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. LICHT MAKING HIS MARK WITH ROSTER IMPROVEMENTS IN TAMPA BAY
That means it’s Jason Licht time in Tampa Bay.
This is when Licht, a self-proclaimed “meathead scout,” gets to make his mark on the Buccaneers.
Sure, Licht will sign players in virtually every month from now through December as new options become available and injuries occur. But the most impactful players Licht will add will come in the months of March and April when free agency and the NFL Draft take place.
Licht and his scouts have joined head coach Dirk Koetter and Tampa Bay’s assistants in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine this week with two missions. First, it’s to interview and collect information on the top prospects in the 2017 NFL Draft. And second, it’s to continue negotiations with the agents of the Bucs’ pending free agents.
Licht, who was worked in personnel for the likes of Tom Heckert in Philadelphia, Bill Belichick in New England and Steve Keim in Arizona, is entering his fourth season as Tampa Bay’s general manager having learned a lot of lessons in short order.
Bucs GM Jason Licht and former head coach Lovie Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
In his first season in 2014 he learned the lesson that good teams aren’t built through free agency with high-priced players. He learned it’s much better to admit a personnel mistake – and move on quickly rather than being stubborn and hanging on to a failing player for ego’s sake.
After the 2015 season he had to fire the man that hired him, head coach Lovie Smith, after two underwhelming seasons and operating with a regressing defensive system that was going nowhere. Licht identified what was working – the offensive side of the ball, which was led by offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter – and replaced Smith with Koetter, his first-ever head coaching hire in 2016.
Although the Bucs missed the playoffs by one game, the team did finish with a 9-7 record, Tampa Bay’s first winning season since 2010, and Licht’s fingerprints were all over it, from Koetter’s hiring and the addition of defensive coordinator Mike Smith, to the players Licht has acquired in free agency and the draft. Now that Licht and his scouts have filled the team with enough players to win, it’s time to find the new Buccaneers that are going to put Tampa Bay into the playoffs and in contention for a Super Bowl title.
Before the Bucs begin the process of adding more talent, let’s take a look back on how Licht has shaped the roster and review some of the lessons he’s learned in free agency and in the draft.
2014 Free Agent Additions QB Josh McCown
McCown had played for Smith in Chicago and that was the quarterback Smith wanted to lead the offense instead of Mike Glennon, so Licht signed him to be a stop-gap solution at the position.
LT Anthony Collins
Collins was a player that Smith had scouted from his basement in Chicago during his year off from football, so he and Licht decided to move on from Donald Penn and sign Collins, a part-time starter for the Bengals, which proved to be a mistake.
DE Michael Johnson
Johnson was signed against Licht’s better judgment, but that’s the defensive end that Smith wanted for his defense despite his spotty track record as a pass rusher in Cincinnati.
DT Clinton McDonald (98) and former Bucs DE Michael Johnson (90) – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
DT Clinton McDonald
Licht was attracted to McDonald’s work ethic, ability to rush the passer from the nose tackle position and his Super Bowl championship experience with Seattle.
TE Brandon Myers
Myers was getting a little long in the tooth, but he was a versatile, all-around, veteran tight end that could catch the ball and block in the ground game.
CB Alterraun Verner
When Licht cut Darrelle Revis and his $16 million base salary he replaced him with Verner, who was coming off a Pro Bowl season in Tennessee with five interceptions.
C Evan Smith
Smith had a little starting experience in Green Bay and had the toughness and intelligence Licht and offensive line coach George Warhop were looking for in a center.
CB Mike Jenkins
Smith always had a fondness for Jenkins and signed the local USF product to compete for a starting cornerback job in Tampa Bay.
Summary: The Glazers wanted Smith and Licht to make a splash in free agency and get the players necessary to “win now” in 2014 after the Bucs finished with a disappointing 4-12 season in Greg Schiano’s last season the year prior. Licht dutifully signed a lot of the players Smith had directed him to get and some of those signings – notably McCown, Collins and Johnson – were some painful mistakes and were released after just one season.
2015 Free Agent Additions LB Bruce Carter
Carter was a player Licht was very excited about due to his speed and coverage ability in Dallas where he had five interceptions in 2014, and he was the biggest free agent signing in Tampa Bay in 2015.
S Chris Conte
Conte had played for Smith in Chicago and was signed to a one-year deal to start at safety in Tampa Bay due to his familiarity with the Tampa 2 scheme.
Former Bucs DT Henry Melton – Photo by: Getty Images
DT Henry Melton
Melton was signed to a one-year deal to provide some depth at both the three-technique and nose tackle positions.
CB Sterling Moore
Moore had a good year in Dallas in 2014 as a nickel cornerback, and while he flashed as a cornerback and a nickel in Tampa Bay, he didn’t have a team-first attitude.
Summary: Licht took a much more restrained approach to free agency after spending too freely in 2014. To the surprise of many, Carter was beaten out for the starting middle linebacker job by Kwon Alexander, a fourth-round draft pick in 2015, and was relegated to backup duty for most of the season. He lasted just one season in Tampa Bay before being released due to his bloated salary. Conte proved to be a good signing, while Melton and Moore were just one-year players in Tampa Bay.
