We’re fully into the NFL Draft season with all-star games already in the rearview mirror and the Scouting Combine and free agency approaching in mere weeks. Roster turnover is about to take center stage, and that will be especially true for the Buccaneers.
We’re no longer in the championship window where we saw the most starters ever retained from a Super Bowl-winning squad. This team has some cap issues to resolve, though it’s not as dire as it looks, and fresh questions at critical positions like left tackle, cornerback, and quarterback (again). A reload is still possible instead of a rebuild, but it’s going to require some savvy money maneuvering and an excellent draft.
I’m still digging into this year’s prospect crop and getting a good bead on talent evaluation, so we’re not going to dive into mock drafts yet. Instead, we’ll take the temperature of the Buccaneers’ needs and get a feeling of what GM Jason Licht and HC Todd Bowles may look to target.
The thermostat is back!
Alright, we did the Tom Brady tease last year but this time it feels legitimate. The Bucs must really move on from the GOAT, and it now constitutes the most critical decision that Licht and Bowles will both make.
Will they opt for a veteran option like Derek Carr or, dare I say, even Aaron Rodgers? This team still has enough talent for a move like that to make some sense, but it’s risky and management will need to thread a tight needle. It would mean borrowing even more from future cap space and possibly giving up high-end draft picks. That feels unwise, but it can’t be ruled out yet.
Instead, it feels more likely that the Bucs eject Brady’s buddy Blaine Gabbert and bring in another veteran stopgap like Jacoby Brissett or Jimmy Garoppolo on a one-year deal to compete with former second-rounder Kyle Trask, who might finally get his chance to prove his mettle in Year 3 of his career.
Even if they do deploy that plan, I believe they’ll have their eyes on QBs on Day 2 of the draft as a third option in camp. They could do their research on a player like Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker or Stanford’s Tanner McKee.
I know he's older and doesn't have much draft buzz but Hendon Hooker reminds me of Sam Bradford coming out of college. He's calm, decisive and accurate.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) February 17, 2023
The Bucs unearthed a shiny gem in the 2022 draft when they picked Rachaad White out of Arizona State. Tampa’s overall run game was truly horrendous, and former OC Byron Leftwich relied far too much on Leonard Fournette, but White flashed undeniable upside in all three phases of the position (running, receiving and blocking).
With a Fournette cut likely, White is primed to become the primary running back and that’s a good development. Ke’Shawn Vaughn will enter OTAs as the first backup, but it’s a good bet that another veteran who can handle a healthy dose of snaps will be enlisted on an affordable contract given the plethora of available options.
The draft is deep too, but value might not align there given Tampa’s other needs. Early Day 3 options might include UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet or Auburn’s Tank Bigsby.
Expectations shouldn’t be high for any serious receiver additions.
This roster still boasts Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and you can bet serious money that neither is going anywhere (literally, they’re both owed quite a few money dollars). Russell Gage is also an option, and I’d lean toward the team keeping him around and hoping for a healthy season – he showed very good potential when he wasn’t seriously hampered by a lingering hamstring issue or an unfortunate back problem.
That’s your top three locked in already, and the veteran pool could yield some decent buy-low options like Deandre Carter or Greg Dortch. Deven Thompkins has a good chance to come back given the skill he showed on kick returns, peppered with some micro flashes in the passing game.
I’d peg this as a Day 3 type of add from a modest receiver class. Perhaps talent like Marvin Mims Jr. from Oklahoma, Dontayvion Wicks from Virginia, or Antoine Green from North Carolina. Either way, speed should be a priority for a team that sorely lacks that element.
CFB 20+ Air Receptions (Last 3yrs)— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) February 9, 2023
1. Jordan Addison 39
2. Marvin Mims 34 (19 TDs!)
3. Rashee Rice 32
T4. Jalen Tolbert 31
T4. Jayden Reed 31
T4. Zay Flowers 31
Also who is this Colorado State WR Tory Horton?! Shows up on nearly every stat search I do lol
Cade Otton showed glimpses of being a very solid starting tight end in his rookie year, so his arrow is only pointing up. His fellow rookie Ko Kieft quickly became one of the best blocking tight ends in the game while also seeing snaps at fullback, so his spot seems secure as well.
