Every team shows patterns and trends with the way they draft prospects. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are no exception to that. Last week’s NFL combine revealed one of the Bucs biggest trends.
For the last seven consecutive years general manager Jason Licht has drafted an elite athlete from the NFL combine. He has also had an interview with that prospect at some point in the pre draft process, typically at the combine or earlier. From these two criteria we can make a shortlist of potential first round picks for the Bucs.
Here are the makes that fall into category this year following the NFL combine.
Christian Gonzalez, CB, Oregon
Gonzalez is my top rated corner in the NFL draft. He has great size at 6’1 and 197 lbs and he put up elite athletic testing numbers at the combine, including a 4.38 time in the 40-yard dash. In terms of physical profile, he checks all the boxes.
However, Gonzalez is more than just a great athlete. He is a lock down cover corner who has excellent ball skills. In his first season at Oregon last year, after transferring from Colorado, Gonzalez pulled in four interceptions and deflected seven passes.
At this point it seems unlikely that Gonzalez will be on the board when the Bucs pick at 19th overall. However, if he is available then this will probably be the top name on Jason Licht’s draft board.
Brian Branch, Safety, Alabama
After starting the last two years at Alabama, Branch is ready as a junior to take the next step into the NFL. Branch is a bit of a hybrid safety who can play over the top, in the nickel and be a great run defender in the box. He’s far and away the best safety in this draft.
The thing that stands out most about him is his tackling. He tallied 90 tackles last year for the Crimson Tide, including 14.0 tackles for a loss. Branch is incredibly consistent with his technique and almost never misses a tackle.
He would be a perfect compliment to Antione Winfield Jr, who is also very versatile. Putting Branch in the nickel and in the strong safety roll will allow Winfield Jr. to play deep more often and force turnovers. This would have the makings of the best young safety duo in the NFL.
Broderick Jones, OT, Georgia
After cutting left tackle Donovan Smith, the Bucs are in the market for a blindside protector. They made this very clear after meeting with most of the top prospects at this position at the combine. The one who they spoke to that meets their athletic criteria was Jones.
Jones might be the best offensive tackle in the draft. He is incredibly athletic and light on his feet and would be a great fit in the new wide zone running game the Buccaneers are installing. He also projects well as a pass blocker and should be an upgrade over Smith long term.
Jones is expected to be drafted in the early to late teens. If he is available at 19 when the Bucs pick then he would be a home run pick.
Nolan Smith, EDGE, Georgia
Smith might have been the biggest winner at the NFL combine. At 6’2 and 238 lbs he ran a 4.44 40-yard dash and 41.5 inch vertical leap. These are more the testing numbers you expect from a great wide receiver rather than a defensive lineman, but that’s the type of athlete that Smith is.
A back to back national championship, Smith has as good of a resume as anyone in the draft. While he is still developing as a pass rusher, only recording 3.0 sacks last year, he is someone who does all the little things well and can help immediately as a run defender. He is the embodiment of leadership and could be described as a great “glue guy”.
Of these names so far, Smith is the most likely to be available when the Bucs pick. It’s unclear if the Bucs will want to draft a developmental pass rusher over some of the other options that could be on the board, but if you want to bet on athletic ability and intangibles then this is as good as you could hope for.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Ohio State
It’s unclear who the Buccaneers quarterback will be next season, but it looks like the team is going to surround him with talent. After meeting with all the top wide receivers at the combine, it looks like the one that most likely will fit in Tampa Bay is Smith-Njigba. He is someone who can come in and be dangerous out of the slot as a rookie and free up Chris Godwin to work more outside.
Smith-Njigba showed elite testing numbers in terms of his quickness at the combine. This shows up on film as well with his route running and ability to change direction. He projects as a great separator and a guy who can create yards after reception.
This is admittedly not the biggest need for the Buccaneers. However, if he is the best player on the board when they pick then he fits what they look for and would make the receiving core that much more dangerous for whoever is throwing the ball.