The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have seen production out of their late-round draft picks since Mark Dominik took over as general manager in 2009, but that production has ceased entirely this year. Despite numerous injuries, late-round rookies CB Keith Tandy, LB Najee Goode, RB Michael Smith and TE Drake Dunsmore haven't seen the field - and the latter was released before the season started. This stands in stark contrast with the three rookies drafted in the first two round, who have all been extremely productive starters since the first game of the season.
Since 2009, the Buccaneers have had numerous productive late-round rookies. Sammie Stroughter, E.J. Biggers, Erik Lorig and Dekoda Watson have all racked up over 30 games played, while while Ahmad Black, Cody Grimm and Anthony Gaitor have played sizable roles on the team. All of them were seventh-round picks, with the exception of Black. Of the 192 rookies seventh-round rookies to have entered the NFL since 2009, only 32 have managed to play 30 games - and the Bucs have four of those 32 players.
That was, in part, a result of a lack of depth on the part of the Bucs, allowing those rookies to step in and be productive. Yet the players certainly outproduced their draft status, and they have all been very useful on special teams. While none of them are necessarily of starting quality (with the exception of Erik Lorig), they all provide quality depth on a team that is still lacking in that department.
But why have we not seen that same production this year? Certainly not because the rookies haven't had opportunities: depth has been abysmal at their positions, and street free agents and waiver wire pickups have all usurped the rookies jobs. What happened? Let's go through all of them.
LB Najee Goode, West Virginia
Everyone was surprised when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Goode in the fifth round, as the run-stuffing linebacker seemed stiff and slow, and not good enough to play in coverage. So far, he's done little to dispel that judgment, as he's managed to play just one game and isn't even good enough to contribute on special teams. Practice squad player Jacob Cutrera meanwhile has been a fixture on special teams, although he is a third-year veteran. Perhaps Goode's time opportunity has come with Quincy Black being placed on injured reserve, but it doesn't seem like it.
CB/S Keith Tandy, West Virginia
Tandy must be the most egregious case. He was active for three games, but took almost no snaps on defense and wasn't of much use on special teams. Yet he's had plenty of opportunity, only to be shown up by street free agents and undrafted rookies. Brandon McDonald was signed off the street just before the season began, and was the team's nickel corner for the first six games of the season with E.J. Biggers out with injury. When he was released and Aqib Talib was suspended (and later traded), undrafted rookie Leonard Johnson took over instead of Tandy. When Eric Wright was injured in the last game, street free agent and second year undrafted cornerback LeQuan Lewis got some snaps in nickel. Perennial disappointment Myron Lewis has even gotten playing time over Tandy.
So what happened here? Why can't Tandy beat out any of these players? Are the Bucs seeing him solely as a safety, placing him fifth on the depth chart? Is he simply not good enough? Or does he need more time?
My (admittedly unproven) theory is that Greg Schiano was behind the drafting of these two players out of West Virginia, and they haven't lived up to his expectations. Schiano was regularly embarrassed by West Virginia in college, and former college coaches have a tendency to go after players who beat them (see: Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh).
RB Michael Smith, Utah State
Michael Smith was supposed to be the answer at kick returner, while providing some speed and depth at running back. He hasn't had many opportunities to play at running back, but he certainly has the ability to take over as the kick returner. Unfortunately, he hasn't grabbed any of the opportunities present. Meanwhile, the Bucs are now trying LeQuan Lewis at kick returner out of sheer desperation.
Smith doesn't have the size to do much on special teams, limiting his usefulness on game day, and the depth at running back prevents him from getting on the field at that position.
Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern
Dunsmore was supposed to be a receiving tight end, but he showed precious little. He's still on the team's practice squad, but a series of street free agents were preferred over the rookie, who is largely useless as a blocker. Will he at some point come back to the roster? I have my doubts.
It's important to remember that none of these players are busts, yet. They simply haven't provided much on the field in their rookie seasons, which is weird for a team that was very good at finding productive late-round rookies the past three seasons.