Can Tampa Bay bring the entire gang back again in 2022? Either way, the draft will be critical

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay could have a very different-looking team next season.

Overall, 11 current starters will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, 12 if you count Richard Sherman.

Tampa Bay’s list of free-agent starters include:

However, that list does not include key backups, such as running backs Ronald Jones II and Giovana Bernard, guard Aaron Stinnie and DL Patrick O’Connor, all of whom will become unrestricted free agents. And it doesn’t include a pair of cornerbacks who will be a free agent at the end of the 2022 season, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean.

Then again, fans and media alike probably thought the same about this year’s squad until Tampa Bay became the first team in the salary cap era (1994) to bring back all 22 starters.

Luckily, the Buccaneers have drafted well in recent years and have several young players at some of those positions. OL Robert Hainsey, a third-round rookie this year out of Notre Dame, can play guard or center. Fifth-round rookie WR Tyler Johnson could get more playing time next season after a storied career at Minnesota. The same goes for fourth-round rookie Jaelon Darden out of North Texas. Edge Joe Tryon-Shoyinka has already had some big moments after the team drafted him in the first round this year. And more could be expected next season out of LBs K.J. Britt (fifth round, 2021) and Grant Stuard (seventh round 2021).

So while the cupboard isn’t exactly bare, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to restock it.

Here are five players who might interest Tampa Bay in the 2022 NFL draft:

Round 1: C Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa

The 6-foot-3, 290-pound junior could help a lot of teams, including the New York Jets, the New York Giants, Buffalo, Minnesota and Dallas. Linderbaum is currently ranked as the No. 6 overall prospect in the latest Fanspeak-Jake Rigdon big board.

So why would the best player at his position fall into the latter half of the first round?

History says it’s possible.

The first center drafted last season, Alabama’s Landon Dickerson, was taken in the second round by Philadelphia with the No. 37 overall pick. Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz went to New Orleans with the No. 24 pick in 2020. N.C. State’s Garrett Bradbury was taken No. 18 overall in 2019 by Minnesota. Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow was taken by Detroit with pick No. 20 in 2018.

In fact, no center has gone higher than pick No. 15 overall since 2011, when Miami drafted Florida’s Mike Pouncey. Since 2011, the first center drafted has averaged out around the 30th pick of the draft.

So history says you can almost count on Linderbaum lasting all the way to the late 20s to early 30s.

Round 2:  WR Ainias Smith, Texas A&M

Question: Is he a slot receiver or a running back? Answer: Smith is whatever you want him to be. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound junior’s statistics won’t “wow” you, but he is still one of the most dynamic playmakers in the SEC. Smith has caught 31 passes for 347 yards and 6 TDs, and he’s returned 18 punts for another 257 yards, including 1 TD, thus far this season. Blame the relatively low numbers on A&M’s plethora of talent and its sometimes below-average play at quarterback, but with a good showing at the Combine, he might not make it out of the second round. Smith seems the perfect candidate to replace either Godwin or Brown.

Round 3: Breece Hall, Iowa State

Hall entered the season as the top RB, according to many insiders, and while the 6-foot-1, 220-pound junior hasn’t done anything to hurt his draft stock, other RBs have stepped up. That’s why Hall could still be available late on Day 2. And while his rushing numbers this season are slightly off last season’s pace, he’s already caught a career-high number of passes. Hall’s totals thus far include 985 yards rushing and 12 TDs and 26 receptions for 208 yards and 1 TD. His career rushing totals thus far are 3,454-42 and his career receiving totals are 72-640-4.

Pro Football Network says Hall could wind up having a better pro career than former Matt Campbell-coached RBs Kareem Hunt and David Montgomery. From PFN: “Hall is shifty, breaking tackles seemingly at will, but he’s also remarkably strong. He has an uncanny ability to shake off the first defender, no matter where he’s contacted. … He’ll rush through holes before defenders can blink, or he’ll take it around the edge with dynamic speed. Hall has it all and also presents a challenge in the passing game for defenders to stop.”

Round 4: Edge Sam Williams, Ole Miss

If it wasn’t for off-field concerns, Williams likely would be seen as a first-round prospect. The latest Walter Football Hot Press report goes into more detail. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound senior and former Northeast Mississippi Community College product has 8.5 sacks, tied for second in the nation, 9.5 TFLs and 34 tackles. In three years at Ole Miss, Williams has 111 tackles – great for a defensive lineman – 27 TFLs, 18.5 sacks, 1 INT and 5 FFs.

Could Williams play the 5-tech in Tampa Bay’s 3-4 defensive alignment? Maybe so; otherwise, Williams would have to play the OLB position, where Pierre-Paul is set to become a free agent at the end of the season.

Either way, Williams is an elite talent at a premium position, but where he lands in the draft is largely dependent on how he performs at the Combine and in team interviews. Williams was temporarily suspended last season before charges against him were dropped.

Round 5: G Cade Mays, Tennessee

This time last year, many publications still listed the 6-foot-6, 325-pound Mays as a first-round prospect.

Instead, Mays may be the victim of too-high expectations. Mays, who started his collegiate career at Georgia before transferring, is currently the starting RT for Tennessee but can play every position along the line, including center. Keep in mind, former Tennessee OL Trey Smith was drafted in the sixth round this past draft, but that could have stemmed from Smith’s medical history. Will Mays go higher? It’s possible, but Mays was graded as Tennessee’s third-best lineman last season, according to PFF, behind Smith and Jerome Carvin. From a September 2021 scouting report from PFN on Mays: “There are multiple areas for improvement on the Tennessee guard’s scouting report. And they are far beyond the usual polishing that comes with consensus early-round contenders. As a result, a mid-to-late round grade is more suitable for Mays in the 2022 NFL Draft.”

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