Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
Sikkema’s Stat(s) of the Week
The Bucs have won two games in a row and we’re about to talk about next year’s draft?
Yes, but not in a negative way – well, not as the premise anyways.
This may be a draft and rookie-centric Cover 3 column, but the motivation for it isn’t rooted in the team’s sub-par record. In fact, it’s actually because this year’s Buccaneers rookies were not only pieces of last week’s victory over the Dolphins, but crucial and focal pieces, to be exact.
Linebacker Kendell Beckwith, one of the team’s third-round picks, has been taking on bigger playing roles since Week 1. It started when he won the strongside linebacker role in the season opener and then had to fill in for the injured Kwon Alexander at middle linebacker, and has since blossomed into a full-time starter – even with Alexander’s return. Beckwith, who is the team’s second-leading tackler with 51, has been groomed to play all three linebacker positions, and has even been trained to play as an edge defender in any three-down linemen looks the Buccaneers have been showing recently. Beckwith’s immediate – somewhat surprising – impact has widened what the Bucs defense has been able to do.
Speaking of, rookie safety Justin Evans, Tampa Bay’s second-round pick, is also playing well above his well above his rookie learning curve. Evans didn’t start out the year as a main contributor, mostly subbing in for the likes of Keith Tandy and Chris Conte at both the free safety and strong safety spots. However, starting with the Patriots game, the game in which he got his first interception, Evans’ playing time has grown. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith’s zone-based, traditional, 2-two safety scheme, which was what this team deployed during their crucial five-game win streak last year, was failing them early in 2017 – and failing them bad. Evans gave Smith the ability to bring on a new, more aggressive style of defense with a true Cover 1 or single-high safety, which has turned this season around. No other safety on the team has the athletic ability and play-making ability to cover the kind of ground and make the kind of impact Evans can. Starting him was a risk due to his lack of experience, but it has paid off.
On the other side of the ball, tight end O.J. Howard, the 19th overall selection, and wide receiver Chris Godwin, who was drafted in the third round, have started to come into their own as rookies as well. Though their snap percentages are lower compared to their defensive counterparts of Beckwith and Evans, Howard and Godwin are every bit as impactful when the moments have called for them to be involved. Howard is tied for the team lead in touchdowns this year with four, and that’s with 28 less catches than receiver Mike Evans, and 17 less catches than tight end Cameron Brate – the two others tied with four touchdowns.
With this year’s rookie class playing so well, it gave me the idea to go back and revist some of the Buccaneers’ past draft classes, specifically the ones current general manager Jason Licht has orchestrated. Licht got the Tampa Bay job back in 2014, he now has four draft classes under his belt. Looking back on them will be important in a few months as the Glazer family (owners of the Buccaneers franchise) will have to choose whether or not they want to re-sign Licht to a new contract.
There are other factors that go into what makes a good GM, such as free agent allurement and acquisitions, choosing head coaches (if applicable during a tenure), salary cap health, and other factors, too. But, drafting is a big part of what a general manager hangs their hat on. This specifically applies to Licht since he was a former director of scouting and player personnel for the Patriots and Cardinals before being hired in Tampa Bay.
With that said, here are all of Licht’s drafts in chronological order with the tables from Buccaneers.com.
Let’s start by laying some ground rules on how to judge draft classes. Hitting on your first round picks is a must. Whether it’s in the Top 5 or in the last few picks, if you’re not hitting big-time contributors, through the length of their rookie deals, on day one of the draft, you’re not going to cut it as a G.M.
Day Two of the draft (rounds two and three) are what separates the good general managers from the great ones. Having a higher hit rate on Day Two is what separates draft classes and is often what gets general managers contract extensions.
Day Three of the draft (rounds four through seven) are really throwaway picks that, if you hit on one, just strengthens the evidence for how well you can scout as a general manager, and also attests to how well you surrounded yourself with a good scouting staff that has been able to find diamonds in the rough in areas of the country that don’t get a lot of national spotlight.
In 2014, Licht nailed his first pick with Mike Evans. You can say what you want about not picking Aaron Donald or Anthony Barr or Ryan Shazier, but the fact is that, at that time, Evans was a fantastic pick, and based on his talent and accomplishments, it always has been.
