FAB 4. The Crazy Thing About Free Agency That Nobody Mentions

Free agency has started and the NFL Draft is nearly one month away. Those are two main channels to acquire talent for NFL teams with two vastly different processes.

Let’s start with the draft first. NFL teams send area scouts to colleges during football season to observe them in practice and watch film on them at the school’s football headquarters. Sometimes college scouting directors like Tampa Bay’s Mike Biehl will join the area scouts on those trips. Sometimes it is general managers like the Bucs’ Jason Licht.

Then there are the college games where area scouts, Biehl and sometimes Licht will attend to see how players warm up on the sidelines and interact with teammates before the game begins. Licht saw Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston in person in Louisville for a Thursday night game in 2014 when Florida State’s Heisman Trophy winner engineered a second-half comeback. Licht also watched defensive end Noah Spence play in person in 2015 when Eastern Kentucky played at Jacksonville State.

Bucs GM Jason Licht & Director of College Scouting Mike Biehl - Photo by: Eric Dellaratta/PR
Bucs GM Jason Licht & Director of College Scouting Mike Biehl – Photo by: Eric Dellaratta/PR

Once college football season is over, the scouts continue their investigative process on prospects, looking into any school discipline, team suspensions or possible arrests. They take a look at prospects’ grades, home life and love life. Are they married? Do they have a girlfriend? Do they have any kids?

Assistant coaches and head coaches are probed for insight into draft prospects, and area scouts usually get the pulse of a player’s work ethic by interviewing the strength and conditioning coach. Past or current injuries are investigated and trainers are probed about how diligent the player is during his rehab.

Face-to-face interviews occur at NFLPA post-season game, the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl with area scouts handling those for the most part, with Biehl, Licht and perhaps the coaching staff getting involved in interviewing targeted players. Then it’s off to the NFL Scouting Combine where important medical information is collected and disseminated to all teams.

Heights, weights, 40-times, bench press and agility drills are done, along with some position drills to gauge arm strength for quarterbacks, hands for receivers, backs, tight ends, linebackers and defensive backs, and movement for ability for pretty much all of the prospects. Scouts, coaches and GMs take part in face-to-face 15-minute interviews with the prospects at night.

Pro days are up next with area scouts being dispatched to schools for a final investigative whirl, grabbing more player data and asking more questions from the school’s football staff. The important pro days draw general managers and head coaches. Licht and former head coach Lovie Smith attended the pro days for wide receiver Mike Evans in 2014 and Winston in 2015. Both were first-round picks by Tampa Bay.

Bucs QB Jameis Winston's pro day - Photo by: Mark Cook/PR
Bucs QB Jameis Winston’s pro day – Photo by: Mark Cook/PR

Teams are allowed to bring 30 NFL Draft prospects to their headquarters in March and April for face-to-face interviews. Prospects meet with position coaches and coordinators in addition to the G.M. and head coach. It’s a constant process of evaluation. Sometimes general managers and coaches will take a highly regarded prospect out for dinner to spend more time talking with them.

I was once told that USF cornerback Mike Jenkins dozed off in a film session Monte Kiffin was hosting with several defensive draft prospects on a visit and that disqualified the Bucs from drafting him in the first round. Tampa Bay took cornerback Aqib Talib with the 20th overall pick in 2008, while Jenkins went to Dallas five spots later.

During LeGarrette Blount’s visit in 2010 he took the time to slip into the kitchen in the One Buccaneer Place dining hall and thank the chefs and cooks for lunch. That made a favorable impression on general manager Mark Dominik, who was evaluating Blount’s character after he was suspended at Oregon for sucker punching a Boise State player after a game. That helped Dominik sign Blount as an undrafted free agent that year.

After visits have concluded, scouts and coaches watch more film and Biehl, Licht, director of player personnel John Spytek and Koetter will stack the Bucs’ draft board and conduct mock drafts to form pools of players that Tampa Bay would consider drafting in each round. Many talent evaluators would say that the two most important factors in the evaluation process are the interviews and the medical reports.

