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. “SUPERBACK” VITALE HAS ALSTOTT-LIKE QUALITIES
It’s been some time since the Buccaneers have come close to finding a real late-round sleeper in the draft. NFL teams aren’t supposed to hit on sixth- and seventh-round picks with great regularity. They are considered long shots to make NFL teams.
Yet every once in a while, NFL scouts worth their salt find a late-round gem. Tom Brady, Terrell Davis, Antonio Brown, Antoine Bethea, Marques Colston and Jay Ratliff immediately come to mind as sixth- and seventh-rounders that have beaten the odds and become Pro Bowlers.
Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, that kind of good fortune just doesn’t happen in Tampa Bay.
Prior to the arrival of general manager Jason Licht, Tampa Bay’s drafts have been somewhere between awful and lackluster over the previous decade outside the likes of a handful of players, including Pro Bowlers Gerald McCoy, Doug Martin and Lavonte David. Several of the Bucs’ late-round picks have been head-scratchers and simply lacked much imagination.
Over the past decade, the Buccaneers have drafted forgettable players like Bruce Gradkowski, T.J. Williams, Justin Phinisee, Charles Bennett, Tim Massaquoi, Kenneth Darby, Adam Hayward, Marcus Hamilton, Chris Henman, Erik Lorig, E.J. Biggers, Sammie Stroughter, Cody Grimm, Dekoda Watson, Brent Bowden, Daniel Hardy, Anthony Gaitor, Allen Bradford, Drake Dunsmore, Mike Smith, Mike James and Steven Means in the sixth and seventh rounds. A few of those players played a few meaningful years in red and pewter, but the vast majority didn’t last long in Tampa Bay – or even in the NFL.
Safety Keith Tandy, a sixth-round pick in 2012, is the only sixth- or seventh-round Bucs pick that has played four years in Tampa Bay and then signed an extension of two years or more. And Tandy is just a reserve player and special teamer.
Even Licht’s sixth- and seventh-rounders in his first two drafts didn’t pan out. Wide receiver Robert Herron, a sixth-rounder in 2014, wasn’t cut out for special teams and lasted just one year in Tampa Bay. Wide receiver Kaelin Clay, a sixth-round pick last year, and fullback Joey Iosefa, Tampa Bay’s seventh-round pick in 2015, didn’t even make the 53-man roster last year.
I expect the Bucs’ late-round fortunes to change this year. Licht had two sixth-round picks this year and selected Oklahoma linebacker Devante Bond and Dan Vitale, a fullback/H-back/tight end out of Northwestern. Vitale is the one to keep an eye on. He’s a real sleeper in this draft class and could prove to be Tampa Bay’s first late-round gem in a long, long time.
I absolutely loved the selection of Vitale (pronounced Vuh-TAL-ee), and not because he was listed as a PewterReport.com Bucs’ Best Bet in our online running backs/fullbacks preview. I think Vitale will not only make the team, I actually believe he achieve semi-stardom in a relatively short fashion in Tampa Bay for a multitude of reasons.
First, Vitale will play some fullback, and the Bucs didn’t re-sign Jorvorskie Lane, which left the position barren on Tampa Bay’s roster. He has a legitimate chance of being the starter this year as all he has to do is beat out two other rookie fullbacks – Memphis’ Allen Cross and West Chester’s Tim Brown. If Vitale joins cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, defensive end Noah Spence and kicker Roberto Aguayo in the starting lineup that gives Licht, director of college scouting Mike Biehl and the team’s scouts four starters out of the same draft class for a second straight year, which is astounding.
Second, Vitale is a four-phase special teams player, which means he can play on the punt return, kick return, punt coverage and kick coverage units. Vitale, a tough, hard-nosed Chicago kid, played special teams all four years at Northwestern for head coach Pat Fitzgerald and is eager to do so.
“My first two years, I was on everything,” Vitale told the Shutdown Corner website. “Coach Fitz, I had to beg him to put me on kick return last season, which he did thankfully.”
Vitale displayed good special teams ability at the Senior Bowl where he recorded the first tackle on the opening kickoff. That caught the Bucs’ attention.
“Vitale is a tough, Chicago kid playing fullback,” Licht said. “He’s been productive there, particularly as a receiver at Northwestern. [He’s] smart. We like him.
“He can catch the ball, he’s played tight end. He’s kind of a hybrid guy, where he can do that and I know he’s going to be a really good special teamer and that’s hard to find – a fullback that can play special teams.”
The final, and perhaps best, reason why Tampa Bay drafted Vitale was due to his ability to catch the football, pick up yards in chunks and find the end zone. When I watched him at Northwestern it was hard not to see glimpses of Bucs legendary football Mike Alstott in Vitale’s game.
