Back up the truck. In the NFL world of stock values, the Bucs are trending upward. They finally have a QB the franchise can take pride in saying, ‘Yeah he’s our guy’. They acted decisively (and correctly) in cutting ties with Lovie Smith and an outdated way of thinking. They’re a competitive team with young talent on both sides of the ball (Winston, Evans, Marpet, Smith, McCoy, David, Alexander), a lot of money to spend ($49,392,453) and the 9th pick in the first round of the draft.
Of the Bucs free agents, I put them in these categories –
Let go – Henry Melton, Tony McDaniel, Chris Conte, Mike Jenkins, Danny Lansanah, Larry English, TJ Fatinikun, and DaQuan Bowers
Bring back at low cost – Bobby Rainey, Keith Tandy, Bradley McDougald, Russell Shepard, Jovorskie Lane, Jeremiah George, and Andrew DePaola
Sign em – Sterling Moore, Jacquies Smith
Keep him…I think – Doug Martin
Of those names the Bucs #1 priority is to retain the league’s second leading rusher. Not picking up Martin’s extra year was obviously a bad move in hindsight. After not tagging Martin for nearly $12 mil, the options now are to sign him to a 3-4 year deal averaging a guesstimated $6 mil or find a replacement in the draft or free agency. Given the Bucs needs at other positions, the available replacements in the draft and free agency, and their available cap space, I try to sign Martin to a 3 year deal maxing out at $20 million.
Given that take on the team’s free agents and the assumptive resigning of Martin, I have the Bucs needs (in priority order) as – DE, S, WR, CB, OT, DT, LB, G/C
If the Bucs are to make a non-Martin splash in free agency I expect it to happen in the secondary, and I’d go as far as saying that signing a starting boundary corner is a must. Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks should both be back, but of the two, I’m only slightly convinced that Banks can be a starter in a scheme that I believe will look for more length and bump ability from its boundary and field corners. I’d have Verner and Moore fight it out for nickel/dime duties, and if Verner won’t take a pay cut, replace him with one of the many cheaper alternatives. Of the available free agents I prefer Casey Hayward and Sean Smith. Hayward can play both inside and outside the formation, and Smith is the larger cover man type I think they’ll begin to target. If their focus is more on nickel play, I would opt for either Patrick Robinson or Brandon Boykin. Either would immediately be the best slot corner on the team.
The safety position is in horrible shape. I believe they need to find a starter not named Conte in free agency and spend a draft pick on the position as well. I like Tandy and McDougald as depth, but they’ve been playing too many snaps. George Iloka is the free agent I’d target first, with Walter Thurmond and Tashaun Gipson as alternatives. I prefer the flexibility of Iloka (FS/SS) and Thurmond (FS/CB) and believe the defense improves greatly with Iloka’s physical style ranging the back of the defense.
Staying on that side of the ball and focusing on the ‘not going crazy in free agency’ theme, I really like free agent DE William Hayes. I mentioned him as an option for the Bucs last offseason, and after another 5.5 sacks in part time duty with the Rams, he’s still worthy. I believe that pairing him with Will Gholston on the strong side would lock down that position, allowing the Bucs to focus on the Leo / weak side end in the draft. Smith returns as a contributor on that side, but ideally he rotates in behind an upgrade. Jason Pierre-Paul and Mario Williams are the kind of free agents I’d target (guys coming off down years who I think can still play at a high level), but with the lack of quality free agent rushers, they’ll likely get paid. I’d rather pay DBs, positions that in recent years have seen their markets be slower to develop than pass rushers.
On the interior of the DL, the Bucs return three quality players in Gerald McCoy, Akeem Spence, and Clinton McDonald. The latter two should be the primary NTs, which means the emphasis would be on finding another big guy who can collapse the pocket. I don’t see him out there in free agency, so addressing that spot will likely occur in the draft.
At linebacker, the Bucs appear set at the two priority positions with Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. Danny Lansanah is a free agent, so Bruce Carter might have the best shot at starting on the strong side. I’m not too worried about the position either way given how regularly the game is played with just two linebackers, but I’m also not going to ignore a talented linebacker in the middle rounds of the draft should the situation present itself.
