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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Howard Leads Impressive Bucs Rookie Class
It’s a shame when a Bucs season is essentially over in November rather than December.
Or January, ideally.
Too often PewterReport.com’s focus has shifted away from discussing a potential postseason berth and looking at the playoff picture to looking at potential draft picks and discussing how high Tampa Bay’s first-round pick will be.
But that’s been the case nearly every year since the 2008 season.
Instead of featuring some future draft picks that could help turn the Bucs’ fortunes around in 2018 in this edition of SR’s Fab 5, I’m writing about some of the team’s current draft picks and how the success of the 2017 draft class will be just as important to a better year in Tampa Bay than the incoming 2018 rookies.
While the 2017 class doesn’t quite rival general manager Jason Licht’s picks from the 2015 NFL Draft where the Bucs landed a franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston, a stud linebacker in Kwon Alexander and two good offensive linemen in center-guard Ali Marpet and left tackle Donovan Smith – who is better than he often gets credit for – Licht was able to land four more big-time contributors this past April.
Needing a home run draft after the 2016 class, which consisted of struggling cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, oft-injured defensive end Noah Spence, and former kicker Roberto Aguayo, who is out of the league, among others, Licht delivered with four more rookies that ended up being starters this season. In a similar way in which Licht’s first four picks panned out in 2015, Tampa Bay’s first four selections in 2017 – tight end O.J. Howard, safety Justin Evans, wide receiver Chris Godwin and linebacker Kendell Beckwith – showed incredible promise.
“Yeah, we are real happy with that whole rookie class – even throw Antony Auclair in there as a rookie free agent,” Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said.
Let’s start with Howard and Evans, whose seasons ended prematurely on Monday Night Football as both players suffered serious ankle injuries that landed them on injured reserve. Once projected as a top 10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Howard slipped in the first round because many teams drafted for need rather than the best player available. When Howard fell into the Bucs’ lap with the 19th overall pick, Licht and Koetter wisely pounced.
It was a no-brainer.
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter, TE O.J. Howard & GM Jason Licht – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Howard has lived up to his first-round billing, catching 26 passes for 432 yards when he hasn’t been forgotten by Koetter, the team’s play-caller. Howard’s 16.1 yards per catch average leads the team, and his six touchdown catches is the most by a Bucs rookie tight end in team history and is tied with Cameron Brate for the team lead. Howard’s 58-yard touchdown catch against the New York Giants is also the Bucs’ longest play from scrimmage this season.
“The thing about O.J. that stands out to me is how coachable he is,” Bucs wide receiver Adam Humphries said. “He has the athleticism, the talent and speed for a guy his size, but he wants to improve each week. If he runs a route and Coach Koetter comes and asks him to run it a different way he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t complain. He does it the right way and he wants to do it the right way. He’s coachable. That’s the biggest thing about O.J. that I’ve seen this year.”
Despite having Brate has 42 catches for 541 yards and six touchdowns this season, Howard has found his role on the team as a blocker and a big-play weapon on offense.
“First of all, he is an NFL tight end – he is a rare commodity these days,” said Bucs offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Todd Monken said. “With any player, you want them to do everything well. ‘Boy, we want a tight end that can block, and run, and catch and we can flex him out there and we can do this with him.’ Those guys don’t exist, especially early in their careers. He is the closest thing to that. A lot of guys now are H-[backs]. They are much more outside. They are air-raid guys. He is not that guy. He is going to be a tremendous, tremendous player. It’s only starting to come with him in his route running, his balance and body control, his aggressiveness and going against grown [men].
“We ask a lot of him. He not only has to be really, really tough and really fundamental in his run game, but he’s also got to be a receiver for us vertically. So, you’re right – I think he has an unbelievable ceiling. This floor is still really high. We thought that when we drafted him. That’s the bottom – you are going to get a really good player. Now, where that [ceiling] is – that’s up to him and the coaches around him to develop him.”
Unfortunately, Howard’s season ended prematurely on his 30-yard touchdown catch on Monday Night Football against Atlanta when he suffered a severely sprained ankle. Howard’s six touchdowns are currently tied with New York Giants tight end Evan Engram for the most by a rookie this season and he certainly made his mark in Tampa Bay this year.
Bucs TE OJ Howard – Photo by: Getty Images
“This rookie class in general, everyone came in and bought in,” Howard said. “Everyone learned their role and embraced it. That’s the most important thing you can do your rookie year or as a team player in general. Just come in and embrace your role and know what it is.”
Evans, who was Tampa Bay’s second-round pick, became a starter in his fourth game of the season due to injuries to safeties T.J. Ward and Keith Tandy and recorded an interception in his first start against New England quarterback Tom Brady. Evans, who has solidified the free safety spot, is currently third on the team 66 tackles, two tackles for loss, six passes defensed, second on the team, and three interceptions, which is tied for the team lead.
Evans, whose season also ended against Atlanta due to a sprained ankle, took full advantage of early playing time during his rookie campaign and didn’t leave the starting lineup once he got his shot. The same thing happened to linebacker Kendell Beckwith, one of the Bucs’ two third-round picks.
Beckwith won the starting strongside linebacker role coming out of training camp, but was forced to take over at middle linebacker when Kwon Alexander suffered an injured hamstring that sidelined him for several weeks.
