As the 2021 Super Bowl matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers approaches, it is important to note that each team features rookies that have played at a high level all season. An imperative part of building a successful team is finding young talent through the draft that can both contribute early and develop over time. It is a bonus to find impact players in the mid-to-late rounds or the pool of undrafted prospects.
While the Chiefs and the Buccaneers had different forms of success from their rookies, the two championship contenders have seemingly walked out of the 2020 NFL Draft as “winners.” On the one hand, Kansas City got production out of almost every draft pick and turned undrafted free agents into contributors or even starters. On the other hand, Tampa Bay had varying returns from their recent draft selections but found two possible franchise cornerstones.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB
Outside of his quarterback at LSU, there were not many players who saw a greater increase in their draft stock during the 2019 season than did the Tigers’ senior running back. Clyde Edwards-Helaire went from a mid-round projection to the first running back drafted and the only one selected in the first round. The LSU product had a productive year despite suffering a hip injury and a high ankle sprain in Week 15 that held him out until the conference championship game.
He was third among rookie running backs in rushing yards and put up over 1,000 total yards and five total touchdowns in just 13 regular-season games. Although he was limited against the Buffalo Bills, the first-round draft pick’s health should only have improved in the two weeks before the Super Bowl. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a dangerous weapon that can be a difference-maker this Sunday.
Willie Gay Jr., LB
A largely-overlooked prospect before the 2020 NFL Combine, the hyper-athletic Mississippi State linebacker rose to second-round status thanks to the attention of his incredible measurables. Willie Gay Jr. was a contributor on Kansas City’s defense in 2020, playing in all 16 regular-season games and starting eight. On the season, the 63rd overall selection recorded 39 combined tackles (29 solo, 10 assisted), three tackles for loss, one quarterback hit, one sack, three passes defended and one forced fumble. Willie Gay Jr. will not play on Sunday as he recovers from surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
Lucas Niang, OT
Talented athletes can be pushed down draft boards for any number of concerns. Lucas Niang was widely-seen as an early-round talent whose significant hip injury and subsequent surgery caused concern surrounding his future in the league. Still, the Kansas City Chiefs selected the TCU product in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Before the season kicked off, the rookie chose to sit out his first campaign with the Chiefs due to concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. While Lucas Niang may be a starter for Kansas City in the future, he did not play in his rookie year and will not play in the 2021 Super Bowl.
L’Jarius Sneed, CB
The Chiefs’ fourth-round selection was one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2020 rookie class. L’Jarius Sneed was a remarkably productive contributor for the Chiefs’ defense when on the field. The Louisiana Tech product recorded 41 combined tackles (31 solo, 10 assisted), two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, two sacks, three interceptions and seven passes defended.
Unfortunately, Sneed missed almost half the season with a collarbone injury. Still, his three picks tied him for 16th in the league. The rookie corner was a massive part of Kansas City’s much-improved defense, compared to the 2019 season. Sneed is currently listed as questionable for the Super Bowl thanks to a concussion.
Michael Danna, DE
One of Kansas City’s top rookies was found on day three. Michael Danna has quietly put together an impressive season. What’s more, he has established himself as a legitimate role player in the NFL and may still grow with more experience. Despite missing time with a hamstring injury, Danna played in 13 regular-season games and started one in 2020.
While he only saw the field on over 50% of the team’s defensive snaps once (85% in his lone start in Week 17), the rookie was able to record 25 combined tackles (16 solo, nine assisted), four tackles for loss, six quarterback hits and two-and-a-half sacks. Michael Danna has been one of the more notable fifth-round rookies this year and his value off the bench may prove impactful come Super Bowl Sunday.
Tershawn Wharton, DL
Finding talented young players without sacrificing significant capital is a crucial part of team-building. Tershawn Wharton signed with Kansas City as an undrafted free agent and made the active roster before Week One. Since then, the Missouri S&T product has played in all 16 regular-season games (starting one) and in each playoff game so far. Although he went undrafted, Wharton had an impressive season for any rookie.
He put up 27 combined tackles (14 solo, 13 assisted), four tackles for loss, four quarterback hits, two sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. In Tershawn Wharton, the Chiefs found a reliable rotational piece along their defensive front who, while widely unknown, has already made an impact.
Tommy Townsend, P
Last but certainly not least is the Chiefs’ other 2020 undrafted free agent gem. Tommy Townsend of Florida is the only Kansas City rookie outside of Wharton to play in all 16 regular-season games and each of the playoff games thus far. The punter has been a serviceable starter during his rookie year on a team that does not often have to call upon its punt team. The Florida product ranked 23rd in the league in number of punts, total punt yards and yards per punt.
His longest punt of the season was a 67-yarder, good enough to tie Townsend for sixth in the NFL in 2020. He also completed his sole pass attempt of the season for 13 yards. An often-overlooked part of the game, high-level special teams play can be the difference between a win and a loss in close matchups. The Chiefs found a starter who has the potential to flip the field. Tommy Townsend could be an under-the-radar candidate to play a significant role in the Super Bowl.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Tristan Wirfs, OT
Four offensive tackles in the 2020 draft class were generally considered top-tier prospects who simultaneously had the high-floor to be an instant starter and the high-ceiling to develop into an excellent NFL player. The fourth of these to hear his name called on draft night was Tristan Wirfs of Iowa. Still, the Buccaneers sacrificed their first and fourth-round picks to trade up and make him the 13th overall selection. Wirfs had an excellent career at Iowa and further elevated his draft stock with an incredible performance at the 2020 NFL Combine.
