It seems almost inevitable, with so many veteran players gone from last year’s Tampa Bay roster and limited cap space to replace them with experienced newcomers, but the Bucs could have significant impact from their rookies this season, and not just their draft picks.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions about that,” general manager Jason Licht said Tuesday as the full roster reported for the start of training camp. “Both my staff and myself and [head coach Todd Bowles] talk about how impressed we are with the rookie class, not just the drafted players but the undrafted players. I think there could be quite a few undrafted players that make it as well, and that’s a testament to the scouting department, which does a fantastic job digging those guys out.”
There will be impact on both sides of the ball from high draft picks: First-rounder Calijah Kancey from Pittsburgh will be an athletic part of the defensive-line rotation, and second-round pick Cody Mauch is competing for the starting right guard job in his first year out of North Dakota State. Third-rounder SirVocea Dennis, also from Pittsburgh, looks to be the top backup at inside linebacker, and fourth-rounder Yaya Diaby from Louisville will be in the rotation at outside linebacker, with depth contributions from other draft picks.
“You’re going to have to play young guys when they come into this league, and as long as we can teach them the game and they understand situational football, it doesn’t matter how old you are,” Bowles said Tuesday. “If you’re a good player, we’re going to play you.”
Bowles pointed to Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl season in 2020, when they played two rookies, tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Antoine Winfield, nearly every snap on the way to a championship. This rookie class won’t have that kind of high-level immediate stars, but it has a chance to show a real depth of impact the Bucs haven’t seen from their rookies in years.
The Bucs got promising news Monday that Syracuse running back Sean Tucker has been cleared to practice after being held out with an unspecified medical flag this spring. With limited depth at safety, there’s a good chance that Rutgers‘ Chris Izien or Iowa‘s Kaevon Merriweather could make the 53-man roster (if not both), and the same is true at receiver, between Maryland‘s Rakim Jarrett, TCU‘s Taye Barber and Kansas State‘s Kade Warner. Bowles continues to praise cornerback Keenan Isaac of Alabama State, who will compete for a backup job as well.
“I don’t think, since I’ve been here, we’ve had this many undrafted free agents coming out of the spring that we’re excited about as we are watching them going into training camp,” Licht said.
It hasn’t even been three months since the draft, and Tampa Bay’s rookie class has been immersed in new playbooks and studying the scheme and terminology they’ll need to know well to stick around. Kancey, whose four-year rookie contract is fully guaranteed as a first-round pick, was able to buy his mother not only a new car this summer but a $1.4 million house in South Florida. He is thrilled to be able to give something back to her.
“It’s something that you want to do as a kid, that you dream of, and now I’m finally able to do it,” he said. “So I think that was awesome, to see where we came from to where we live now.”
Ten of the Bucs’ 13 oldest players from last season are gone, a list that obviously starts with quarterback Tom Brady and sets up Tampa Bay to go from the league’s oldest team in 2022 to one of its youngest in 2023. Bowles said a young team has advantages, in being able to practice more with fresher legs, and while there’s uncertainty, there’s also a greater sense of upside as well.
“It’s been one of the more talented rookie classes that I’ve been a part of, free-agent-wise and draft-pick-wise,” Bowles said. “I look for a lot of guys to have a chance to make this team. It’s been as competitive as I’ve seen since I’ve been here as far as depth from every position.”
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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