General manager Jason Licht has done one of the best jobs in the league over his tenure so far from a drafting perspective. The Bucs arguably had the biggest year one impact of any class last year, with all four of the top four picks not just contributing but playing to a very high level. Winston obviously got the attention, but middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and guard Ali Marpet played outstanding as rookies. The surprising statistic from Licht’s first two draft classes though, was that they only included one defensive player (Alexander), with all the rest being offensive players. That was expected to change this time around, and while it did to some extent, there were additions to all units over the course of the three days, including a much-discussed special teams choice.
Day 1 – Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida (Rd 1, #11)
As mentioned, Licht has drafted so well in each year he has overseen the process. He couldn’t have done much better to kick off the 2016 draft either. Not only did he acquire a superb talent and our #7 prospect at a position of need, he also acquired an extra pick by shifting down a couple slots in the process. The Bears’ moved up from 11 to 9 to ensure they got their target. The Bucs took a chance that theirs would still be there, given that the Giants were also interested in adding a cornerback at number ten. As it turned out, they had a different defensive back in mind, leaving Hargreaves still there, and an extra pick in the bag. Perfect start. While Tampa added Grimes during free agency, and while he certainly provides a veteran leadership presence, his play did show a decline last season and looks like a short-term fix. Meanwhile, former second rounder Banks has never quite taken that next step hoped and Alterraun Verner has not lived up to his big contract at all. Hargreaves has his flaws, including winning on contested balls deep, but he’s polished, he’s has been an all-conference player each of his three years, and brings a tenacious physical game with great anticipation and ball skills. If all goes as planned, he could be starting right away as a rookie.
Day 2 – Noah Spence, EDGE, Eastern Kentucky (Rd 2, #39). Roberto Aguayo, K, Florida State (Rd 2, #59)
The good drafting continued early on day two. The Bucs have been desperate for a more effective pass rusher for years, and get probably the best pure pass rushing talent in this class with Spence. He seems over his personal issues; in which case this is a steal. Spence has taken more tests than he was required to in order to prove to NFL teams that he’s clean, and he clearly has satisfied the Buccaneers decision makers. While they didn’t solve the pass rush need, players like Howard Jones and Jacquies Smith stepped up well at times in 2015, and so along with free agent signing Robert Ayers, there should finally be more of a consistent backfield threat off the edge in Tampa. The Aguayo choice is getting a lot of criticism, and part of the issue is the trade up. That said, having already received an extra pick from the first day, Licht is essentially (sort of) just using that now to get a guy he wants. So the trade up part isn’t a big deal. Now, the choice itself. The Bucs had kicker issues last year, hopefully that won’t be the same going forward; you’d certainly hope not if you’re going to invest this highly in a specialist. The problem with a kicker this high, is that you want one that has everything, and though he doesn’t miss within 40 yards, he’s not close to being as reliable from longer distances, lacking great leg strength. Some people have gone overboard in knocking this choice, even though some of the criticism is understandable to an extent.
Day 3 – Ryan Smith, CB, North Carolina Central (Rd 4, #108). Caleb Benenoch, OL, UCLA (Rd 5, #148). Devante Bond, LB, Oklahoma (Rd 6, #183). Dan Vitale, FB, Northwestern (Rd 6, #197)
Smith was a superb choice to start off, a 3rd round talent for Tampa with an outstanding skill set. His film is exciting, and if he transitions from his small school level as expected, don’t be surprised to see him earn a big role or even start early. Smith is fast and dynamic, who can line up in off and press coverage, and play equally well in zone or man. He also has a knack of making great breaks on the ball as a playmaker. Doubling up at the position was a great idea, especially given the value of each. The rest of the choices fill some depth and utility positions. Benenoch is a fantastic athlete but is thin hipped and really struggled in pass pro. The Bucs use a lot of 6 linemen formations though, and he’ll likely take on that role going forward. Bond is another top athlete who excels in pursuit, which helps make up for his under-sized frame. He has a good chance of earning a decent number of snaps early on. Vitale is a very poor blocker for a full back, but has performed well in the pass game over his career. He’s wrongly labelled as versatile, who rarely carried the ball and has to greatly improve as a lead blocker.
For all the attention choosing a kicker in round two is receiving, it’s over-shadowing what is another strong class from the Bucs. That hopefully will be proven going forward. This is a roster that didn’t have a great deal of glaring holes outside of secondary help and the pass rush, and both got addressed early. This improving young team is poised to take another step forward.