Sun, 16 May 2021

Draft Shakeup | S.S. Mailbag

Buccaneers
09 Apr 2021, 19:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers This week, Bucs fans have questions about the draft fallout from a recent Panthers-Jets trade, the best matchup on Tampa Bay's 2021 schedule and more Scott Smith

The 2021 NFL Draft is now exactly three weeks away, so how about a little Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft trivia before I get to your questions? Yes? Okay!

- Did you know that the player drafted with the latest pick to actually play a regular-season game for the Buccaneers was running back Michael Morton?

Barring a trade, the Buccaneers will make the final pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, which this year will be number 259. However, that 'Mr. Irrelevant' pick will be far from the latest one the team has ever made since the first draft in which the franchise participated, in 1976, was 17 rounds long! It was then 12 rounds long every year from 1977 through 1992. The latest pick the Bucs have ever made was number 460, a 17th-round selection of Washington & Lee quarterback Jack Berry. He never played in the NFL.

In 1982, the Buccaneers used their 12th-round pick on UNLV running back and return man Michael Morton, making him the 325th player off the board. Morton made the team and played three seasons for the Bucs, averaging 21.2 yards per kickoff return on 95 attempts. He later got into a couple games with Washington and Seattle.

The lowest drafted Buccaneer to play for any team in the NFL was wide receiver and return man Carl Roaches, a 14th-rounder in 1976 who went 377th overall. Roaches didn't make it with the Bucs and didn't actually play in the NFL until 1980, when he showed up as a return man for the Houston Oilers. It's a little hard to piece together the intervening years, though he did see some time in the Canadian Football League. Roaches played five seasons in Houston and one in New Orleans and even made a Pro Bowl.

- Did you know the Buccaneers have picked 32nd in a draft before but it wasn't in 2003 after their first Super Bowl championship?

Again barring a trade, Tampa Bay will make the 32nd and final pick of the first round in this year's draft. That's the best spot in the draft because it goes to the reigning Super Bowl champions and is thus a very welcome tradeoff. After winning Super Bowl XXXVII at the end of the 2002 season, the Buccaneers were indeed slotted 32nd in the first round in the 2003 draft, which had only expanded to 32 picks per round the previous year when the expansion Houston Texans joined the league.

However, Tampa Bay hadn't actually owned that first-round pick for about 14 months by that time. That pick, plus their 2002 first and second-rounders and their 2004 second-rounder all went to Oakland in the trade to acquire the rights to Head Coach Jon Gruden. That was quite a haul (there was a significant chunk of change involved, too), but nobody cared when the Bucs won that Super Bowl in Gruden's first year at the helm.

You can surely figure out that the Bucs' previous experience with the 32nd pick came before there were 32 teams in the league, making it a second-round selection. That happened in that same 1982 draft that produced Michael Morton, and was an eventful draft, to put it neutrally. The Bucs used their first-round pick that year on Penn State guard Sean Farrell but had actually intended to take Bethune-Cookman defensive end Booker Reese. A phone snafu caused the wrong card to be turned in, so the Bucs doubled down on the mistake by sending their 1981 first-round pick to Chicago to get the Bears' second-rounder, which was number 32 overall. They used that pick on Reese, a developmental project who never panned out.

- Did you know that the most productive school in terms of creating NFL players from which Tampa Bay has never drafted a player is Oklahoma State?

If you rank all colleges by how many NFL players they have produced overall (source: Pro Football Reference), you get down to the 45th one on the list before you find a team from which the Bucs have never drafted a player. The Cowboys have sent 217 players into the professional ranks and have produced 163 draft picks all time.

Those two groups don't totally overlap because some players make it into the league without getting drafted and some draft picks never make it. Still, out of 163 players drafted out of Oklahoma State it's still interesting that none have been taken by the Buccaneers.

So who are the top draft prospects from Oklahoma State this year, if the Bucs wanted to take the plunge for the first time? The player most likely to make it into the first round is offensive tackle Teven Jenkins, who was already a highly-regarded prospect before putting together a strong Pro Day performance a week ago. Jenkins' stock appears to be on the rise and there's a good chance he's off the board before the 32nd pick.

