Finding the Fits: A versatile fullback -- yes, fullback -- should spark the Bucs
Here's why the Bucs may have the last laugh with their surprising selections of a kicker and a H-back
(This is part of a series -- Finding the Fits -- in which NFLDraftScout.com will review the more intriguing picks made during the 2016 NFL Draft. The goal is to identify one relatively unheralded player per team who appears to be a good schematic fit and, therefore, more likely to be a surprise contributor early in his pro career.)
Tampa Bay's best fit: Dan Vitale, H-back, Northwestern, No. 197 overall
As the NFL increasingly shifts towards the pass, finding versatile receivers capable of creating mismatches has become something of an art.
For some teams, the diversification of pass-catchers has remained mostly at the wide receiver position, where clear lines have been drawn between the physical attributes expected of split ends, flankers and slot receivers.
Other clubs have extended the hybrid approach to tight ends and receivers out of the backfield, one of the various roles that Vitale played as the so-called "superback" for the Wildcats.
At 6-foot-1, 239 pounds Vitale (pronounced vuh-TAL-ee) looks like a classic fullback and he will likely be asked to play this role on occasion for the Bucs, with the club's incumbent lead blocker Jorvorskie Lane currently unsigned. Vitale may lack Lane's cinder block build (5-11, 258), but he is an alert, competitive blocker with functional and weight room strength. Given his compact, heavily muscled frame, it wasn't the least bit surprising that he posted 30 repetitions of 225 pounds at the combine.
Rather than "just" serve as a typical human sledgehammer at fullback as Lane did, however, Vitale offers a great deal more flexibility, especially in the passing game. Vitale was often flexed out wide at Northwestern, where his deceiving quickness and straight-line speed made him the Wildcats' most reliable pass catcher. Vitale averaged 2.7 receptions a contest over his 50 game career, leaving Northwestern with 135 grabs for 1,427 yards and 11 scores during that time. Lane, on the other hand, caught three passes for a combined 16 yards in 25 games the past two seasons in Tampa.
It isn't that the Bucs and their young quarterback Jameis Winston lack for receiving options. Mike Evans is expected to bounce back from his sophomore slump to emerge as the club's clear No. 1 option. Veteran wideout Vincent Jackson, talented (but oft-injured) tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and the running back duo of Doug Martin and Charles Sims each offer terrific natural receiving skills.
Capable of lining up in the backfield, on the wing, or in the slot, Vitale would give new head coach Dirk Koetter a moveable chess piece on offense and provide Winston with a security blanket for his second NFL season. Vitale might be especially helpful in the red zone, where despite ranking fifth in the NFL in total yardage (at 374.4 yards per game), the Bucs' offense often sputtered a year ago, checking in at just 20th in scoring at 21.4 points per game.
"He's actually kind of a slash player," Koetter said when describing his newest toy on offense. "There's so few fullbacks that (play) how we want to use them, so Dan is kind of a slash, you know, some of those colleges use what they call an H-back. We're going to use him as part fullback, part tight end and I'm excited to see what it looks like."
Other thoughts on the Buccaneers' 2016 draft class:
While Vitale may provide the best value of the Bucs draft, there is no doubting that cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (first round) and edge rusher Noah Spence (second) were the club's most important selections. Each fill significant needs and are likely to start immediately.
Hargreaves, a three-time All-SEC pick, offers terrific quickness, instincts and toughness -- traits which complement veteran Brent Grimes, who was brought in to boost a secondary which surrendered 20 more touchdowns than interceptions a year ago and allowed an average of 26.1 points per game -- more than any team which made the playoffs last season.
Of course, it is easy to stop opposing quarterbacks with an improved pass rush and the 6-2, 251-pound Spence should provide exactly that. Spence possesses the burst and bend to prove a terror off the edge, complementing the free agent addition of Robert Ayers and Tampa's incumbent Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
Spence may not post gaudy statistics in other categories but he should prove an immediate impact rusher. The media loves sacks and Spence has shown a knack for collecting them. Don't be surprised if he winds up leading all rookies in this category, making him a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, especially if an improved defense helps Tampa emerge as a realistic playoff contender.
While the selections of Hargreaves, Spence and Vitale were largely applauded because they filled key areas of need and were perceived to be good values where they were selected, Licht and the Bucs raised eyebrows by trading away third (No. 74 overall) and fourth (106) round picks to move back into the second round to nab placekicker Robert Aguayo at No. 59 overall.
Clearly, the Bucs paid a handsome price for Aguayo but it should be noted how badly Tampa Bay struggled in this area a year ago. Kyle Brindza and Connor Barth shared placekicking duties for the Bucs last year, combining to convert 29 of Tampa's 40 field goal attempts, a 72.5 percent clip which ranked 30th in the NFL. Only the New Orleans Saints (69 percent) and then-St. Louis Rams (68 percent) fared worse. All three clubs ranked well behind the 29th team (Atlanta), which converted 81 percent of its field goal attempts. The Bucs weren't that much better when it came to converting PATs, missing three (to rank 26th in the NFL) last year.
With the NFL continuing the extended PAT, accuracy in the intermediate range for kickers has never been more important. The reasons why the Aguayo selection make sense are not just numerical. Never mind that Aguayo comes with a career completion percentage of 88.5 percent and has never missed a field goal inside of 40 yards or a single PAT over three seasons in Tallahassee. He also is used to playing in high-pressure games for the perennially contending Seminoles and is comfortable kicking in the humid weather conditions of the area.
Tampa Bay's 2016 draft class:
- 1st Round, No. 11 overall: CB Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
- 2ndRound, No. 39 overall: Edge Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky
- 2nd Round, No. 59 overall: K Robert Aguayo, Florida State
- 4th Round, No. 108 overall: DB North Carolina Central
- 5thRound, No. 148 overall: OT Caleb Benenoch, UCLA
- 6th Round, No. 183 overall: LB Devante Bond, Oklahoma
- 6th Round, No. 197 overall: H-back Dan Vitale
Key Undrafted Free Agents Signed:
- RB Peyton Barber, Auburn
- TE Kivon Cartwright, Colorado State
- RB Russell Hansbrough, Missouri
- LB Cassanova McKinzy, Aub
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