The NFL Draft. For true football fans, it’s a much anticipated weekend full of excitement and rollercoaster emotions. For Jason Licht and his coaching and scouting staff, it means a whole lot more. To them, it’s the culmination of months upon months upon months of hard work. Thousands of hours of game film tediously scrutinized over. Weeks upon weeks of travel time away from family and friends. Hundreds of workouts, interviews, practices and meetings sat through. And after what possibly could be his best draft yet as the Buccaneers general manager, Jason Licht has definitely made his mark on this team and this franchise.
The amusing thing is that there are some Bucs fans out there that don’t think Jason Licht has done a very good job as Tampa’s GM. Whether it’s because he didn’t pick their favorite FSU player or because he continues to stick with Chris Conte at strong safety and Donovan Smith at left tackle, there are some members of Buc Nation who still dislike the man. The truth is that he doesn’t deserve any of that kind of negative criticism. He may have had a few fails in free agency, but he has been lights out when it comes to draft picks and college prospects. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone though. He’s been evaluating NFL talent since 1995 when he started out as a scouting assistant with the Miami Dolphins. He then moved on to be a scout for the Carolina Panthers in 1998 where he stayed for a year. In 1999, he was hired as a college scout for the New England Patriots where he was next promoted to national scout in 2001 and then assistant director of player personnel in 2002. He spent from 2003–2007 with the Eagles, 2008 with the Cardinals, 2009-2011 with the Patriots again, and 2012-2013 with the Cardinals again. Each time in some kind of player personnel position where he was constantly evaluating talent. Then came the offer from the Bucs to be their general manager heading into the 2014 season.
That 2014 NFL Draft was Licht’s first as “the guy” in an organization. And his first pick as “the guy” was none other than wide receiver Mike Evans with their 7th pick. Not a bad choice. And it was a bold one as Licht admitted to being offered a pretty lucrative trade deal for that 7th pick, but he chose to stick with his gut and his pick and take the guy that will soon be the Bucs all-time leader in every receiving category imaginable.
The rest of that draft consisted of taking Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins with the 38th pick of the second round, West Virginia running back Charles Sims with the 69th pick of the third round, Tennessee State guard Kadeem Edwards with the 143rd pick of the fifth round, Purdue offensive tackle Kevin Pamphile with the 149th pick of the fifth round and Wyoming wide receiver Robert Herron with their 185th pick in the sixth round.
ASJ had the talent and potential, but injuries and attitude caused his stay in Tampa to be short-lived. He then moved on to the Jets for two seasons and is now with the Jaguars. Sims has had an up and down career so far due to injuries but was recently re-signed as the Bucs third down back. However, during his one healthy season in 2015, he showed his potential by posting nearly 1,100 all-purpose yards and averaging an NFL leading 7+ yards per touch for the year. He’s currently on a one year “prove it” contract with what could be his last chance in Tampa and maybe even the league.
Edwards never quite panned out, spending time on the practice squad before being sent to IR and eventually being released. Pamphile was a reserve offensive lineman before becoming a starter at left guard for the 2017 season. It was his last in Tampa as he became an unrestricted free agent and signed with the Tennessee Titans. Herron spent one season in Tampa playing in 8 games before being released during the final cuts of the 2015 season.
His first draft was a little sketchy, but the Evans pick totally redeems it.
The 2015 draft was much kinder to Jason Licht. His first pick that year happened to be the #1 pick of the draft and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. He followed that up by taking Penn State left tackle Donovan Smith with the 34th pick in the second round. Then he traded his third-round pick and swapped fourth-round picks in exchange for the Colts second-round pick to take Hobart College guard Ali Marpet with the 61st pick of the second round. Next, he took LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander with their 124th pick of the fourth round. All four of them are current starters and key core players on the team now.
From there on, it didn’t go so well. The Bucs drafted Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell with the 162nd pick of the fifth round, Utah wide receiver Kaelin Clay with the 184th pick of the sixth round and Hawaii fullback Joey Iosefa with the 231st pick of the seventh round. Bell was placed on IR with a lingering hamstring injury and eventually released. The other two didn’t make it past the final cuts of training camp.
The first four rounds were amazing. Despite the final three picks, it was a really good draft.
Licht’s 2016 draft was full of guys that either still have a ton of unreached potential or have been key contributors either as reserves or special teamers. He kicked off this draft by trading back from 9th to 11th with the Chicago Bears, picking up an extra fourth-round pick in the process. The Bucs used that 11th pick to select Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. He then took Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence with the 39th pick in the second round. Both of them have yet to reach their full potential, but hopefully it happens this season.
Next, Jason Licht made what I consider his BIGGEST mistake as the Bucs general manager. He traded their third round pick AND the fourth-rounder they gained from the Bears trade to the Chiefs to move back into the second round to take Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo with the 59th pick. HUGE MISTAKE as it turns out. The most accurate kicker in NCAA history was anything but in Tampa and he only lasted one long, bad season as a Buc.
The rest of that draft consisted of taking North Carolina Central cornerback Ryan Smith with the 108th pick of the fourth round, UCLA offensive lineman Caleb Benenoch with the 148th pick of the fifth round, Oklahoma linebacker Devante Bond with the 183rd pick of the sixth round and Northwestern fullback Dan Vitale with the 197th pick of the sixth round. Smith, Benenoch and Bond are still on the current roster and play important roles as reserves. Vitale didn’t make it past the final cuts of training camp.
Despite committing his worst mistake as a general manager, the overall verdict on this draft is still out. If VH3 and Spence can play up to their potential, it could end up being a solid draft.
