Bucs use draft to add cornerstone QB, continue to rebuild offense
TAMPA, Fla. — The selection of Jameis Winston on Thursday signaled the start of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive reconstruction through the NFL draft.
Throughout the past two days, they spent ample time adding parts around him.
On Saturday, the Bucs began the draft’s final day by selecting LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander in the fourth round (No. 124 overall), then they chose Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell in the fifth (No. 162 overall), Utah wide receiver Kaelin Clay in the sixth (No. 184 overall) and Hawaii running back Joey Iosefa in the seventh (No. 231).
Especially with the picks of Bell and Clay, the Bucs added speed that can translate to both depth at wide receiver and possible dynamic output on special teams. Bucs general manager Jason Licht said he envisions the youthful additions around Winston growing together to elevate Tampa Bay.
"One of the things we needed to do is get faster, more athletic up front, but also we needed to get tougher, and we needed to get more physical, and we needed to get mature guys and smart guys," Licht said. "And we accomplished that, that’s for sure."
Before the offensive picks were made Saturday, Alexander became the first defensive player taken in the draft since the start of the Licht/Lovie Smith regime. Alexander figures to become a depth piece at outside linebacker or on special teams. He started 23 times in 32 games played at LSU, where he became a fixture at outside linebacker during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He finished with 156 tackles, 15 tackles for losses, 1 1/2 sacks, six pass breakups and seven quarterback hurries.
"I’m an aggressive linebacker," Alexander said. "I love to hit. I’m a smart linebacker, play fast. I just love to play the game."
The Bucs also are excited about Bell, who shares Nebraska ties with Licht, a walk-on there from 1989 to 1991. Bell offers versatility as a wide receiver and as a potential returner. He grew into the most prolific pass-catching threat in Nebraska history. He finished with 181 catches for 2,689 yards, both program-highs. He also posted impressive totals as a returner, where he had 51 attempts for 1,277 yards and one touchdown.
"I had talked to the coaching staff at the Combine," Bell said. "I loved everything about the Bucs’ staff. … I can’t really explain how excited I am to be a Buccaneer. It’s a dream come true, to say the least."
Clay, meanwhile, offers similar traits as Bell. He was named a first-team All-American and a first-team All-Pac-12 honoree as a punt returner in his only season at Utah, where he arrived after brief stops at California and Mt. San Antonio College. He averaged 15 yards per attempt with three touchdowns on punt returns and 24.9 yards per attempt with one touchdown on kick returns. As a wide receiver, he has had some issues with drops. Licht said Clay will be the favorite to become the Bucs’ top option on punt and kickoff returns.
In a loss against Oregon on Nov. 8, though, Clay had one of the season’s more bizarre plays when he placed the ball on the 1-yard line before an apparent 79-yard catch. Clay said he has learned from the experience.
"Going back to that play, it was actually probably my favorite play, and I didn’t get to score on it," Clay said. "But just that play in general, it’s helped me grow as a person, not just a football player. Things aren’t always going to go the way you want them to go, it’s how you go through adversity. That play, I’ve become a better person and not take things for granted. Not everything is promised, and like I said, things are going to happen, adversity is going to happen, but it’s how you get through it."
Lastly, Iosefa will be given a chance to compete for the Bucs’ starting fullback job. At 6-foot-0, 247 pounds, he has a bruising body, if not much speed after clocking a 5.02 40-yard time at the NFL Combine.
"Big, thick kid," Licht said. "Runs well for his size. … He’s got great hands, a really good athlete."
The same can be said for many of Tampa Bay’s picks. Throughout the past three days, a clear offensive slant was present. The Bucs’ strategy was simple: Secure their offensive centerpiece in Winston and then add secondary parts around him.
They hope the approach proves to be a winning one.
"Remarkably better, starting with the hire of (offensive coordinator) Dirk Koetter," Licht said, when asked how much the Bucs have improved with this draft. "So that alone made us a lot better. And then we’ve been able to add pieces as we’ve gone here that we’re excited about, to say the least."
PLAYER WHO COULD BE A STAR
Winston is the obvious answer. The Bucs didn’t spend months of study and preparation to plan to swing and miss on the No. 1 overall pick. Winston’s selection feels like a new day with the Bucs, who have suffered because of awful quarterback play throughout the past two seasons. Winston has the potential to be an elite quarterback. But can he stay out of his own way? There always will be some who wonder whether he’ll avoid tripping over himself with off-the-field problems. If he remains committed to his craft, Tampa Bay could live a turnaround soon.
Bell has interesting potential. He can contribute as a wide receiver or a returner, and that versatility would serve the Bucs well. There’s a chance that Bell can become the Bucs’ No. 3 wide receiver, if he develops into a complete player. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson should serve as positive mentors for him.
Alexander seems like an odd pick in the fourth round. The Bucs appear set at linebacker with Lavonte David, Bruce Carter and Danny Lansanah, though Licht envisions Alexander competing for the outside linebacker position that belonged to Lansanah throughout parts of last season. Building depth isn’t a bad idea, but it appears the best chance for Alexander to make any sort of impact early will be on special teams.