NFC South Reporter
For the past three years with Tom Brady at quarterback, the Bucs have been a veteran team, loaded with proven commodities to assemble around a seven-time Super Bowl champ to maximize his chances at an eighth.
In the post-Brady era, this will be a substantially younger Bucs team. The 2023 season will show — good or bad — if the young depth previously on the bench can handle larger roles and the challenge of maintaining a winning franchise.
The overlap between old and new is represented by a pair of 2020 draft picks who were precocious stars on Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl team as rookies. Tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Antoine Winfield are now in position to land huge contracts as their rookie contracts expire.
Winfield, a second-round pick from Minnesota in 2020, could be a free agent next March, though it’s widely expected that the team will lock him up with a long-term extension that will probably exceed $15 million per year.
Wirfs, the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2020, is the first offensive lineman in franchise history to earn first-team All-Pro honors. While he will play on his fifth-year option in 2024, he’s eligible for a new contract that will likely make him one of the highest-paid linemen in the NFL, close to Laremy Tunsil’s three-year, $25 million deal.
Tampa’s recent success has meant selecting later in drafts, and those top picks haven’t hit as well yet — 2021 first-rounder Joe Tryon-Shoyinka has eight total sacks in two seasons, and 2022 top pick Logan Hall barely played last year, totaling 12 tackles off the bench. Add in 2023 first-rounder Calijah Kancey and there’s the potential for three impact young players on the defensive front. Their ability to step up into larger roles will go a long way toward the defense playing at a high level.
[Auman: Bucs’ deep 2023 rookie class could provide impact all over the field]
The 2019 draft is the oldest included in our Young Talent pool, and it provided a deep group of defensive stars for the Bucs. Linebacker Devin White has been to a Pro Bowl and could be a top free agent if he bounces back from a lackluster 2022 season, and cornerback Jamel Dean was a priority to sign in free agency, keeping him opposite Carlton Davis as two home-grown anchors in the secondary. Cap constraints played a role in allowing two other 2019 draft picks to sign elsewhere, with safety Mike Edwards going to the Chiefs and corner Sean Murphy-Bunting to the Titans. That will test Tampa’s depth in the secondary beyond four solid starters.
OT Tristan Wirfs (2020 first round)
S Antoine Winfield (2020 second round)
CB Jamel Dean (2019 third round)
RB Rachaad White (2022 third round)
LB Devin White (2019 first round)
Standout: Tristan Wirfs
Wirfs was the fourth tackle taken in the 2020 draft and the Bucs still managed to land arguably the best one, as he has two Pro Bowls and a first-team All-Pro nod in his first three seasons. He has been one of the best right tackles in the league, but he’ll make the leap to the left side this year after the team released Donovan Smith, an eight-year starter at left tackle. Wirfs’ athleticism and strong technique should translate well to the left side — he started four games there at Iowa — but he has been open in his concerns about switching over and maintaining a high standard of play.
His success there is crucial on an offensive line with multiple question marks, from center Ryan Jensen’s recovery from a knee injury to an untested right side in 2023 second-rounder Cody Mauch and 2022 second-rounder Luke Goedeke.
Potential Breakout: Rachaad White
There are all sorts of options here, with many young players stepping into key roles, but we’ll go with running back Rachaad White, who showed flashes of promise as a rookie splitting time with Leonard Fournette last year. The Bucs had the worst run game in the NFL, last in yards per game and yards per carry, but new offensive coordinator Dave Canales is committed to establishing the run and better offensive balance.
White will have to be central in that, expected to not only get the largest share of the carries but also many of the 73 catches that Fournette had coming out of the backfield last year. White’s stiff-arm against the Seahawks in Munich was one of the team’s most viral highlights of 2022, but the Bucs will need him to be more consistent — and better at holding onto the ball — if he’s to have success with a much larger workload in his second season.
Contracts to Consider: Mike Evans, Lavonte David, Devin White
The Bucs had a very limited budget this past spring, knowing they’d carry $35 million in dead money from Brady’s contract, and while they’re not in quite as tight a pinch for 2024, they’ll still have difficult decisions to make as they move from longtime leaders to younger players.
That starts with two beloved stars in receiver Mike Evans and linebacker Lavonte David, consistent core leaders and captains whose contracts are expiring. Evans, who turns 30 this month, has surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in all nine of his NFL seasons and already has rewritten the franchise receiving records, including 81 touchdowns, giving him a potential Hall of Fame résumé with a few more years of similar success. David, perpetually underappreciated nationally, has a chance to play his entire career in one place, but at 33 he’s at a young man’s position and this could be his last season, period.
Evans will command more than the $20 million per year that Chris Godwin is making, and few NFL teams can afford to pay two receivers that much. So Evans represents a larger financial decision than David, who took less this spring to re-sign and stay in Tampa for another season.
What will the team do with Devin White? He was a central part of the defensive surge that helped the Bucs win the Super Bowl in 2020, but he hasn’t produced the same splash plays in the past two seasons and struggles in pass coverage. He wants to be among the highest-paid linebackers in the league and asked for a trade this spring when a long-term extension couldn’t be worked out. If the Bucs aren’t competing for the postseason in November, there’s a chance White could be dealt at the deadline, much like the Bears traded Roquan Smith last season.
[Auman: Bucs LB Devin White moves past offseason trade request, ‘locked in’ on 2023]
- The Bucs have only six remaining draft picks who predate our Young Talent window (from 2018 and before): Vita Vea and Carlton Davis in 2018, Chris Godwin in 2017, Mike Evans in 2014, Will Gholston in 2013 and Lavonte David in 2012. That will put more recent draft picks (and even undrafted players) into key depth roles all over the field.
- The Bucs had eight draft picks in 2023, and it’s possible, even likely, that they carry 10 or more rookies on their 53-man roster this season. Undrafted rookies like nickel Chris Izien, running back Sean Tucker and receiver Rakim Jarrett are all in position to make the cut.
- Tristan Wirfs recorded an 89.1 pass-blocking grade last season, fifth best among all offensive lineman. In three seasons, he’s given up seven sacks and 11 QB hits (per PFF).
- Antoine Winfield Jr.’s 13 QB hits are tied for second-most all safeties over the last three seasons. His 5 forced fumbles are tied for the third-most among all safeties in that span.
On Tristan Wirfs
“Wirfs is the Bucs’ truest foundational piece on offense. Even among the dozens of future NFL offensive linemen tutored by OL guru Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, Wirfs stood out, and his play has only ascended since.
“Wirfs has the agility to handle the switch to the left side. I believe he’s an All-Pro-caliber player at either tackle position.” —NFL talent evaluator
On Antoine Winfield
“Pound for pound, I don’t know that there is a better defender in the NFL than Winfield. Plays even faster than the 4.45-second 40-yard dash he ran and has a knack for forcing fumbles. Only four interceptions in his three seasons, but opposing quarterbacks don’t challenge him much.
“He’s just like his dad (three-time Pro Bowler and 14-year NFL veteran Antoine Winfield), and by that I mean he could become one of the all-around defensive backs of his generation.” —NFL talent evaluator
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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