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FAB 1. Spytek, Biehl Offer Insight Into Bucs’ Draft
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a very good haul in the 2020 NFL Draft one week ago, and it really marked the fourth consecutive draft where the team picked up some star power and some really good contributors since the disastrous 2016 draft class. While general manager Jason Licht opted not to talk to the media this week – understandably needing to decompress with his family after a tumultuous draft due to the COVID-19 pandemic – he did allow me to speak to his top lieutenants when it comes to the draft.
I interviewed Bucs director of player personnel John Spytek and director of college scouting Mike Biehl on Thursday to get their insights into Tampa Bay’s 2020 draft class and some of the top undrafted free agents that the team signed. Each interview was lengthy and I’m splitting up their commentary into two week’s worth of SR’s Fab 5 content.
My favorite personal stories from my 24 years of covering the Buccaneers – typically featured in the Fab 4 section – will return in a couple of weeks in mid-May.
This week I’ll feature the Bucs’ first two draft picks, Iowa right tackle Tristan Wirfs and Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., as well as some of the more intriguing undrafted free agents.
In next week’s SR’s Fab 5, I’ll include Spytek and Biehl’s comments on the other five players the Bucs drafted – Vanderbilt running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Minnesota wide receiver Tyler Johnson, Nebraska defensive tackle Khalil Davis, Temple linebacker Chapelle Russell and Louisiana running back Raymond Calais.
But first, here are my observations about Tampa Bay’s 2020 NFL Draft, along with some knowledge sprinkled in from Spytek and Biehl.
A Really Solid Draft Class For The Bucs
I won’t grade the 2020 draft class. I’ve found it’s kind of a fruitless exercise as none of these guys have stepped foot on an NFL practice field, much less suited up to play on Sunday yet. At the same time, I think Licht and his staff played it safe with this draft class, getting some really, really solid players. Wirfs and Winfield have a chance to start as rookies, with Vaughn and Johnson potentially seeing plenty of action on offense, and Davis possibly being a wave defensive tackle. If he makes the team, Calais could supplant T.J. Logan as the team’s return specialist.
If all that happens that’s quite an impact, and would rival last year’s draft haul, which saw inside linebacker Devin White, cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean and kicker Matt Gay emerge as starters, while Mike Edwards was a rotational player at free safety. Any time a team can field two or three quality starters as rookies from a draft class it’s usually a win.
My favorite Bucs draft pick this year was Winfield, and I explained why in this week’s PR Roundtable, so I won’t repeat myself. I explained how drafting Vaughn in the third round was a bit of a reach in my SR’s 2020 Bucs Draft Insider: Day 3 Preview column, but it’s understandable given that the team didn’t have a fourth-round pick. The Vaughn pick has really grown on me, and the Bucs front office was flooded with congratulations from other team’s general managers, personnel directors and scouts – some of whom had Vaughn rated as the third best running back in the draft class.
Maybe Licht Didn’t Have To Trade Up For Wirfs
Neither Biehl nor Spytek discussed trading up one spot to get Wirfs with me, but I don’t think the move up with San Francisco to No. 13 was ultimately necessary for Tampa Bay. However, I won’t criticize Licht for surrendering a fourth-round pick. Having the chance to get Wirfs, whom many teams rated as one of the top two tackles and a Top 10 player in this year’s draft class, was worth a first- and a fourth-rounder for a team that was picking at No. 14 overall when the 2020 NFL Draft started.
If another team had traded up to get Wirfs then I would assume Licht would have drafted South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, given his affinity for drafting guys who play in the trenches with premium picks. Kinlaw is the player the 49ers wanted and ultimately picked at No. 14 by trading down with Tampa Bay. So really, San Francisco general manager John Lynch couldn’t have traded down any further than No. 14 without risking losing Kinlaw. I think Lynch played some poker with Licht and swiped a fourth-round pick and still got the guy he wanted.