Vitale wore No. 40 for the Wildcats. Alstott wore No. 40 for the Buccaneers. The muscle-bound Vitale is 6-foot-1, 239 pounds. The muscle-bound Alstott was 6-foot-1, 248 pounds. Vitale is from Chicago. Alstott is from nearby Joliet, Illinois.
Both had great hands and could catch passes out of the backfield, and that’s a big reason why Vitale is a Buccaneer. It’s also where the similarities between he and Alstott end.
Alstott rushed for 377 yards and three touchdowns on 96 carries (3.9 avg.) as a rookie in 1996, but he also caught a then-rookie record 65 passes for 557 yards and three touchdowns. Before he gained a lot of notoriety as a runner, Alstott was a receiver. After his rookie season Alstott went on to have no fewer than 131 carries over the next six years, including two seasons (1998 and ‘99) in which he had at least 215 carries.
Vitale is not a running back and won’t be used that way in Tampa. In fact, it was Bucs tight ends coach Jon Embree, who coached Pro Bowl H-back Chris Cooley in Washington, that attended Vitale’s pro day at Northwestern – not running backs coach Tim Spencer.
Vitale was not just a fullback at Northwestern. He played a position called “Superback” that allowed him to line up in the backfield in an offset I-formation as a fullback, at the line of scrimmage as a tight end, in the slot as a receiver and to go in motion as an H-back.
“We got a fullback, alright,” Koetter said. “Yeah, we got a guy – he’s actually kind of a slash player because there’s so few fullbacks how we want to use them, so Dan is kind of a slash, they call it an H-back. We’re going to use him as part-fullback, part-tight end, and excited to see what he looks like.”
Vitale ran seam routes from the line of scrimmage, and wheel routes out of the backfield, beating linebackers and safeties down the field for 135 receptions for 1,427 yard and 11 touchdowns at Northwestern. While Alstott had a 4.74 time in the 40-yard dash, Vitale is much faster, blazing a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash and dominating at the NFL Scouting Combine.
“He runs routes like a wide receiver,” Northwestern backup QB Zach Oliver, who threw Vitale passes at his pro day, told Yahoo! Sports. “And he puts up 30 reps of 225? Freak. Total freak.”
Vitale’s 40-yard dash time was faster than 16 defensive backs at the combine. His 4.12 time in the short shuttle was the fastest of any running back, including Ezekiel Elliott, who was drafted fourth overall by Dallas, by nearly a tenth of a second. His 60-yard shuttle was faster than that of Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller, who ran a 4.32 at the Combine.
Vitale’s 38.5-inch vertical jump was among the top 5 at any position group in Indianapolis, while his 30 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press was better than all but four of the offensive and defensive linemen at the Combine.
“I was happy but not satisfied because I know I have done better in every single one of those testing numbers,” Vitale told Yahoo! Sports. “I wasn’t necessarily the happiest I have ever been, but pretty much everyone told me I didn’t need to do all those again and they were pretty happy with what I did. Now I can get back to football, which is most important.”
An intriguing mix of strength and speed, the athletic Vitale can do it all from catching and blocking on offense to covering kicks and punts on special teams.
“I think it’s a great fit,” Vitale said of landing with the Buccaneers. “I think I’ll be able to do a lot for the team, which I’m excited about. That’s what I did in college: I played a little bit of slot, a little bit of tight end, a little bit of fullback. So I think an H-back is kind of what I’m looking at and I’m excited to contribute.
“I would definitely say my athleticism is my biggest asset, and the versatility as well. But, at the same time, the reason I went to Northwestern – other than the great education – is Big 10 football. Hard-nosed football. So at the same time, I like to believe I’m a hard-nosed football player and I’m excited to go do that out in Tampa.”
Alstott wasn’t a lead blocker at Purdue. He was the Boilermakers’ feature back, but improved his blocking in the NFL where he paved the way for running back Warrick Dunn to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 1997. Vitale spent a lot of time as a lead blocker in Mobile, Ala. and figures to follow in Alstott’s footsteps and refine that skill at the next level.
“A lot of teams that were just I-formation teams wanted to know, ‘Will he go put his face on guys?’” Fitzgerald told Yahoo! Sports. “He answered that I think with a big old exclamation point at the Senior Bowl.”
Just because he wasn’t asked to block a lot at Northwestern doesn’t mean Vitale can’t do it or won’t do it.
“I think NFL teams are trying to find guys who not only have the athletic ability to play in that spot, but also the ones who are willing to put their face on someone,” Vitale said. “I hope that’s the role I can get to play because I would love to. I’m willing to do it all.”