“Whenever I’ve missed on a player it’s usually because I’ve missed on the person,” Licht said.

Between all-star games, the NFL Scouting Combine, pro days and pre-draft visits at team headquarters, general managers like Licht are afforded the opportunity to spend hours with college kids, gauging their genuineness, their personality, their character and their swagger. On one visit, a high-profile quarterback the Bucs were evaluating didn’t make a lot of eye contact when answering questions. That was a big turnoff.

“How in the heck is this guy going to lead a huddle of men, or face 1,200 pounds of defensive linemen wanting to sack his ass if he won’t even look me in the eye – and I’m not a threat to sack him?” I was told.

Needless to say the Bucs didn’t draft him and he hasn’t had a tremendous of success in the league thus far.

So let’s talk about free agency now.

These aren’t college kids we’re talking about now. These are current professional football players that will stand to make significantly more in free agency than they did coming out of college in the draft.

What does that evaluation process look like?

Bucs director of college scouting Mike Biehl - Photo by: Scott Reynolds/PR
Bucs director of college scouting Mike Biehl – Photo by: Scott Reynolds/PR

Well, teams like the Bucs can go back to their draft files from when they had face-to-face interviews at the NFL Scouting Combine and spend 15 minutes watching those tapes. They can also ask players that might have played with a targeted free agent or call coaches around the league to ask, “What’s he like?”

Outside of this and watching game film, that’s about it.

The Bucs will spend months meeting with and evaluating draft prospects who the team will draft in the third round, but when it comes to a free agent that they are going to spend $10 million per year on face-to-face visits – or even calls – rarely happens.

Isn’t that strange?

It’s actually messed up.

Want to know why free agency is an even bigger crapshoot than the draft? That’s why. The big names with the big contracts – those guys are signed essentially sight unseen. Those deals are struck within the first 52-hour “open window” that started Monday at noon this week and ended at 4:00 pm. on Wednesday when NFL free agency officially began. During that time no NFL teams can be in contact with pending free agents otherwise it’s tampering, which can result in a loss of draft picks and a fine.

Many of the deals for the top free agents are done and executed just after 4:00 p.m. at the opening bell of free agency, so there is no time for a visit. I’ve spoken with several league executives that say the craziest thing in the world is NFL free agency when a team hands over millions of dollars to a player that the head coach, general manager and owner may not have met before.

There was no meeting between DeSean Jackson and Dirk Koetter last year. No film session and joint discussion about how he was going to be used.

Instead, the Bucs likely said: “You’re fast and you’re an accomplished receiver, and we’re willing to pay you $11 million per year – sound good?”

Jackson’s agent likely said: “Sounds good. Those are the numbers DeSean is looking for and he likes the idea of playing with Mike Evans and Jameis Winston.”

Bucs DT Chris Baker, GM Jason Licht & WR DeSean Jackson - Photo by Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs DT Chris Baker, GM Jason Licht & WR DeSean Jackson – Photo by Cliff Welch/PR

It was the same with Chris Baker. Both of those deals were signed with those players sight unseen.

Some times it works out, as it did with wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who didn’t visit before signing with Tampa Bay. Often times it doesn’t work out when a team can’t even meet with a premier free agent who is signed at the start of free agency – or even talk to them. In 2009, the Bucs didn’t meet with running back Derrick Ward, who opted out of most of the OTAs after he signed and became a fat cat with a big contract. That put Ward behind in the playbook and he was never a factor in Tampa Bay and was released after just one disappointing year.

The Bucs have had several of those free agent busts that came without a visit, and Tampa Bay is not alone. It happens all over the league when teams sign players sight unseen.

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Scott Reynolds is in his 24th 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 son's Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]

36 COMMENTS

  1. I would love to have Okoronkwo. The dude is a stud, with a high motor. He is what this team needs, if we came away with Him,Chubb,and Penny in the first 3 rounds. That would be ridiculous, or even Fitzpatrick or James in the first. Our defense would be pretty exciting. Then we could take Marquis Haynes or Eastman later in the draft

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  2. Mentioned to Mark last night that I really like both DT signings. Remind me a bit of the ol’ Hovan and Culpepper days. Not 1st Rnd talent but pure dogged, mean lunch-pail guys that would do whatever it took to get the job done and win, AND left their ego’s at the door and were great for the locker room. Basically the opposite of a Chris Baker.

