Welcome to The Hook, my weekly column that hooks you into a different Tampa Bay Buccaneers topic each Thursday, as well as some of my thoughts on the Bucs and the NFL at the end in a section called Cannon Blast.
I invite you to offer me some feedback on The Hook below in the article comments section.
It hasn’t always been pretty for Bucs’ GM Jason Licht and his staff.
Drafting football players isn’t an exact science and even the best decision makers have their fair share of errors and blunders.
Licht has certainly had his clunkers.
Particularly in the second round where players like Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Noah Spence, Justin Evans, M.J. Stewart and a certain unnamed kicker from Florida State, make me reach for the Tums anytime I think about them.
We can also throw Vernon Hargreaves III in along with Jameis Winston as first rounders that when you look back now, you see they were bad picks for the franchise. Not necessarily bad selections in general, but neither are still with the organization. Some say Winston could rebound still and be a good quarterback for a long time in the league, but even if that happens it won’t be with Tampa Bay so you can’t pass out a gold star for the Winston pick, although Marcus Mariota would have been worse.
We can also beat up Licht and Co. for some forgettable free agent signings. Anthony Collins, Josh McCown, Michael Johnson, Chris Baker and J.R. Sweezy are just a handful that stole money from the Glazers.
But with all the bad, you can’t ignore the good and give Licht and his front office the credit for some outstanding selections that now have created a nucleus of a football team that is one of the best in the NFL.
Let’s take a quick look at Licht’s drafts and list the players still on the roster that are either starters or steady contributors.
2014 – WR Mike Evans 2015 – LT Donovan Smith, LG Ali Marpet 2016 – CB Ryan Smith 2017 – TE O.J. Howard, WR Chris Godwin 2018 – NT Vita Vea, RB Ronald Jones II, CB Carlton Davis, RG Alex Cappa, S Jordan Whitehead, WR Justin Watson, LB Jack Cichy 2019 – LB Devin White, CB Sean Murphy-Bunting, CB Jamel Dean, S Mike Edwards, OLB Anthony Nelson, WR, Scotty Miller 2020 – RT Tristan Wirfs, Antoine Winfield Jr., RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, WR Tyler Johnson, DT Kahlil Davis
16 of Licht’s draft picks began the 2020 season as starters. When you only have 11 on offense and 11 on defense, even by my simple Plant City-learned math skills, that tells me 73 percent of the starters on this 5-2 NFC South leading team are Jason Licht draft picks.
Not bad, not bad at all Mr. Licht.
And this year’s class appears to be another home run, particularly with the first two picks in Wirfs and Winfield Jr., who both have exceeded anyone’s expectations, even within the organization.
Bucs co-offensive line coach and run game coordinator Harold Goodwin raved about the Bucs starting rookie right tackle Wirfs on Thursday.
“I would think that he’s a legitimate probably Pro Bowl-type player,” Goodwin said. “I don’t know what else is out there because I don’t watch all of the rest of the teams but he’s been phenomenal. I don’t remember a rookie having such an impact on an offensive line probably since Maurkice Pouncey in Pittsburgh. For a guy to come in, day one, and play at a high level, some of the pass rushers he’s seen in the National Football League that are Pro Bowl players. It’s been a battle week-in and week-out for him and he’s answered the bell every time. Obviously he had a hiccup against Khalil Mack but who doesn’t?
“Other than that he’s been great and even when he got beat by Khalil Mack it was just a technique issue, it wasn’t like the guy flat-out beat him. We hit the lotto on that as far as the organization getting him in the draft. Jason did a great job, B.A. did a great job and ownership obviously letting us trade up to get him. That was a huge, huge move for our team.”
Fellow tackle Donovan Smith has also been impressed with the play of Wirfs through four games.
“We talk a lot. A lot of tackle talk,” Smith said. “Just about guys, personnel, who we’re playing, stuff like that. Tristan, he’s great, he’s like a little brother to me. We have a lot of fun but he’s doing a great job out there holding his own, doing his thing, but that’s what you kind of expect. That’s the expectations of a first round pick, right? Actually everybody, but being a first rounder you got to hold your own. He’s doing a great job of that and I’m excited for the rest of his career.”
