So by now the Bucs off-season strategy is clear: bolster the defense via free agency then stock up the offense via the draft. That approach makes a lot of sense for two reasons: 1) this class is loaded with good offensive players at spots where the Bucs have needs (especially along the OL) and 2) it’s difficult for first-year defensive players unfamiliar with the demanding Tampa2 scheme to contribute early, which is why Lovie/Licht signed seasoned Tampa 2 vets Carter, Moore, Melton and Conte. As for offense, I do expect at least one more free agent to be added soon, and odds are it will be former Raiders OG Stefen Wisniewski, who visited the Bucs recently. Adding Wisniewski across from vet Mankins would ensure acceptable levels of OG play in 2015 no matter how the team fares in the draft, and would free the Bucs to focus on OT come draft day.
How do I think the Bucs will approach the #1 pick? If I had to place a wager I’d bet that (despite reports to the contrary) they’ll pass on Winston (for reasons I’ve detailed) and fall in love Mariota during his pending visit. I know that’s not a popular prediction, which makes it all the more enjoyable. I’d be OK with Mariota as the top pick since he has many intriguing qualities. But as noted in other posts, my hope is that the Bucs find a suitor enamored of either Winston or Mariota and trade down for extra picks. That’s unlikely, admittedly. Regardless, I’ve believed Glennon can be the starting QB since he was drafted—and a damn good one. With that in mind, here’s how I would approach the 2015 draft if I was suddenly named GM, an appointment that is frankly long overdue:
ROUND 1: DONTAE FOWLER, DE, FLORIDA
What, you say? Pass on the two top-rated QBs? Why yes, that’s precisely what I’m saying. I don’t see either as a safe pick—Winston due to his penchant for throwing picks and glaring character issues, and Mariota since there’s little precedent for a successful transition from a spread scheme to a pro-style offense. The former Gator is my favorite player in this draft and in my humble opinion the best overall athlete in this class. He’s a big-time playmaker who will be a star for some team, and he’d address a huge need at weak side DE. A few months back Fowler was seen as a mid-to-late first rounder, but as scouts have reviewed his tape and watched him dismember opponents like Hannibal Lecter with a skill-saw he has predictably skyrocketed up the charts. He’s now a top 5 if not top 3 player on most mock drafts, so it’s no stretch that he’d move up to #1. Stack him across from 2014 free-agent Jacquies Smith and you have two fear-inducing DEs who will complement DT McCoy and new addition DT Melton perfectly, giving the Bucs a hellacious front four that would ingest opponents’ livers with fava beans and a nice Chianti.
ROUND 2: BRYCE PETTY, QB, BAYLOR
Petty has his detractors, and with good reason. He struggled at times with accuracy under pressure and his deep ball was inconsistent. He also carries with him all of the doubts that surround Mariota given that he played in a simplified college system in which he was never asked to take snaps under center or click through multiple receiving options. He is a project, without question, who cannot be expected to do much his first year. That said, his skill set is impressive: natural leadership skills, winning pedigree, intelligence, touch, timing, solid mechanics, good height and bulk, surprising mobility, legit toughness, a quick release and a live arm. His athleticism, release and character trump Winston’s, and his size, accuracy, arm strength and pocket presence are better than Mariota’s. I believe he’s the most underrated QB talent in this draft. As for a comparison to a vet, I see some Matthew Stafford in his game. He simply needs time, reps and patience in a pro scheme to blossom into the best QB in this class, something he’d enjoy in Tampa behind the underrated Glennon.
ROUND 3: DARYL WILLIAMS, OT, OKLAHOMA
The Bucs need a starter at RT like Obama needs a teleprompter. Which is to say, desperately. Demar Dotson’s late-in-the-season move to left tackle is likely permanent, and second-year player Kevin Pamphile has some ability but plays too passively. Williams is not as hyped as the top-rated tackles because he lacks elite feet, but with four solid years of play for the Sooners is capable of stepping in as a first-day starter. Williams is a massive, physically overpowering 6-5, 340 lb. bruiser who smacks around opposing D-linemen in the run game and does a credible job as a pass blocker. The Bucs’ Oline last season was a chunky pile of hot buffalo dung. I was literally screaming at the TV set when Licht (who let capable starters Penn, Zuttah and Joseph walk in free agency) let one round after another slide by without addressing OT and OG in the last draft. The remedy is guys like Williams who play with solid technique and blot out the sun. So it’s said, my favorite OT in this class is UF’s DJ Humphries but I’m afraid he’ll be gone by this stage. If he and Williams have both been picked then Penn State’s Donovan Smith or Humphries’ former teammate Chaz Green are intriguing talents at OT, as well.