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    • Would think the Bucs might look for more of a 3T DT in the draft that could back up McCoy, Like Bryan and Hurst, though hard to see the Bucs in a position to draft them unless we trade down. Guys like Phillips, Shepherd, McIntosh, Brown, Senat, etc. may fit the bill in later rounds. And would prefer Jensen over Pouncey, if we can get him. Understand Pouncey is a name, but he has two chronic hips, lead the league in penalties at C last year and graded out as the 34th of 38 C’s (though, like you Mark, have no idea how those grades are calculated). Still see the Bucs grabbing a G/C prospect to fill out the line. If the Bucs get Jensen, a rookie 4-yr deal for a starter would help balance the $$ after investing in high dollars in Jensen and the new contracts for Marpet and Smith as well. And who knows, the team may feel Benenoch is ready to step up. Guess we’ll find out soon enough.

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      • A starting OL of Smith, Nelson, Jensen, Marpet and Dotson would be scary. Doubtful it’ll happen, but fun to imagine nonetheless.

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  3. A team that had only 23 sacks cant afford to cut a player that had 5. No reason not to resign McDonald. Great locker room presence, good leader and good example to younger players, and still producing.

    I imagine the plan would be to draft a pass rushing DT in the draft, but thats no guarantee. Resign McDonald.

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    • “Great locker room presence, good leader and good example to younger players, and still producing.” Completely agree on the first three, but production is calculated involving much more than sacks. It’s an exciting stat and all, but just a small part of what a DT is graded on. Like you, I appreciate McDonald’s presence as a leader and example, but think you’ll find Unrein offers a lot of those intangibles as well while having a greater impact on the overall performance of the DL.

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      • I agree. I think McDonald would be a good pass rushing option for obvious passing downs and can provide more there than Unrein or Beau.

        That being said, unlike some, I am a fan of both additions as well as our current strategy in FA. If we seal the deal with Jensen and can land Gaines to help at CB, I would very satisfied.

        Lots of teams are overpaying for mediocre talent and I think Licht is looking for good value, scheme, and locker room fits and I am okay with that

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        • Being that Allen will be 27, McCoy 30 and Unrein 31 this year, can really see the team adding a younger DT to develop and add a bit of speed to that group. With those personalities, that’s a heck of group to learn under if you’re coming in as a rookie.

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      • wouldnt mind an RB either, however if we go Defense in rd 1 and RB in round 2, I think we will be safe there with Barber still in the mix

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        • Agree, though you still need much more than Barber and a 2nd rnd RB. Typically go into camp with 4-5, so still plenty of need there.

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  4. Hey, Scott!
    Two quick FA questions.
    1. Did the Bucs even try to get Crowell since he ended up signing for peanuts with the Jets?
    2. Are Bucs looking at any other RBS in FA? Like Thomas Rawls?
    Thanks!

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  5. Run stuffers are Great. But offenses usually attack your weaknesses. And we all know opposing QB’s ordered sandwiches on our Defensive line last year. It was quite embarassing. Thus far, I am not impressed with our Bucs. If Licht is listening to Mike Smith sayin, we are close then…I am afraid we are done. Relying on last yrs ineffective rush coupled with your dependability on rookies to get the Defensive job done, does not fair well for us. Our Divisional foes must be..Chompin at the bit..to see our old defense returning. I’ve said from the initial hiring Koetter and Smitty were wrong for this team. Arthur Banks sent them packing and we picked them up. Other teams plug in Nobody players- and keep on winning. Its the coaching guys!

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    • Let’s hope we can get Okafor. Spence to get healthy. And Chubb to drop to #7 or trade up to get get him! GO BUCS!!