I’m convinced that Donovan Smith is a starting offensive lineman on this team, but I’m not convinced that he’s the best they can do at LT for the next decade. Should they decide to address the tackle position in free agency there are two guys I’d target. If optimizing the talent at LT is a priority, I’d sign Kelechi Osmele, and if they want to keep Smith on the left side I’d sign Mitchell Schwartz (one of the most underappreciated lineman in the game) to play RT. Demar Dotson and Gosder Cherlius are still under contract, but it would be hard to argue that the Bucs aren’t better with a combination of Osmele/Smith/Mitchell as the starters with Dotson manning the third tackle spot. Improving the protection around Jameis, their #1 investment, is always a priority.
At receiver, the focus still needs to be on finding an eventual replacement for Vincent Jackson. Last year I was hoping they’d target someone who could man the slot while waiting for the VJax era to end and then shift outside. My thought was that ’15 would be his last season with the Bucs. I think we can all agree that ’16 will be his last year here, at least in a major role, and I don’t think they should wait until next offseason to think about his replacement. Plan ahead. Kenny Bell missed all of last year, so counting on him to make that jump is a leap I’m not ready to take. He also isn’t ideal slot candidate. Louis Murphy, who was also hurt last year, is probably the top guy there. Not ideal. I like Russell Shepard and Adam Humphries, but the Bucs need to improve the top of the depth chart, ideally with someone who can contribute right away in the slot. Rishard Matthews would be my top target in free agency, but I don’t see much of a chance of that happening. It looks like the draft will be where they get better at receiver.
Alex Mack, Alex Boone, and Brandon Brooks would all be fabulous interior offensive line additions, but I don’t get the feeling the Bucs see it as a real area of need, even if Logan Mankins retires. Kevin Pamphile appears to be next in line at LG, and I don’t get the feeling they’re eager to spend big on upgrading over Joe Hawley and Evan Smith at center. A versatile day three draft prospect may make the most sense.
In summary, my free agent class would include –
RB – Doug Martin
T – Mitchell Schwartz
DE – William Hayes
CB – Casey Hayward / Sean Smith, Patrick Robinson
S – George Iloka
That leaves my priorities as DE, S, WR, DT, LB, G/C, and CB.
My take on the first 9 picks –
1) TEN – Laremy Tunsil (T, Ole Miss) – A common selection given their needs and available talent; Ramsey would be my surprise pick.
2) CLE – Carson Wentz (QB, N Dakota St) – It’s no secret that they need to take a QB, and right now I think Wentz has a leg up on Goff.
3) SD – Jalen Ramsey (DB, FSU) – I’ve seen DL as a more popular pick here, but Ramsey fills an immediate need at either safety or corner; draft’s best player in my opinion.
4) DAL – Joey Bosa (DE, Ohio State) – I like them to take a pass rusher, given the shape of the position (Hardy gone and Gregory suspended).
5) JAX – DeForest Buckner (DE, Oregon) – They’d probably prefer Ramsey given their desperation in the secondary, but adding Buckner to a healthy Dante Fowler would suddenly improve a weak pass rush.
6) BAL – Vernon Hargreaves (CB, Florida) – This is probably as high as he go; fills a huge need in a division with Antonio Brown, AJ Green, Martavis Bryant, and likely, again, Josh Gordon.
7) SF – Jared Goff (QB, California) – Myles Jack would be another option, but as I watch this Kapernick/SF situation play out over the offseason, I don’t get the slightest impression that the Niners still believe in him; Goff seems an ideal fit for Chip Kelly and the city (local kid).
8) MIA – Myles Jack (LB, UCLA) – This seems like a great fit to me; LB is a huge need in all areas and Jack does it all.
Of those 8, the ones I’d be most interested for the Bucs are Ramsey, Tunsil, Hargreaves, and Bosa.
Given how the board has played out, best available could end up being –
Ezekiel Elliott (RB, Ohio State)
Ronnie Stanley (T, Notre Dame)
Sheldon Rankins (DT, Louisville)
Noah Spence (DE, E Kentucky)
Kevin Dodd (DE, Clemson)
As good as I think Elliott is going to be, I don’t think it would be responsible GMing to take RB at #9 given the shape of the rest of the roster. I’ve got this coming down to a lineman, and the last three candidates are Stanley, Rankins and Spence. Stanley is considered either the #2 or 1a tackle in this year’s draft and would immediately be the team’s LT, moving last year’s R2 pick to RT. He drops down the list if the Bucs sign Schwartz in free agency. Rankins has what I believe is the best combination of strength, agility, and ability to make plays in the backfield of this year’s defensive interior. I have zero problem taking him this high. Spence could be his year’s best edge rusher and looks the part of the difference maker the team has needed since Michael Bennett left. There are well known drawbacks to making him top 10 pick, but that’s the Bucs job to figure out over the next two months.