And we can’t forget Winfield, who would have been a first-round pick if he were just two-inches taller. The production, his pedigree and his work ethic all screamed first round talent, but being 5-9 pushed him to the second round.
And the Bucs are happy it did.
Winfield Jr. has also been outstanding so far this season, including winning NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month.
Someone who likes what he sees from his rookie starting safety is head coach Bruce Arians.
“He plays beyond his years right now,” Arians said recently. “Obviously, he had great coaching with his dad and seeing his dad play growing up. They sit and talk every week, which is a great addition to that. He plays like a veteran, he understands the game, he plays the game the right way, he makes his plays and he understands that when his opportunity comes up, he has to make a play – and he does.”
And while the last few drafts have proven to be above-average for Licht and his staff, you have to also credit him for finding a handful of diamonds in the rough.
Players like Cameron Brate, Tanner Hudson, Antony Auclair and Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who fans had never heard of before joining the Buccaneers.
Then the depth free agents he’s added like Joe Haeg, Leonard Fournette, Kevin Minter and newly acquired Steve McLendon that provide quality depth.
And of course the big ones – Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh, Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Ryan Jensen.
You add them all in the mixing bowl, stir, throw in the oven at 350º for 45 minutes and poof – a Super Bowl contender just pops out off the cake pan. Clearly I kid. This football team is a product of a lot of trial and error, some good – and bad – decisions, but also a little luck.
Whatever you want yo call it, it is all coming together for Licht.
While Licht will get all the accolades if this team manages to make it to the Super Bowl, you can’t forget the entire front office that has had a hand in it as well. Director of Football Administration Mike Greenberg, Director of Player Personnel John Spytek, Director of Football Operations Shelton Quarles, Director of College Scouting Mike Biehl and Director of Pro Scouting Rob McCartney. Add in long-time scouts like Byron Kiefer, Andre Forde, Andy Speyer and Donovan Cotton plus the rest of the front office staff and right now things are humming on all cylinders.
I am not crowning the Bucs as Super Bowl champs just yet. I am not even sure they dethrone the Saints as tops in the NFC South. And it is way too early to give Licht the NFL Executive of the Year Award (not sure that is even an award) but through seven games things are looking pretty good.
And much of that credit should go to Licht, who after a mediocre to awful start as Tampa Bay’s GM seems to have his hit his stride.
• We talk a lot about unsung heroes and underrated players on teams, but man, can we give William Gholston some love? How many Bucs fans even realize he is the second longest tenured Buccaneers behind Lavonte David?
Through seven games Gholston has two sacks, just one off of his career high but has 11 QB hits, which is already a career high to go along with 18 tackles, including four for loss. Gholston does the dirty work, which is just fine for the Detroit native who knows a thing or two about the blue collar, take-your-lunchbox-to-work everyday work ethic.
And as you can see in the episode of What’s Cooking (shameless self-promotion), don’t confuse Michigan State with the Michigan Wolverines around Big Will.
• No one in Tampa Bay has beaten up the Buccaneers offensive line more than myself. In fact, I am quite surprised Donovan Smith even will take my questions on the Zoom calls as he was a frequent resident on the weekly Most Disappointing list for the last few years.
Imagine the awkwardness when we bowled together on Monday night’s in the PewterReport.com blowing league at Pin Chasers. To his credit, he never once punched me, or dropped a bowling ball on my head.
With that said, who saw this offensive line turning in to the third best line in the entire NFL, as they have given up just eight sacks in seven games? Definitely not me. There have been past seasons where this line gave up nearly eight sacks in a single game.
But hats off to Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa and rookie Tristan Wirfs. If Tampa Bay is going to return to the playoffs or even farther, it will start with the five guys up front.
• Every damn time. Except I don’t have D.K. Metcalf speed.