Earlier in the week, Bucs director of football administration Mike Greenberg went to GM Jason Licht and told him that, as he saw it, the idea of Alabama tight end O.J. Howard falling to 19 was very real. Greenberg isn’t an evaluator, but his premise was that, historically, tight ends tend to slip.
Licht wasn’t buying it. Then the Bears dealt up for North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, which dropped LSU safety Jamal Adams, and the wheels were in motion.
“We thought he could go as high as 6,” Licht said over his cell on Saturday, headed off to pursue undrafted free agents. “And from what I heard from sources, that very well could’ve happened. But the Jets, unexpectedly, got their safety when Adams fell to them. I’m not saying I know for sure the Jets were taking him, but that looked like a landing spot for him.
“And then, he was linked to every single team between them and us at some point. I was afraid that, even if a team didn’t need a tight end, he was just the best available player, the you-can’t-pass-on-him type of guy … We were just fortunate.”
This is a story of how, on draft weekend, sometimes a team’s offseason goals happen to match what’s available.
I’ll agree with the social-media chorus on this: Day-after draft grades, while plenty of fun, are pretty silly. There’s so much unknown, and so many of them presuppose that teams can fill five or six holes in a single cycle when the past tells us that getting three long-term starters in one class constitutes great work by any team.
But what we can assess in the immediate aftermath—with the bulk of roster-building done for the year—is whether or not a team has addressed what it saw as its primary problem coming out of the previous season. And after three days of the draft, when Licht and I talked about what his big objective has been, I’m not sure any team has done better since March than the Bucs.
It started in the fall for Licht, and with the few notes he jots down during every game to highlight what hurt and helped the Bucs on the field. And every week, it seemed there was one thing that remained the same: We’re not threatening vertically enough. Not enough explosive plays. We just need more speed.
“You obviously know when you put a plan together, you never get exactly what you want,” Licht says. “You gotta be ready to deal with the variables and try to stick to it as closely to possible. Our offseason plan was simple: We need speed on offense. We need speed, and we need it at every position. We needed to add speed and we needed weapons for our young quarterback.”
Maybe the Bucs, as Licht says, didn’t get everything they wanted. But based on the goal—get faster—it’s hard to imagine they could’ve done much better. And that started in free agency, with the addition of DeSean Jackson, whose career 17.7-yards per catch average came at a rate of more than $11 million per on a three-year deal.
That was the easy part. It’s harder to predict what will happen on draft weekend, and not many—Licht included—thought that a 251-pound tight end with 4.5 speed would land in his lap deep in the first round. But that was just the start of it.
With Howard on board, the Bucs’ next goal on offense was to find an heir for the 30-year-old Jackson, so the next sidekick to Mike Evans could gradually grow into the role. That Chris Godwin was there at 84 wasn’t the stunner that Howard at 19 was, but adding a 21-year-old that ran a 4.42 at the combine and averaged 16.6-yards per catch at Penn State last year isn’t far from how Licht would’ve drawn it up.
“I got a lot of texts from other personnel guys and GMs saying ‘awesome pick,’ ‘great pick,’ ‘we had him in the second round,’” Licht says. “He’s one of those guys, once you get to a certain point in the draft, it doesn’t surprise you when guys go a little earlier than you thought. And it doesn’t surprise you when guys go a little later.”
And the finishing touch was scooping up versatile Boise State RB Jeremy McNichols in the fifth round, a guy that Licht and Koetter view as the class’s best pass-protecting back, and one who Licht says had only two drops while catching 88 balls over his final two college seasons.
Now, again, statistics tell us that all these guys won’t work out just the way that Licht and the Bucs hope. But if you’re looking for a team that’s had things fall its way the last couple months, the stars of this summer’s Hard Knocks are near the top of the list. In fact, when I asked Licht if he sees it like that, he didn’t hesitate.
“Correct. That’s exactly right,” Licht says. “Defensively, we still have a ways to go before we get it exactly like we want it … we wanted to get more physical there. And we drafted a physical linebacker in [Kendall] Beckwith. And we drafted a huge 350-pound DT in Stevie [Tu’ikolovatu] from USC.”
But as for how the offense will look when OTAs open in May? “It should look a lot faster. Yup.”
