They say you’re supposed to wait three full years before you can really judge a player, or a draft class. A better rule is to wait and take the totality of how that player or players performed on their rookie deal(s).
But sometimes there are exceptions, such as the moves a team makes, which can tell us how they feel about a player. There’s no time constraint on that.
Such is the case of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 2016 Draft class.
The Bucs traded down from nine to eleven to select cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III in the first round, then took edge rusher Noah Spence in the second round at 39th overall.
Then, infamously, the Bucs used the fourth-round pick they got from trading down in the first round, packaged it with their third-round pick, and moved into the second round to take a kicker, Roberto Aguayo.
They followed that by taking cornerback Ryan Smith in the fourth, guard Caleb Benenoch in the fifth, and linebacker Devante Bond and fullback Dan Vitale in the sixth.
Just two weeks into this class’ third season there’s enough information to believe this class is a near-total disaster. You can reasonably expect that in general a team will do what’s best for its future. That’s what makes Sunday’s inactive report before the Week 2 game against the reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles so disappointing:
Buccaneers' inactives:— Scott Smith (@ScottSBucs) September 16, 2018
OL Alex Cappa
CB Brent Grimes
RB Ronald Jones
OL Mike Liedtke
DE Noah Spence
DT Vita Vea
WR Justin Watson
Setting aside the fact there are five former draft picks on it, the name that really stands out right now is Spence.
Spence was a starter last season on what was perhaps the worst defensive line in the NFL, and that was with bona fide All-Pro Gerald McCoy. So as Tampa Bay remade their defensive line around McCoy this off-season, Spence was relegated to a backup. He was also coming off shoulder injuries. The idea was that he could get healthy and the Bucs could work him back slowly. But in the preseason he played with backups that normally get cut, and he logged just four snaps last week in the Bucs’ Week 1 win over the New Orleans Saints. Now he’s inactive.
Hargreaves is still technically a starter at nickel; he was recently placed on injured reserve due to a shoulder injury he suffered vs the Saints. But he’s not what Tampa Bay drafted him to be, which was the heir-apparent to Brent Grimes. An athletically limited but so soundly technical, a solid player you could plug and play at cornerback for the next ten years. However, his physical limitations showed up too often, and in the worst ways, as he was regularly torched when he was asked to play outside cornerback against team’s No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, and has been relegated to nickel corner. Now that he’s done, possibly for the season, he will enter the last year of his rookie deal next season coming off an injury.
Spence showed tremendous promise and flashed, when healthy; a rare and highly coveted talent who was athletic enough to ‘bend the edge’, but issues with alleged drug abuse in college dropped him in the draft. He was projected as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 system but the Bucs liked him as a defensive end in a three-point stance. The problem is he hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He recorded 5.5 sacks as a rookie, but a shoulder injury derailed his 2017 season, which was supposed to be his breakout year. He played in just six games, and logged one sack. Fans and the team patiently but eagerly awaited this season, which was again supposed to be a breakout year. But instead of fireworks Spence has landed with a soft and disappointing thud, and if this isn’t related to another injury then his release looks all but certain. He looked far from the player he was his rookie year this preseason, and his considerable promise looks like it will go unfulfilled (at least with the Bucs).
The Aguayo pick turned the Bucs into the league-laughingstock, and was widely mocked as the worst in NFL history (it wasn’t). But it was certainly a horrible pick the second it was made, regardless of how it turned out. And it turned out a disaster. Aguayo’s unconventional kicking mechanics proved too difficult to sustain with any consistency, and the pressure to live up to his high draft pick compounded his issues. He looked frustrated and broken both physically and mentally, and was cut in just his second training camp with the team.
The Bucs have taken their time with Ryan Smith, developing him first at safety and then at cornerback. He got starting opportunities this preseason at outside cornerback due to injuries and depth issues, but the former fourth-rounder looked woefully overmatched, and was repeatedly picked on and burned. He didn’t look like he even belonged on the roster, much less as a starter. But depth and injury issues have allowed him to stay on. Time is running out for him to put it all together.
The Bucs have also been patient with Caleb Benenoch, the raw offensive line talent out of UCLA. Benenoch saw limited snaps last season as the Bucs tested him out, and he clearly wasn’t ready. This season, with the release of the injured J.R. Sweezy, Benenoch has gotten his chance. Sort of. He’s been okay, but the Bucs for some reason still have him splitting snaps at right guard with journeyman Evan Smith. Is Benenoch a starter, or isn’t he? Why does the team not trust him to start full time?
As for the Bucs’ sixth-round selections in Bond and Vitale, Vitale was cut quickly, and Bond has barely played. He went on injured reserve his rookie year, and in 2017 he played mostly special teams, appearing in fourteen games but logging just twelve tackles.
The 2016 draft followed the 2015 one, a cornerstone for this Bucs’ team. They took franchise quarterback Jameis Winston, left tackle Donovan Smith, and guard Ali Marpet all in the first two rounds, and found a gem in linebacker Kwon Alexander in the fourth.
It can’t be understated how badly the Bucs needed to hit on the 2016 class in order to solidify a core of players they could build around for the future. Unfortunately, that looks like it hasn’t happened. While 2015 was about the offensive core, 2016 was supposed to be that for the defense. But they didn’t get the No. 1 cornerback they were looking for, or the No. 1 edge rusher capable of double-digit sacks they needed, or the Pro Bowl-caliber reliable kicker for close games they wanted.
Now, two years and going on three seasons later, the Bucs are still looking for those players. This is certain to be Grimes’ last season, which will leave Tampa Bay short of two starting-quality outside cornerbacks. They had to trade for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, giving up two potential players with 2018’s third and fourth round picks to do so, and signing a litany of players in free agency. There has been a revolving door at kicker, and the Bucs settled with a lower-tier player in Chandler Catanzaro.
The 2016 draft class is a disaster.