2016 Free Agent Additions CB Brent Grimes
Grimes was signed due to his familiarity with Mike Smith’s scheme and he showed that at age 33 he could still play at a high level, evidenced by his pick-six against Carolina in Week 17 that proved to be huge in a 17-16 season-ending victory.
DE Robert Ayers
An ankle injury in Week 2 limited Ayers to 12 games last year, but he was an effective pass rusher at defensive end and inside at defensive tackle in nickel defense, and had a tremendous impact in helping developing second-round pick Noah Spence.
G J.R. Sweezy
The Bucs didn’t get a chance to have Sweezy’s help in 2016 as a back injury required surgery that had a longer than expected recovery time. He’ll be back in the mix at guard this year after getting medically cleared to resume practicing.
Bucs P Bryan Anger – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
CB Josh Robinson
Robinson didn’t see the field on defense but made his mark on special teams where he led the team in tackles and was critical in helping down several Bryan Anger punts deep inside the Bucs’ opponents’ territory.
P Bryan Anger
Anger signed a one-year deal and was highly motivated to prove himself after Jacksonville parted ways with him. He had a career-high 37 punts downed inside the 20, which greatly helped Tampa Bay’s defense.
Summary: Licht continued to his practice of only signing a few veterans in free agency after splurging for eight free agents in 2014 and it paid off with his best free agent class to date. Grimes, Ayers and Sweezy were the big names, and Grimes proved to be the best addition of the three as he finished the season as a Pro Bowl alternate and led the Bucs with four interceptions. Ayers brought attitude and 6.5 sacks to Smith’s defense, while Anger and Robinson were stellar on special teams with Anger earning a five-year contract extension in December. The jury is out on Sweezy, a high-priced guard who missed the 2016 offseason and season after suffering a back injury shortly after he was signed.
2014 Draft Round 1: Texas A&M WR Mike Evans
Licht’s first-ever draft pick as G.M. was a home run as Evans has three 1,000-yard seasons and became a Pro Bowler after a record-setting 2016 season.
Round 2: Washington TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins
The oft-injured Seferian-Jenkins has the tools to be a Pro Bowler when healthy, but Licht gambled and missed on ASJ’s character and he was released after a DUI early in 2016.
Round 3: West Virginia RB Charles Sims
When healthy, Sims can be a force as a complementary weapon on offense in a pass-catching role, but injuries have robbed him of 15 games in three seasons.
Round 5: Tennessee State G Kadeem Edwards
Licht’s first offensive line selection was a swing and a miss as Licht took a chance on a small school prospect, but the fifth round is full of hit-or-miss prospects.
Bucs LG Kevin Pamphile – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Round 5: Purdue OL Kevin Pamphile
Pamphile is Licht’s first late-round gem as the versatile offensive linemen became a starter at left guard in 2016 and could be moved to the starting center spot this year.
Round 6: Wyoming WR Robert Herron
Licht took a late-round flier on a speed receiver and it didn’t work out because of Herron’s suspect hands and lack of special teams ability.
2014 Draft Summary: Four years later, Licht and the Bucs came away with a Pro Bowl receiver in Evans, a starting offensive lineman in Pamphile and a productive third-down back in Sims. Hitting on three out of six picks, especially the team’s first-rounder, and finding two starters equals a successful draft any year.
2015 Draft Round 1: Florida State QB Jameis Winston
Licht’s second first-round selection was a home run as he hit on a franchise QB and alpha male leader in Winston, who has passed for 4,000 yards in each of his first two years.
Round 2: Penn State LT Donovan Smith
Smith, who has started every game in the NFL, is a work in progress and has plenty of upside, but has all the tools necessary to be a very good – if not great – left tackle in the NFL.
Round 3: Hobart College G Ali Marpet
Licht traded up in the second round to take a chance on a small school guard and it winded up being a huge hit as like Smith, Marpet was an instant starter and has Pro Bowl potential.
Round 4: LSU LB Kwon Alexander
Alexander is Licht’s second Day 3 gem and a real steal, especially since he has become a Day 1 starter and led the NFL in solo tackles this year as a Pro Bowl alternate.
Round 5: Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
Bell was supposed to be the Bucs’ speed receiver, but concentration lapses and poor hands cost him a chance as a receiver and a kick returner and he was cut after two training camps.
Round 6: Utah WR Kaelin Clay
Licht attempted to get a return specialist late the draft, but Clay wasn’t able to distinguish himself in the preseason and didn’t make the 53-man roster.
Round 7: Hawaii FB Joey Iosefa
It was an uninspiring pick, but Licht can’t really be faulted for drafting Iosefa because seventh round picks are long shots and rarely work out.
2015 Draft Summary: Licht came away with a franchise quarterback in Winston, a stud middle linebacker in Alexander, and two promising offensive linemen. That’s four quality starters – all have Pro Bowl potential – out of seven selections, which makes for a tremendous draft in Licht’s second year as a general manager.
2016 Draft Round 1: Florida CB Vernon Hargreaves III
Hargreaves was a 16-game starter as a rookie, and although he was targeted more than any other cornerback last year, he has plenty of upside and promise.