Fitzgerald believes the Buccaneers got a steal in the multi-faceted Vitale.
“He can run, he’s physical, he’s got a great demeanor, high football IQ, we’ve moved him around, he’s played in the kicking game,” Fitzgerald said. “If you’re in an organization, you’re trying to minimize risk, right? And he’s about as low of a risk of a prospect that you’re going to find.”
While there will never be another “A-Train” in Tampa Bay, there might be a “V-Train” at fullback with Vitale. There haven’t been many Buccaneers sixth-round picks to get excited about over the past decade – or even in the 40-year history of the franchise. But I have a feeling that there is something special about this “Superback.”
FAB 2. BIG BUCS FREE AGENT CLASS LOOMING IN 2017
Tampa Bay’s 2017 free agent class won’t feature a Pro Bowler like Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David or Doug Martin that general manager Jason Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg need to sign to a big contract. But the problems for the Bucs G.M. and his capologist next spring will be dealing with the sheer volume of free agents the team is expected to have eligible to hit the open market.
Due largely to poor drafting prior to Licht’s arrival, there haven’t been a lot of pending free agents for Tampa Bay to re-sign. But that’s changing due to the success of the Bucs’ 2013 draft class, which is a rather meaningful group of players. Seven expected starters are slated to become unrestricted free agents in 2017 and a handful of other players have either seen quite a bit of playing time or are slated to see a lot of action in 2016.
Wide receiver Vincent Jackson, right tackle Demar Dotson, center Joe Hawley, linebacker Daryl Smith, safeties Bradley McDougald and Chris Conte and punter Bryan Anger are starters entering a contract year in Tampa Bay. While nose tackle Akeem Spence, defensive end Will Gholston, right tackle Gosder Cherilus, and cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Josh Robinson will be vying for starting spots in training camp.
Backup quarterback Mike Glennon, special teams ace and team captain Russell Shepard are valuable contributors. Reserve safety Major Wright, reserve tight end Brandon Myers and third-string running back Mike James have all started a few games in Tampa Bay, but will face an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster.
Here is a full list of all of Tampa Bay’s pending free agents in 2017:
Bucs 2017 Unrestricted Free Agents
WR Vincent Jackson
RT Demar Dotson
C Joe Hawley
LB Daryl Smith
SS Bradley McDougald
FS Chris Conte
P Bryan Anger
NT Akeem Spence
DL William Gholston
CB Johnthan Banks
RT Gosder Cherilus
CB Josh Robinson
TE Brandon Myers
QB Mike Glennon
SS Major Wright
WR Russell Shepard
RB Mike James
Bucs 2017 Restricted Free Agents
DE Jacquies Smith
LS Andrew DePaola
TE Cameron Brate
P Jacob Schum
QB Ryan Griffin
LB Adarius Glanton
QB Dan LeFevour
Bucs 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agents
CB Jude Adjei- Barimah
WR Adam Humphries
DE Howard Jones
LB Jeremiah George
WR Donteea Dye
DE Kourtnei Brown
LB Josh Keyes
TE Tevin Westbrook
WR Evan Spencer
Two other starters – long snapper Andrew DePaola and defensive end Jacquies Smith – are in Tampa Bay’s restricted free agent class. They join backup tight end Cameron Brate, who had a breakout season in 2015 and could be primed for a bigger year in 2016, and the team’s other backup quarterbacks, Ryan Griffin and Dan LeFevour, who are battling for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart. Jacob Schum was the Bucs’ punter last year, but the guess here is that Anger beats him out. Reserve linebacker Adarius Glanton is not a lock to make the 53-man roster, either.
Tampa Bay’s exclusive rights free agents feature four players that played a significant amount of time as rookies last year in cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah, defensive end Howard Jones and wide receivers Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye. Some of those players ended up starting a few games, but there’s also a chance that some of them don’t even make this year’s 53-man roster.
At this stage, it’s nearly impossible to forecast which Bucs make the roster and then subsequently, which ones get re-signed before or during free agency next March. If Spence and/or Gholston aren’t re-signed then defensive line, especially defensive tackle, becomes a huge area of need, especially with Robert Ayers turning 32 in 2017.
If Conte, McDougald and Wright don’t return in 2017 then safety moves to the forefront of offseason needs next year. If all three are re-signed then it’s certainly not a need.
If the team decides to part ways with Alterraun Verner, Johnthan Banks and/or Josh Robinson, it’s certainly feasible to see Licht target another cornerback early in the 2017 NFL Draft.
If the 33-year old Jackson retires after this season and another starting-caliber wide receiver doesn’t emerge in 2016, then finding a complementary receiver to play opposite Mike Evans becomes a priority in 2017.
