Bucs 2015 Draft Review: One Too Many Gambles

So you saw the title of this post and immediately thought: “Uh, every draft pick is a gamble.” And I’d agree. But there are degrees, my friend. For instance, Jameis Winston is clearly a monumentally bigger risk than, say, Florida DE Dante Fowler or USC DE/DT Leonard Williams, both dominant players who bring great work ethics and zero character concerns to their respective new teams.

Regardless, I’ve let the reality of this draft percolate for a few days and here’s my analysis of the Bucs’ picks:

winstonRound 1: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
Even a casual scan of this blog will reveal that I am not a Winston fan. However, I do my best to be open-minded.

Winston has some very intriguing tools, including prototypical NFL size, good movement in the pocket, the ability to feather underneath passes, loft beautiful and catchable deep balls and zip the deep across-and-down-the field-routes that expose QBs with lesser arms. He had a very good grasp of FSU’s pro-style scheme, and on film he consistently scans his receivers before making a throw—usually to the correct target. His big frame and balance gives him a knack for shaking off pass rushers, he showed some toughness in the face of pressure, and he takes command of his huddle. Best if all, in my opinion, he has great anticipation skills, often making accurate throws before his WRs are out of their cuts. This is a critical and rare skill that, in my opinion, is a defining trait of the league’s better signal callers. Truth be told, sometimes the resemblance between Winston and Pittsburgh QB Roethlisberger is uncanny, as Big Ben possesses that same big body, big arm and ability to anticipate. Also on the positive side, I buy into the “Winston has football smarts” assessments, at least to a degree. His backwoods Alabama accent may imply country-boy naiveté, but it can be a dire mistake to associate a given dialect with a lack of intelligence. I believe Winston is far smarter than most assume.

If I could stop my evaluation there he would not just be deemed a great pick, he’d be a legit franchise-savior. Alas, I cannot. While I made a Roethlisberger comparison above, all too often Winston displays the same terminally slow wind-up of another (former) Steelers QB: Byron Leftwich. The protracted motion will get him killed if not remedied by coaching, as will his tendency to hold the ball too long and the bad decision-making he is prone to under pressure. The Leftwich comparison is especially troubling when you realize that Winston’s talented O-line at FSU often gave him gobs of time to throw the ball; in Tampa behind a suspect line he’ll be in for a very rude awakening. His confidence in his arm can also lead him to make hare-brained throws into tight, stacked coverage far too often—hence the flinch-inducing number of picks. And despite his swagger, when he faces talented defenses his confidence sometimes wavers or evaporates. Watch last year’s film of Winston versus the Florida Gators, for instance, and you’ll see a QB who imploded mentally and emotionally, throwing an astounding four picks and looking visibly shaken for much of the game. Yes, he came back to make some big throws down the stretch versus the Gators—something he did a number of times in 2014, to his credit—but the UF game was essentially lost due to Winston’s blunders until Fisher in desperation turned to (and was bailed out by) his run game. The same can be said of Winston in the bowl game against Oregon: he simply self-destructed. The comical play in which he skittered about the pocket, panicked and inexplicably flicked the ball over his head to set up a Oregon TD was telling. At FSU he was accustomed to dominating lesser opponents. Good luck finding the same thing in the pros.

And lastly, Winston’s character concerns make him an enormous and arguably stupid risk. How did he survive this laundry list of missteps yet still end up the top overall pick? Ya got me. In the 2014 draft Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel slid to the bottom of the first round over character concerns that in comparison to Winston’s seem like child’s play—something I have yet to hear anyone explain away.

Bottom line: despite Licht’s awkward smiles and Lovie’s monotone assurances, Winston is an inadvisable gamble, especially as the top overall player selected. An intriguing, talented, polarizing, pseudo-sincere, hope-rending gamble. I wish the Bucs had bypassed Winston and taken the trade allegedly offered by the Eagles for Bradford and extra picks—an offer I thought they might see. Alas, they did not. Now we’re left to hope that Winston overcomes both the holes in his game and the holes in his character. Can he? Maybe. But if I had to place a wager I’d put my money on the underrated Mike Glennon being under center by mid-season. Which would be just fine by me.