The Bucs could use another true receiving tight end, and they might want to select from a healthy veteran crop rather than injecting even more youth into the equation. They could swing big for someone like Mike Gesicki, or perhaps a more tempered pursuit like Austin Hooper or even Irv Smith Jr.
Draftwise, a decent Day 3 value could be someone like Purdue’s Payne Durham or Iowa’s Sam LaPorta if the team wanted to add that way, but I wouldn’t count it as likely right now.
It feels very possible that Donovan Smith has seen his final snaps with the Buccaneers. Soon to be 30, the eight-year veteran produced the worst season of his career in 2023 and continues to struggle with penalties, which is not going to get better with age.
If the team cuts him, it’ll save $10 million in cap space. It’s a hard decision because left tackles don’t grow on trees, but it’d be a huge boon to a team that’s $50 million over the cap line. There aren’t many enticing veterans who would be cheaper either – perhaps Eric Fisher, Kelvin Beachum or Isaiah Wynn?
Theoretically, Tristan Wirfs could be moved to the blind side and the team instead invests in right tackle or perhaps moves second-year Luke Goedeke out to the edge. However, Wirfs has a strong claim to the throne as the game’s best right tackle so that feels desperate. Thus, left tackle feels like a position that’s destined for early investment in April.
The top first-round options currently project to be Broderick Jones from Georgia and Paris Johnson from Ohio State. Early Day 2 options are Oklahoma’s Anton Harrison, Syracuse’s Matthew Bergeron and Maryland’s Jaelyn Duncan.
Anton Harrison OT | OU— Matt Lane (@Matty_KCSN) February 16, 2023
Prototypical size with length and athleticism to boot. Most impressive is the foot work playing directly into his strengths (length and positioning).
Gets feet up & down, shuts down inside shoulder 1st, then forces defenders up the arc/beyond the pocket pic.twitter.com/STUziCJ7C9
Even then, the team needs a better quality swing tackle as well.
Interior Offensive Line
Goedeke proved to be in way over his head at left guard, as the second-round rookie struggled to move from starting right tackle at Central Michigan to an NFL interior line. The book isn’t written on him by any means, but he’ll need to show major strides in Year 2.
Nick Leverett stepped in midseason and performed admirably, and he’ll be an exclusive rights free agent so the Bucs can have him back easily. Pair either of the two with Shaq Mason, who is still very good and is a likely extension candidate, and the interior isn’t as bad as one might think. Ryan Jensen will be back, as will Robert Hainsey, so center is completely solidified.
Ultimately, the draft feels more likely to produce backup interior depth instead of a highly drafted starter because of the greater presumptive need at left tackle. Perhaps Day 3 we’ll see someone like Oregon’s Alex Forsyth or LSU’s Anthony Bradford.
The Buccaneers could use some added reinforcement in the trenches, as Akiem Hicks will likely move on and Rakeem Nunez-Roches is also a free agent. Logan Hall, as last year’s top pick, will see a huge uptick in snaps, whether he’s totally ready or not.
Bucs stalwart William Gholston will likely be back for cheap as well next to Vita Vea. They sorely need depth for all of the latter three, and ideally someone to groom for Gholston’s eventual departure.
Depending on how the board falls, could the Bucs be tempted by someone like Bryan Bresee in the first round? Day 2 might be a better choice, as there will be options like Keanu Benton of Wisconsin or Zacch Pickens of South Carolina.
Temperature: Very Warm
With the potential loss of Anthony Nelson, the Bucs need to invest in the edges.
Shaq Barrett should hopefully be ready for training camp after his achilles tear, but coming off that injury and turning 31 might make for a tough initial comeback. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka is certainly not a bust like some fans might proclaim, but he could stand to improve his finishing ability and turn more of his pressures into concrete production. He’s locked in as a starter.