The Cowboys' next best bet to come off the board is cornerback Rodarius Williams, widely projected as a second or third-round pick. Running back Chubba Howard might be a mid-round pick, though his 2020 season wasn't as good as his 2019 breakout campaign. Wide receiver Tylan Wallace might also go late on Day Two or early on Day Three and the same is true for linebacker Amen Obgongbemiga.

So there's just a slight tase of Buccaneers' draft trivia as the latest NFL Draft approaches. Now, on to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

How much does the Sam Darnold trade change things in the draft? Could there be better players left by the time we pick?

- @jordan.elka (via Instagram)

Oh, I found out first-hand how that Darnold trade affected things when I turned in my latest Mock Draft on Monday morning (to be posted Tuesday morning), only to have the Jets and Panthers muck it all up, forcing a lengthy rewrite. Thanks Joe Douglas!

For anyone who doesn't know the details, New York traded fourth-year quarterback Sam Darnold, which it had selected third-overall in the 2018 draft, to Carolina on Monday afternoon for a sixth-round pick this year's draft and second and fourth-round selections in 2022. The move essentially confirmed what most NFL and draft analysts had already expected: that the Douglas/Robert Saleh-led Jets, who had inherited Darnold from the previous regime, would start over with a new quarterback to be taken second overall in the draft. There's a strong consensus that will be BYU's Zach Wilson after Jacksonville takes Clemson's Trevor Lawrence with the first pick.

Meanwhile, the Panthers are set to pick eighth overall and it was also pretty evident that they were looking for a new quarterback in Year Two of the Matt Rhule era, after a relatively underwhelming performance by Teddy Bridgewater in 2020. That could have come through the draft but the Panthers decided to take care of it another way, hoping they can mold Darnold into a franchise quarterback after he also underwhelmed over the course of three seasons in New York. It's at least a reasonable bet by G.M. Scott Fitterer, and if it pans out Darnold will be well worth the draft assets given up to get him.

After the trade, Fitterer told the press that the acquisition of Darnold would not preclude the Panthers from taking a quarterback at number eight, but you'll have a hard time finding an analyst who puts much stock in that statement. I would certainly be surprised if that were to happen. Before the trade, I had North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance landing with the Panthers; after the trade, I adjusted, believing they could now use that eighth-overall pick on something to help Darnold. In this case, I went with Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater to help Carolina in it's O-Line rebuild.

As is unavoidable, changing a pick high in a mock draft has repercussions the rest of the way. I originally had the Giants taking Slater with the 11th pick; what do they do now? Since they are almost certainly going to take a player who would have gone to another team in the next handful of picks, that messes up another prediction down the board. And so on.

However, I don't think this affects the Buccaneers at all, at least in regard to this draft. On the field this fall, sure. Would the Bucs rather have two games against a rookie Panthers' quarterback or two games against Darnold? Who knows at this point, but it certainly makes a difference. Not so on draft night.

See, it's highly likely that Lance will still be drafted in the first round. In fact, I agree with almost every mock draft you'll see that five quarterbacks are going to be selected in Round One this year: Lawrence, Wilson, Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones, in some order. From the Bucs' perspective, all that's changed is the likely order they will go on, all probably well before the 32nd pick rolls around. If you want to get a little creative with your thinking, maybe it makes it slightly more likely the Bucs will try to land a quarterback of the future in the third round to follow Tom Brady. Theoretically, with one more team likely out of the quarterback hunt it's possible that one of those top five passers will fall farther than expected on draft night. If it's far enough of a fall, it could eventually put that quarterback in range of a trade up for the Buccaneers. It would be akin to Green Bay trading up from pick 30 to pick 26 last year to draft Jordan Love while they still had a very good Aaron Rodgers under center.

To be clear, I highly doubt anything like that will happen. I would still expect all five of those quarterbacks to be off the board by the midway point of the first round. If that's the case, nothing will have changed from the Buccaneers' perspective. Maybe some of the offensive tackles will go in a different order or the top receivers will come off the board a little earlier, but we're still talking about the same group of players. And if there does happen to be a dramatic fall by one or more of those quarterbacks, that only helps the Bucs if they want to draft one of them. Otherwise it hurts them by potentially taking top prospects at other positions off the board before pick number 32.

Why didn't the Bucs defend the north end zone (as the home team) during the Super Bowl?