By the end of his rookie year, the former Hawkeye had established himself as a high-level offensive tackle with the chance to become one of the league’s best sooner rather than later - if he has not already. A picture of consistency, the rookie started every game of the 2020 regular season and in each of Tampa Bay’s three playoff games. What’s more, he has played 100% of the team’s offensive snaps in each game of his career. Tristan Wirfs has been a large part of the Buccaneers’ success and will likely be a franchise centerpiece for years to come.
Antoine Winfield Jr., S
One of the top playmakers in college football in 2019 has looked like a career starter in his rookie year in Tampa Bay. Antoine Winfield Jr. became the fourth safety selected in the 2020 NFL Draft when the Buccaneers took him with the 45th overall selection. Throughout the 2020 season, he regularly displayed his potential, talent and instincts on the back end of Tampa Bay’s defense. Winfield started every regular-season game of his rookie campaign and has started each of the Buccaneers’ playoff games to this point. He has played 100% of the team’s defensive snaps in eight of those matchups and has played the vast majority of defensive snaps in every other outing. In the regular season, the reliable safety recorded 94 combined tackles (64 solo, 30 assisted), one tackle for loss, four quarterback hits, three sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception and six passes defended. Antoine Winfield Jr. has the talent to be a difference-maker on Super Bowl Sunday.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RB
Tampa Bay’s third-round selection struggled to consistently find the field in a crowded running back room. Buried behind Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette on the depth chart while simultaneously splitting carries with LeSean McCoy, Ke’Shawn Vaughn was not statistically outstanding. He played in just 10 games and recorded 143 total yards and one touchdown on 31 total touches. It is worth noting, though, that Vaughn played well in an expanded role in Week 16.
In Tampa Bay’s matchup with the Detroit Lions, the third-round rookie received more than half his total touches on the season. He put up 69 combined yards on 15 rushes and one reception. An intriguing prospect out of Vanderbilt, the Senior Bowl participant’s role with the Buccaneers could grow in the future. For now, it is hard to predict his impact on the Super Bowl in such a crowded offense.
Tyler Johnson, WR
Similar to his third-round counterpart, the Buccaneers’ fifth-round selection was stuck in one of the league’s more talented wide receiver rooms. Tyler Johnson of Minnesota was not given the chance to produce behind star receivers like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. Scotty Miller’s emergence as the 2020 season wore on also reduced the rookie’s target-share. Still, the former Golden Gopher started three games in the regular season and has played in every game (regular season and postseason) since Week Three.
On the year, the rookie recorded 12 receptions for 169 yards and two touchdowns. This includes a career-high 61 yards on another career-best four receptions in Week Five. Although the Minnesota product has not had a productive rookie campaign, he was a talented prospect who contributed throughout the season. The fifth receiver on the depth chart, Tyler Johnson can be a threat when on the field.
Khalil Davis, DL
Tampa Bay’s sixth-round pick struggled to carve out a role for himself along the Buccaneers’ defensive line. Khalil Davis of Nebraska appeared in just four total games through his rookie year - two in the regular season, two in the postseason. What’s more, he is entering Super Bowl week off an ankle injury that held him out of the NFC Conference Championship. In his limited time on the field, Davis recorded two combined tackles (one solo and one assisted) and two quarterback hits.
Although his production in the league has been somewhat uninspiring to this point, the Nebraska product is a high-level athlete. At the 2020 NFL Combine, Davis weighed in at 308 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds. He also did 32 reps of the 225 bench press. While Khalil Davis was not a consistent contributor for Tampa Bay in his rookie season, he is an athlete who may make a play if he finds the field on Sunday.
Cam Gill, OLB
While undrafted free agents do not have an easy path to a team’s active roster, Tampa Bay has one consistent contributor that did not hear his name called in the 2020 NFL Draft. Cam Gill of Wagner played in 12 regular-season games and each of the Buccaneers’ three postseason games this year. While he has only seen the field on the defensive side of the ball in six of those 15 matchups, he has played significant special teams snaps week-in and week-out. On the season, the small-school product has put up six combined tackles (four solo, two assisted). While he may not make his presence felt on defense, Cam Gill should see the field this Sunday on special teams.
Javon Hagan, S
The last of the Buccaneers’ rookies heading into the Super Bowl was also an undrafted free agent. Javon Hagan of Ohio University was signed to Tampa Bay’s active roster before their matchup with the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Conference Championship game. The young safety has not played an NFL snap. Although he is an unknown commodity, Javon Hagan has earned his spot among the 53 active Tampa Bay players in the 2021 Super Bowl.
The NFL Draft represents the possibility of bringing in both immediate contributors and future starters. Building a successful franchise is often a product of acquiring young athletes who can both make plays early in their careers and develop into high-level starters. The Chiefs and the Buccaneers have ostensibly done just that in the 2020 NFL Draft.
While Kansas City found NFL-ready talent on each of the draft’s three days and in the undrafted free agent pool, Tampa Bay’s production among first-year players was top-heavy. Still, each draft class undoubtedly contributed to their teams’ success. The Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while obviously ready to win now, each found serious talent in the 2020 NFL Draft class that may help them remain contenders moving forward.