The Buccaneers ended their 2018 season in losing fashion on Sunday, falling 34-32 to the Falcons to finish the season at 5-11. A second consecutive 11-loss season landed Tampa Bay at the bottom of the NFC South for the seventh time in the last eight seasons. There’s yet another coaching change coming for the franchise, and it’s hard not to feel like the front office absolutely needs to get this right. There’s too much talent that the team is in danger of wasting if the losing continues.
Speaking of talent, especially as it pertains to the future, the Bucs saw plenty of mixed results from their 2018 rookie class. There seem to be just as many questions as there are answers for the group after year one. Will Vita Vea continue to develop into a consistent enough force to justify him being a 12th overall pick? Will Ronald Jones II put his frustrating rookie season behind him and turn into the guy that he was drafted to be? Is a move to safety in order for M.J. Stewart? Can Jordan Whitehead continue to be a pleasant surprise in year two? We could go on and on...
Instead, we’ll go one by one through the class and recap the year that was for the guys that will no longer be “the rookies” in just a few months.
DT Vita Vea (Round 1, 12th overall)
Vita Vea’s rookie year started off rough, but ended on a pretty high note. The big defensive tackle suffered an injury very early in training camp that cost him some significant time. He missed all of camp, all of the preseason and the first three games of the regular season. Missing camp and the preseason is definitely bad for any rookie, but it’s especially bad for one who has some serious developing to do. When Vea returned to the field, he didn’t get a ton of snaps. He eased his way into action, but by the end of the season, he was showing signs of his potential. With all things considered, Vea turned out to be one of the more promising rookies for Tampa Bay in 2018.
Stats: 28 tackles (21 solo), 3.0 sacks
RB Ronald Jones II (Round 2, 38th overall)
2018 was entirely forgettable for USC product Ronald Jones II. Tampa Bay took the standout running back in the second round, ahead of the likes of Derrius Guice, to presumably be part of a two-man backfield with Peyton Barber. Then, the preseason came around. Jones never got off the ground during the preseason games, which led to speculation that coaches weren’t satisfied with where he was in terms of developing into an NFL running back. Then, as the regular season got going, he was left off the active roster for the first few weeks. When he finally did crack the gameday roster, there wasn’t much going for him. He then dealt with an injury before coming back and getting minimal snaps. Overall, Jones was definitely the most disappointing of Tampa Bay’s 2018 rookies.
Stats: 23 carries, 44 yards (1.9 yards per carry), 1 TD, 7 catches, 33 yards
CB M.J. Stewart (Round 2, 53rd overall)
When the Bucs took M.J. Stewart in the second round of the draft, it was a bit of a surprise. There were other cornerbacks on the board that had gotten much more attention than the North Carolina product, but Tampa Bay liked what he had to offer, so he became the team’s third pick of the draft. In the preseason and early in the regular season, Stewart played very well. He had his moments where he struggled, as all rookies do, but early impressions were good ones. From there, he faded away a bit due to a foot injury. By the time he worked his way back from that injury, he solely played special teams. His stock progressively went down as the season went on, which has left his future in question. The Bucs could still try him at corner when the new staff comes in, but he had also been getting some practice work at safety later in the season. It’s too early to make any sort of determination for any rookie, but that feels especially true for Stewart.
Stats: 33 tackles (31 solo), 3 passes defended
CB Carlton Davis (Round 2, 63rd overall)
For most of 2018, Carlton Davis was Tampa Bay’s most consistent rookie. With a week one injury to Vernon Hargreaves III, Davis quickly had to adjust to a huge role in his first weeks as an NFL cornerback. With Hargreaves out and Brent Grimes playing poorly, Davis had to be the Bucs’ No. 1 corner less than a year removed from playing college ball. Being a No. 1 corner in the NFL is hard enough, of course. But in the NFC South? Yikes. Davis had to deal with Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan two times each, and that’s without getting into the receivers he had to cover. What Davis was able to do as a rookie was pretty impressive. With his length and overall skill, he should develop into an even better player, especially if the new coaching staff can use its talent the right way.
Stats: 40 tackles (36 solo), 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 4 passes defended
OL Alex Cappa (Round 3, 94th overall)
Alex Cappa was drafted out of Humboldt State in a move that was compared to Tampa Bay drafting Ali Marpet out of Hobart College back in 2015. The Marpet move has very clearly worked out extremely well. As for Cappa, it’s entirely too early to tell. He didn’t make the gameday roster until late in the season. Once he did, he played sparingly, but the experience will certainly help him as he heads into a full offseason with the team. We’ll see what 2019 brings, but the front office surely still has high hopes for him.
S Jordan Whitehead (Round 4, 117th overall)
Considering the countless storylines that are involved with this rookie class, this year’s team and the upcoming offseason, the performance of Jordan Whitehead in 2018 will likely be overlooked. There were injuries all around the Tampa Bay secondary, which meant younger guys had to step up. Chris Conte and Justin Evans both missed significant time in the back end of the defense. Even with the emergence of a guy like Andrew Adams, Whitehead had to play a larger role than what was likely anticipated. He did a solid job in the snaps he played, looking less like a fourth-rounder and more like a potential starter for years to come. Despite his snap count fluctuating at times, Whitehead was the team’s second-leading tackler for the season. He was one of the more promising rookies for the Bucs this year, which should bode well for the future of the secondary.
Stats: 76 tackles (61 solo), 4 passes defended
WR Justin Watson (Round 5, 144th overall)
There wasn’t much room for Justin Watson this year, but his play in the preseason was definitely a positive sign for Tampa Bay. The receiver out of Penn was an exciting pick back in April, then he received a lot of buzz throughout training camp. His preseason performance was great to see, but he didn’t get many offensive snaps during the regular season. With Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries occupying the first four receiver spots, Watson was never going to see a ton of playing time. On the positive side, he was active most weeks to play special teams. He has the build and skillset to be an NFL receiver, but whether or not he’ll see more offensive snaps in 2019 seems unclear, at least with the Bucs.
Stats: 3 targets, 1 catch, 5 yards, 6 special-teams tackles (all solo)
LB Jack Cichy (Round 6, 202nd overall)
As a sixth-rounder with a history of injuries, Jack Cichy making the roster out of training camp was a pretty big deal. He initially played special teams, but injuries called for him to get some snaps on defense. The 22-year-old was serviceable in the time that he did play on defense, but his season came to an unfortunate end in October when he tore his ACL. Whether or not he’ll be back with Tampa Bay for the 2019 season is unclear at this point, with a busy offseason ahead for general manager Jason Licht.
Stats: 4 tackles (3 solo)
RB Shaun Wilson (Undrafted Free Agent)
The entirety of Tampa Bay’s 2018 draft class made the opening day roster, as did undrafted rookie Shaun Wilson. The Duke product was the star of training camp and after a good preseason, he got his chance in the regular season. With Ronald Jones inactive early in the season, Wilson’s special-teams abilities got him on the active roster. Once Jones and others came back, Wilson went back and forth between active and inactive. After a November loss to Washington, he went on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. His work on special teams was fine, but Bobo Wilson’s late-season emergence as a kick returner could spell trouble for Shaun Wilson’s future with the Bucs.
Stats: 6 carries, 29 yards (4.8 yards per carry)... 5 targets, 3 catches, 5 yards... 7 kickoff returns, 122 return yards (17.4 yards per return)