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  6. Well ANYONE is a upgrade to Baker. But I did like what he said.

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  7. A trade down getting DaRon Payne to split time with McCoy, and get an extra pick sounds tempting. However it would be great if either Chubb, Barkley, or Nelson were available at #7. After seeing what money Norwell got drafting a plug in guard is getting great value .

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  8. And if we were to sign Suh (not in favor, btw), we should be required to re-sign Evan Smith (not in favor either, btw) just to enjoy the training camp fights. For those not in the know, Suh curb-stomped Smith’s arm while he was on the ground back in 2011. Guessing they aren’t on each others Christmas card list.

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  9. So we have the LEAST amount of sacks in the league and the plan for the offseason is to add run stuffing DTs and not resign the 2nd leading sacker on the team? I can’t believe an entire article was written about the dumbest offseason plan in history. We have done nothing but subtract from the most glaring hole on the team and it’s being spun like this somehow helps, amazing. Who cares if Suh and GMC have different personalities, this is a business. Suh can help spell GMC on early downs and pair up with him on passing downs to collapse the pocket, period. They would serve the purpose of keeping each other fresh then wreaking havoc on passing downs. I repeat we are paying Robert Ayers 7M, Sweezy 7M and Will G. 7M, we would rather waste money than spend it on a player with proven production. I’ve never understood this motto and never will, you acquire a player with the hopes that he turns into Clint McDonald without retaining Clint but this somehow IMPROVES us? I’m perfectly content with them passing on RBs bc there are plenty in the draft that can help, I’m ok with them passing on Norwell bc there are a few gaurds(Nelson, Winn, Fernandez and C. Williams to name a few that I think will be available in the draft that can walk in as upgrades. However the DL needs 2 starting DEs yet we watched players go elsewhere. You can’t say in one breath that “man they value draft picks” when 2 summers ago he was hoodwinked into giving Detroit a 5th round draft pick for the opportunity to sign George Johnson and we see how that worked out. We had players that could’ve helped us and cash that is being spent on worthless players. Unreen and Beau seem like redundant players, Unreen is 31, I personally would rather see us spend that money on Clint who at least proved he can get to the QB but Jason is busy out thinking himself again so who knows what will happen next.

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    • Agree 100% with everything you just wrote. This team has glaringly ignored the worst positions on our team. Line and DB. They didn’t have to go nuts and spend big money to get their guy. And I”m also tired of hearing about 3-4 fronts. As long as Mike Smith is our Defensive Coordinator and Gerald Mccoy our 3 technique, we will never be playing a 3-4 outside of once every game maybe.

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      • CBmaster27 is putting out facts

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    • It’s crazy it’s like the front office/staff watched a different football team go 5-11. They have plans to move on from a player 2nd on the team in sacks last season but are undecided on JR Sweezy, Robert Ayers and WIll Gholston, these guys are jokes. But then again this is the same man that signed Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins, Josh McCown and somehow convinced fans that those were the missing pieces. I can only hope this is the last summer of the Jason Light show.

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  10. I like the Allen and Unrein signings. Not to be under-estimated for a huge impact!

    But to really WIN free agency, they gotta sign Jensen! DE Okafor and CB Claiborne would be good for depth too if all can be had for the right prices. Add in the kicker we just got, and I’ll be a very pleased Buc fan with our work in free agency 2018!

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  11. Thanks Scott…a few observations:

    FAB1: This is a problem…the only change over 2017 is Allen for McDonald/Baker?…I just don’t understand what Licht’s strategy is here – unless (See FAB3 comment below).

    LDE: Will Gholston, Noah Spence, Mitch Unrein
    DT Gerald McCoy
    NT Beau Allen, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu
    RDE: Robert Ayers, Will Clark

    FAB 2 and 4: I consider these are related…the reason a GM needs to understand the OKL rookie in far more depth, is because his evidence (BIG 12 college games) is not comparable to what he’ll be facing in our games – if you at best know “a little” about his game-ability then, you better know a lot about everything else. Whereas, for FAs, you have a lot of evidence about everything…some GMs will ignore what they shouldn’t (see Albert Haynesworth), but if you’re getting fooled (as you rightly described Suh, and everyone in Washington could have told you about Baker last year) then you’ve only fooled yourself. It is a rare veteran that is going to all of the sudden have the switch turn on and go from meh to stud….what you see is what you get, but believe what you are hearing about the Swaggies.