Scrappy’s Grade: 7 out of 10

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smithRound 2: Donovan Smith, OT, Penn State
The Bucs did the right thing here in targeting a tackle. It was a glaring need Licht tried to address in ham-fisted fashion last season with departed stiff Anthony Collins and timid, late-round draft pick Kevin Pamphile. Out of desperation last season the Bucs moved solid RT Demar Dotson to the left side, with mixed results. They went into this off-season needing either 1) a talented guy to assume the LT role and allow Dotson to move back to RT, or, if they felt Dotson could handle LT going forward, 2) a talented RT.

On the plus side (pun intended), Smith is a monster of man, going 6-6, 335…with his weight by some accounts often soaring north of 350. He played the LT spot at Penn State almost exclusively. He looks the part of a dominating NFL-caliber tackle, using his enormous frame and athleticism to wall off pass rushers and create big-time movement in the run game. If you could draw up an ideal NFL tackle he’d look a lot like this guy. Best of all, he bolsters his physical gifts with a nasty playing style. He is a legit mauler in the run game, engulfing and essentially eliminating the player in front of him. His highlight film is full of rag-dolled victims in the run game. To put it another way, when Smith is moving forward he’s a marvelous player. He turned in a great week at the Senior Bowl, showing up in shape and motivated and man-handling some impressive DE talent.

However, Smith’s track record at Penn State was anything but stellar, as he struggled to maintain ideal weight, block consistently versus quality opponents or play with consistent effort. His kick-slide and lateral movement is also far from special; on film I see a player who lurches when sliding laterally—which may explain why he often struggled versus quick, athletic DEs in college. Before the Senior Bowl practices many scouts saw him as a 3rd rounder at best, and a guy destined to be either a RT or, more likely, a guard. Now we hear Licht gushing about him like he’s a plug-and-play left tackle. My take? I think of Smith as another Donald Penn—a guy with natural ability who will play well but who will also spend his career fighting a tendency toward laziness as well as his fork and spoon. What’s even more puzzling is that new OC Kirk Koetter has always favored mobile linemen for his scheme, yet Smith is far from nimble, especially on the second level.

Bottom line: If Smith puts forth the kind of effort and dedication he displayed at the Senior Bowl (knowing that his draft stock was at stake) rather than the up-and-down effort he showed during most of his college career—the Bucs stole a quality player at a need spot. But what are the odds? If he just coasts, the Bucs reached too high for him. Smith has an outside shot at developing into a starting LT…but not in 2015, IMO. I think he’ll struggle mightily as a LT in camp and be moved to RT, and Dotson will once again asked to assume the critical LT spot. Far from ideal, but if there’s a silver lining that duo should provide considerably better OT play than we saw last season.

Scrappy’s Grade: 7 out of 10

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marpetRound 2: Ali Marpet, OG, Hobart
This pick likely inspired more filthy worlds among the Buc faithful than any other, if only because “Marpet” was not a name appearing on most fans’ wish lists. He played at tiny Hobart college, a school that the average Florida 5A high school team would work by a few touchdowns. So why the hell did the Bucs take Marpet—and even trade up for the guy? Two reasons: hype and substance.

First, the hype. Marpet had become something of a darling in scouting circles, and for good reason. Many scouts came to agree that he was worth a top 100 selection—as rare for a Division III player as a unicorn that farts rose petals. On film he threw his opponents around like bar midgets and showed a mile-wide mean streak, and when interviewed came across as a humble, hard-working, smart kid. Problem was, the hype was masking the fact that his average opponent had a fraction of the talent of the average D-1 college player. I mean, have you ever heard of Endicott College? I rest my case.