Defensive tackle, safety, cornerback and wide receiver appear to be the biggest potential needs in next year’s draft, especially since the Bucs didn’t draft a defensive tackle or a receiver this year.
FAB 3. LOOK-AHEAD TO POTENTIAL BUCS’ 2017 DRAFT TARGETS
The 2016 NFL Draft happened just a week ago, but there are already several “Way Too Early 2017 Mock Drafts” hitting the Internet. As one would guess with the draft over 350 days away, the picks for Tampa Bay are all over the place.
Here are a couple of notable selections:
SI.com has the Bucs drafting sixth and taking Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson. When healthy, Lawson is a beast of a pass rusher, but he finished with four sacks after missing four games in 2013 due to injuries and then missed the entire 2014 season with a hip injury. The 6-foot-2, 257-pound Lawson returned to action in 2015 and had a sack and a dominant game in the season-opener against Louisville, but then missed six games due to injury and was sackless upon his return in the final six games of the season. Unless Lawson, who has just five sacks in his Auburn career, shows me he can stay healthy for a whole season and record double-digit sacks, I’m not buying the hype and I’m touching him in the first round.
I really like Tampa Bay’s selection of USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster with the 13th overall pick in ProFootballFocus.com’s 2017 mock draft. Smith-Schuster is a run-after-catch monster, who enters his junior season with 143 career catches for 2,178 yards and 15 touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound wideout had a breakout year in 2015 with 89 catches for 1,454 yards (16.3 avg.) and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore. This game-breaker with a wicked stiff-arm had six catches of 50 yards or more last year, but his numbers could dip in 2016 with a new quarterback replacing Cody Kessler. Smith-Schuster would make an ideal complementary receiver to Mike Evans in Tampa Bay.
WalterFootball.com’s Charlie Campbell has the Bucs drafting LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White, who wisely returned for his senior season. I’m not a huge fan of White’s junior tape, and the hope is that he will improve in 2016 and live up to the first-round hype. The 5-foot-11, 191-pound White has 20 pass breakups and four interceptions in his career. Campbell has the Bucs picking 13th next year, but I think there are better players than White out there for Tampa Bay.
CBSSports.com’s Dane Brugler also has Tampa Bay drafting a cornerback, but opts for Iowa’s Desmond King instead with the sixth overall pick. I greatly prefer King, who was the Jim Thorpe Award winner last year, over White as he’s a much better tackler and ballhawk. King had eight interceptions, including one for a touchdown, and 13 pass breakups in 2015 as a junior, but returned for his senior season and will look to build on his 11 career picks and 26 pass breakups. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound King is also athletic enough to return punts and kicks. He averaged 24.4 yards per kick return and 14.2 yards per punt return for the Hawkeyes last year.
Perhaps my favorite selection is from BleacherReport.com’s Matt Miller, who has Tampa Bay drafting Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen with the eighth overall pick. While Allen played defensive end in the Crimson Tide’s 3-4 front, he also played some defensive tackle when Alabama showed a 4-3 look. The athletic Allen would be an ideal interior pass rusher in Tampa Bay although he’d have to add some bulk to his 6-foot-3, 283-pound frame. Allen, who had 14.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks last year, was better than teammates A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, who were both drafted in the second round this year. Allen is quick, strong and slippery for a big man and he would be a solid addition to Tampa Bay’s defensive line next year.
The biggest question is where will Tampa Bay draft? If the Bucs underwhelm and succumb to a much more challenging schedule in 2016 will they be picking inside the top 10 again? Or will the Pewter Pirates rise up and become a surprise playoff contender and pick in the teens or twenties?
The consensus top 3 for next year right now in no particular order is Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya, Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson and Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett. Aside from the likes of Lawson, White, King, Smith-Schuster and Allen, here is 10 other potential first-rounders that draftniks should keep an eye on in the fall with a few highlight reels sprinkled in:
Missouri DE Charles Harris
Perhaps my favorite defensive lineman in the 2017 draft class, this junior-to-be could be the best Missouri pass rusher since Aldon Smith. This 6-foot-3, 255-pounder posted an SEC-best 18.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and two forced fumbles. This ultra-fast pass rusher would be an ideal bookend to Noah Spence.
Michigan State DT Malik McDowell
At 6-foot-6, 280 pounds, McDowell is an athletic freak oozing with speed and power. He’s used to double teams as the Spartans’ nose tackle, but posted 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and had a pick-six last season. McDowell could team with Gerald McCoy to give Tampa Bay two monsters in the middle.
