In our very first What the Buc is Up feature, we get with U.S.A Today Draftwire.com‘s NFL Draft expert, Luke Easterling, to talk Bucs draft and what surprises are in store for the 2018 NFL Draft. Be sure to check out Luke’s stuff at https://draftwire.usatoday.com/ and get yourself ready for next week’s draft!
What The Buc: Luke, Who is your draft crush – the guy who really stands out for you in this year’s draft?
Luke Easterling: Oh man, there’s probably quite a few. It just kinda depends on the position. One guy that I’ve been probably higher on than a lot of people is Rashard Penny, running back from San Diego State. I’ve got him just behind Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice as my third best running back. I just think he’s a complete player. He rushed for 1,000 yards as a backup of Donnel Pumphrey (Eagles draft pick in 2017) two years ago and got the chance to be the lead back for the Aztecs this year and rushed for over 2,000 yards. I just think he’s a three-down guy, he’s got size, can play physical and can give you big plays because he’s explosive even at that size.
WTB: Focusing on the Bucs – What do you see as Tampa Bay’s biggest needs and do they have enough draft capital to fill it?
LE: You know, I don’t know if they have enough to fill them all, especially after trading the 3rd rounder for Jason Pierre-Paul. The way that they can get it is obviously to entice a team to trade up to that number 7 spot. If one of those top quarterbacks was still on the board they could accumulate those Day 2 and mid-round type picks and then they’d have a chance to do that.
You’re looking at a team that still needs a true number one corner to eventually replace Brent Grimes after this season. You’re looking probably to add a safety. You could use some more pass rushers but you really handled that during free agency so the bigger need is probably at guard where you don’t know if J.R. Sweezy is ever going to live up to that contract he got. The offense still needs help as you obviously need at least one running back, maybe two, in this class.
The fact that they only have on the first and second rounder on the first couple days means they have some work to do and find some gems who can contribute early with those days three picks.
WTB: What would you see being the ideal scenario for the Bucs – 4 of the top quarterbacks being selected ahead of them – allowing one of the big three (Barkley, Chubb or Nelson) to be there when they pick OR only two of the top QBs going in the top six and starting a bidding war for 7th overall?
LE: I’d probably always lean more to increasing my odds, trying to get a big deal to trade down. Just because I think you could get down into that 12 to 15 range and still get a Derwin James who I think would make a huge impact for this defense in a lot of different ways. And again, the draft is such a crapshoot, if you have five chances instead of two, it just increases your chances you’re going to hit on some quality players. I kinda look at it as a win-win. In one scenario you’re getting a huge haul to move back and getting a quality player while adding other starting caliber players to your roster and in the other situation you’re adding one of the big three, whether it’s Bradley Chubb, whose probably the least likely available there, or Barkley or Quenton Nelson, all three of whom are the top three players in this draft. Getting any of those at seven would just be a huge win, so I think it’s a good situation either way.
WTB: If the big three are gone and a trade doesn’t materialize, who do you think the Bucs should take (assuming Denzel Ward, Derwin James, Minkah Fitzpatrick are still on the board)?
LE: I think Derwin James is probably the best fit for what the Bucs need. In terms of overall, I like Minkah Fitzpatrick a lot but I think you envision him as that number one outside corner to play opposite Grimes this year and to take over for him next year and I just think that the personnel the Bucs have now, that they’re happy with Justin Evans, the 2nd round pick from last year where he played at Free Safety which is probably Minkah’s best spot, either that or the slot – but you have Vernon Hargreaves whose going to be your nickel probably and likely does his best work there as opposed to being on the outside. Derwin James comes in and gives you a bunch of versatility at the strong safety spot. He can hang in man coverage with receivers, let alone tight ends and running backs, he’s big enough and physical enough to make plays in the box in run support and just brings that A-Game, that personality, that vocal leadership that I think the defense can use more of. He’s just that Type-A alpha dog that’s going to come in there and light up the locker room. So if the Big Three aren’t there and they can’t get off that pick, I have no problem with them picking Derwin James, I think he’s a top-five player in this class.
WTB: Other than a quarterback, of course, who would shock you at 7 for the Bucs?
LE: Maybe Vita Vea, the defensive lineman from Washington, a big guy and it’s not that Bucs couldn’t use a guy like that but after the moves they’ve made in free agency really rebuilding the depth of that entire front line via the trade and signing new guys, I feel they’ve addressed that position adequately enough to where they don’t have to reach for a guy there. Denzel Ward would kind of surprise me, I think using another top ten or top fifteen pick on a 5’10” corner, not necessarily comparing their skillsets but at some point, you’re still a 5’10” corner and spending a top ten pick on a guy like that when the Bucs spent the 11th overall pick on Vernon Hargreaves and learned the hard way that a lot of times those guys have to slide inside because of size and I just don’t see Jason making that pick again after how things have turned out with Hargreaves.
WTB: Is there a guy the Bucs should absolutely stay away from in this draft?
LE: You know, it’s hard to say one way or the other because we don’t get access to all the medicals or the off-field reports but there are guys with legitimate off-field concerns that I think you’d be worried about. Whether it’s Antonio Callaway, who I think is a really talented receiver out of Florida, but obviously, you have some off-field issues there. If they want a pass rusher at some point, Arden Key was a guy a lot of talked about as a potential top-five, top-ten guy but he had some off-field issues, some injury issues, his weight has been all over the place so you really wonder if he can keep that in check and maximize his physical ability. I think with those two guys there are better options out there and no matter where they get drafted the Bucs are better off just staying away.
