FAB 3. What Each Bucs Draft Pick Needs To Work On
Tampa Bay has been in training camp for a month and the PewterReport.com staff has been at every one, looking at the Bucs’ 2017 draft class and evaluating the progress of those players. With two preseason games in the books and two more weeks left in camp, here is the main issue for each draft pick to work on in order to contribute on game days this year in Tampa Bay – and for some late-round picks to make the 53-man roster.
First Round: TE O.J. Howard
Howard is a multi-dimensional talent at tight end that can in-line block at the point of attack and also hurt opposing defenses by catching the ball. While Howard had 113 receptions for 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns at Alabama and possesses good hands, he doesn’t have great hands, evidenced by several dropped passes during his initial training camp. For Howard to establish himself atop the depth chart as the starting tight end, he’ll have to become more sure-handed.
The Bucs threw the ball to their tight ends 113 times, but with the addition of veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson and draft pick Chris Godwin, that number won’t grow and might actually diminish. Last year Tampa Bay’s passing game consisted of Mike Evans, Cameron Brate and Adam Humphries, but now there are more weapons to spread the ball around to, including Howard.
Brate was the leading receiver among tight ends with 57 catches on 81 targets, followed by seven receptions by Brandon Myers on 14 targets, six catches by Alan Cross on 10 targets and five catches for Luke Stocker on eight targets. Brate is a better receiver at this stage of his career than Howard is, although with the first-round pick on board, and the team’s desire to also feature him in the passing game, Brate may only get 70 targets instead of 81 this year.
But that’s going to depend on how quickly Howard can develop into a reliable receiver that is on par with the likes of Brate, Evans, Jackson and Humphries. Will Howard get 50 targets this year or just 30? That depends on how the rookie’s hands improve during the preseason and the regular season. So far so good with Howard catching two passes for 28 yards in Jacksonville after not getting a pass thrown his way in Cincinnati.
Second Round: FS Justin Evans
Evans was drafted in the second round for three reasons. First, he has good measurables at 6-foot, 199 pounds and very good athleticism. Second, the former Texas A&M safety has solid ball skills, evidenced by five interceptions and 11 passes defensed over the past two years, including four picks and eight pass breakups last year. And finally, he’s a hard hitter. Just ask former Alabama running back and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.
But the biggest concern with Evans in NFL scouting circles was his tackling. Too often going for the big hit – and sometimes missing – and failing to wrap up, Evans needs a lot of work in this area to develop the consistency needed to be trusted as the last line of defense for Mike Smith’s defense.
The problem that impacts Evans is that the Bucs have had a very soft training camp in terms of contact. The team has not had any live contact periods, such as run game goal line, or tackling periods. It’s hard to practice wrapping up and getting a guy to the ground at only “thud” tempo with shoulder pad pops.
Evans went for the kill shot too many times at Texas A&M, leading with a forearm and a shoulder. Without live tackling in practice, Evans will have to use the preseason to gain experience in that area. The Bucs are hoping he’ll rapidly improve in the month of August. Evans had five tackles in the preseason opener at Cincinnati, but did have a miss or two as well. He didn’t record a tackle in Jacksonville, but did break up a pass.
Third round: WR Chris Godwin
Godwin is the most polished and pro-ready pick in Tampa Bay’s 2017 draft class. Although there were 11 wide receivers drafted ahead of him, Godwin has the tools to be something special. At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Godwin has size, strength, impressive hand-eye coordination, strong hands, body control and route-running ability, yet what impresses his teammates and coaches is how well he knows the playbook.
The only thing holding Godwin back is simply time and experience. While he’s not finished product and can improve in a lot of areas, he’s already shown in training camp that he’s an NFL-ready receiver. Give him more experience and reps on the field and the better he becomes.
It was surprising to see Godwin only get targeted once during the preseason opener at Cincinnati, catching a pass for 14 yards. Bobo Wilson, Freddie Martino and Josh Huff – all of whom are battling for the fifth receiver spot in Tampa Bay – got more looks against the Bengals. Maybe that’s because Godwin is already making the 53-man roster.
Godwin should get more touches as the preseason continues to prepare him for the regular season, though. Look for him to get plenty of reps in the third preseason game so he can get some timing down with Jameis Winston. Godwin has been working with the starters and the second team and just needs time to gain experience. He had two catches for 30 yards in Jacksonville and keeps progressing.
