity to look around for other deals.

There's also the possibility that restructuring Jones's current deal provides some cap relief. Due to some automatically voiding years on what was essentially a one-year deal last year, Jones carries a dead cap figure of about $3.4 million in 2023, according to Spotrac. If it helps the cap situation to re-sign him, then maybe it's an attractive option, but that would have to happen before the start of free agency.

Will the Bucs pursue Lamar Jackson in free agency??

- chickencoop12 (via Instagram)

The first question is whether Jackson will even hit free agency at all, and I strongly believe that he will not. Speaking at the Combine on Tuesday, Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta said the Ravens were "hopeful" that the team would get a deal done with Jackson before the deadline to apply a franchise tag, which is March 7 at 4:00 p.m. ET. DeCosta also said the team has not decided what type of tag it would use on Jackson if necessary, exclusive or non-exclusive. All of that makes it pretty clear that the franchise tag is in the offing if that deal is not done.

The Buccaneers couldn't openly discuss an interest in Jackson at this time because he's still under contract with the Ravens and to do so would be tampering. I can discuss the topic in general terms, and I think two things here are true. One, Jackson is a marvelous player and if I were running a team I would love to have him as my quarterback. And, two, I don't see any way with their current cap situation that the Buccaneers could manage the addition of a $45-$50 million per-year contract. Spotrac has Jackson's market value pegged at a $40.7 million average annual salary, but the Browns gave DeShaun Watson more than $46 million per, and all of it guaranteed. I can't see Jackson signing for less.

Yes, I know that the Ravens could tag Jackson and then trade him to another team. But then you're not only talking about adding a contract in the $32 million range for 2023 and giving up a lot of very valuable draft assets. Again, I am not speaking for the intentions of Licht and company, but the premise seems extremely unlikely to me.

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