Don’t sweat the fourth-rounder too much, though. Fourth-round picks have a 28 percent of signing a second contract in the NFL, and finding guys like Kwon Alexander, the team’s fourth-rounder in 2017, is a rare feat.
Yet, there were some intriguing names in the fourth round, including defensive linemen like LSU’s Rashard Lawrence and Baylor’s James Lynch, Miami inside linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, Louisiana Tech defensive back L’Jarius Sneed and Miami running back DeeJay Dallas. Minnesota ultimately acquired the fourth-round pick via a trade with San Francisco and selected South Carolina defensive end D.J. Wonnum with the 117th overall selection.
Bucs Got Creative With Technology During Scouting Process
So how did the Bucs cope with the quarantine challenges presented by COVID-19 pandemic?
“It was different and created a new challenge,” Spytek said. “I would say from our standpoint we kind of embraced it. You could piss and moan over the fact that we don’t have the full process that we usually have, knowing that we’re not going to have the full process because of the situation that we have at hand. Or you can acknowledge that’s the way it’s going to go this year and come up with a new process to do it. I think we came up with creative ideas – myself, Mike Biehl, Jason, Rob [McCartney] and [Mike] Greenberg – getting on daily Zoom calls about how we deal with this, and then bouncing some ideas off our scouts. I think we came up with a pretty good overall protocol. We had the Combine, so the biggest thing was getting data on guys that didn’t run due to injury or chose not to run, and then the non-Combine guys. We came up with a good way of trying to capture some of that data that I think worked.”
So how did the Bucs get times on players like Johnson, who didn’t run at the NFL Scouting Combine? Tampa Bay used GPS technology and integrated that into the game film.
“We did some digging on that using some of the technology that exists to get a feel for what his speed was comparable to,” Spytek said, regarding Johnson. “We’ll never have a 40-time on him, but I think the 40 times are becoming less and less relevant with more and more of this GPS data where you can see real speed on the field. Miles per hour – and there are ways to capture that now [with technology] both at the school and off of film. Without giving away all of our secrets we did some digging on that and we have some pretty good comparisons.”
Biehl said the Bucs got by just fine without the pro day info.
“It’s just like Jason said, it forced us to go back and rely on the tape more, which is what we should do anyways,” Biehl said. “As far as the on-field workouts and the pro days, I don’t think we missed that a ton. We covered the time to spend with the kids by doing the Zoom calls and we’re still able to dig in there if we were going off on the road.”
I asked Biehl what has changed about the Bucs’ evaluation process since the debacle of the 2016 draft, which saw the team pick cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, edge rusher Noah Spence and kicker Roberto Aguayo with the first three selections. Since 2017, Tampa Bay has strung together four solid draft classes.
“We’ve gotten back to trying to bring in the right kind of guy – the guys that have all the traits that we look for,” Biehl said. “Bringing in guys to become a Buc, which is the work ethic, the coachability, the inner drive, the love of the game – things like that. Not that we didn’t do it before, but we’ve put a re-emphasis on that over the last couple of drafts and it’s paid off.”
Howard Wasn’t On The Trade Block During The Draft
Bucs tight end O.J. Howard wasn’t traded during the draft like some, including yours truly, suspected he might be. Instead, trading Howard was never part of the team’s plan, and rightfully so.
“Two years ago, coming off his rookie year, everyone was saying this was an emerging Pro Bowl tight end,” Spytek said. “Obviously, he had the season he had last year, but we still believe in the kid and the person and the talent. I don’t know why everyone assumed [we would trade him] … I guess because we have Gronk now. I don’t know that that was ever the case. You just can’t have enough good players, especially at the tight end position, where it’s getting harder and harder to find those guys because so many of the college programs are playing with only one – if they are playing with one – and most times that’s almost a receiver position. You end up having discussions about those guys – is he a tight end or a receiver at our level?”