- Anthony, Fort Myers (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Well, they did defend the north end zone in the second and fourth quarters. If you recall, Devin White's game-clinching interception was secured in that very end zone, in the shadow of Raymond James Stadium's famous Pirate Ship.

What I think you mean is why didn't the Buccaneers choose to defend the north end zone when they had the chance? The first thing to clear up here is that this choice had nothing to do with being the home team. The Buccaneers were in fact designated as the home team in Super Bowl LV, not because they were actually playing in their home stadium but because it was the NFC's turn.

The catalyst for choosing direction is the coin flip just before the game begins. The team that wins the coin flip can either choose to receive the ball to start the game (common), choose the end zone they want to defend to start the game (extremely uncommon) or defer their choice to the start of the second half (probably the most common choice these days). In this case, Kansas City won the toss and deferred the choice.

That meant the Buccaneers could now choose to receive or choose which end zone to defend. Doing the latter would be a massive mistake as it would mean Kansas City would get the ball to start the game and then could choose to start the second half with the ball, too. So, of course, the Bucs chose to receive after Kansas City deferred. After that, Kansas City then got to choose the end zone to defend and went with the north. So the Bucs started out defending the south end zone, but it wasn't by their choice.

In the second half, Kansas City obviously chose to receive and the Bucs followed by choosing to defend the end zone. I wonder if this is what you're asking about Anthony because otherwise I'm not sure I get the point of the question.

There generally is only one reason to choose a specific end zone to defend (and thus the direction in which your offense will be going), and that's wind. Though there were some reports early in the Super Bowl week that Tampa would get some thunderstorms, including strong winds, during the big game, the weather did everyone a favor and calmed down by game day. By kickoff, the skies were clear and the temperature was a pleasant 63 degrees Fahrenheit.

As for the wind, it wasn't enough to matter. The play-by-play lists the wind at kickoff as NW at nine miles per hour. Wind direction is listed as the direction from which it is coming; that is, which way would you be facing if the wind was in your face. If there was a strong northerly wind then, yes, you would want to defend the north end zone and have your offense go south, with the wind. But winds don't really affect the passing or kicking games until you start getting into the 15-20 mph range.

Furthermore, whenever you choose a direction for your offense to go at the start of either half, you know you're going to be going the other way in either the second or fourth quarter. So if you really are factoring in the wind and which direction is better for your offense (and worse for the opposing offense) than you also need to decide in which quarter you want that advantage.

Coming out of halftime, the Buccaneers had a 21-6 lead and some strong momentum after scoring in the final seconds of the second quarter. Of course, everyone involved in or watching that game knew about Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' incredible comeback ability. That was on display throughout Kansas City's 2019 postseason run to the championship and it was certainly never far from the thoughts or mouths of the broadcast team, for those watching at home.

So if you wanted to do whatever you can to suppress such a comeback and you felt that making the Chiefs offense go in one particular direction was better, would you want that advantage in the third or fourth quarter? Would you want to make it harder for them to get that comeback going, or would you want to know you have the advantage when and if they did make the game tighter going into the final period.

It was a moot point, of course, because the Bucs' incredible defense never let Mahomes get that comeback started and the Chiefs only scored three second-half points in the eventual 31-9 outcome. After watching Mahomes make some of the most incredible passes I've ever seen while under constant pursuit from the Bucs' pass rush, I'm convinced neither wind nor a brick wall would have stopped him. The Bucs' defense ultimately did but it was still an impressive performance by Mahomes.

Anyway, I'm not convinced that wind was a factor at all that night so I don't think it really mattered what direction the Bucs chose to go in to start the second half. And it worked out nicely because the Bucs were able to celebrate at the end under that iconic Pirate Ship.

What game do you think will be the best matchup next season?

- @cadorez42 (via Instagram)

There are a lot of good ones, particularly now that a 17th game has been added to the schedule. That added game in Indianapolis looks like an interesting matchup, particularly if quarterback Carson Wentz returns to his previous MVP-level form after the trade from Philadelphia. The Colts made the playoffs last year and gave the Bills a run for their money in the first round in Buffalo. Indy had the NFL's 10th-ranked offense, eighth-ranked defense and eighth-best points differential in 2020.

