Fri, 07 May 2021

2021 Draft Wrap: Speed, Special Teams and the Future

Buccaneers
02 May 2021, 19:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers The Bucs had the luxury of targeting 'wants' rather than 'needs' in this year's draft and ended up with a seven-man class boasting a lot of speed, a chance to help immediately on special teams and a group of men with passion for the game Scott Smith

Jason Licht called it a "draft of wants" as opposed to a "draft of needs." By the time the 2021 NFL Draft had wrapped up, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had found a lot of what they wanted when the weekend began.

The Buccaneers actually did that wrapping up at 6:52 p.m. ET on Saturday night, selecting Houston inside linebacker Grant Stuard with the 259th and final pick of the draft. Prior to that, from Thursday evening through Saturday, the Bucs had also added a promising piece to their edge rush ranks; a quarterback to develop for the long run; a versatile offensive lineman who could factor in at four spots; a fast and shifty wideout who may also help in the return game; a much-needed piece of depth at inside linebacker; and a cornerback with an impressive size/speed combination.

Tampa Bay was in position to target specific players without too much influence of needs on the current roster. After winning Super Bowl LV in February - already an indication of a robust roster - the Buccaneers managed to keep virtually the entire team together through aggressive free agency work. The team's first two picks in last year's draft, tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. both started immediately and became important factors in that Super Bowl hunt. It's possible that none of the Bucs' 2021 draftees will find a starting job in their rookie campaign but Licht is still excited about how they can help the team this year and down the road.

"We feel like all these guys have a legit shot of making our football team, in a special teams role or what-have-you," said the Bucs' general manager, whose recent draft record has been impressive. "We feel very good about them. We feel good about all of them making our football team right now. If that happens, it remains to be seen but right now we feel pretty good about it."

Here is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2021 Draft Class:

Joe Tryon may have the best chance to contribute on offense or defense right away as he can slide into the outside linebacker rotation with Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Anthony Nelson. He is also expected to help out significantly on special teams right away.

"He's got power, and power is something you can't teach," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "You either have it or you don't. A lot of edge rushers are speed guys; tackles in this league just knock those guys down. If you can't basically bull-rush and have power and turn it into speed, or speed to power, you're going to struggle. And Joe's showed that he has that ability. He's obviously going to be a huge contributor on special teams right away as he continues to improve that toolbox. But he has the main ingredients."

In fact, many of the Bucs' new rookies are potential special teams role players. Fourth-round wideout Jaelon Darden will get a chance to win the punt return job, while fifth-round linebacker K.J. Britt , seventh-round cornerback Chris Wilcox and seventh-round linebacker Grant Stuard all have the tools to be core cover men.

"We wanted to stress special teams," said Licht. "That was one area we wanted to upgrade. We feel pretty good about what we've done. We think there's a chance that Darden could be our returner; he's going to have to compete for it. There's a chance that Grant comes in and makes an impression on us right away as a special teams guy that we don't want to let go. Those are just two examples."

The one 2021 draftee least likely to play a significant onfield role as a rookie is also perhaps the most intriguing pick of the class. Kyle Trask, the final pick of the second round on Friday night, is the first quarterback that Licht and the Buccaneers have drafted since taking Jameis Winston first-overall in 2015 and just the second one taken in any round during Licht's tenure. Defining "Day Two" as Rounds Two and Three of the draft, Trask is just the fourth Day Two quarterback selection in franchise history.

Historically, Tampa Bay's starting quarterbacks of any notable duration have either been first-round picks or free agent acquisitions, with Shaun King (second round in 1999), Chris Simms (third round in 2003) and Mike Glennon in 2013). Trask is likely stepping into a more favorable situation than any of those players - as well as some former first-rounders - as he will get several years to learn from Tom Brady and further develop his game. It took Trask a long time to get a starting opportunity in high school or college, and though he made the most of his opportunity at Florida the past two seasons he still has plenty of room to develop.

"There's a lot to like about him," said Licht. "He's a big kid. He's tough. He's very smart. He's a great teammate, great leader. He has plenty of arm talent - great touch. He's a quick processor and he's played very well there. I love his story of perseverance. The guy's a fighter. He's a competitor and once again, a great team player. ... This is a great place for a quarterback to come and be groomed. To be playing with the G.O.A.T. (Tom Brady) and you have some great, great coaching - great coaching staff."

