Each year before the draft, I try to find a team where I can embed. Some years I succeed (Cowboys, 2016; Niners, 2017), some years I don’t. But I thought this year it was important to find a team because of the unique nature of the draft. The Bucs, via GM Jason Licht, agreed. I was able through virtual connection to witness much of the first round through Licht’s eyes. This should give you some idea of how NFL teams functioned with coaches, GMs, owners and scouts virtual islands for one of the biggest weekends on the NFL calendar.
After about 50 minutes of discussing merits of trades with his staff on Cisco WebEx videoconference and talking trades via cell phone with other GMs and judging the value of trades on his three tablets (the better to measure competing offers for picks), and studying draft needs of the other teams in front of him in the first round on a huge Surface Studio desktop, Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht could finally breathe. This was about 9:47 p.m. ET on Thursday. Licht was in the toyroom of his Tampa home, the best big space available in his home for a GM to run a draft, and his three kids had decorated the room with a Bucs Pirate Fathead and a hand-colored GO BUCS 2020 NFL DRAFT sign behind Licht’s desk.
The Bucs had just traded with San Francisco to move from 14 to 13 in round one of this unusual NFL draft. Director of college scouting Mike Biehl, from his Tampa home, logged onto the Bucs’ encrypted Microsoft Teams channel with about a minute left in the 10-minute drafting period to report the first pick of the 2020 draft for the Buccaneers to NFL draft headquarters. Biehl filled in the round, the overall pick in the round, the player, his school, his position, and a special code that only the Bucs employee reporting the picks would know:
Return confirmation. The pick was made.
Licht got up from his chair and hustled to open the door. “Come on in, guys!” he yelled, and in a flash 11-year-old Charlie, 9-year-old Zoe and Theo, 6, roared in, followed by wife Blair. The kids high-fived Dad, who told them they took a big guy from Iowa named Tristan. “Excited, babe?” Blair asked. “SUPER excited,” Jason Licht said.
Theo got on his dad’s lap. Jason Licht, as if he was talking at a staff meeting or an offsite, knowing the work for round one was done, looked at the videoconference screen and told his staff and coach Bruce Arians: “Good job guys! You can fix yourselves a cocktail now!”
Then the hilarity of the moment hit him, and he said in a voice approximating dazed: “First trade ever in a virtual NFL draft!”
Unintended Consequences of Draft Prep at Home Dept.:
Charlie Licht, the 11-year-old son of Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht, has made friends with several kids of NFL GMs from league functions. He plays Madden with some of them. Hanging around his dad while Jason Licht made a slew of pre-draft trade inquiries was fascinating for Charlie, but Dad at one point thought son might have heard too much. “Charlie,” Jason said to him one day, “you CANNOT tell any of those kids what I’m thinking if you heard anything.”
It was that kind of draft this year: Kids had to learn what “off the record” means. Everything was new. Licht’s never home this time of year, and now he was captive in the house for five weeks. Licht said: “The kids got used to me being home and just walked into the office sometimes. I got used to walking out to the kitchen for a snack. We had all our meals together, like a normal family. It really was a new reality for us.” Watching him on draft night when his kids walked in, you could tell how at ease they all were with each other.
To allow me to be able to observe the reality of the Tampa Bay first round, the Bucs’ IT guy, director of football information Spencer Dille, put a tablet to the right of Licht’s desk and turned it so I could see and hear Licht’s movements. I watched Licht for about 15 minutes at the start of the draft, and then around the time Arizona was picking at eight, six picks before Tampa Bay’s turn. That’s because, though Licht wouldn’t say for sure prior to the draft, it was possible the Bucs would trade up for their targeted player, and if that player got picked at eight or nine or 10, I’d obviously need to see it to write about it.
Dressed in khakis, sneakers and a polo shirt, Licht seemed at ease. On his desk was a weathered nameplate: RON LICHT. That was Jason Licht’s father. He died last September attending a Nebraska football game; the Lichts are Cornhusker lifers. Jason Licht wanted to feel his dad close to him in the first draft after his father passed. A prepared man usually is not nervous. It looked like that to me.