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Before we get to some quick hits from around the league, I figured it was worth mentioning what I believe was an important, if under-the-radar, development over the last three days. And that one can be summed up in three picks: LSU RB Leonard Fournette went fourth to Jacksonville, Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey went eighth to Carolina, and Michigan TE Jake Butt went 145th overall to Denver.
So the two guys who skipped their bowl games to get a head start on draft prep and to avoid injury went top 10, while the guy who got hurt in his bowl game plummeted to the fifth round. As you might imagine, that convergence of events wasn’t lost on players.
“I don’t think my opinion’s changed,” Bengals OT and NFLPA president Eric Winston told me Saturday, after Butt was selected. “The thing that’s changed is that another false narrative has been proven false once and for all. The whole idea that, ‘Man, if you sit out your bowl game, then they’re gonna think less of you and you won’t get drafted as high,’ has obviously been proven false again. We all knew it was false.
“And McCaffrey actually took it another step, and said, ‘I’m not doing any of the workouts either. I’ll do my pro day and you can work me out there, but I’m not doing any of these private workouts.’ And good for him. I think back to December, and I said that’s really one of your first big business decisions that you have to make. Bottom line, it’s a business decision.”
Now, the next question will be whether seeing McCaffrey and Fournette skip their final college games with little affect on their draft stock will set off a trend in players opting out of the late December/early January exhibitions.
So I asked a couple prominent agents how they’d advise next year’s class in the wake of all this. And the answers were, pretty much, what you’d expect.
“I do believe top prospects will do the same thing McCaffrey and Fournette did,” says one agent. “There are going to be guys who do it and it hurts them—it has to be the right guy and the right situation for it to make sense. Risky for someone who’s not for sure a first-round pick. But elite talent will sit out.”
“If you’re a top-20 pick, where’s the value in playing?” says another. “One, there’s the risk of injury, which is the biggest component. If you suffer a serious injury, it could hurt you a little, or hurt you tremendously … Second, what do you have left to prove? That’s a big piece. Fournette, McCaffrey, I wouldn’t be sure there was anything else they could do. Maybe elevate yourself a little? Put that vs. the risk.”
The second agent pointed out, adeptly, that this is how first-round prospects have approached the idea of playing in the January all-star games for years. Most of the top guys choose to sit out—Deshaun Watson was one example of it this year, turning down an invite to the Senior Bowl. As that agent sees it, players will likely start weighing playing in non-playoff bowls the same way they’d weigh an invite to Mobile.
As for Butt, I polled 12 coaches, personnel guys and GMs on where he’d have been drafted if he hadn’t torn his ACL in the Orange Bowl. The results: Two said second round; One said second/third round; Five said third round; Three said third/fourth round; and one said fourth round.
If a Butt had landed in the middle of the third round, he’d have made, based on last year’s deals, about $800,000 per on a four-year deal. He’ll make about $650,000 per on a four-year deal as a fifth-round pick. Plus, he reportedly netted $543,000, tax-free, from a loss-of-value insurance policy. So he didn’t lose a ton of money. But for guys who are looking at going in the first round, the risk here is much greater. You can ask Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith about that.
“Whatever it might be, there’s not a right and wrong answer,” Winston says. “It’s a business decision that needs to be made, and shouldn’t be made because, ‘Oh, they paid for my school.’ It’s gotta be made because it’s the right business decision for you going forward. And let’s face it, there’s another side to this. The schools could be giving out insurance policies to all these guys much bigger than they are right now.
“Any guy that’s draft eligible, especially first, second, third round, why would you ever play a bowl game without your school buying you a couple million dollars of insurance on loss of value?”
It’s a good question, certainly one that will be asked a lot more now, and is even more salient when you consider the monetary rewards the schools are reaping for those exhibitions.
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FIVE QUICK HITTERS TO WRAP UP THE DRAFT
1. The Browns drafted Florida DT Caleb Brantley in the sixth round, despite the fact that Brantley, on April 23, was arrested after allegedly knocking a woman unconscious and jarring one of her teeth loose. The police report said the “use of force was clearly out of retaliation and not self-defense.” EVP Sashi Brown admitted the team knows it may not be able to keep him. As I understand it, the Browns see Brantley as a second-round talent, but they won’t hesitate to cut him loose if they are uncomfortable with the results of the investigation.
