In the final week of our countdown of the rosters moves that added up to a Super Bowl championship in 2020, four of the five players highlighted were part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two big goals for free agency. One was to retain a trio of key defensive free agents; the other was to somehow reel in one of the biggest free agency catches of all time, quarterback Tom Brady.
Today we look at the one exception to that list. In fact, the Buccaneers had already accomplished both of those tasks nearly a month before this player came aboard. As it turned out, the 2020 NFL Draft would bring a player that was arguably as important to the team's ultimate success as those other four, but it was far from a sure thing at the time.
The Buccaneers knew exactly what they were getting with the re-signings of Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaq Barrett and Ndamukong Suh. And though Brady was 42 years old at the time of his signing the Buccaneers had no doubt that he would continue to perform at a very high level. In contrast, the Bucs couldn't even be sure of who they would get in the first round of the draft, let alone how well that newcomer would play or how quickly he could make an impact.
We know now, of course, that the player selected by Jason Licht and Bruce Arians in the first round last April would not only step immediately into the starting lineup but also prove to be one of the very best rookies in the entire NFL in 2020. It's debatable whether the Buccaneers would have won Super Bowl LV if they hadn't made this particular session, but thanks to some aggressive maneuvering on draft night, they didn't have to find out.
Note: The countdown we are constructing over three weeks does roughly progress towards the most impactful moves at the end, but it is not strictly a ranking. There's not much of a distinction to be drawn between moves listed near each other in the countdown, and we're not trying to say that any particular re-signing on defense was more important than the next. There is, however, a clear number one. These are also not in chronological order.
Countdown: Top 15 Transactions in the Buccaneers' Pursuit of the 2020 Championship
3. Traded Up One Spot and Drafted T Tristan Wirfs in the First Round, April 23
Demar Dotson was the Buccaneers starting right tackle for most of the previous decade, and a good one at that, though injuries did cut a few of his seasons short. Heading into free agency in 2020, the Buccaneers had four of their five starting linemen from 2019 under contract, with Dotson the lone exception. Tampa Bay did not try to re-sign the veteran lineman and he eventually landed in Denver in August.
Given that the Buccaneers had few obvious holes in their starting lineup after their moves in free agency, it was widely believed they would look for Dotson's replacement in the draft. In Carmen Vitali's final roundup of mock drafts before the real thing last April, 12 of the 15 drafts survived had the Bucs taking an offensive tackle.
There was also a consensus among NFL analysts that four tackle prospects stood out above the rest; in alphabetical order they were Louisville's Mekhi Becton, Georgia's Andrew Thomas, Alabama's Jedrick Wills and Iowa's Tristan Wirfs. There was less consensus, however, about what order those four would come off the board and how quickly. Several of the mock drafts included in that final roundup actually had the Buccaneers landing Houston's Josh Jones after that top four had already been drafted before their spot at the 14th pick. The most common pairing for the Buccaneers in the mock drafts was with Thomas.
As it turned out, the New York Giants started the tackle run by taking Thomas at number four. The next five picks were all quarterbacks or defensive players, but then Cleveland took Wills and the New York Jets took Becton with consecutive picks at 10 and 11. This became a concern for Licht and his crew, and after the Raiders took wide receiver Henry Ruggs with the 12th pick, the Bucs made their move. Licht packaged a fourth-round pick with the Bucs' first-rounder and sent it to San Francisco for their first-rounder and a seventh-rounder. It was only a move up of one spot, but Licht felt he couldn't take the chance of another team jumping over them with a trade to steal Wirfs away.
"Yeah, we were getting a little frustrated but everything worked out extremely well," said Licht. "We didn't have to give up too much to go up and get the flip. We got the guy that we really, really liked.
"We saw that the run of tackles happened a little bit later than we expected and then we thought that there was a chance that somebody could come up and get him. We didn't want to risk it. As Bruce says, 'No risk-it, no biscuit.' We had to give up a little capital to go get him, but in this case, we thought because of the player and the position – but especially the player – that it was worth it."
Licht later revealed that he had made a number of calls during the draft and in the days leading up to it to lay some groundwork for potential trades up if the tackles started coming off the board. That included a lot of back and forth with the 49ers, as Licht felt their spot at number 13 would be very popular with other teams looking to trade up.
Licht also said that the Buccaneers would not throw Wirfs into the lineup until he was ready but that the plan in April was for him to step in at right tackle. It wouldn't take Wirfs long to show that he was, indeed, quite ready for the challenge.
The pandemic wiped out the Buccaneers' offseason program and their full slate of preseason games, but Wirfs still took the first-team reps at right tackle from the very beginning of training camp. There was reasonable league-wide concerns that the 2020 rookie class would have a particularly hard time making a quick impact with so much less on-field preparation than NFL newcomers would get in a normal season, and that may have proved true in some cases. Not so with Wirfs, who made the transition look easy. The Bucs were not terribly surprised by this.
"He's got very good quickness, very good feet," said Licht. "He's got very good agility. He can run, which is a great asset for an offensive tackle to have, but it's not the number-one thing. We like the fact that he comes out of a program where they're known for developing offensive linemen. Kirk Ferentz and his…entire staff there are very good coaches, so it's a big plus when you can get a guy out of a great program like that. They know how to work. There will be a seamless transition into B.A.'s offense and B.A.'s style, so those were a lot of the things that we liked."
Once Wirfs got the right tackle job he never let it go, not even for a moment. In fact, the rookie tackle was the only Buccaneer on either offense or defense who played every single snap on his side of the ball. Counting the four postseason games, that was a total of 1,352 plays and he was a brick wall on almost all of them. Of those snaps, 779 were spent in pass protection, counting the playoffs, and he was only charged with allowing one sack on all of those plays, according to Pro Football Focus.
Wirfs also only committed three penalties all season, including just one holding call in Week Five. He had a pair of false starts in the season's first month but was not penalized again until the Bucs' Divisional Round win at New Orleans, when he drew his second and final holding call of 2020.
Wirfs proved to be the final piece the Buccaneers needed to field an excellent line in front of their new quarterback. Tampa Bay ranked second in the NFL in sacks-per-pass play during the regular season, at 3.51%, as Brady was sacked just 21 times. The line finished strong, too, with Brady taking one or no sacks in eight of the last 11 games, including the last three playoff contests. Brady was only pressured five times in the team's Super Bowl win over Kansas City, as compared to 29 for his Chiefs counterpart, Patrick Mahomes. And even the Bucs' rushing attack, which ranked 28th in the league during the regular season, picked it up in the playoffs, picking up 122.5 yards per outing.
Along with the Buccaneers' second-round pick, safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., Wirfs was named to the PFWA All-Rookie team for 2020. Chances are, that's far from the last award he will win in his career. ESPN.com NFL analyst Bill Barnwell actually tabbed Wirfs as one of the two offensive tackles on his all-NFL team, making him the only rookie to show up on that list.
The Buccaneers clearly had their eye on Tristan Wirfs when the 2020 draft began on April 23, and when it looked possible they could miss out on the Iowa star they made a move to ensure that didn't happen. In the end, it was one of the most important moves they made in their successful pursuit of the Lombardi Trophy.