My pick – Noah Spence (DE, E Kentucky)
In the end, if Spence passes the Bucs sniff test I think he has to be the pick. He best brings what the Bucs need most. If Licht, Koetter, Smith, and Hayes think he’s worth it, I’ll support the pick. This one is definitely written in pencil, and one could make valid arguments for Rankins or Stanley.
My R1 preferences would be (in order) – Ramsey and Tunsil are in a class by themselves; Spence, Rankins, Stanley, Dodd, Hargreaves, Bosa.
I’ve got a lot more work to do on the rest of the draft, but here’s what I’m thinking right now –
R2 – Braxton Miller (WR, Ohio State)
I see a lot of Randall Cobb in Miller – QB who made the switch to WR, an ability to make plays in short spaces, and a positive, team first mindset. I love his pro future; really strikes me a winner and someone who will be a success in the NFL.
Alternate Picks –
Sterling Shepard (WR, Oklahoma)
Josh Doctson (WR, Kansas State)
Eli Apple (CB, Ohio State)
Jason Spriggs (T, Indiana)
Shilique Calhoun (DE, Michigan State)
William Jackson III (CB, Houston) is a stud, and this pick assumes he’s unavailable at #39 (I think he ends up a R1 pick). Otherwise, he gets the nod over Miller.
R3 – Sheldon Day (DT, Notre Dame)
Day is an ideal guy to groom behind McCoy on the defensive interior. He’s a gap shooter with a ton of quickness who moves down the line with a lot of agility. If he can add weight and upper body strength without losing the quickness, he’s a steal at #74.
Alternate Picks –
Karl Joseph (S, West Virginia)
Javon Hargrave (DT, South Carolina State)
DeAndre Houston-Carson (S, William & Mary)
Jason Fanaika (DE, Utah)
R4 – Joe Schobert (LB, Wisconsin)
He looks very comfortable and in control on the field; excellent change of direction. Played 3-4 OLB at Wisconsin but his size and strength limitations as a pro (relies a lot on leverage) will likely make him an off-line LB. Schobert has a ton of pass rush experience and could be a situational rusher / special teams player to start.
Alternate Picks –
Keyarris Garrett (WR, Tulsa)
Jack Allen (C, Michigan State)
R5 – Justin Simmons (FS, Boston College)
Alternate Picks –
James Bradberry (DB, Samford)
Deiondre’ Hall (DB, Northern Iowa)
Morgan Burns (CB/KR, Kansas State)
I’m obviously looking at a DB here. Simmons is a true center field safety; impressed with how quickly he reads and reacts; has a reputation as a studier, leader, team first type. Bradberry and Hall are very intriguing prospects, both college corners who could move to safety in the pros. Would be happy with anyone from this group.
R6 (1) – Joe Dahl (OL, Washington State)
Alternate Picks –
Kyle Friend (OL, Temple)
Parker Ehinger (OL, Cincinnati)
R6 (2) – Matt Judon (DE, Grand Valley State)
Alternate Picks –
Ken Crawley (CB, Colorado)
Roger Lewis (WR, Bowling Green)
The draft wraps up with developmental prospects. Dahl is a T/G whose size may limit him to the latter position; I like him as quality depth and potentially an eventual starter. Judon dominated Division II on pure talent; needs pro coaching for technique / proper body usage.
In summary –
We started out with the following needs – DE, S, WR, CB, RB, OT, DT, LB, G/C
And here’s what I have them addressing –
DE – 3 (William Hayes, Noah Spence, Matt Judon)
S – 2 (George Iloka, Justin Simmons)
WR – 1 (Braxton Miller)
CB – 2 (Casey Hayward or Sean Smith, Patrick Robinson)
RB – 1 (Doug Martin)
OL – 2 (Mitchell Schwartz, Joe Dahl)
DT – 1 (Sheldon Day)
LB – 1 (Joe Schobert)