2. Speaking of risks: The Jaguars rolled the dice on Oklahoma WR Dede Westbrook in the fourth round, with the knowledge that Westbrook had twice been arrested on domestic violence complaints. In 2012, he was accused of throwing the mother of his two children to the ground. In 2013, he was accused of biting her arm and punching her in the face. He was not charged either time. And on Saturday, ESPN’s Todd McShay said on the air that Westbrook was kicked out of one of his 15-minute combine interviews. I can tell you some teams viewed him as undraftable. When asked for thoughts on Westbrook, one area scout assigned to the Sooners responded, “No thoughts. It is what it is. He’s a degenerate.”
3. One more of these: My understanding is the Cowboys fully expect third-round pick Michigan corner Jourdan Lewis to be cleared of a domestic violence charge stemming from an altercation between Lewis and his girlfriend in March. One thing that helps with background: Cowboys safeties coach Greg Jackson was Lewis’s position coach at Michigan two seasons ago.
4. Just based on my conversations with people the last couple weeks, I’m led to believe the Bills got a steal in fifth-round QB Nathan Peterman. The comp I’ve heard most is Kirk Cousins, and the thought here is that he’s, at worst, a long-term NFL backup. “He’s a stud,” said one AFC quarterbacks coach. “He’s a polished kid. … Married, very grounded, mechanically sound as a player, productive, smart. He’s gonna be a good player, a really good backup at worst. … He doesn’t have Kirk’s arm talent, but you can hear the voice of Kirk in him. His energy is a little different, the kid’s a little more collected.” Based on the fact that good backup QBs now make more than $5 million per year, getting one in the fifth round seems like a pretty good value to me.
5. One big storyline the last couple months: Teams with older QBs looking for understudies. On Thursday, the Chiefs completed their search with a massive trade up to the 10th pick for Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes. On Friday, the Giants took Davis Webb in Round 3. And on Saturday, the Steelers snapped up Tennessee’s Joshus Dobbs in the fourth round. One club source explained Pittsburgh loves Dobbs’ smarts and makeup, while noting that he can be robotic, overthink things and push the ball a little. The idea here is that, with Ben Roethlisberger as starter and no pressure to play any time soon, Dobbs will be in an ideal spot to learn. The Steelers, by the way, would’ve considered Webb in Round 3. As for the teams that didn’t find rookies to learn behind aging starters, neither the Cardinals nor the Chargers drafted a quarterback.
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That historic defensive back class? Over seven rounds, 32 cornerbacks and 24 safeties were drafted … Rich get richer: Lots of sighs in the scouting community when New England landed Youngstown State DE Derek Rivers with their first pick, which didn’t come until 83rd overall. … Ohio State lost 16 starters in 2016, and 10 of those became Top 100 picks in last year’s draft. And despite all that, four Buckeyes managed to go in the Top 40 this year and five went in the Top 55. Is it childish if I point out three Bucks came off the board before the first Wolverine (Michigan carried 44 seniors in ’16) was selected? … Pretty good work by the Saints to get value with their first five picks. Both CB Marshon Lattimore and OT Ryan Ramczyk were caught sliding by New Orleans, and their next two picks (S Marcus Williams, RB Alvin Kamara) were considered fringe first-round prospects. … Also, credit the Jets with sticking to their board. They took two safeties with their first two picks because they considered Adams a top-three player in the draft, and had Marcus Maye targeted the moment Friday night’s festivities kicked off. … New Titans WR Corey Davis may have seemed like a bit of a reach at 5, but the team considered him the best fit for their offensive system, and my feeling is the Bills at 10 (absent the blockbuster trade offer) and Cardinals at 13 would’ve considered him. So the NFL liked him more than the public knew, as was the case with the Titans’ other first-rounder, Adoree’ Jackson. It explains why the Titans resisted trading down. … Love the draft? Time to get started on 2018 by following three quarterbacks: USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Wyoming’s Josh Allen. Their presence loomed over the strategy of several teams the last three days. And it will continue to loom large as we start the long slog to, yup, the next one of these weekends.
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