Newly acquired tight end Rob Gronkowski hasn’t started all 16 games in a season since 2011, and missed 29 games due to injuries from 2012-18. Keeping Howard in the fold gives the Bucs the strongest group of tight ends in the league, factoring in Cameron Brate and Antony Auclair, too.
“One of the things about football is that you hope to stay healthy but you know that’s probably not going to happen,” Spytek said. “The deeper you can be at all of these positions you can be the better. Some years the third tight end, wide receiver or whatever doesn’t play a bunch, but the next year one week into the season that guy is a starter (due to injuries). If you look back in the 2017 season we had Lavonte [David] and Kwon [Alexander] and we still took Kendell [Beckwith] in the third. Three or four games into the season Kwon and Lavonte are hurt and Kendell is starting. You want to build a team and you don’t want to be 17 receivers deep and they never get to play, but you never know when and where the injuries are going to strike, and where you depth is going to be tested the most.”
After the draft, PewterReport.com broke the story that the Bucs picked up Howard’s fifth-year option. Howard is in the final year of his rookie contract, and if he’s on the team in 2021, he’ll have a base salary of $6.2 million.
No Rookie Mini-Camp Or OTAs?
It will be weird not having a rookie mini-camp to cover next weekend due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not just to cover the team’s draft picks, but also to see which rookie try-out players end up getting signed. Remember that former long-time Bucs wide receiver Adam Humphries and right tackle Demar Dotson joined the team as try-out players in 2009 and 2015, respectively.
Who knows if the NFL will allow teams to have a rookie mini-camp? It certainly won’t be in May. Will the entire country open up by June or July? Will the NFL have to skip all mini-camps and OTAs and just have the 32 teams head into training camp together in August?
Remember, some states, such as New York and New Jersey where the Jets, Giants and Bills are headquartered have been hit harder by COVID-19 than other states like Florida, which is set to begin to reopen next week. It wouldn’t be fair for the Bucs to have OTAs in May or June if those states are still closed due to the pandemic. The NFL will likely have to wait until the entire nation is free from the quarantine before allowing teams to train at their facilities again for the sake of fairness.
Bucs Might Add A Veteran O-Lineman
Speaking of Dotson, the Bucs aren’t done with their offensive line. Spytek indicated that the team might add a veteran lineman after the draft. Aside from Dotson, former Bucs tackle Josh Wells and former Tampa Bay interior lineman Earl Watford remain unsigned.
“There are some veterans out there too that haven’t signed,” Spytek said. “Just because we didn’t draft one, sometimes you boomerang back the other way to guys that are still looking for a team and we can work something out now that the dust has settled a bit. We’re just not going to force things. You make mistakes that way. We’re always looking for good players.”
I thought Tampa Bay would flood the offensive line in this year’s draft with two or three players, but only selected Wirfs, and came away empty with interior offensive linemen. Spytek said that the team likes some of the young, unheralded offensive linemen like guards Zack Bailey and Aaron Stinnie, center Anthony Fabiano and tackle Brad Seaton, and didn’t want to force a pick just to select another O-lineman.
“That’s kind of the way it fell in the draft,” Spytek said. “You wish you could have had 15 or 16 picks like the Vikings because we could have accomplished more, but we only had seven. It just didn’t fall that way. I think you make a mistake with any player when you say, ‘We have to add somebody here.’ That’s the easiest way to make a mistake. You look back two days later and you say, ‘We drafted that guy a round higher than should have because we had a need.’ That becomes pretty apparent.
“I’m optimistic about some of those guys inside. Zack Bailey was doing some good things in practice and was on the active roster and was going to come to London with us and then got rolled up on in practice and got that injury. Stinnie, the guy we got from the Titans, we’re excited about him and what he can do. He can play all of the interior spots. Fabiano and Seaton are guys we like, too.”
Now let’s get Spytek and Biehl’s insight and scouting reports on Tampa Bay’s first three draft picks – Wirfs, Winfield and Vaughn.
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