National Football League
Bucs could lean heavily on rookies again as draft class shows its potential
National Football League

Bucs could lean heavily on rookies again as draft class shows its potential

Published Jun. 14, 2024 9:31 a.m. ET

The Bucs were one of the youngest teams in the NFL last season, leaning heavily on rookies, and while they have a ton of experience back from 2023, they could still get an impact from rookies on both sides of the ball.

"It's one of the smarter draft classes, as far as catching onto the scheme, that we've had, and that's got to continue in training camp," coach Todd Bowles said after wrapping up three days of mandatory minicamp. "Between the heat, the system and coming in pads, that's going to be a whole different world for them, but I feel confident they can get that done."

A year ago, the Bucs had 13 rookies on their initial 53, and they finished the year with 5,660 total snaps played by rookies, the most of any NFL team. This year's class isn't likely to challenge that mark, but there's ample opportunity for rookie starters on both sides of the ball.

"I feel like I've learned a ton," said first-round pick Graham Barton of Duke, who is expected to step in as the team's starting center. "Even if I'm a smart rookie, that doesn't make you a smart NFL player. I've got a long ways to go, so I'm definitely not trying to sit here and say 'I've got it. I'll figure it out. I'm smart.' That's not the right approach, but I appreciate it."


[Auman: Why a former 250-pound lacrosse player is Bucs’ future leader on offensive line]

The Bucs' top five draft picks should all be in at least rotational roles. Second-round outside linebacker Chris Braswell from Alabama has quickly impressed, as has third-round defensive back Tykee Smith from Georgia, who could be the team's new nickel defensive back. Washington's Jalen McMillan, also taken in the third round, could be the team's No. 3 receiver behind veterans Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and Oregon's Bucky Irving, taken in the fourth round, should be the team's top backup to Rachaad White at running back.

Add in late-round picks and a few promising undrafted rookies, and this rookie class has a chance to make a familiar roster better. The focus of Tampa Bay's offseason has been to keep its core free agents, with new deals for Evans, quarterback Baker Mayfield, safety Antoine Winfield and linebacker Lavonte David, with tackle Tristan Wirfs potentially joining them with a new deal this summer. That continuity doesn't always lend itself to rookies contributing, but there are chances for newcomers to beat out returning starters, like Barton at center, Smith at nickel and Braswell at edge rusher.

"The depth and detail at the NFL level, what you're doing and how you're doing it, the technique and fundamentals, tips and tricks, things like that, how much more there is to the game of football that you didn't always understand in college," Barton said. "Learning that has been not the biggest surprise but the biggest leap"

Bowles stressed that spring football can only show so much, without the physicality of training camp and all that follows, but if learning and understanding is the priority, he's pleased with what he's seen. With a new offensive coordinator for the second year in a row in Liam Coen, the entire offense is learning a new scheme and terminology, something that helps the rookies and their learning curve because everyone is asking questions and working to master something new at the same time.

For rookies, the past month of OTAs and minicamp serve as a glimpse of what's ahead in terms of the speed and tone of practices at a different level than what they've known even at major programs in college football.

"The detail and the intensity is way higher from college to the NFL," Irving said. "Guys take it a lot more serious, and even if it's a walk-through, you're going with speed. ... I'm always excited to put the pads on and play some football, so I'm up for the challenge."

[Auman: Undersized Bucs rookie Bucky Irving looks to make big impact in run game]

On Thursday, Barton became the last of the Bucs' draft picks to sign his rookie contract, and there's been limited drama beyond that. Wirfs, eager to sign a long-term extension expected to make him the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman, chose not to attend voluntary OTA workouts as a mild protest for not getting a deal done, but he was in attendance for minicamp this week, and it's very possible a deal is done before the season, if not before training camp.

Expect Baker and the Bucs to be better this season?

The singular absence from this week's mandatory practices was veteran outside linebacker Randy Gregory, a free-agent signee who had not attended OTAs and had three unexcused absences this week. Bowles said "it'll be taken care of" — the league allows just over $100,000 in fines for missing mandatory minicamp — but that the team will move forward to training camp with him.

Bowles' message at the end of minicamp — to his rookies and veterans — was to enjoy the time away but be mindful to stay in shape and stay out of trouble, knowing how much the Bucs have to do if they want to repeat as division champs.

"We play both Super Bowl teams, everybody that was in the championship games, plus the division itself," Bowles said of Tampa's 2024 schedule. "We know how hot it's going to be, so it's really coming back in shape. There are a lot of things that can happen between here and next month, so don't be that guy getting in trouble."

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.


Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more