That's not my pick, though. If Drew Brees had stuck around for another year and if the Saints hadn't been forced into a bit of a salary purge after the cap shrunk in 2021, I would definitely pick New Orleans. The Saints handed the Buccaneers two of their five losses in 2020, including by far the most lopsided defeat on a bad Sunday night, and also have won the last four NFC South titles.

The Bucs won the ultimate prize, of course, and wouldn't trade the Lombardi Trophy for any number of division crowns. Still, I think they will be highly motivated to swing the regular-season balance of power in the division in 2021, which will make their two matchups against New Orleans entertaining ones. I'm just not 100% sure how good the Saints will be this season with their transition at quarterback and the loss of a couple defensive starters. I would certainly not be surprised if the Saints were still really good in 2021, as they still have a very talented roster and either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill could keep the offense operating at a high level. But for the answer to this question I think I want the surest thing.

Dallas? Defensive issues. The Giants? Not sold on Daniel Jones. Miami? Now that's intriguing but, again, Tua Tagovailoa remains a bit of a question mark? Atlanta? I trust Matt Ryan to still be very good but the Falcons' defense may not be much better than the one that ranked 29th overall and last against the pass last year. The Panthers, Bears, Eagles, Patriots, Jets and Colts all have quarterback situations that could go either way.

That leaves the Bills and the Rams, and I'm torn. I thought the Rams were a true Super Bowl contender after they left Tampa with a Week 11 win last November. They faded down the stretch but have since flipped Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford. The Rams had the NFL's best defense last year, both in points and yards allowed, and will likely be very good on that side of the ball again in 2021. Does Stafford for Goff represent enough of an upgrade to make them one of the most complete contenders in the NFL. You know what, I think it does.

As for the Bills, when Josh Allen suddenly morphed from an athletic but erratic marvel in his first two seasons to an athletic but now extremely accurate passer in 2020 - seriously, his completion rate jumped from 58.8% to 69.2% - the Bills very suddenly became one of the best teams in the NFL. Buffalo went 13-3, won the AFC East for the first time since 1995, went to the conference championship game and have since had a mostly positive offseason. Buffalo was able to re-sign its most important free agent on each side of the ball in linebacker Matt Milano and left tackle Darryl Williams, and also brought back starting guard Jon Feliciano. Wide receivers John Brown and Andre Roberts departed in free agency but Emmanuel Sanders arrived and the Bills obviously still have Stefon Diggs. Buffalo scored more points last year than every team except Green Bay and fielded a good defense that could get better with a bit more of a pass rush. I wouldn't be surprised if the NFL sends the Bills to Tampa for the traditional Thursday night Week One season kickoff game at the home of the defending champs.

So I like Bucs-Rams or Bucs-Bills as the best overall game matchup this year, and if pressed I'll go with the Rams just because Tampa Bay's offense versus the Los Angeles defense is probably the single best battle, on paper at least.

If we want to get just a little more granular, however, there is one 2021 matchup that we can't ignore: Tom Brady versus Bill Belichick and the Patriots' defense in Foxborough.

This is simply going to be one of the top storylines of the entire season next year and the game is a good bet to be played before a primetime national audience. Brady, Belichick and the Patriots constructed the greatest 20-year stretch by any team in NFL history and won six Super Bowls along the way. When Brady moved on to a new chapter in his career, he immediately won a seventh ring with the Buccaneers while the Patriots finished below .500 for the first time since 2000.

Who's betting against a bounce back season for Belichick's crew in 2021? Not me. That seems particularly possible on defense, where the Patriots fell from first in the league rankings in 2019 to 15th last year. Several key New England defenders opted out last year, which certainly didn't help. Productive linebacker Dont'a Hightower is back for 2021 and the Patriots' stunning free agency splurge brought in edge rusher Matt Judon, safety Jalen Mills and defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, among others. With the 15th pick in the first round, the Patriots are also in position to add a playmaker for the middle of their defensive like Micah Parsons or Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

I don't know how the Patriots quarterback position is going to shake out, whether Cam Newton will be more effective in 2021 or if New England will manage to nab a rookie passer in the draft. I feel pretty comfortable predicting the Patriots' defense will be good, though, and that's a challenge Tom Brady is going to relish back in his old stamping grounds.

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