Sat, 01 Oct 2022

Bucs' Leaning on 2021 Draft Class More in 2022

Buccaneers
08 Aug 2022, 19:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay BuccaneersThe first two weeks of training camp have made it clear that the Buccaneers’ 2021 draft class is going to have a much bigger collective impact on the team’s fortunes in year twoScott Smith

The 2021 Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought their Super Bowl roster back almost completely intact, so there weren't a lot of opportunities for new contributors to step into major roles. As such, the team's 2021 draft class spent much of its shared rookie season learning the NFL game and pitching in on special teams. The seven draftees combined to play 662 snaps on defense - 608 of them by first-round edge rusher Joe Tryon-Shoyinka - and 123 snaps no offense.

That will change in 2022, as a handful of those '22 draft picks appear to be on the path to much more significant roles this season. Second-round quarterback Kyle Trask will probably still be inactive on game days and seventh-round cornerback Chris Wilcox, who didn't make the 53-man roster last year, is with the Colts, but the other five members of that class should have a much bigger impact, collectively.

That starts with Tryon-Shoyinka, who is now running with the first-team defense after a rookie season spent pitching in at a variety of spots but not settling in at any of them. The team did not re-sign outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, instead elevating Tryon-Shoyinka to that starting spot opposite Shaq Barrett. The second-year player has looked ready for the assignment during training camp, consistently getting off the edge quickly and stressing opposing blockers.

"[It's] just his familiarity with the system," said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "Last year we moved him around a lot and we had other pieces, but this year he's concentrating at outside 'backer and he's understanding the little things. I think [Outside Linebackers] Coach [Bob] Sanders has done a great job with him thus far, teaching him the nuances of the outside 'backer spot and he's getting better and better."

Third-round offensive lineman Robert Hainsey might have spent another year mainly as a reserve in 2022 but that all changed when Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen went down with a knee injury on the second day of training camp. The Buccaneers don't yet know if Jensen will miss the entire 2022 season but they don't expect him back until at least November or December at the earliest. Thus the Buccaneers have a competition at center to go with their battle for left guard. The two main competitors have been identified as Hainsey and second-year man Nick Leverett (first-year player John Molchon has seen second-team action at center) but so far it has been primarily Hainsey with the first-team.

The Buccaneers also have a new starter at right guard in Shaq Mason, though he's far more experienced than those competing for the other two spots. Mason is working to build chemistry with his linemates and he's been impressed by Hainsey so far.

"He's definitely stepping in and doing a good job," said Mason. "He works his tail off day in and day out. He's doing a good job of getting us all on the same page and conducting us five. He's an extra smart guy. He knows the things in and out, he knows how to get everyone on the same page, knows how to adjust quickly and that's all you can ask for, for an offensive lineman."

Fourth-round wideout Jaelon Darden handled the Bucs' kickoff and punt return jobs for the majority of the 2022 season but will have to win those jobs again this summer. Where he could make even bigger strides is in the passing attack, where he only saw a couple brief cameos in his rookie campaign. Darden is more comfortable in the offense this year and has impressed his coaches and teammates early in camp. His lateral quickness and open-field elusiveness are his main strengths but on Saturday he showed he can get up a lot higher than his 5-8 frame would suggest on a leaping catch near the sideline.

"I really like what Darden's doing right now," said Bowles. "His approach all offseason has been outstanding. He works hard, he keeps his head down and he plays ball."

The Buccaneers drafted two off-ball linebackers in 2021, Auburn's K.J. Britt in the fifth round and Houston's Grant Stuard in the seventh. Both played almost exclusively on special teams as rookies, with Stuard leading the team in kick-coverage stops. This season, Britt is expected to step into the primary reserve role behind Lavonte David and Devin White, a role filled the last three years by Kevin Minter. As such, he has to become proficient at both the 'MIKE' and 'MO' positions so he can be ready to step in for either starter. Stuard presumably ranks fourth on that depth chart ahead of a pair of undrafted rookies.

"K.J. can play both [positions] obviously," said Bowles. "We really like him; he's coming on a lot. He makes a lot of plays, he's very intelligent and he works hard. Grant is very sharp. He's an effort guy, he's very smart, he learned the defense better this year where he may be able to help us."

Obviously, the Bucs don't want to be playing without either David or White, but they also didn't anticipate having an opening at center. The Bucs have to be ready to pivot at any position because injuries can strike at any time. In 2022, the draft class of 2021 looks like it's going to spend a lot more time on the field than it did last year.

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