The Tampa Bay Buccaneers offseason went from grim to great with one soon-to-be 45-year-old man’s decision to play football for them again on March 13, and that decision will have a major impact on their draft needs.
Tom Brady’s decision to unretire changed the course of Tampa Bay’s offseason. Brady’s unretirement turned Tampa Bay from a team looking to regroup and potentially enter a mini-rebuild, needing to fill holes at quarterback, center, tight end, and cornerback (among others), to one looking to reload after retaining Brady, center Ryan Jensen, cornerback Carlton Davis and running back Leonard Fournette, along with adding contributors such as guard Shaq Mason, wide receiver Russell Gage, cornerback/safety Logan Ryan and linebacker/safety Keanu Neal for another shot at a Super Bowl title.
Now, Tampa Bay enters the 2022 NFL Draft in an enviable position. With the band (mostly) back together, given the seemingly inevitable return of tight end Rob Gronkowski, the team is as close to “complete” as any team could hope to be heading into a draft. This is reflected in Tampa Bay’s standing as current conference favorites in the NFC.
Top NFL Draft Needs for Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Despite this, the Buccaneers still have some draft needs they’ll need to address. Unlike Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh does not seem like a lock to return. Even if Suh were to return, the Bucs would be well served finding an interior penetrator to pair with Vita Vea, given the age and contract situation of the other defensive tackles on the team, and the general inability to get pressure on the quarterback last year without sending a blitz from Todd Bowles’ defense.
While the Shaq Mason acquisition masterfully filled the void left by Alex Cappa, the Bucs have not yet found a replacement for their stalwart left guard, Ali Marpet. Some believe Aaron Stinnie, who filled in admirably for Cappa during the team’s run to Super Bowl LV, could start in Marpet’s spot. Stinnie’s contract, however, does not suggest the Bucs view him as a starter. Guard remains a need for Tampa Bay.
Why yes I am enjoying Zion Johnson's film pic.twitter.com/IQmkuypQP2
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At this point, however, just about everyone knows the Bucs need a defensive tackle and a guard. Those may be the gaping holes on the team’s depth chart (along with tight end, at least until Gronkowski officially returns). But in the wise words of The Athletic’s Robert Mays, “your needs today are not your needs tomorrow.”
The Bucs may be in a position to make a “luxury pick,” at least on the surface, but luxury picks often don’t look like luxuries with the benefit of hindsight; just ask the Chiefs with Clyde Edwards-Helaire. That’s why it’s important to outline some areas on the roster that, while not glaring now, may become problematic in the future if they go unaddressed.
Here are four draft needs that fall into that category for the Buccaneers.
Bucs fans may be surprised to see linebacker at the top of this list, but the fact is that Lavonte David is entering the final year of his contract, and the Bucs will soon face a decision on whether or not to pay Devin White long term. On the surface, this may seem like a no-brainer, but with other young players such as Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting, and Mike Edwards up for extensions, a more prudent route may be to keep the “solid” players at more premium positions for less money than the flashy but inconsistent White.
Tampa Bay has already invested into the future at the position behind David and White, drafting linebackers K.J. Britt (fifth round) and Grant Stuard (seventh round) last year. However, those players seem to profile more as core special teamers than realistic contributors on defense. Spending a high pick on a linebacker may be frustrating for the fanbase (much like the Kyle Trask pick last year) given the team’s status as a Super Bowl contender and the fact that the player likely wouldn’t contribute much this season. A year or two from now, though, it could look like a savvy move.
The Bucs locked up star cornerback Carlton Davis, but fellow starters Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting are going into the final season of their rookie contracts. Fellow cornerback/safety hybrids and veterans Logan Ryan and Ross Cockrell are also free agents at the end of the season. This position could have been put in the category of “dire need” had Jason Licht not re-signed Davis at the outset of free agency, but his excellent work in that regard relegated it to a need for the future.
Tampa Bay would be well-served to explore adding depth at this position early in the draft. They will likely need to replace one of Dean or Murphy-Bunting, and they saw how perilously thin their cornerback depth chart was at times last season when they were forced to sign the likes of Richard Sherman and Pierre Desir off the street for them after their starting trio dealt with injuries over the first half of the season. This position may be a “hidden need” in terms of adding a future starter, but it remains a present day need in terms of adding depth at the position.
3. Swing Tackle
Josh Wells won’t be around forever, and with all due respect to him, the Bucs saw the consequences of putting him on the field during their Divisional Round loss to the Rams. Wells is an experienced veteran, but at this point in his career, he offers very little outside of knowledge of Tampa Bay’s system and the ever-elusive “veteran savvy” in the way of upside. In other words, he is no longer physically gifted.
It’s time for the Bucs to invest in a true young swing tackle to make their depth behind their premier bookend pair of Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith a strength rather than a weakness. Wells is an old, mediocre band aid solution to a major depth problem plaguing Tampa Bay beneath the surface. A meaningful draft investment in a swing tackle (maybe in the fourth round?) would signal a change in this regard.
4. Edge Defender
There were many different directions this spot could have gone. Every safety on the roster outside of Antoine Winfield Jr. is on an expiring contract. Leonard Fournette is back at running back for the long haul. After that? It’s Gio Bernard for this year and… Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who has flashed reason for nothing but pessimism in his brief career. Even wide receiver, where the Bucs have Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage and… a bunch of players Tom Brady wouldn’t look at last season, was considered.
But ultimately, the answer comes back to one thing: getting after the quarterback. Jason Pierre-Paul seems like a longshot to be back in Tampa, which will thrust last year’s first rounder, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, into a starting role opposite Shaq Barrett. At this point, we should know that NFL teams should strive to have more than two starting-caliber edge defenders, and Tampa Bay does not currently have a third piece behind Barrett and Tryon-Shoyinka that one could call any better than “replacement level”.
Even if one were to grant Anthony Nelson respectable “third edge” status, his contract expires after this season; the Bucs will have to hunt for another edge rusher sooner or later, and with their struggles getting after the quarterback without blitzing last season, they’d be best served to do it sooner.
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