ROUND 4: BEN HEENEY, LB, KANSAS
I’ll admit it: I like hard-ass, lunch pail, throwback types, and Heeney is certainly one of them. On a very average Kansas team he jumped out on tape repeatedly as a reckless, tackle-racking, teeth-rattling dynamo. But beyond the grit and fearlessness, Heeney also possesses fantastic athleticism and great instincts both against the run and the pass. This, my friends, is the sort of player who is worth gambling on at this spot, if not earlier, since he has the rare skill-set to possibly be that most elusive of prizes: an impact, 3-down, Tampa 2 middle linebacker, something we have not seen in Tampa since Shelton Quarles manned the middle, and arguably since Hardy Nickerson before that. Before you dismiss his as another blue-color, try-hard player, know that he recently posted the best 60-yard shuttle time posted by a LB at the combine…ever. Hey, he may turn out to be only a solid backup LB and ST ace, which ain’t bad for a 4th rounder. But I think his ceiling is much higher, and I think he’d bring some much-needed playmaking and swagger to the MLB spot and the LB corps as a whole. Plus, he has a sweet beard.
ROUND 5: SHAQUILLE MASON, C/OG, GEORGIA TECH
If we learned anything last season it’s the critical importance of depth along the Oline. We also learned that “prize” free agent center Evan Dietrich-Smith is an athletically limited player with Weebles in his family tree, struggling in both pass and run protection. Was it all his fault? Well, no. With a partial exception for the venerable Logan Mankins the guards flanking him played like little girly men. But even if OG play is miraculously fixed the Bucs can’t afford to gamble on the fact that Dietrich-Smith will suddenly play great ball; they need a backup plan at center. Mason would provide two things: solid depth at both OG spots and a legit challenge to take the center job away from the incumbent (echoes of Zuttah, anyone?). He is quick, powerful and like Humphries plays with a chip on his shoulder, down after down. I’ve seen nothing to indicate that the Bucs are planning on visiting Mason, which means I am smarter than they are.
ROUND 6: CONNOR HALLIDAY, QB, WASHINGTON STATE
Yes, he played out of the shotgun on most snaps in college and will need to adjust to the pro game. Yes, he’s a virtual unknown, and he’s coming off a bad leg injury that essentially killed his chances to be discussed among the better QBs in this class. But wow, can this kid rip the ball. Halliday plays with supreme confidence and has that cocky, “I will soon set records and impregnate hot runway models” it-factor that the league’s better QBs all exude. He also fits the profile of the successful modern pro passer. Take a gander at the top 10-15 QBs in the NFL last season. See the pattern? Pocket guys, limited mobility, big arms, long frames. Halliday has all of the gifts needed to be special in time, and he’d ramp up competition at the position to a very high level. Now consider this: if the Bucs follow the inspired plan I’ve outlined here they would enter camp with four—read that again, four—young, tall, smart, strong-armed QBs. So tell me: in what world would drafting monster-character-risk-and-interception-factory Winston (and letting Glennon leave to succeed elsewhere) be a better move than entering camp with Glennon, Petty, Halliday and the unheralded-but-intriguing Seth Lobato all fighting like drunken ninjas for two roster spots? An insano world where dogs fornicate openly with possums, that’s where.
ROUND 7: NEIRON BALL, LB, FLORIDA
Another Gator player? Why yes, yes indeed. The lanky, athletic Ball can straight-up, well, ball and has a nose for the, well, ball. He fell of the radar of many teams after an injury early in the season, but insiders know that he is an intriguing talent. Ball would provide a legit challenge for the strong side LB job and would match up very well against the NFC South’s big, fast TEs. Why another LB, you ask? Good question. Alex Magee was recently released and ran off to play baseball, capable vet Jonathan Casillas left for New England late last season and MLB starter Mason Foster is likely going to fly the coop in free agency. The Bucs need to add two new bodies to the mix. Oh, and though the nickel back job will likely be in the good hands of either Leonard Johnson or newcomer Sterling Moore, Notre Dame DB Cody Riggs is worth a long look here, as well, since he was born to be a nickel corner.
So there ya have it, an inspired mock draft, as promised. Share your thoughts on my proposed approach below.