Outside of that, the Bucs will presumably give Cam Gill more opportunity even though he’s seen back-to-back years with injuries that landed him on injured reserve. He’s got skill, but it’s hard to count on that history.
Therefore, if the team should see the opportunity to invest in a high-upside third rusher, don’t be surprised to see them take it – especially in a deep class. Players like Nolan Smith and Keion White will be tempting in Round 1, while prospects like LSU’s BJ Ojulari and Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey are excellent options in Round 2.
Isaiah Foskey screams “Bengals” to me in the 2023 NFL Draft.— Willie Lutz (@willie_lutz) February 14, 2023
The former captain and all-time sack leader at Notre Dame fits the Bengals desire for versatile edge rushers who can crush runs and get to the QB.
Picked this clip to show his physicality, Foskey is fun to watch. pic.twitter.com/ESFPee9fYv
I’ve spoken ad nauseam about both Jason’s Licht’s love for drafting linebackers and Devin White’s generally unacceptable play for an athlete of his supposed stature. And now we must consider a third factor: Lavonte David’s potential departure.
While David has expressed his interest in retiring a Buccaneer, words in February don’t mean much compared to actions in March. If a competing team throws the bag at him, it might tempt him away, and he’s earned the right to travel whichever path he deems best for himself.
And White wants $100 million, but he’s done little to earn it, and that might put him and the team at an impasse when Wirfs and Antoine Winfield Jr. should be ahead of him on the priority list. Ergo, the team might need two starting linebackers very soon.
There are several starter-quality prospects to keep an eye on in Rounds 1-3, including Arkansas’s Drew Sanders, Clemson’s Trenton Simpson, and Washington State’s Daiyan Henley.
Trenton Simpson isnt just a coverage LB. His athleticism makes him impactful as a blitzed and his instincts + power show up against the run.— Anthony Rivardo (@Anthony_Rivardo) February 10, 2023
There is room for improvement in Simpson’s run-defense skills, but the tools are there for him to be elite.pic.twitter.com/RW8vSiRUFH
Losing Jamel Dean, who’s been a top 25 cornerback the last two seasons, is going to sting mightily, and it might be made worse by potentially losing Sean Murphy-Bunting as well. The latter has hardly been a strong asset, but he showed signs of growth in 2022 and is familiar with the system.
SMB staying isn’t farfetched, but even then this team needs to seriously consider bulking up the depth behind Zyon McCollum. Another draft position rich with talent, the Bucs can choose to prioritize this position at their leisure and still have a good chance of finding a good catch.
First-round options span the gamut from Joey Porter Jr. to Emmanuel Forbes to Cam Smith. Day 2 options likely include Stanford’s Kyu Blu Kelly (son of Bucs great Brian Kelly) and Maryland’s Deonte Banks.
#MissState CB Emmanuel Forbes is a ball hawk.— Jared Tokarz (@JaredNFLDraft) February 7, 2023
6 INTs for TDs in college. (Most ever)
6 ints in 2022 | 14 ints in 3 seasons
Excels in man coverage, active in run defense. He will not blow teams away with 40 time (4.5)
late 1st/early 2nd pic.twitter.com/i0KEp5iXxK
Winfield Jr. is among the game’s elite players as a do-it-all defensive back, and the Bucs will likely be focused on getting a long-term extension done with him sooner rather than later. As well and good as that is, Mike Edwards, Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal are all free agents.
The latter two are hardly of major concern but could still provide valuable veteran snaps on cheap deals, especially with how often the Bucs like to rotate in a third safety. Edwards is a different story, as he has played very good football in the past but struggled immensely this past season after pushing through injuries. A one-year prove-it deal could get him back on the roster and stave off the need for a long-term starter opposite Winfield.
Getting better depth and a possible contributor would be a wise choice, either through free agency or as an investment in rounds 1-4. Brian Branch of Alabama stands out as a chesspiece DB who will absolutely garner their interest in Round 1, but otherwise you have options like Illinois’ Sydney Brown and Christopher Smith of Georgia.