Licht took a risk on the troubled tight end out of Washington, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, with his second pick, and chose running back Charles Sims in the third. After a DUI going into his third year, Seferian-Jenkins was cut from the Bucs, but his talent is shining in New York where he has ressurrected his career with the Jets. Sims is still around, but in a very niche role. I wouldn’t count either of those guys as wins.
Kadeem Edwards and Robert Heron are no longer on the team. Offensive lineman Kevin Pamphile looked like he was going to be a promising pick from that class, even going into this season, but, after moving full time to left guard, Pamphile has struggled. Though Day Three picks are sort of like throwing a dart at a dart board, not being able to count Pamphile is a good pick means Licht only had one memorable choice in this class.
The 2015 draft was the Jameis Winston draft, and though picking a franchise quarterback there was an obvious choice at No. 1 overall, there was debate between Florida State’s Winston and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. Winston looked like a fine choice after his first two seasons with back-to-back 4,000-yard campaigns. However, even before his shoulder injury this season, Winston had his struggles.
However, what now weights more than Winston’s development on the field is the concerns with him off the field. We do not know all the facts of his current situation, as he is under investigation by the NFL for an alleged groping incident with an Uber driver from 2016. But, this all has the potential to loom very dark for Winston, Licht and the future of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If Winston is further punished for this, either legally or from the league, trusting and choosing Winston over the likes of Mariota will ultimately fall on Licht.
On Day Two, the Bucs took a pair of offensive linemen in Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet. Smith was the colossal offensive tackle who was never hurt and whom the team hoped it could fix his technique to where he could become a franchise left tackle. So far three years in, he hasn’t improved much, and it’s likely that this is just who he is. Smith is all but a miss right now. Marpet was the small school darling that every team wanted. Though he’s struggled a bit moving to center, Marpet is a top talent interior blocker and was without a doubt a hit/win.
On Day Three, Licht found a steal of a player in Alexander. Alexander has been a starter at middle linebacker since he was drafted and is one of the leaders on the team, in production on the field and with emotion in the locker room – he was a gem. After that, things didn’t pan out; Kenny Bell just couldn’t catch the ball, Kaelin Clay could only be a special teams player, and Joey Iosefa was born in the wrong age of football as primarily a fullback.
The jury is still out on Winston due to his current off the field situation (on the field he’s been worth it), but Alexander and Marpet were good wins for Licht in this class. However, the faith he’s shown in Smith has made that selection a bit sour.
It’s still too early to totally judge the Bucs 2016 class, but it again doesn’t look too promising.
Vernon Hargreaves is nowhere near a bust, in my opinion, but, if he is perhaps just a nickel corner, even a very good one, which he might be, a nickel corner is not worth the No. 11 overall pick. He only has one interception in a season and a half’s worth of play, too. It’s hard to judge the Noah Spence pick too much because, though he hasn’t been as explosive as we thought he might be – I think he’s being played out of position as he should be a standup 3-4 LB – he’s been hurt, and he was already a steal lasting until the second round.
The Roberto Aguayo pick was bad. No way around it. Even if you believe the logic that you thought you were getting the next Adam Vinatieri for 15 years (which most thought he was), the value for a kicker there was just too rich. Ryan Smith has still had his struggles, but it’s his first year at cornerback this season, so we can’t be too tough on that pick yet. Caleb Benenoch and Devante Bond are still on the team, but their impact and push for any starting spot has been low. Dan Vitale is no longer on the team.
We thought this would be a strong class for Licht, at the time of the draft, but it has since proved to be more rocky. Development will be key in the next few years to see if much of it was worth it at all.
So, as a recap, Licht has made some good picks, but not as many as you might have hoped. He’s reached on value for certain guys that hasn’t panned out (Hargreaves, D. Smith, Aguayo) and has picked guys with questionable character concerns that has come back to bite him, one in Seferian-Jenkins and one that might ultimately cost him his job in what might unfold with Winston.
Luckily for Licht, his latest class has been home runs on the first four picks: Howard, Evans, Godwin and Beckwith.
Let’s take a look at those four 2017 picks from last week’s win against the Dolphins and examine how their early production this season might save Licht in the end.