    FAB3: I really hope you are right….because those 3 guys are a separate category for us. We either get one of them, or we might as well trade down. And it is for that reason, that I equally really hope Licht is thinking hard about what he would need to give-up in a trade to move up 1 spot to ensure we get one of those 3 guys. I’m not saying he should move up now, or in any circumstance, but if only 1 of those 3 is left (say it’s been 3 QBs, Barkley and Nelson gone) and his intel tells him the Jets are going to take Chubb or trade the pick to another team interested in Chubb, Licht better move up the one spot and get him…the difference for us would be insurmountable.

    Go Bucs!

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  12. Okafor signed with Saints – 2 years 10mil.

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    • We have worried about negative selection all along. GM and HC have backed themselves into ‘one and done’ contracts and the Glazer Babbies change coaches, as James Caan famously said in the thief, the way other guys change shoes. We couldn’t offer $5 mil/year? With no state tax?
      It’s not them, it’s us. Sick, sick sick of this. Please sell the team to someone not living on their daddy’s coattails

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  13. Scott, Would Pewter Report for the next couple weeks, PLEASE, tell us how much Salary Cap space is left especially if Marpet, Smith, Alexander will sign new contracts in a few months and we need leftover for Winston’s contract in 2019? Either Gholston or Ayers have to go because we need 2 DE’s in some kind of combination either free agency or draft. What we have right now isn’t any improvement on Defense because 31 other teams were better than us in 2017 and are trying to improve to in 2018. Just don’t understand drafting 6’2″ DE’s; how has that been working lately? Don’t see 4 QB’s being drafted in the 7 spot arena; maybe 3 QB’s in the 10-12 spot arena, and maybe the 4th QB being drafted in the lower half of the 1st round. Just my thoughts and good Article Scott.

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    • As of now Horse, Overthecap and Spotrac ( https://overthecap.com/salary-cap-space ) have us at around $36.7M as of today. which includes all the recent deals except Clark’s.

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  14. I really liked Brad Cullpeper. He was the only player who could keep Warren. Sapps massive ego in check by calling him fat boy.
    His remark to John Lynchs brother in law who played for the Bears after being knocked out by Lynch during a game and as he was walked off the field was hilarious.
    “Hey buddy, he is sleeping with your sister too..”
    For those unaware, Lynch was married to the players sister.

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    • Gotta love the classic’s lol

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  15. I think the GM should be meeting with the coaches before he signs or drafts anybody. Then ask them, “If I get this guy, are you going to utilize his skill sets? I mean there’s no sense in me getting him if you are going to maximize his talent in your system.”

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  16. I think 4 QBs go in the top 6. There will be trades before the draft, and during. I know you guys have seen enough drafts to know anythings possible. I wouldnt be surprised one bit if chubbs there. I say no way to trading up tho. Licht loves to do it and its cost this team dearly over the years. Licht needs to be patient and let his scouting dept find the guys after chubb if he is gone. I do like Oko IF he is there in round 2.
    I’m also a big fan of Tremaine Edmunds, who i think could be the best pass rushing DE in this draft. He will continue to get bigger. Only problem is the bucs are in no position to take a guy and change HIS position.
    Lets get Jensen and Mathieu and Clayborn then not reach in the draft.

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  17. I don’t know but maybe I missed something…. Like most have stated before, why are Ayers, Gholston and Clarke still on the roster when Ayers can’t stay healthy (hasn’t since we’ve signed him), Gholston has NEVER had an impact (and we don’t need a run stopping DE when we’re dead last in pass rush) and Clarke hasn’t done ANYTHING for him to be re-signed. But we let Clinton go and he was a rotational player that had 5 sacks (2nd on the team)…. To go after 2 guys that’s not proven and nobody probably even heard of them before the great Tampa Bay Bucs signed them… I’m bout ready to give up on them cause they (front office) have clearly given up on us.