“I think it’s because we were put in situations where we had to play,” Evans said about the success of the 2017 rookie class. “O.J. was a first-round pick, so of course he was going to play. Then when I came in, I got my first start was because T.J. and Tandy were hurt. I had to play. Beck came in and started when Kwon got hurt. It was either play or not, and you have to play. This is what we have wanted to do for so long so you just have to make the most of it. Whatever happens after that, you learn from it – good or bad.”
Bucs FS Justin Evans – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Evans has given up a few touchdowns in coverage as he’s taken some lumps as a rookie, but he’s also made some sensational plays, including a diving interception in the end zone in Miami.
“I guess we’ve got the playing time because we were doing it well enough to stay on the field,” Evans said. “If you aren’t doing it well enough they aren’t going to keep you out there. That’s how I feel. We just take that to heart. Just doing your job. Trying to do your job like everyone else. Yeah, we’re rookies but we’re trying to make the same plays everybody else makes.”
Beckwith was leading the team in tackles through the first quarter of the season when Alexander and Lavonte David missed time due to injuries. The LSU product is fourth on the Bucs with 65 tackles, seven tackles for loss, one sack and one forced fumble during his rookie year.
Beckwith recovered quickly from a torn ACL last November and played so well early in the season that the Bucs wanted to keep him on the field so bad that they modified their nickel package, moving away from a 4-2-5 scheme to a 3-3-5 look. Tampa Bay has also used Beckwith at defensive end.
“I love it,” Beckwith said. “I love rushing the passer and they’ve got me standing up doing it so I have a better view. I lack no confidence. I had confidence that my knee was going to be ready this season, and I knew whoever picked me was going to be happy about it. At the end of the day once I got in I showed what I could do.”
Wide receiver Chris Godwin, the Bucs’ other third-round draft pick, has only started one game, which came against the New York Jets when Mike Evans was suspended. Godwin had a career-high five catches for 68 yards, which he matched weeks later against Detroit. Godwin was given a game ball for two clutch catches for 38 yards in Tampa Bay’s 30-20 win at Miami.
Godwin has a catch in each of the last 11 games and has 24 receptions for 316 yards (13.2 avg.) during his rookie year and has a bright future in the league. Godwin is expected to get the start Sunday in Carolina for DeSean Jackson, who has a sprained ankle and hasn’t practiced this week.
“Our rookies have been impressive,” Tampa Bay wide receiver Adam Humphries said. “Chris is really good. I think he can be a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver in the NFL. He’s got that kind of talent. Chris wants to mold his game after Larry Fitzgerald. I think he’s a perfect model. Obviously, Larry is one of the best to do it, but Larry works in the run game like Chris does. They have similar body size and body control. If Chris keeps working he has the size and capability to be like him. It’s fun watching him play, and he’s what, 20 or 21? He’s a real young dude but he feels real comfortable out there playing.”
Howard knew that Licht’s 2017 rookie class could be special shortly after the draft.
“All those guys I played against in college except for Chris,” Howard said. “I knew Beck and Justin were two good defensive players. I played against them in college every year because we were in the same division. They’re really good players that you knew were going to correlate to the next level. I wasn’t really too surprised by their success.”
The Bucs cut their fifth-round pick, running back Jeremy McNichols, after the preseason, and seventh-round pick Stevie Tu’ikolovatu has missed the entire season on injured reserve and will make his official NFL debut next year. But Auclair, an undrafted rookie free agent from Canada, also makes Tampa Bay’s 2017 rookie class special.
Auclair is primarily a blocking tight end and saw his first NFL action of the season on Thursday Night Football against New England. He was used primarily in short yardage and goal line plays and running back Doug Martin scored a touchdown on Auclair’s first NFL snap.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Quebec native has two catches for 25 yards this season, both going for first downs, including a 14-yarder against Atlanta on Monday Night Football. His first NFL catch, an 11-yarder, came at Green Bay on the first play of the game.
Auclair was improving at such a rapid rate that his progress prompted the Bucs to cut long-time tight end Luke Stocker in November to give him more playing time. With Howard sidelined for the final two games of the year, Auclair will see more snaps and a more prominent role on offense. While he is making his adjustment to playing American football, Auclair has been closely watching Howard’s development and modeling his play after the Bucs’ first-round pick.
Bucs TE Antony Auclair – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“O.J. has gotten better every week and has really been on the details to enhance his game and it’s shown on Sundays,” Auclair said. “O.J. is my boy and it’s fun to work with him. I try to watch what he’s doing out there and apply it myself. He’s getting better and I’m getting better.”
Bucs fullback and tight end Alan Cross sees a lot of promise in both rookie tight ends.
“O.J. has learned a lot and I’ve seen him grow – Antony, too,” Cross said. “From when they got here they both put their heads down and got to work in the playbook and get better at the little things. That’s all you can ask from a rookie. They’re going to be a big part of what we do going forward.”
Evans is proud of how he and his fellow rookies have played in their initial rookie season in the NFL, and as I pointed out in last week’s SR’s Fab 5, the success of this draft class should help Licht’s future in Tampa Bay.
“Yeah, I mean it is definitely a good look for the class when guys come in and handle their business,” Evans said. “We just have to finish it off strong and continue to get better and better.”
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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