With the Bucs slotted to have the No. 32 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft, it puts Tampa Bay in a unique position where they could trade up, trade down or stay put and pick the top player from their board. Add in the fact that the Bucs have returned all 22 starters from their Super Bowl-winning roster, leaving themselves with very few needs, and Tampa Bay has essentially endless freedom when they go on the clock.
These realities make it tougher than ever to predict what the Bucs will do with their first-round selection, but a few players have been most commonly mocked to the Bucs over the past five months.
According to Grinding The Mocks, first round pick predictions for the Super Bowl champs have been dominated by defensive linemen and running backs. Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore has fallen to Tampa Bay in 16 percent of all mock drafts since December, with Iowa defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon and Alabama running back Najee Harris coming in behind Barmore at eight percent. Outside of the top three are Clemson running back Travis Etienne (seven percent), and edge defenders Jaelan Phillips from Miami and Jayson Oweh from Penn State (six percent each).
While mock drafts are always nice to look at, they lack the difficult reality that the Bucs will ultimately face by picking at No. 32. What will other teams do ahead of them?
It’s been a bit simpler mocking to the Bucs in years past. When Tampa Bay is picking first, or fifth, or 11th, or even 19th, there are far less opportunities for their top players to be nabbed earlier in the first round. But with Barmore generally accepted as the top defensive tackle in a thin class at the position, the chances that the former Alabama standout slides down to No. 32 in the first round are pretty small. And while running backs always seem to be a wild card – with Clyde Edwards-Helaire becoming the first running back selected at No. 32 in 2020 – it’s nearly impossible to know if both, or neither, Harris or Etienne will still be available.
Despite all of these players being mere guesses as to which one may land with the Bucs, they could each prove impactful players should they land with Tampa Bay. Barmore, Nixon, Phillips and Oweh would all be crucial depth pieces along a defensive line that currently has no room for injuries. While the Bucs are blessed with a ton of experienced, first-string talent up front in Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, Will Gholston, Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett, the depth at both interior defensive line and edge rusher are razor thin.
After Vea went down with a fractured ankle in Week 5 last season the Bucs were fortunate to add Steve McLendon in a trade with the Jets. McLendon served his role as the replacement nose tackle, but Vea’s presence was clearly missed as the Bucs’ pressure rate dropped from 33.9 percent to 26.6 percent without him on the field. With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Bucs immediately racked up five sacks in his return against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
Barmore and Nixon are both high-upside defensive tackles with questions. Barmore immediately brings plus pass-rushing ability, with good pass rush moves and the quickness and strength to see early playing time. But he also has inconsistencies in focus and processing, with technique that needs to improve at the next level.
At edge, Phillips and Oweh are both supreme athletes who could step in on Day 1 and be impactful rotational players for the Bucs, potentially also landing a starting job down the road when Pierre-Paul’s career runs its’ course in Tampa. That depth at such a premier position is something the Bucs could absolutely use this season. Tampa Bay was fortunate enough to see both of their starting edge rushers play nearly the entire 2020 season, with Barrett missing just the Bucs’ Week 17 win over Atlanta after being placed on the COVID-19 list. Cam Gill, Anthony Nelson and Pat O’Connor combined for just 17 total tackles, two sacks, 12 hurries and six quarterback hits.
While running back is a relative position of comfortability across the Bucs’ roster, Harris or Etienne could immediately be an improvement in one key area that Tampa Bay has repeatedly tried to improve upon: a genuine pass-catching threat out of the backfield. Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette were each credited with five drops in 2020, leaving them both tied for the fourth-most drops by a running back per Pro Football Focus.
The Bucs tried to improve that part of the backfield by drafting Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the third round last year and tried again with the signing of LeSean McCoy just prior to the beginning of the season, but neither made a significant impact. The presence of Jones and Fournette would ease the transition into the NFL for Harris or Etienne by allowing their career to start in a limited fashion, similar to what we saw from Jonathan Taylor with the Colts or Cam Akers with the Rams this past season. Both of Tampa Bay’s high-profile running backs will be free agents come next offseason, and it would be nice to have a feature back replacement waiting in the wings.