And now the substance. Marpet’s talent was hotly debated among NFL types until he showed up at the Senior Bowl bigger and stronger than he had ever been at Hobart—and mopped the floor with the cream of the college crop. Most impressive about Marpet’s play was the fact that—despite being an OT at Hobart—he was taking names and whipping ass inside to OG. Wow. Seeing a small-school kid rough up elite players from the Big 10, Pac-10, SEC, etc. was a revelation. So after reaching for Smith—and knowing that RG was as big a need as OT—the Bucs rolled the dice and traded up to grab Marpet. Am I OK with the move? Yes, I am. Marpet is the type of OL that competent NFL front offices like Denver and New England seem to uncover year in and year out—mobile, hostile, smart, athletic, and absolutely committed to the game. Is Marpet perfect? Well, no. He showed up at Hobart at about 225 lbs., fought to add weight, and packed on even more over the last three months or so. He’s a “blown-up” player; that is, he’s carrying more weight than God intended his frame to hold. He also has relatively short arms. But on film you see a guy who moves well at all levels (he ran the fastest 40 among all OL at the combine), always seems to anticipate his opponents’ next move and finishes his blocks with a shove that is essentially a non-verbal “Screw you.” If I have an issue with the decision it’s that the Bucs swung a trade to move up when other talented guards would have been there for them in the 3rd anyway—players like AJ Cann and John Miller…and possibly Marpet. But they wanted the guy and they got him.

Bottom line: Marpet fits best at RG, a huge need for the Bucs. Groom him there, but give him some reps at center so the Bucs have a viable insurance policy behind less-than-impressive 2014 free agent center Dietrich-Smith. And what the hell—give him a few reps at OT, his college position. He lacks the length and weight to be a dominant tackle, but with Dotson and Smith both question marks it would pay to have options.

Scrappy Grade: 8 out of 10

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alaexanderRound 4: Kwon Alexander, LB, LSU
As an SEC fan I watched Alexander quite a bit. After the Bucs took him, I went back and watched even more tape. And the guy puzzles me. On paper Alexander is an ideal Tampa 2 linebacker, with the speed, height/weight ratio, cover skills and thump in his game that Dungy-inspired defenses have featured for many years now. He can absolutely fly in a straight line, and at times he seems crazy decisive at the snap, honing in on ball carriers like a missile. Scouts love to throw around the phrase “side-line-to-sideline speed” but in this case it’s absolutely fitting. Alexander also shows the ability to use that speed in coverage, dropping deep at the snap to confound RBs and WRs in the passing game. He is fearless versus run blocking, exploding into and discarding fullbacks and linemen, and he gathers and hits like a hammer. Truth be told, when I watch the guy I get all giddy about what Lovie can do with him. And then he screws up and makes me re-think everything.

Despite all the positives, every once in a while Alexander will look completely lost, stuttering in one spot after the snap, getting lost in traffic as the action goes the other way, or biting so decisively on a play fake that it makes you shudder. The instincts you see one moment are gone the next, and I find myself having flashbacks to former Buc LB Dekoda Watson whose inability to process plays often rendered useless his freakish physical gifts. Is Alexander another Watson? No, I don’t think so. Though I see similarities, I also see flashes of playmaking brilliance in Alexander that I never saw in Watson: stalemating a guard in the hole with a concussive hit, stripping the ball from an upright running back, running stride for stride with a wideout down the middle of the field, knifing into the backfield to pressure a QB, etc. Despite the lapses I see a kid who is just starting to put it all together, and if he does…watch out. Know what else I see? Despite the fact that practically every scouting report slots him as an OLB and specifically a WLB, I see a future 3-down, Tampa 2, fire-breathing middle linebacker. Why? Because Alexander has a thicker build than most WLBs, a frame that will hold even more muscle, a hyper-physical approach to taking on blockers, and a nice feel for coverage. And he has a Mike linebacker’s angry, in-your-face playing style…something that cannot be faked.