Trask was the sixth quarterback taken in the 2021 draft and the first after an incredible run of five passers in the first 15 picks on Thursday night. His relatively low total of college starts is no different than three of the five passers taken before him. His 22 starts for the Gators match how many games Ohio State's Justin Fields opened and are more than the 17 starts for both Alabama's Mac Jones and North Dakota State's Trey Lance. Trask was not the most mobile quarterback available - which isn't a trait the Bucs were searching anyway - but any concerns about arm strength are definitely not shared by his new team.

"More than enough," said Arians of Jones' throwing power. "If you watch that Georgia game and that comeback, throwing those balls - he throws dimes down the sideline. I have no question [about his arm strength]. He can make every throw that we want. Clyde [Christensen] and Byron [Leftwich] were at his workout and were extremely pleased with everything they saw. He can make every throw in our offense and we're really excited about having him."

Four of the Bucs' draft picks were on 2021 Senior Bowl rosters, though Trask did not participate due to an ankle injury. Hainsey, Britt and Stuard all took part, however, and all helped their causes with strong performances. Robert Hainsey ran drills at the three interior-line spots and made the transition seamlessly, suggesting he could be a versatile asset for his eventual NFL team. Britt was a dynamo during the week and in the game and was voted the best linebacker of the 2021 Senior Bowl by his teammates. Stuard, unsurprisingly, stood out on special teams and impressed with this passion and leadership. He was also given the Alabama Power Community Service Award for his extensive community work.

"We see him as real versatile guy," said Licht of Hainsey. "We'll see how it goes when we get him in here. He played right tackle, three-year starter at Notre Dame, and really held his own. [He] was a very consistent player there. It's not that we don't think he can't play right tackle, but we do think he has a big upside at guard or center, which he played at the Senior Bowl and kind of caught our attention - just the versatility aspect. He's going to be a guy that we can hopefully plug in a four positions; be a four-spot guy at some point."

The Bucs started their third day of drafting by trading up in the fourth round, sending a sixth-round compensatory pick to Seattle to make an eight-spot jump before landing Darden. The Bucs spent much of the weekend snagging players from the nation's biggest programs but also mixed in the first player taken out of North Texas in 17 years. Darden could be the first North Texas player to suit up for Tampa Bay since defensive end Reggie Lewis and safety Beasley Reece in the early '80s, when the school was known as North Texas State.

Darden is undersized but possesses impressive speed and elusiveness in his run-after-the-catch (RAC), and that's not all the Bucs liked about his tape.

"He's got great hands," said Licht. "That's one of the things when we were watching him with Bruce - he loves the hands, loves the ability to track the ball and catch the ball away from his body. He has just great quickness. He's very fast but he's actually quicker than fast. He can really put his foot in the ground and explode out of his breaks. He's got great RAC and then we also think he has a chance to be a very good returner."

Britt has a similar opportunity to the one facing Trask, as he can learn from entrenched starters Lavonte David and Devin White while potentially working to become a starter in a few years.

"We love the way that he plays, as well," said Licht. "He plays with a lot of passion, he's a big thumper, he's an Alpha, he's a leader. He's the man there. Anybody you talk to at Auburn, that's the first thing they'll say: 'He's the man here.' We're very excited about him, like we are about all our picks today."

The Buccaneers had two of the last nine picks of the draft and used them on a pair of defenders who, as noted above, could be special teams contributors right away. Wilcox came off the board at pick number 251 while Stuard had the unusual honor of being named Mr. Irrelevant, long the unofficial and well-meaning title given to the last player selected.

The 6-2, 198-pound Wilcox has the frame the Buccaneers look for in a cornerback and ran a 4.31 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. While that combination obviously profiles as a good special teams candidate the Bucs also believe he could eventually help on defense.

"We definitely see some ability there as a gunner," said Licht. "We liked him as a corner because of his length and his speed. He fits the profile of the guys that we have here. Our guys are long, have long arms and can run. He's going to fit right in with them. He can learn from them and hopefully develop into a good player."

Finally, the 259th pick brought in Stuard, who made Licht think of another player who made a very long career in the NFL out of excelling in the third phase of the game.

"We love the way he plays," said Licht. "We think he's fast, we think he's very physical and very tough. He reminds me of - this is going way back - I was with the Dolphins when we signed Larry Izzo out of Rice as an undersized linebacker with a huge heart. He ended up making a great career as a special teams linebacker. Not to say that we don't think Grant has a chance to play linebacker ... but we think he has a chance to really excel as a special teams ace."

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