Alabama DE Tim Williams
This 6-foot-4, 237-pound edge rusher plays bigger than his size indicates. Williams is fast, physical and nasty and had 12.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks last year. He’s a stronger, tougher version of Leonard Floyd and would really bring the heat playing opposite Spence in Tampa Bay.
Michigan DT Chris Wormley
The 6-foot-5, 303-pound defensive lineman emerged as a pass rusher with 6.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss last year as a junior. Wormley plays in a 3-4 scheme, but like Allen, he could transition to playing defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense and likely play nose tackle next to McCoy.
USC CB/WR/KR Adoree’ Jackson
Jackson may be the best athlete in the country and is skipping spring football to train for the U.S. track team in the Rio Olympics. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound cornerback has 18 pass breakups and a pick-six on his resume, along with 37 catches for 552 yards and five touchdowns as a receiver. He has scored touchdowns on defense (one), as a receiver (five) as a rusher (two) as a punt returner (two) and as a kick returner (two).
Louisville DE Devonte Fields
Fields plays outside linebacker in the Cardinals’ 3-4 defense, but at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds he has the frame to add size and play defensive end in Tampa Bay. Fields was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year at TCU where he had 10 sacks, 18.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an INT. After 6.5 sacks at a JUCO, he erupted for 10.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss in his first year at Louisville.
Western Michigan WR Corey Davis
Davis has been taught by former Bucs wide receivers coach P.J. Fleck and is the active leading receiver in FBS with 3,785 yards and 33 touchdowns on 235 catches. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound receiver has 22 100-yard gams in his career and is coming off a season in which he posted 90 receptions for 1,436 yards and 12 touchdowns. Davis is long and fast and would be an ideal weapon opposite Evans in Tampa Bay.
Virginia S Quin Blanding
This big, 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior has been a tackling machine for the Cavaliers with 123 stops as a freshman and 115 last year. Blanding was the number one safety coming out of high school three years ago and has nine career pass breakups, four picks, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery on his resume. He’s the heart and soul of Virginia’s defense.
Michigan S Jabrill Peppers
Peppers is a 6-foot-1, 208-pound athlete that has drawn comparisons to Jalen Ramsey and former Michigan great Charles Woodson. Peppers has played cornerback and safety where he broke up 10 passes, but is moving to a hybrid linebacker position this year to take advantage of his 4.4 speed. The Wolverines also use that speed on offense where he has rushed for two TDs as a Wildcat quarterback and on special teams where Peppers has averaged 27.9 yards per kick return and 11.4 yards per punt return. He’ll be a safety in the NFL.
Florida State DE DeMarcus Walker
Walker has a thick build to his 6-foot-3, 273-pound frame and had a breakout season in 2016 with 58 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, five pass breakups, four forced fumbles, an interception and a blocked kick. He’s a relentless edge rusher capable of playing left or right end.
FAB 4. RE-DRAFTING THE BUCS’ 2016 DRAFT CLASS
After four months of draft coverage, PewterReport.com’s draft coverage winds down with this week’s SR’s Fab 5 column. The month of May marks the start of OTAs at One Buccaneer Place, followed by the team’s mini-camp in June before a five-week hiatus until training camp.
While I’ve lauded some of Tampa Bay’s 2016 draft picks and given the Bucs a “B” or their draft class, I would have made some different selections if I were sitting in Jason Licht’s seat. Here are the players I would have drafted in the actual selections when the Bucs were on the clock, and I kept Licht’s second-round trade intact rather than deciding to play fantasy football.
Round 1 – Louisville DT Sheldon Rankins
I’ve stated my preference for drafting Rankins over Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III in previous SR’s Fab 5 columns and my draft analysis story earlier this week, so I’m not going to beat a dead horse. I believe that defensive linemen typically take a bit longer to develop than cornerbacks do, so I would take a classic, one-gap penetrating tackle like Rankins, who had 35 career plays behind the line of scrimmage, including 18 career sacks, this year to speed up the process.
Gerald McCoy is entering his seventh season in the NFL and may only have two or three more good years left. Defensive linemen Akeem Spence and Will Gholston are entering a contract year and nose tackle Clinton McDonald is 29. Missing on a defensive tackle in this year’s draft class when it was so deep to begin with is why I cannot give Licht and the Bucs an “A” grade. Tampa Bay had a chance to draft the top defensive tackle in the draft and instead settled for the third cornerback to be drafted.
You’re supposed to build a defense from front to back in the NFL, and the Bucs are taking the opposite approach. The cornerback position was bolstered this offseason with the signing of Pro Bowler Brent Grimes and the addition of Josh Robinson. Those two, in addition to Alterraun Verner, Johnthan Banks and Jude Adjei-Barimah, already gave Tampa Bay five solid cornerbacks even without Hargreaves. The Bucs could have waited a year to draft another cornerback and been okay.
