With the NFL Draft just under two months away, Tampa will prioritize some spots over others.
While it’s wise to wait and see what becomes of veterans like Chris Godwin, Carlton Davis, and Ryan Jensen before making specific draft projections, we know enough to have some insight into which positions might take heightened priority. With Scouting Combine week near its conclusion, GM Jason Licht and head coach Bruce Arians have discussed the state of the team, and some prospects have also spoken on team meetings as well.
We’ll run down each position group and take the temperature on neediness heading into height of the offseason:
Look, I’m not here to dig too deep into the obvious. The Bucs once again must hunt for a bonafide starting quarterback with Tom Brady retiring to promote his hilariously basic clothing line and drink avocado smoothies on the golf course.
Veteran backup Blaine Gabbert and 2021 second rounder Kyle Trask constitute the in-house options. Arians has already shot down a potential Jameis Winston reunion, and a trade for an established signal caller like Russell Wilson also seems bleak. Would Tampa really have much interest in other mediocre options like Teddy Bridgewater or Mitchell Trubisky?
They’ll explore all avenues, but it sure seems like it’ll be a different veteran or Trask under center for 2022.
Ronald Jones is almost certainly gone after an uneven four years, and Leonard Fournette proved himself a reliable 3-down running back in 2021. He could command a dollar amount that Tampa can’t afford.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn still has two years left on his rookie deal after being a third-round choice, and he showed some promise at the tail end of last year. He’ll enter camp penciled in as the starter if Lenny goes elsewhere. Gio Bernard finally got a chance to shine in the playoffs, and he’d be an affordable option to bring back.
Overall, running back feels possible but not guaranteed right now, though they’ve met with plenty of people this week. I’d expect other positions to take precedence, but they may not want to pass up someone like Breece Hall or Isaiah Spiller if either somehow fell to them in the second round.
Temperature: Red Hot
The Arians/Leftwich offense thrives on good receivers, and the Bucs currently have only one in Mike Evans. Chris Godwin seems like a fairly safe bet to be back one way or another, but he’ll still be recovering from a late-season ACL tear. Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller majorly disappointed when given the opportunity to step up, as did rookie Jaelon Darden.
There’s a high percentage that Tampa will invest in the position within the first three rounds, and they’d have some quality options at the end of Round 1. Ohio State’s Chris Olave, Georgia’s George Pickens and Penn State’s Jahan Dotson highlight the list. Other options include Cincinnati’s Alec Pierce and North Dakota State’s Christian Watson.
It remains to be seen how much tight ends will remain involved in the offense going forward following the departure of Brady and, most likely, Rob Gronkowski. That said, the team still needs to fill the position since former first rounder O.J. Howard is also gone.
Cam Brate has been useful for a long time, but he declined last year and can’t run as a dependable TE1. In a draft that’s deeper than usual at the position, an investment seems like a good bet.
The word out of the combine is that Tampa has been very involved with interviewing tight ends in attendance. Colorado State’s Trey McBride and Ohio State’s Jeremy Ruckert confirmed that they met with Tampa. Other options include Virginia’s Jelani Woods, Washington’s Cade Otton and Coastal Carolina’s Isaiah Likely.
The team has its starting bookends locked up with Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs, so there will not be any early round investment in this position. However, it would behoove them to seek out a potential upgrade over primary backup Josh Wells, who has failed to perform at a respectable level during any of his spot playing time.
In this regard, the team might feel better plucking a more proven option from the free agent market. They also have other in-house tackles like Brandon Walton and Jonathan Hubbard. You could see a 5th or 6th round investment.
Interior Offensive Line
The surprise retirement of Ali Marpet to pair with the expiring contracts of Jensen, Alex Cappa and Aaron Stinnie has manifested quite the messy situation on the interior line.
The Bucs could now be facing down the real scenario of 3 completely new starters in the trenches. Marpet’s retirement does free up some money, so re-signing one of Jensen and Cappa seems like a fair possibility, but it’s tough to feel completely confident about both coming back. Robert Hainsey, who was drafted last year, might be waiting in the wings at center or guard.
Whether they go with someone familiar like Stinnie or they spend their first- or second-rounder on a new starter, fortifying depth through the draft seems like a no-brainer.
Boston College’s Zion Johnson or Texas A&M’s Kenyon Green stand out as strong candidates in the first round, while UNC’s Joshua Ezeudu and UCLA’s Sean Rhyan stand out as late Day-2, early Day-3 candidates.
Never rule out a mid- or late-round flier, but it seems like the Bucs are set going into next season. Shaq Barrett still looks like a very good player, and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka showed promise last season after being the team’s 2021 first-rounder. Anthony Nelson had the best year of his career, and Cam Gill has flashed as backup, too.
Interior Defensive Line
Temperature: Red Hot
The Bucs absolutely need to get younger in the trenches. Even if Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston return, you need someone who has a clear long-term future next to Vita Vea.
It’d be a shock to see them forgo a defensive tackle within the first three rounds. Players to watch include Georgia’s Devonte Wyatt, Alabama’s Phidarian Mathis, Houston’s Logan Hall, Connecticut’s Travis Jones and Oklahoma’s Perrion Winfrey.
Fun fact: Jason Licht loves drafting linebackers.
He’s drafted at least one in 7 of the 8 drafts he’s overseen, and I wouldn’t rule it out this year either. Lavonte David continues to be a high-level player, but he’s 32 and entering the final year of his contract.
Devin White took a major step backward in 2021, and he hasn’t earned the big-money contract extension he’ll be expecting. Once they pick up his fifth year option, White will officially be under contract through 2023. He’s got time to turn it around.
Even in the short term, the Bucs could use higher-quality depth. Kevin Minter is completely washed, and he was a total liability whenever he had to play. K.J. Britt is a fifth-rounder from last year, but his upside is questionable.
Chad Muma from Wyoming and Leo Chenal from Wisconsin stand out as late Day 2 and Day 3 options, respectively.
If Carlton Davis departs, this need launches itself into the same territory as wide receiver and defensive tackle.
Tampa cannot afford to continue giving Sean Murphy-Bunting significant snaps. He has failed to notably improve over three years, and he’s consistently the weakest link of the field. Even ignoring that fact, the positional depth needs to be addressed.
First round options include Washington’s Kyler Gordon and Auburn’s Roger McCreary (the team loves Auburn defensive backs after all). Other options on Day 2 include Martin Emerson from Mississippi State and Tariq Woolen from UTSA.
This one really hinges on if Jordan Whitehead departs in free agency.
The Bucs still have Mike Edwards and Antoine Winfield, Jr., but they would need someone to fill that dime linebacker/enforcer role. Even then, Edwards is entering a contract year so that might require further insulation.
Safety options on Day 2 or maybe early Day 3 include Lewis Cine from Georgia, Jaquan Brisker from Penn State, Bryan Cook from Cincinnati and Nick Cross from Maryland.