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    • You missed a lot. Clinton is an older player that has been getting hurt more often every year. The 2 guys we just got ARE proven. Where have you been. One is an 8 year player in the league with a lot of starting experience and the other is an up and coming younger player who has been splitting time with 2 near Pro Bowlers. Most younger guys would have lost most or all of their playing time, but he didn’t. He doesn’t have a lot of sacks because he rarely played on 3rd down. If you are giving up, please leave the site and leave it for those of us who still support the team!

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  18. McDonald was second on the team with sacks for a team desperate for sacks. McDonald can play three tech or nose.

    I think he should be re-signed. Licht and Koetter need all hands on deck to turn around this ship!

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  19. You know that argument was used last year with the signings of Baker and drafting of Beckwith.

    “Stopping the run to force more third and long situations due to the added size at DT and LB”.

    The problem for the Bucs is that they can’t get off the field even in third and long situations. Also, the NFCS features offense that have big Ols but are also dynamic in that they can go spread and dynamic pass catching RB and slot/utility guys.

    Bucs need to become a faster team at DT and LB and not “bigger”.

    Even the current 3-4 teams are not “big”.

    Mike Smith needs to accept that the current NFL is about speed and rushing the passer.

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  20. RE: FAB 3.

    Scott, I was pleased with myself when I discovered how similar the results of my various scenarios for the first seven picks and yours were. .. ;-] .. There seems to be a lot of ways the Bucs can come out with a great result. We are indeed sitting in the catbird’s seat.

    My “dream scenario” looked like this.

    1. RB Saquon Barkley – Cleveland
    2. QB Sam Darnold – New York Giants
    3. QB Josh Rosen- Arizona (traded with Indianapolis)
    4. QB Josh Allen – Cleveland
    5. QB Baker Mayfield – Denver
    6. QB Lamar Jackson – New York Jets
    7. _______ – Tampa Bay (We would have the choice to pick from the following pool or to trade down if someone “sold the farm” to us in order to get our pick.)

    .. DE Bradley Chubb
    .. G Quenton Nelson
    .. CB/S Minka Fitzpatrick
    .. DT Vita Vea
    .. OT Connor Williams
    .. SS Derwin James

    Of course, there would be a hoard of irate fans who would storm One Buccaneer Palace if we passed on the chance to grab Chubb. The pick is a no-brainer. It has to be Chubb. .. :^) .. .. 😀

    And of course, there might be that team willing to “sell the farm” to the Jets in order to jump TB for Mr. Chubb. In that case, the Jets might well be willing to swap with us in any instance where Chubb and Nelson are still available at the sixth pick in order for us to prevent this. Since they already have two picks (37 and 49) in the second round, we might have to give up something significant this year plus give them a high pick for next year. They would still end up with Lamar Jackson for their pick at seven.

    The question is how much are the Bucs willing to give in order to secure Chubb.

    Job security for Licht, Koetter, et al. is obviously a factor in this equation. What we fans think probably doesn’t have that much weight for this decision.

    My conclusion is that we can’t really lose by standing pat. What happens with free agency and any possible trades between now and the draft isn’t likely to change the situation that much.

    The Bucs are in a win/win position in the first round and will have to work very hard to blow it.
    __________
    Go Bucs!!!!

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  21. I guess no one in Bucs land is paying attention to the rumor Uber driver has Video and FSU lawyer has taken case could be asking NFL for biggest settlement in NFL history to not press charges. If that is true it explains why no one interviewing witnesses or Winston. Might keep in mind draft of QB. I do not know facts about any wrongdoing just know investigation going on, and there is a requirement Uber drivers must run inside and outside video. Bucs moving forward like the three monkeys here no evil see no evil speak no evil. Pewter trolls taking about lineman and defensive players with at least 1 good QB left by the 7th pick.

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