Third round: LB Kendell Beckwith
At 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, Beckwith is easily the biggest linebacker in Tampa Bay. The Bucs wanted to add some size to the linebacker corps, especially at the SAM (strongside) spot where Beckwith would be lined up at the line of scrimmage over a tight end in Mike Smith’s 4-3 Under scheme. A body bigger than Kwon Alexander (227 pounds) and Lavonte David (233 pounds) is needed to set the edge and hold up at the point of attack.
But what the Bucs are gaining in size with Beckwith, they are sacrificing in speed. The plan was to start Devante Bond, who is 6-foot-1, 236 pounds, at SAM this year and have Beckwith learn the defense as the backup middle linebacker behind Alexander. An injury to Bond has forced Beckwith into the starting lineup at SAM where he’ll have to cover tight ends.
The problem is that Beckwith is a much better downhill player, attacking the line of scrimmage than he is in coverage. He’s been exposed in coverage, especially after 10 yards downfield, during training camp. While it’s hard for a player to improve their speed at the NFL level, Beckwith can work his footwork so he can eliminate any false steps with his pass drops and work on his lateral quickness and agility, which will allow him to more closely cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield.
Another issue with Beckwith’s footwork is that he has a tendency to slow his feet when taking on blockers. He was moved out of his gap several times in the season opener at Cincinnati because of this and needs to become stouter at the point of attack. Whether his footwork issues are the result of him coming off a torn ACL last year and not being 100 percent or not, Beckwith needs to work on this area of his game or he could be a liability on defense.
Fifth round: RB Jeremy McNichols
McNichols missed the OTAs and mini-camps during the offseason while recovering from shoulder surgery. That missed time caught up to him during training camp it seems as Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter and running backs coach Tim Spencer suggested on HBO’s Hard Knocks that McNichols needed to study his playbook more and not make as many missed assignments.
McNichols has excelled as a receiver out of the backfield in training camp, and although he was touted as a great pass protector coming out of Boise State, he has work to do in that area in the Bucs’ blitz pick-up drills. Part of the reason why McNichols is not making big strides in camp may be due to being unsure of what he’s doing. That can lead to hesitation, and if a player hesitates on the football field he’s typically not going to be successful.
A case in point is Godwin, who Mike Evans told me knows the playbook as well as he does. Godwin is excelling as a receiver because he knows what he’s doing on every play and that confidence shows in the routine plays he makes in practice. As Spencer said on Hard Knocks, McNichols needs to get in his playbook with any free time he has and try to get to Godwin’s level as quickly as possible.
McNichols has a golden opportunity to get some touches as a running back and a receiver out of the backfield during the first three games of the season when Doug Martin is serving the rest of his four-game suspension from last year. He has an intriguing skill set and could prove to be formidable competition for Jacquizz Rodgers, Peyton Barber and Russell Hansbrough, but those three backs are already well-versed in this offense and that gives at least Rodgers and Barber – who saw the field last year – the advantage for now. McNichols has looked hesitant carrying the ball in the preseason, rushing for 12 yards on two carries at Cincinnati and 32 yards on 11 carries at Jacksonville.
Sixth round: DT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu
Tu’ikolovatu was drafted because the Bucs wanted to bigger up front in an effort to stop the run. Listed at 320 pounds, but likely weighing more, Tu’ikolovatu offers size, strength and some quick feet to play the nose tackle position in goal line and short-yardage situations. The Bucs already have a real big nose tackle on the roster, and not just 320-pound Chris Baker, who was signed as a free agent from Washington.
Veteran Sealver Siliga, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 345 pounds, is the main competition for Tu’ikolovatu as Tampa Bay doesn’t have room for two of these situational run stoppers on the roster. Siliga is a six-year veteran and has the most playoff experience on the team, so it’s an uphill climb for Tu’ikolovatu to beat him out and make the 53-man roster as a rookie.
But for Tu’ikolovatu to have a chance he’ll need to make some plays behind the line of scrimmage and show that he can do more than draw double teams and anchor at the point of attack. Tu’ikolovatu played two years at Utah before transferring to USC for his final season. He notched nine tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and four fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown, in college and will have to show that kind of playmaking ability to beat out Siliga.
In practice and in the preseason opener, Tu’ikolovatu hasn’t shown the ability to split double teams and make plays in the backfield. Siliga had 6.5 career sacks, including one with the Bucs last season, and has proven that he can make the occasional play in the backfield. At age 27, Siliga is still in his prime, and it will take Tu’ikolovatu showing that he can make some tackles for loss, and perhaps a sack as a backfield penetrator, to beat out the veteran.