Later, Licht would tell me: “I was incredibly surprised I didn’t get upset at some point, especially when we were trying to make the trade. When this new way of doing business started, I was nervous. Not freaking out, but really on edge, hoping they’d push the draft back. I wondered how quickly I’d be able to master all these new technologies.” Five weeks of videoconferencing was just the tonic. For the next hour or so, I watched Licht mute and unmute his screen with his braintrust—coach Bruce Arians, director of player personnel John Spytek, director of pro scouting Rob McCartney, Biehl the college czar, and director of football administration Mike Greenberg—while working the phones and thinking. That’s the underrated part of drafting. Sometimes a general manager has to find 15 seconds to shut everything off and just think about the deal he’s been offered and whether it’s a smart one to take. I wondered whether Licht would have to make that kind of call in this draft.
In timeline and techie form, how the Bucs made their first-round pick:
9:12 p.m. ET Trading is tough. Licht made about 30 calls during the week, up and down, to see which teams might want to go up or down in the top half of the draft. Tonight, Carolina (picking seven) is a no. “I don’t think they’d deal even if we offer next year’s one,” McCartney, who’d been the Panthers contact, tells Licht. Arizona (eight) has to be a no. GM Steve Keim won’t pick up Licht’s call. Licht: “He’s one of my best friends, and he told me, ‘If you want to come up, gimme a call.’ Now he doesn’t answer.” Someone on the videoconference says to Licht: “Got a hold of Jacksonville yet?” Jacksonville (nine) has not been eager to move out.
- Carolina takes defensive tackle Derrick Brown.
9:13. Licht picks up his cell and calls Jacksonville GM Dave Caldwell. “We’ll give you our three and four. [Picks] 76 and 117 . . . all right . . . call me back.” Licht tells his Cisco Webex crew: “Jacksonville’s thinking about it. Straight up, 76 and 117.”
- Quickly, Arizona, entertaining nothing, takes versatile defender Isaiah Simmons.
9:15. R-r-r-r-ringggggg! The alert on Licht’s phone sounds like the old-fashioned ringer on the Perry Mason Show. “Hello,” Licht said, answering it. “Okay. Okay . . . Okay.” Hangs up. Says to Cisco crew: “Jacksonville’s out. They’re taking [cornerback] C.J. Henderson.”
9:17. (Voice from Cisco) “Who you talking to in Cleveland?” GM Andrew Berry is Licht’s contact. Licht: “What I’m worried about is these two teams are tackle teams.” Cleveland (10), the New York Jets (11) are next. In pre-draft calls, both seem motivated to trade down.
9:19. Licht calls Berry. “Andrew, how you doing? You gonna sit there and pick?”
- Jacksonville takes C.J. Henderson.
9:21. Licht calls Jets GM Joe Douglas on his cell. “Joe, how you doing? . . . Okay, call me back . . . Yeah . . . It’ll be for what we talked about. We’ll come up.” Off the call, Licht reports to the Cisco gang: “Joe says they got two guys here. If Cleveland doesn’t take one, he might move. I’m guessing Joe wants [Louisville tackle Mekhi] Becton.
9:23. Staring at screens. The waiting is the hardest part.
9:24. Licht: “Somebody get ready to call the Raiders.” McCartney calls GM Mike Mayock of Las Vegas (12) to find out his status.
- Cleveland takes Alabama tackle Jedrick Wills.
9:25. Two tackles left. Pretty easy to see now that Tampa Bay wants a tackle. But which one? Licht calls Douglas. “Hey,” Licht says, “what are you doing?” Off the phone in 12 seconds. Licht to the Cisco gang: “They’re picking. Says they’re picking the guy large and in charge. Must be [364-pound] Becton.”
9:26. Frustration. Licht stays pretty cool, but he’s tensing up. Nobody wants to trade—for anything! When’s the last time the draft was 11 picks deep without a trade? The Raiders (12) are next. The Bucs are sure they’ll take a receiver, which makes them a good target. Mayock knows the Bucs, at 14, won’t want a receiver. To the Cisco gang Licht says: “I like giving ‘em the three and four and getting back their three. (Tampa trading 14, 76 and 117 and getting 12 and 81 back.) Much debate back and fourth. Just offer the four, someone suggests. Our three, five and six and they give us their three back, another suggests.
- Jets take Louisville tackle Mekhi Becton. Raiders on the clock.