Round 2 – Eastern Kentucky DE Noah Spence
The Bucs rolled the dice and were fortunate that Spence was still on the board when they were back on the clock in the second round. Spence, who we had as Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in our second Bucs’ 7-Round Mock Draft, really won me over with a terrific Senior Bowl. Despite his past drug use, I was very surprised to see him slide into the second round as he has first-round talent.
Spence is considered to be the best pure pass rusher in the 2016 NFL Draft class, and I’ll back up that assertion based on what I saw in Mobile, and the tape I’ve watched leading up to the draft. Spence didn’t have a fast 40-yard dash time (4.8) at the NFL Scouting Combine, and that obviously hurt his stock, too. But he has great snap anticipation, initial quickness and body lean. That combined with the ability to convert his speed to power when pass rushing makes him a formidable foe.
In my opinion, Spence was the best player available when the Bucs selected him with the 39th overall pick. I think this guy has Pro Bowls in his future and he’ll be the one to end Tampa Bay’s double-digit sack drought, which dates back to Simeon Rice’s 2005 season. I wouldn’t have changed a thing about Licht’s pick and I would have selected Spence right here.
Round 2 – Florida State K Roberto Aguayo
Aguyao is the love-hate pick in Tampa Bay this year. Drafting a kicker is one thing. Trading up to draft a kicker in the second round is another. Bucs fans either love it or hate it.
I happen to see the genius in Licht’s decision to draft Aguayo, who is deemed as the best kicker in college football history. Licht wants to have a steady, reliable weapon at the kicker position. He’s seen first-hand what Adam Vinatieri did for New England in helping Bill Belichick and Tom Brady win three Super Bowls, and Licht has seen how Stephen Gostkowski aid the Patriots in winning another championship.
I was in favor of the Bucs spending a third-round pick on Martin Gramatica in 1999 and he helped lead Tampa Bay to its first and only Super Bowl championship. I don’t have any problem with trading up to get Aguayo, either. The Bucs packaged their third-rounder and the fourth-round pick they got from trading down two spots with Chicago to take Hargreaves to move up to get Aguayo. If Aguayo pans out and is as good as advertised Licht could have very well drafted three players with first-round ability in the first three selections.
Round 4 – Grand Valley State DE Matt Judon
New England could very well have six Super Bowl titles if not for losing twice to the New York Giants. How did the Giants beat Brady and the Patriots? They did it with a relentless pass rush. For years, New York kept giving Tom Coughlin’s defense a pass-rushing defensive end in draft after draft. New York already had Michael Strahan, but drafted Osi Umenyiora in the second round in 2003. Justin Tuck was selected in the third round two years later. Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka was the Giants’ first-round pick in 2006. Four years later, the Giants spent another premium pick on defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who was the 15th overall pick.
So what lessons can Licht learn from the Giants? You can never have enough good pass rushers. Robert Ayers is 31 years old and is a stop-gap player. Gholston is in a contract year. Jacquies Smith is a restricted free agent this year. Drafting Spence in the second round goes a long way to improving Tampa Bay’s pass rush from the right side, but the 275-pound Judon seems like an ideal fit to eventually replace Ayers on the left side.
Instead of drafting North Carolina Central defensive back Ryan Smith, I would draft Judon, who went to Baltimore in the fourth round, to give the Bucs a pair of bookend defensive ends that could grow together over the years. Judon, whose 20 sacks last year for Grand Valley State led all college football players, also serves as an insurance policy in case something happens to Spence in the next year or two.
Round 5 – West Virginia S K.J. Dillon
Watching a lot of Big XII football, I’ve come to love the safety tandem of Karl Joseph and Dillon. Joseph, who was drafted in the first round, was the headliner, of course, but Dillon had a very solid career for the Mountaineers, too. Dillon had 20 pass breakups and five interceptions over the past two years, which shows his playmaking skills against the passing game. He also had 62 tackles as a senior and his tackling skills steadily improved over his career.
Dillon is a very athletic safety that ran a 4.53 at the NFL Scouting Combine, but could add some strength at the next level. Dillon has the ability to match up in single coverage against tight ends due to his size (6-foot, 210 pounds) and that’s intriguing in a pass-happy conference like the NFC South, which features Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton. He still needs to improve his tackling, but Dillon is a very intriguing developmental safety that could star on special teams as a rookie.