Last year was Licht’s best draft as a Buc. Landing Alabama tight end OJ Howard with the 19th pick was pretty lucky. He followed that up by taking Texas A&M safety Justin Evans (who had a first-round grade) with the 50th pick in the second round, Penn State wide receiver Chris Godwin (who had a second-round grade) with the 84th pick in the third round, and after trading their fourth and sixth round picks to the Jets took LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith with the 107th pick in the third round. Next, he took Boise State running back Jeremy McNichols with the 162nd pick of the sixth round and USC defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu with the 223rd pick of the seventh round. Five of Jason’s six picks in this draft are either starters or key contributors on the current roster with McNichols being the only training camp cut casualty. He’s now playing with the 49ers.
Really solid draft by Licht and the gang.
Which brings us to the most recent 2018 NFL Draft. Licht kicked off this draft with what I considered a brilliant move, and some considered a dumb move, which was trading his 7th overall pick and their seventh-round pick to the Buffalo Bills for their 12th overall pick as well as their 53rd and 56th pick of the second round. Despite moving back five spots, Licht and the Bucs were still able to get the player they wanted all along which was Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea. According to Jason, he was the fourth player on their draft board behind the “Big 3” of Barkley, Nelson and Chubb.
The Bucs used their 38th pick in the second round on USC running back Ronald Jones and their 53rd pick in the second round on North Carolina cornerback MJ Stewart. Then Licht traded their 56th pick to the Patriots for their 61st pick and a fourth-round pick and selected Auburn cornerback Carlton Davis. But even after two trades in the first two rounds, he still wasn’t done moving and shaking. He traded the Bucs original fourth-round pick and one of their sixth-round picks to the Vikings to jump into the end of the third round to grab Humboldt State offensive tackle Alex Cappa with the 94th pick. He then took Pitt safety Jordan Whitehead with the 117th pick in the fourth round, Pennsylvania wide receiver Justin Watson with the 144th pick in the fifth round and Wisconsin linebacker Jack Cichy with the 202nd pick of the sixth round.
Yet another solid draft. One that could end up as his NEW best yet should these picks play to their full potential.
Licht has gone on record as saying that the few of his picks that haven’t panned out were because they “missed on the person, not the player”. Of the 26 picks that the Bucs have made since he became general manager in 2014 through last year, 17 of them were still on the roster as of last season and contributing factors. Of those 17 players, 11 of those are full-time starters. The NFL Draft is always a gamble no matter which player you pick or where you pick them. Even first-round picks have about a 50% success rate and it only gets worse with each round. Mr. Licht has been on fire during the first four rounds of his first four drafts. He’s made 15 selections in Rounds 1-4 in which he’s found starters or key contributors with all but two of them. One being Aguayo in 2016 and the other being ASJ in the 2014 draft. Those are the money rounds. Those are the rounds where you’re supposed to find the players that make up the central core of your team. Jason Licht has done just that so far.
Of course, he hasn’t done too bad in later rounds either considering the much lower success rate is of those players. Of the 11 picks he’s made in the fifth round or higher, four of them have turned into key contributors including one starter from last year in Pamphile and a potential starter from this season in Benenoch. In the later rounds of the draft, teams are looking for players who might be able to contribute on special teams or even players that they can develop on their practice squad. For Licht to have nearly a 40% success rate on his late round picks is astonishing.
Since Jason Licht has been in Tampa, he’s drafted one of the best wide receivers in football in Evans, a franchise quarterback in Winston, a solid left tackle in Smith, a Pro Bowl guard in Marpet, a leader of the defense at middle linebacker in Alexander and future core players at defensive end with Spence, at cornerback with Hargreaves, at wideout with Godwin and at tight end with Howard. If that’s still not enough to convince you, take a look at what he’s done after the draft with finding undrafted free agents. In 2014, Jason Licht brought in an undrafted free agent tight end named Cameron Brate. That’s worked out pretty well so far. In 2015, he signed an undrafted wide receiver named Adam Humphries who was the 144th ranked receiver in his draft class. I think that’s worked out pretty well so far too. In 2016 alone, he brought in players like running back Peyton Barber, tight end Alan Cross, safety Isaiah Johnson, offensive tackle Leonard Wester, defensive end Channing Ward and defensive tackle Davonte Lambert all of which are still on the roster today. In 2017, he was able to add players like wide receiver Bobo Wilson, linebacker Riley Bullough, tight end Antony Auclair, cornerback Maurice Fleming and offensive tackle Cole Gardner all of which are still on the Bucs roster. That’s 11 players from their current roster who were undrafted. Again, pretty impressive.
In this 2018 offseason, I believe Jason Licht has even added to his legacy as one of the Buccaneers best general managers in franchise history. Of his eight draft picks this year, I believe that at least five of them have the potential to be starters and all of them have a real chance at becoming a member of the 10-man practice squad at the very least. Only time will tell. One thing is for sure. Jason Licht doesn’t care what the fans say. He doesn’t care what the members of the media say. He doesn’t care what the ESPN anchors and NFL Network analysts have to say. He doesn’t care what the local or national sports reporters have to write or say. He cares about what his scouting staff has to say. He cares about what his coaching staff has to say. He cares about what he sees, what he feels and what he knows. That’s it. If some people don’t like it…tough. If some fans disagree with his picks…too bad. If the media criticizes what he does…so be it. He’s doing HIS thing. And it’s working out pretty well for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers so far. We’re looking at some exciting times ahead, Buc Nation. And I can’t wait to see what this team can do this season.
Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!