Round 2: Eastern Kentucky DE Noah Spence
Licht took a chance on Spence, a player with first-round talent but had a drug issue in college, and he has starter potential after recording 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles as a rookie.
Round 2: Florida State K Roberto Aguayo
Aguayo is Licht’s biggest gamble to date as he traded up to take a chance on one of the most decorated kickers to enter the draft, who has a 50-50 chance of making the team after a sub-par rookie season.
Bucs S Ryan Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Round 4: North Carolina Central DB Ryan Smith
Smith, who could be another Day 3 gem, was a star on special teams as a rookie and has generated a lot of hype behind the scenes as an emerging cornerback with possible starter potential.
Round 5: UCLA OL Caleb Benenoch
The team has high hopes for Benenoch, who could be a future starter at right tackle or guard as another Day 3 find, as a young, developmental offensive lineman.
Round 6: Oklahoma LB Devante Bond
Licht spent a late-round pick on Bond, a big, fast linebacker that had a redshirt season last year on IR who will compete for the starting Sam linebacker in 2017.
Round 6: Northwestern FB Dan Vitale
Licht had high hopes for the versatile Vitale, but he was asked to block in the NFL after not doing that in college and he didn’t make the Bucs’ 53-man roster as a result.
2016 Draft Summary: It’s tough to evaluate a draft after just one season, but Hargreaves and Aguayo were starters last year, and Spence was a big-time contributor with starting potential. The jury is still out on Aguayo, and if Smith and/or Bond develop into starters this could really be very solid draft for Tampa Bay.
“We’ve done a much better job in bringing in the right ‘type’ of guy,” Licht said. “We have a much better vetting process, using our sources and resources better to find out more about guys. And that’s something that, in my first year, I should’ve done a better job with. I’ll be the first to admit that.
“Last year it worked out where we signed Robert Ayers, also drafted Spence; signed Grimes also drafted Hargreaves. In a perfect world, I’d love to do that. It doesn’t always workout that way. Bottom line is we want to get some guys, regardless of their age, that can help us in positions we need help at.”
In just three years the Bucs have been completely retooled and remade under Licht’s supervision. In fact, entering 2016 Tampa Bay may have just four players that were starters in 2013 – Gholston, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, weakside linebacker Lavonte David and right tackle Demar Dotson. Licht acquired every other Bucs starter, and he re-signed McCoy, David and Dotson to long-term contract extensions, and is working on a new deal for Gholston this month.
That’s 21 new starters, including a kicker, a punter and a long snapper on special teams, brought in over the last three years. In Licht’s three years the Bucs have seen five different players become Pro Bowlers in McCoy (2014-16), David (2015), Winston (2015) guard Logan Mankins (2015), who was acquired in a trade in 2014, and Evans (2016). That’s just as many as his predecessor Mark Dominik had in five years from 2009-13 and Bruce Allen had in five years from 2004-08.
With one more good (or potentially great) draft and another good haul in free agency, the Bucs will have the roster needed to make the playoffs and make a run at the Super Bowl. In just four offseasons, Licht has the chance to cement his legacy as the second-best general manager in Tampa Bay history behind Rich McKay, who helped build the 2002 champion Buccaneers and drafted two Hall of Famers in defensive tackle Warren Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks, and two other potential ones in safety John Lynch and cornerback Ronde Barber.
If Licht can help the Bucs win a championship on his watch and if some of the stars he’s drafted end up in Canton, Ohio, he could very well go down as the best general manager in franchise history in time. But Licht has already done one thing that McKay couldn’t do, which was draft a franchise quarterback in Winston.
“It’s apparent to me that Jason has a well thought out plan for how he’s going to build his team,” Winston’s agent Greg Genske said. “They are well on their way to executing that plan. The future is very bright for the Bucs. He’s doing a great job.”
Quarterbacks cannot only sink head coaches, general managers, too. Just ask Dominik how he feels about Josh Freeman these days. Although many tough decisions about which players to draft and which free agents to sign will be made in the months ahead, Licht’s most critical call was drafting Winston despite the scrutiny that surrounded the Florida State quarterback.
“I learned that Jason is incredibly diligent at his job through that process,” Genske said. “He did his due diligence quite thoroughly. I learned that he’s a critical thinker that was going to take in the information and make his own judgments based on where the information led him. That has served him and the Buccaneers well.”
Bucs GM Jason Licht – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
NFL agent Joe Linta, who represents tight end Cameron Brate and linebacker Cameron Lynch, has known Licht for 15 years and isn’t surprised by the success Licht has had in turning the Bucs around.
“The arrow is up on them as a team with Winston maturing,” Linta said. “I would expect them to be in the playoffs this year by hook or by crook. Jason is very thorough. That’s one thing I can say about him when it comes to scouting players. And the humility is always there with him. He never draws attention to himself and he’s respected for that – that kind of goes to his roots in Nebraska and his upbringing in New England. He’s doing a great job.”
Yes, he is.
It will be interesting to see what the next few years hold for the Buccaneers under Licht’s leadership.
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: email@example.com
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