Wed. Jun 12th, 2024
NFL: DEC 03 Panthers at Bucs
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How did Tampa Bay’s 2023 NFL Draft class work out? Let’s review

GM Jason Licht came into 2023 with a daunting task ahead of him. With Tom Brady freshly retired but his dead cap hit still very real (and only exacerbated by other veteran cap hits), the 10-year veteran decision maker would need to fill out a roster exiting its Super Bowl window.

Add in season-ending injuries to highly paid players Ryan Jensen and Russell Gage, and the Bucs were basically functioning with roughly $90 million in unusable money. It would take savvy signings and, more importantly, a killer draft class to keep Tampa Bay from returning back to the NFC basement.

Well, fast-forward a year and we saw positive overall results with a 9-8 record, a third consecutive NFC South crown, and a fourth consecutive playoff berth. On top of it all, the Bucs crushed the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card round and gave a strong fight to the Detroit Lions on the road in the Divisional Round.

How did the rookies contribute to all this success? Let’s review.

First Round, Pick 19 – DT Calijah Kancey

Games Played/Started: 14 (14)

2023 Stats: 26 total tackles (10 for loss), 4 sacks, 13 pressures, 12 QB hits

Tampa’s first pick of 2023 got off to a slow start when a calf injury sustained in training camp lingered well into the start of the season. Kancey attempted to play Week 1 against Minnesota but quickly re-aggravated the injury, which then held him out until Week 6 against Detroit.

Despite the setbacks, Kancey quickly established himself as an integral part of the interior pass rush moving forward. The undersized defensive tackle from Pitt frequently showcased his electric quickness and advanced moveset, as his pressure stats and TFLs would indicate. The latter figure tied for the second-most by a rookie this year with No. 3 overall pick Will Anderson from Houston (No. 1 will appear later in this article).

While the run defense has room for growth, Kancey is already an advanced pass rusher whose ceiling is sky high.

Second Round, Pick 48 – G Cody Mauch

G/GS: 17 (17)

2023 Stats: 100% snaps played, 43.9 Pro Football Focus grade

The lovable, red-headed gaptooth faced a tough transition to the league, going from a tackle at FCS North Dakota State to starting right guard in the NFL. This is hardly a new tactic employed by Licht, who has drafted three other linemen who took similar paths (Ali Marpet, Alex Cappa, and Luke Goedeke).

Mauch took his lumps throughout the 2023 campaign, allowing the most pressures (53) and sacks (8) of any interior lineman in the league. A lot of it came down to lack of play strength and learning the intricacies of the position, which is completely new to him, but Mauch did show gradual improvement and looked particularly strong in the run game at times.

Like Goedeke last season and Cappa many years ago, exercising patience with Mauch would be wise. Goedeke, playing right tackle in 2023, became a top 25 tackle in his second year. With a full offseason in an NFL conditioning program under top coaches Harold Goodwin and Joe Gilbert, Mauch should take some positive steps forward.

Third Round, Pick, Pick 82 – EDGE YaYa Diaby

G/GS: 17 (7)

2023 Stats: 38 total tackles (12 for loss), 7.5 sacks, 14 pressures, 8 QB hits, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 forced fumble

Hands down one of the biggest steals of the 2023 NFL Draft class, Diaby seized the starting EDGE role from former first-rounder Joe Tryon-Shoyinka halfway through the year. Diaby ended up leading the team in sacks, and he finished third overall for rookies behind a pair of Los Angeles Rams (Kobie Turner – 9; Byron Young – 8).

He still has plenty of room for development as a pass rusher, but his true calling card will be as a high-floor run defender. Once he displaced JTS, it’s not a coincidence that the team’s overall run defense became much more consistent. Diaby led all rookies in tackles for loss, as his pure effort, strength, and instincts all played to his advantage in that area.

Fifth Round, Pick 153 – LB SirVocea Dennis

G/GS: 13 (0)

2023 Stats: 13 total tackles, 1 pass defensed

As is customary for Licht, he stayed vigilant with searching out linebacker talent later in the draft, and it again appears he found something worth exploring with Dennis.

While Dennis played only 12% of defensive snaps, he looked quick and heady in coverage with the limited action he did receive. (K.J. Britt ended up making the most of his opportunity when injuries mounted, thus installing him in a starting spot.) He played well on special teams, too, with 65% of snaps played there and 6 tackles.

With Lavonte David’s status uncertain and Devin White almost guaranteed to be gone, Dennis will have a prime opportunity to earn meaningful playing time on defense in 2024.