WTB: A draft is much more than the first round. Who are some day two or three prospects Bucs fans should keep an eye on?
LE: Early second round is going to be really interesting for the Bucs. I think there’s going to be a lot of value at running back at that point with either of the Georgia guys, Sony Michel or Nick Chubb, Penny I talked about earlier. Offensive line – this is a great draft for interior offensive linemen, I know the tackle class is a little better than last year’s but some really fantastic interior guys whether it’s Will Hernandez from UTEP or Isaiah Wynn who was a tackle at Georgia but is pretty small and probably has to move inside at the next level but just one of the best pure football players in this draft. Definitely some options there at the interior. Pass rushers, there could be some guys at the top of the second round, it’s just a question of what the Bucs plan to do schematically and how comfortable they are with Noah Spence’s recovery. There could be some guys there whether it’s Sam Hubbard from Ohio State, if you want a smaller guy off the edge, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo from Oklahoma, obviously one of the best names in the draft but also one of my favorite defensive players as well. It just really depends on what they want at that point. Day Two picks are always my favorite as there’s just so much value to be had there. So ideally for the Bucs is to try to move back from the 7th overall pick and get some extra picks for Day Two because there’s definitely some value there.
WTB: If the Bucs don’t come out of Day 2 with a running back, did they fail?
LE: You know, I shudder to say that because everything that happens after the draft is what’s most important, we see guys making an impact being mid-round or Day Three picks but I think last year proves to be a cautionary tale of waiting too long even in a deep running back class to dip into it. Even though we did see guys, whether it’s Kareen Hunt who went in the third round and made an impact and Alvin Kamara as well, the Bucs waited around too long and ended up with Jeremy McNichols who didn’t even make the team. Without that third-round pick in particular, if they go into Day Three with the second pick in the fourth round which is theirs, I just worry about what’s still on the board even in a deep running back class. I wouldn’t feel real comfortable if they get out of there (day two) without a running back.
WTB: Speaking of Day 3, who’s going to be that Kareen Hunt? That Tyreek Hill or Tom Brady that’s going to surprise everyone?
LE: One of the most fun players in this draft is Nyheim Hines, the running back/receiver out of North Carolina State. He ran the fastest 40 of any running back at the combine, in the 4.3’s, was moved around a lot at N.C. State and last year was really his first year as the primary ball carrier and he rushed for 1,100 yds but before then he was used mostly as a receiver so he’s got 80 career receptions. He gives me that feeling, that Alvin Kamara type of player, who can be moved around and you can put him in a bunch of places to be creative and get the ball in his hands because he’s a playmaker. I think he’s a guy who can have a huge impact as a rookie if an offense knows how to use him.
WTB: Why is Hines considered just a Day Three pick? I heard him on with Pat Kirwan on Sirius NFL Radio and just loved the kid.
LE: Yeah, we interviewed for draftwire.com, he’s a great kid. As for Day Three, I honestly don’t think he will be, he might sneak into the end of Day Two. I think there’s got to be some team that sees that type of potential and his athleticism and may take him late in Day Two. A guy that’s a more likely to be there on Day Three but with similar qualities is Kalen Ballage, the running back out of Arizona State, much bigger guy, but reminds me a little bit of David Johnson when he was coming out of Northern Iowa. Just a lot of raw athleticism for a big guy in that 6’2″ 225lbs range with just rare speed and athleticism for that size and he’s a guy that can have a big impact as well.
WTB: It’s been three years since Jameis Winston was taken 1st Overall. Do you believe he’s lived up to his draft status?
LE: I mean, I know people will look to the turnovers and say we haven’t seen progression there. I just think if you end up with a guy who continues to throw for 4,000 yards a year – obviously he had some injuries last year and fell short but he was on pace for it – I just don’t see how you can look at that and say you didn’t get what you invested. I think he’s lived up to it as much as you could hope, especially considering how often first-round quarterbacks – even number one overall picks – bust in this league. He’s lived up to it for me, I understand that some people want to see the amount of turnovers come down but you always knew that the style he plays that you’re going to have those big plays but you’re going to have to eat some of the turnovers that come along with it. I’m okay with that.
WTB: So, of course, we have to ask the age-old question – Winston or Mariota?
LE: I think both teams have to be happy with who they picked. You know, Mariota has had some bumps and bruises along the way but they’ve tried to build around him the best they can and he’s proven to be the kind of playmaker they were thinking they were drafting and he’s a leader. I don’t think either of those teams feels sorry about those picks.
WTB: How does Winston compare to the young QB in this year’s draft?
LE: You know, I think stylistically I think he’s more similar to Sam Darnold – a guy that has plenty of arm strength, plenty of natural ability and the ability to make plays in the clutch, you know, a guy when the games on the line and the lights are the brightest he steps up his game. Where would I put Winston? I’d say I’d still probably put him at the top of this class. I just think he was polished enough and still has tons of upside, I feel there’s a bunch of guys in this class that have a ton of potential but still need a lot of work before they’re ready to start and I think there are some guys that maybe have a little lower ceiling but are polished enough to start right away even if they don’t become game breakers down the road. I’d still put Winston at the top but it’s a really really deep class with a lot of good things to offer.