Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After winning Super Bowl LV with Tom Brady at the end of the 2020 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent two years keeping that championship roster intact, in the process winning two more NFC South titles. They did so knowing that the contract structuring that made it possible would lead to difficult salary cap situations down the road.

In 2023, with Brady heading into retirement, the Buccaneers brain trust plotted a course forward that would deal with that salary cap backlog while still trying to be successful on the field in the short run. Early on, that meant such difficult decisions as releasing Donovan Smith, Leonard Fournette and several other veterans who had contributed to those winning seasons. Later, the team’s dive into free agency was a measured affair, with such value signings as Ryan Neal, Matt Feiler and Greg Gaines.

Now the Buccaneers have formed their squad for the 2023 season and in so doing they found a somewhat surprising source for filling in roster voids: the undrafted rookie pool. The Bucs kept a startling six undrafted rookies on their 53-man roster – along with seven other 2023 draft picks – and not simply because there were no other options. Head Coach Todd Bowles started singing the praises of those relatively unknown players early in training camp and never stopped, and General Manager Jason Licht said on Thursday that the end result was a very pleasant surprise.

“We knew that there would be a lot of opportunity for new faces, but if you would’ve told me back in April that we’d keep six undrafted rookies, I probably would’ve thought you were crazy,” said Licht on Thursday, two days after all 32 NFL teams reduced their rosters from 90 to 53 players. “But it worked out. All of these guys, they really exceeded our expectations or played very well throughout the offseason, and we’re excited about every single one of them.”

Those six players who cracked the Bucs’ opening-week roster despite not hearing their names called on draft weekend are running back Sean Tucker, wide receiver Rakim Jarrett, outside linebacker Markees Watts, cornerback Derrek Pitts and safeties Christian Izien and Kaevon Merriweather. Izien has also been named the starting nickel corner, but there is room for each of the other five to have legitimately valuable roles on the team this season. If that happens even for half of them, the Bucs will have found a very cost-effective way to clear some of the hurdles they put up over the past three years.

“I think a lot of them are going to play big roles for us,” said Licht. “Obviously, you know right now where most of them stand on the roster. It’s an exciting time. Whenever you have a young team and are thinking you can compete with that young team, it’s great. It worked out well for us.

“We’re paying the bills right now.”

In this process, the Bucs have gone from having one of the oldest rosters in the NFL to one of the youngest, and it’s a roster the coaches and personnel pros are excited about developing. The last three seasons were obviously very enjoyable for all, given the high level of success the Bucs achieved, but there’s joy in bringing along a new crop of young talent too.

“Our young guys, even some of the second- and third-year guys, too – I think it’s probably more excitement at this point than we’ve had in the past,” said Licht. “Not to say that we haven’t had some great rookie classes, but I think just overall with the number [of rookies who made the team]. They’re not all going to make it throughout the year, probably, if you play the odds, but overall, it’s collectively just a great group of players and talent. We didn’t intentionally go out to get younger, but it just kind of worked out that way.”

Licht said it was a “fun” challenge for his staff to try to find talent in unexpected places, and it reminded him of his early days in scouting when he was tasked with “kicking weeds” to find players. It’s too early to be certain, but the Bucs believe they were able to do that, and it extends even beyond the 53-man roster. The team kept another eight undrafted rookies on the first iteration of their 16-man practice squad.

“We’ve got some guys on the practice squad that we’re very excited about,” said Licht. “I think we have depth there – it’s just young, but we have depth. When you have young players at that position there are some peaks and valleys with them, but I think at the end, it’s going to pay off for us.”

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