Bottom line: Alexander should be a Special Teams demon right away—an important if under-valued role. I also see him getting a lot of reps at SLB, the spot where T2 coordinators have typically groomed their future middle linebackers. As for the 2015 MLB starter, the Bucs are hoping free agent Bruce Carter will assume that role, though he’ll have his work cut out to beat out steady thumper Danny Lansanah  (the likely SLB opposite David). Regardless, Alexander is a solid developmental LB with the raw tools to develop into an impact T2 Mike…something the Bucs have not enjoyed since the days of Shelton Quarles and, more accurately, Hardy Nickerson. I would have preferred Kansas LB Ben Heeney, whose instincts are off the charts, but Alexander is no poor consolation prize. In fact, it can easily be argued that he had the best set of raw tools for the Tampa 2 scheme of any LB in this draft.

Scrappy Grade: 7 out of 10

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bellRound 5: Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
I had two reactions to this pick: exasperation and excitement. The exasperation stemmed from my belief that GM Licht just doesn’t get it; that is, that he places far too much emphasis on skill players over linemen. And that is an amateurish trait, folks. I love great skill play as much as the next guy, but you win games up front. In last year’s draft, with O-line the screaming need, Licht inexplicably took a WR at #1, a TE at #2, and brittle, limited RB —a spot where the Bucs had ample talent already—at #3…all of this knowing that he did not have a 4th rounder. I literally screamed at my TV set. Granted, Mike Evans is a spectacular player, but was he a wiser option than an impact DT or OT? Hell, no. Was TE Sefarian-Jenkins in round 2, a guy who made little impact over a 2-14 season, a smart option over a starting OT or OG? Again: hell, no. Was RB Charles Sims a smarter add than a talented OG or DT? Puh-leeeease. That three-player sequence, folks, was among the worst in the entire history of the draft. Flash forward to 2015, and I was sure that Licht had learned his lesson and that he’d use 3-4 picks on the OL alone. Uh, no. After reaching for OT Smith and trading up for OG Marpet, he developed amnesia and once again went chasing after skill players like a giddy schoolboy. Spectacularly stupid stuff. I mean, consider how a consistently competitive team like the Super-Bowl-Champ Patriots approached the 2015 draft: DT, S, DE, OG, OG, etc. Tell me, do you think Licht knows more about roster building than Belichek?

I always try to find a positive, though, and Bell is, well, a positive. First, because he has absolutely epic hair that looks like someone fashioned a Christmas wreath out of used steel-wool and plunked it onto his head. It’s just awesome. But it’s his game that will wow you. I watched him play for Nebraska and he just jumped off the screen with his quickness, fearless play over the middle, frantic athleticism and ability to pluck the ball in traffic. At this stage he’s primarily a deep threat type, but with his wiry strength and body control he can develop into much more, over time. In fact, his potential is much higher than most assume since QB play at Nebraska sucked so badly that Bell seldom had a chance to strut his stuff. Better yet, he is the sort of kid coaches adore: a locker room anchor, an all-out-effort player and a selfless kid who seems to relish freeing up teammates as a blocker. I predict that Bell will make a big splash in pre-season much like Paris Warren did back in the mid-2000s. So…part of me can understand who the Bucs felt compelled to grab Bell at this spot since, frankly, he should have been selected much higher up the draft.

Bottom line: Bell will not be a top three WR this season unless injuries are an issue. The Bucs’ top trio will once again be Jackson, Evans and the underrated Murphy. But WR depth is important, and Bell can contribute early and often as a slot WR. Over time he has the tools to become a legit #2 WR. In short, Bell if the Bucs can stay healthy the Bucs should have legit four-deep talent at WR for the first time in, well, a long time. That’s great and all, but they still should have added another OL here—maybe a guy like talented OG Robert Myers of Tennessee State, who went 14 picks after Bell to the Ravens, or maybe Tayo Fabuluje, a hulking OT who went 15 or so picks later to the Bears. Accordingly, my modest grade here is not a reflection of Bell’s upside and ability so much as it is Licht’s mind-blowing tendency to ignore the team’s biggest need.

