The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got strong performances out of their 2017 draft class, with three starters emerging in tight end O.J. Howard, safety Justin Evans and strongside linebacker Kendell Beckwith. Wide receiver Chris Godwin also demonstrated in his two starts that he needs more opportunities in 2018, as nearly half of his 34 catches resulted in explosive plays (receiving plays of 16 or more yards).
Grade: Above average
Best rookie: This is a toss-up between Howard and Evans. Howard tied with Cameron Brate for a team-leading six touchdowns in 14 games. That total tied the Giants’ Evan Engram for second-most touchdowns of all NFL rookies and most among rookie tight ends. Thirteen of his 26 catches resulted in explosive plays. His best game came against the Buffalo Bills in Week 7, when he caught two touchdowns. In Evans’ first start, he picked off New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady with one of eight interceptions Brady threw this season. Evans nearly picked off Brady again later in that game and finished the season in a four-way tie for most interceptions on the team (three) and second among all rookie safeties in the league.
Most improved rookie: Beckwith came in as a third-round depth pick and was still recovering from the torn ACL he suffered Nov. 19, 2016. He missed rookie camp and minicamp because of the injury and returned for the start of training camp in July but was still trying to get his legs under him. He won a starting job as strongside linebacker by default because of an injury to Devonte Bond. He wound up playing not only the eighth-most snaps of any defensive rookie in the league but also the most snaps of any Bucs’ defensive player. That was an interesting development, as strongside linebackers typically play the fewest snaps among linebackers. Even more impressive was that Beckwith started at middle linebacker when Kwon Alexander missed four games with a hamstring injury. When Alexander returned, Beckwith began playing as a stand-up rusher at the line of scrimmage. He was rarely out of position, and the moment was never too big for him.
Most disappointing rookie: Right after the draft, general manager Jason Licht lauded running back Jeremy McNichols, a fifth-round draft pick, for his receiving ability, saying he had “rare hands” and was “one of the best pass protectors in the draft.” Licht also said, “We just felt like he was a guy that we couldn’t pass on.” But McNichols struggled to grasp Dirk Koetter’s playbook, made too many mistakes and wound up missing the cut on the Bucs’ 53-man roster. As a whole, McNichols didn’t seem to understand what it took to be a pro. Even worse, he opted not to sign to the Bucs’ practice squad — which was generous on their part, considering how poorly he performed — and instead joined the San Francisco 49ers.
Jury is still out on: Defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, who suffered MCL and meniscus injuries to his right knee and landed on injured reserve before the start of the season. Tu’ikolovatu is a big man with solid two-down potential. The Bucs love his size and physicality, which can be a real asset against the run, an area in which the Bucs still need to improve. Tu’ikolovatu performed well enough in the preseason to likely earn a 53-man roster spot.
Undrafted rookie evaluation: The two biggest rookie undrafted free-agent contributors were wide receiver Jesus “Bobo” Wilson and tight end Antony Auclair. Wilson came a long, long way — from leaving town during cut-down weekend and having to drive back from Miami to sign with the practice squad to getting called up and catching his first NFL touchdown pass in Week 16 against the Carolina Panthers. Wilson worked hard to overcome his rocky start with the team. Having played college football in Canada, Auclair is still learning the nuances of American football, but he performed well enough as a run-blocker that the team was able to part ways with its best run-blocker, veteran Luke Stocker.