Fifth Round, Pick 171 – TE Payne Durham

G/GS: 13 (2)

2023 Stats: 5 catches, 58 yards

Durham basically took a redshirt year, as he tallied one game’s worth of production over the course of 13 games (15% of offensive snaps). Basically all 12 personnel looks went to Cade Otton and Ko Kieft, so Durham will need to show he’s worth more than Kieft (which will take significant strides as a blocker) before likely getting any more snap share.

He’s got talent as a large receiving threat and made some highlight reel catches, so there’s potential. Who becomes the new offensive coordinator could affect his use as well, so that bears monitoring.

Sixth Round, Pick 181 – CB Josh Hayes

G/GS: 15 (0)

2023 Stats: 17 total tackles, 73% of special teams snaps

Hayes was relatively unheralded coming out of Kansas State. The 6-foot 24-year-old cross-trained as an outside corner, nickelback, and safety during training camp, but defense was not where he’d make his mark.

His true impact came on special teams, where he proved to be excellent as a gunner. Despite missing two games due to a concussion, Hayes tied for second in the league in total special teams tackles with 13. It’s no mistake that the Bucs saw improved numbers in preventing big returns, as Hayes directly contributed to a more consistent coverage unit.

We’ll see if Hayes’s contributions eventually come on the defensive end as well, but he’s already a hit as a sixth round pick if he continues his special teams play.

Sixth Round, Pick 191 – WR Trey Palmer

G/GS: 17 (8)

2023 Stats: 39 catches, 389 yards, 3 TDs

Widely considered a steal when the Bucs made the selection, Palmer produced some nice numbers as the team’s de facto WR3.

His speed helped stretch the field and create openings for others, and while the chemistry wasn’t quite there with Baker Mayfield (who often struggled with the deep ball this year), Palmer showed some definite improvements with getting open consistently. His long touchdown in the Wild Card round against Philadelphia was a definite highlight that will hopefully appear more often in 2024.

Sixth Round, Pick 196 – EDGE Jose Ramirez

Spent entire season on practice squad

Ramirez didn’t play at all, spending all year on the practice squad after being passed over by Diaby and undrafted free agent Markees Watts. He signed a futures contract with the team this week but he’ll need to impress in training camp with more competition likely coming in for the outside linebacker spot.

Undrafted Free Agents

The Bucs also received some huge contributions from UFAs this season, arguably the most of any team in the league since they led in UFA snaps. This was especially prevalent on defense, with a handful of players being asked to fill some big roles.

We’ll go over some of those below:

DB Christian Izien

G/GS: 17 (4)

2023 Stats: 65 total tackles (3 for loss), 2 interceptions, 2 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble

Todd Bowles prioritized Izien from the jump after the latter went undrafted out of Rutgers. He immediately received prominent action in rookie mini camp and training camp, getting first crack at the wide-open slot corner spot. He earned the role and never looked back.

Izien played 64% of defensive snaps and allowed just one touchdown while creating two interceptions and 2 passes defensed to go along with a forced fumble. He experienced hurdles like any rookie, especially for a position as difficult as cornerback, but he produced net positive results (PFF graded him at 67.7, a top 50 mark among CBs) and created some serious optimism for his future moving forward.

Kaevon Merriweather

G/GS: 16 (2)

2023 Stats: 21 total tackles, 1 pass defensed

Undrafted out of Iowa, Merriweather also impressed Bowles early and made the team comfortable with forgoing other veteran signings and returning players like Nolan Turner.

Merriweather spent most of his time on special teams (72% of snaps), where he played well and made 8 total tackles. However, he began to split playing time with the underperforming Ryan Neal late in the season.

Pass coverage is a work in progress, but Merriweather at least proved to be valuable depth on multiple fronts and seems like a good bet to remain in the mix depth-wise.

EDGE Markees Watts

G/GS: 7 (0)

2023 Stats: 4 total tackles (1 for loss), 1 sack, 2 pressures

One of the biggest uphill climbs of the entire 2023 class, Watts came out of the University of Charlotte with basically no attention. The undersized rusher (6-foot-1, 240 pounds) became the program’s all-time sack leader with 21.5, but his lack of measurables and sheer athletic talent led him to signing with the Bucs only after a tryout.

He proceeded to light up the preseason and garner more snaps than other veterans and rookies. He made the initial 53-man but didn’t start getting many meaningful opportunities until Week 11 against the San Francisco 49ers. The stats aren’t overwhelming, but he did provide some intriguing juice as a situational rusher, enough to give him more looks for a second season.

The Bucs received snaps from other UFAs as well, including WR Rakeem Jarrett, RB Sean Tucker, and CB Derrek Pitts. While the stats weren’t anything impressive, they all provided meaningful depth in a season that saw major constraints for the team.

Between them and the drafted rookies, this might turn out to be one of Licht’s most impressive draft classes a few years down the line given all the circumstances.

By admin