Scrappy Grade: 6 out of 10

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clayRound 5: Kaelin Clay, WR/KR, Utah
Again with a skill player when OL is the need. Listen, Clay is intriguing on some levels. He can absolutely jet in a straight line, and he shows some impressive KR ability. However, he doesn’t bring anything to the table that incumbents Robert Herron and (especially) Solomon Patton and Russell Shephard don’t already offer. He’s worth a look, but Shephard and Patton have SEC pedigrees, better hands, comparable speed and greater upside, in my humble opinion.

Bottom line: I believe Clay could have been signed after the draft as a free agent. By focusing on yet another skill player Licht once again surrendered the chance to land an OL prospect for a very needy line…like OT Tyrus Thompson of Oklahoma who went one pick later to the Vikings, or OG Ian Silberman of Boston College, who the 49ers snagged 6 picks later. For the love.

Scrappy Grade: 5 out of 10.

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iosefaRound 7: Joey Iosefa, FB, Hawaii
Hey, look! Another skill player. How refreshing. I mean, why would a 2-14 team with the worst Oline play of the modern era need to draft another lineman? (I hope you’re picking up on my sarcasm because I’m laying it on pretty thick). But I want to be fair to Iosefa, who actually does have some interesting qualities.

On the not-so-great side Iosefa is a one-speed runner who shows no burst running the ball. In the pros he’d likely be run down quickly on most plays. He probably has limited upside as a tailback despite a highlight film riddled with nice runs. To be honest, current Buc FB Javorskie Lane is a better natural athlete and runner, which arguably makes Iosefa another redundant pick much like Clay.

But…Iosefa actually has a more well-rounded skill set than most assume, showing soft hands a receiver, good position and strength as a pass blocker, a knack for setting up his blocks and a wonderfully nasty way of finishing off runs by inflicting pain. And though he does lack speed, when you watch his highlight runs the word “Alstott” does come to mind since he has a knack for lining up would-be tacklers and splattering them. He has a more effective running style than your average FB prospect, with some natural shiftiness that puts tacklers off balance before he plows into them. However, if he has a chance to stick it will be because he lead blocks and plays special teams better than any other option on the roster.

Bottom line: You’ll hear folks say that the traditional FB position is dead in the modern NFL—and that’s largely true—but in short yardage or red-zone situations a bruising fullback can still be of great value, especially if your Oline blows. The addition of massive-but-hardly-nimble OT Smith implies, at least to me, that the Bucs will run more of a power-run scheme than most imaged they would under new OC Kotter, and Iosefa is consistent with such a meat-grinder approach. I give Lane the edge at FB for now, but this Iosefa kid is tough, seems to relish contact and will not go quietly. If he can put a couple of LBs to sleep in camp as a lead blocker—and outplay Lane on Special Teams—he may just stick around and buy himself some reps during games. If I had to guess, though, I’d say he’ll end up on the practice squad this season rather than the final 53-man roster where he’l be groomed as a WCO-style fullback. Oh, and just so it’s said, promising OT Corey Robinson of South Carolina went to the Lions nine picks after the Bucs took Iosefa.

Scrappy Grade: 6 out of 10

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Overall grade: About a 7 out of 10, or a C-

All in all a fairly pedestrian effort that will forever be marked by the selection of the mercurial Winston atop an entire draft class. Winston, who was not the best overall talent in this group, and arguably not the best QB in this draft. Winston, the only draft pick to survive gobs of character-based red flags apparently unscathed. Winston, the prospect with undeniable holes in his game who still managed to go from mid-round gamble to peerless franchise savior within a matter of months. A mystery for the ages.

Beyond the FSU product, Licht did finally address the O-line, but the picture at OT is still unclear. There is a bright spot or two, but no single pick really knocked my socks off. Was Licht’s effort enough to make the Bucs competitive in 2015? Maybe, primarily because of astute free-agency additons (Melton, Moore, Carter) that will bolster an already-solid defense. But in the end the Bucs have painted themselves into a corner with Winston, and it will all come down to how well the much-maligned rookie plays…and the way he conducts himself away from the game. And that, like I say, is an enormous and inadvisable gamble.

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