The Bucs drafted Caleb Benenoch, a developmental right tackle out of UCLA, in the fifth round. With Tampa Bay having three players capable of playing right tackle this season in Demar Dotson, Gosder Cherilus and Kevin Pamphile, the Bucs could have been patient and waited another year to draft an offensive tackle. The Bucs drafted a safety in the small-school Smith in the fourth round, so we’ll see if he’s better than Dillon, who was selected by Houston in the sixth round.
Round 6 – Texas Tech WR Jakeem Grant
NFL teams typically look to bolster their special teams on Day 3 of the draft, and that’s exactly what I would have done if I were in charge of Tampa Bay’s draft. Longtime readers of this column have known my affinity for Grant, who surpassed the likes of Michael Crabtree and Wes Welker to be Texas Tech’s all-time leading receiver with 3,286 yards and 27 touchdowns on 254 receptions.
Yet at 5-foot-6, 161 pounds there just isn’t a track record of success for players that size in the NFL. Grant reminds me of diminutive Pro Bowl return man Darren Sproles (5-6, 190), although 30 pounds slimmer, as well as Welker (5-9, 185), with his 4.38 speed and shiftiness. Grant, who was drafted a few picks later in the sixth round by Miami, had four kick returns for touchdowns at Texas Tech and would lead the way for the Bucs’ return specialist job.
Licht drafted a return specialist/receiver last year in Kaelin Clay in the sixth round, so perhaps he felt burned by that pick and didn’t want to draft a similar player a year later. Instead, the Bucs selected Oklahoma linebacker Devante Bond, who isn’t particularly fast (4.7), and was a bit injury-prone for the Sooners. But he can rush the passer, as he showed with 17 sacks coming off the edge in JUCO as a sophomore, and he’s supposedly a good special teams player.
Round 6 – Northwestern FB-TE Dan Vitale
I’ve already covered a lot of ground with Vitale in this edition of SR’s Fab 5, so I’m just going to stick and pick the same player Tampa Bay took later in the sixth round. I’ll commend Licht for a job well done and encourage you to read Fab 1 for my analysis on Vitale.
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• I would like to apologize for the web traffic issues we were having on Thursday night and Friday morning. We had some hardware issues with our servers that we were able to get corrected on Friday afternoon in time for Friday night’s draft coverage and the site performed quite well from then on despite record traffic loads from Thursday through Monday. It was a case of bad timing, and I thank you for bearing with us. We will be taking enhanced measures to prevent future issues like the one that surfaced late last week.
• PewterReport.com’s Day 2 Draft Party was a huge hit at Hard Rock Cafe last Friday. A packed house of 150 Tampa Bay fans and some current and former Tampa Bay players (Tyoka Jackson, Dwight Smith, Akeem Spence, Will Gholston, Kourtnei Brown and Jude Adjei-Barimah) in attendance saw the team select defensive end Noah Spence and kicker Roberto Aguyao in the second round. A big thank you to all of those PewterReport.com readers who came to our event, including 620 WDAE’s Tom Krasniqi and Ronnie “Night Train” Lane, and for Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino for hosting the party.
• The end of the Tampa Tribune came abruptly on Tuesday, but it’s demise was never really in doubt. It was only a matter of time. With the recession and the slow economic recovery over the last eight years, Tampa was destined to be a one newspaper city, and it was painful to see both the Tribune and the Tampa Bay Times, which acquired the Trib and closed it, lay off employees over the last couple of years. The shrinking of the Tribune from a robust paper to a mere pamphlet was also tough to watch as my editorial roots were in print with Buccaneer Magazine starting in 1995.
I feel for Bucs beat writer Roy Cummings and iconic NFL and Bucs reporter and columnist Ira Kaufman, who also served as the Tampa Bay market’s designated Hall of Fame voter. My guess is that Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times will inherit that role this year – or soon. Perhaps one day I’ll have that distinction as I’m entering my 22nd year covering the Buccaneers. Who knows?
My hope is that Cummings and Kaufman land on their feet and can continue covering the Bucs, as writer Rick Brown has when the Lakeland Ledger abandoned its Bucs beat two years ago. It certainly wouldn’t be the same without Cummings or Kaufman, and I speak on behalf of the PewterReport.com staff when I say we wish them well.
While Tampa Bay area newspapers continue to diminish their coverage of the Bucs, I’m proud to say that PewterReport.com is on firm footing. We’re undergoing a period of monumental web traffic growth and economic growth despite the fact that the Bucs have played below .500 for the past five years, which is very encouraging.
Advertising revenue is the lifeblood of not only the Tampa Bay Times, but also PewterReport.com. If you are a business owner or marketing decision-maker and you enjoy PewterReport.com’s coverage, let’s have a conversation about ways you can help support our endeavors, and more importantly, what our robust web traffic can do for your company in terms of generating new business. Please reach out to me at [email protected] – thank you.
• A new Pewter Pulse video should be up on PewterReport.com late Friday or early Saturday. Mark Cook and I go way in-depth in our analysis of Tampa Bay’s rookie class, so be sure to check that out over the weekend.
• Since PewterReport.com’s focus will shift from draft talk to how the Buccaneers veterans and rookies are faring in the upcoming OTAs and mini-camp in the coming weeks, I wanted to give you some final 2017 NFL Draft prospects to jot down to watch in the fall. These players are likely non-first-round picks, but rather some players I stumbled upon while watching college football last year and prepping for the 2016 NFL Draft.
The first is Arkansas defensive end Deatrich Wise, Jr., who ended the season with a flurry of sacks. All eight of his sacks last year came in five of the last regular season games, although he did get shut out by Kansas State left tackle Cody Whitehair in the Liberty Bowl game I attended in Memphis, Tenn. as a K-State alum. Wise is entering his senior season with 13 career sacks and could be primed for a double-digit season in 2016 if he can stay healthy. At 6-foot-5, 272 pounds, Wise is a quick, agile and powerful defensive end that plays with a lot of confidence. A breakout season for Wise could mean first-round consideration next April.
Sticking with the Razorbacks, senior tight end Jeremy Sprinkle is a player to watch. He played in the shadow of Hunter Henry at Arkansas the last three years, but still produced 27 catches for 389 yards and six touchdowns, which was twice as many scores as Henry had last year despite him catching 51 passes for 739 yards. I saw the 6-foot-6, 255-pound Sprinkle tear up my Wildcats for 81 yards and a touchdown on four catches in the Liberty Bowl. He has 38 career catches for 541 yards and seven scores. With Arkansas breaking in a new quarterback this year, look for Brandon Allen’s replacement to throw to a QB’s best friend – his tight end. Sprinkle could have a big year for the Razorbacks and race up draft boards as a result.
The 2017 NFL Draft figures to be the year of the running back with several huge names expected to enter the NFL, including likely first-rounders LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Georgia’s Nick Chubb, in addition to Wisconsin’s Corey Clement, Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Clemson’s Wayne Gallman and Toledo’s Kareem Hunt. But keep an eye on Wyoming’s Brian Hill, who enters his junior season after rushing for 1,631 yards and six touchdowns on 281 carries last year. As a freshman he set a Mountain West Conference record with 387 yards of total offense. Hill rushed for 281 yards and two touchdowns, including an 89-yarder, on 23 carries in a 45-17 win over Fresno State and also had 106 yards receiving on three catches. The 6-foot-1, 211-pound Hill has a running style that reminds me of Arkansas running back Alex Collins, who was drafted by Seattle in the fifth round. Check him out in the video below.
• Speaking of Collins, the Seahawks got their replacement for Marshawn Lynch in the former Razorbacks runner. I’m stunned he lasted until the fifth round and I think he’s got the skill set with his speed, power and determination to be a 1,000-yard back in the NFL. I like him much better than C.J. Prosise, the Notre Dame running back that Seattle drafted in the third round.
• Here is one thing I don’t understand about the Buccaneers secondary. On offense they create mismatches with 6-foot-5 wide receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, and 6-foot-6 tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Yet on defense Tampa Bay has a collection of 5-foot-10 cornerbacks in Brent Grimes, Alterraun Verner and rookie Vernon Hargreaves that will be mismatched against some of the bigger wide receivers in the NFC South. This is a division that features Atlanta’s duo of 6-foot-2 Mohammed Sanu and 6-foot-3 Julio Jones, Carolina’s tandem of 6-foot-5 Kelvin Benjamin and 6-foot-4 Devon Funchess, and New Orleans’ 6-foot-3 rookie Michael Thomas and 6-foot-6 Brandon Coleman.
The Panthers gave up on Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman, who wanted a king’s ransom. So what does Carolina do to replace him? They draft three cornerbacks in the second, third and fifth round, respectively. Samford’s James Bradberry and West Virginia’s Daryl Worley are both 6-foot-1 and Oklahoma’s Zack Sanchez is 5-foot-11 to help go against the likes of Evans and Jackson. In my opinion the Panthers have the right idea.
• One of the Bucs’ undrafted free agent signings to watch for is Auburn running back Peyton Barber, who left for the NFL after just two years on the field due to his family’s dire financial straits. Barber’s mother is homeless and you may not find a rookie with more to play for than the 5-foot-11, 225-pound power back. Peyton isn’t the biggest back, nor is he the fastest or the most talented. But he runs hungry and with a sense of urgency, breaks tackles and has a nose for the end zone. Check out his highlights from Auburn.