9:29. Voice on Cisco: “Minnesota  just called.” Licht, suddenly: “Too far back. No.”
9:30. Suddenly, a distant “MOMMY!!!!!!” Seriously. One of the three kids yelled for Mom, and it’s audible in the room. Licht stares at a screen. He never heard it.
9:32. Licht takes a moment. Raiders on the clock. Should he up the offer? Yes. He will. He calls Mayock and offers three, five and six while getting a three back. “Okay. Okay. Thanks Mike.” Licht hangs up and tells the Cisco group: “Doesn’t matter what we offer. They’re staying.” You can sense the disbelief. Later, Licht said: “Everybody was looking at each other on the videoconference, kind of putting their hands up, like, I don’t know what the hell’s going on here. Nobody wants to give us their pick. I was getting a little bit antsy, I should say.”
9:33. Thinking. Staring. No talk. Two minutes go by. Niners are next.
- Raiders take wide receiver Henry Ruggs.
9:36. “I don’t think we can mess around here,” Licht says, as San Francisco (13) goes on the clock. But why? Why not just sit at 14 and pick the last tackle of the great prospects, Tristan Wirfs of Iowa? Licht had some intel that Niners starting left tackle Joe Staley was going to retire. So the free world was certain this next pick for the Niners was a great wide receiver or Javon Kinlaw, the defensive tackle who could replace the traded DeForest Buckner. Licht said: “Call A.P.” John Spytek, the personnel director, had been talking with San Francisco VP of player personnel Adam Peters during the week. Licht wanted this deal, and he wanted it now. “The Staley stuff scared me,” Licht said later. “The Niners could definitely be a tackle team.”
9:37. The GM side of Licht’s brain didn’t want to move up one spot and surrender a good pick (fourth round, 117 overall), while getting a seven in return. He know it might take that, but he wasn’t ready to make the offer yet. “A six,” he tells Spytek. “Start with that.” Spytek calls Peters.
9:39. Spytek calls Peters again. Is on hold with him. “They’re thinking,” Spytek tells the group.
9:40. Still on hold.
9:41. R-r-r-r-ringggggg! Licht’s phone. He answers it, annoyed. “Nothanksnothanks,” he says quickly and hangs up. Trade offer he had no interest in. All that matters now is the Niners. Spytek has made the final offer: San Francisco trades a one and a seven (13 and 245) to Tampa Bay for a one and a four (14, 117).
9:43. Niners say yes, Spytek reports. “Do it,” Licht says. Licht looks at the clock. Just 1:31 remains in the Niners drafting period. Now Greenberg calls NFL trademeister Ken Fiore to report the deal; a Niners counterpart does the same to another member of Fiore’s team.
9:44. “We good?” Licht says to the Cisco group. Yes, he’s told; trade accepted. Mike Biehl fills in the card for the league office, notifying them of the pick. Licht looks at the clock . . . 45 seconds left in the period. Plenty of time!
9:45. Licht dials Tristan Wirfs, in Mount Vernon, Iowa, to tell him (not in so many words) that he’d better get ready to block for Tom Brady. “Tristan!” he says. “Jason Licht with the Bucs. We just moved up to San Francisco’s pick here. We’re gonna take you . . . Okay? . . . Yeah . . . Coach is gonna call you. FIRED UP!”
9:48. Kids rush in. Charlie wants to know the deal. “They got our fourth-round pick, we got their seventh-round pick, we got Tristan Wirfs,” Dad says to son. On TV, the words come up. “TAMPA BAY. THE PICK IS IN.”
9:50. Kids hopping around. Licht says to Cisco: “Just got a text from a GM: ‘Our highest-rated tackle.’ “
Sunday morning. Draft over. Licht and the family are prepping for a bike ride, away from crowds, on a sun-splashed 82-degree Tampa day. He needs a day to decompress from the strangest experience of his scouting life.
“I gotta be honest with you,” Licht said, and he laughed. “I loved it. I loved it! I was still able to have the conversations I need to have. The private conversations. There are times when the GM and the head coach need to have private conversations. Normally I would walk out of the draft room and I would say, ‘BA [Bruce Arians], got a second?’ Instead of walking out of the room, we’d mute ourselves. Or I’d text him and he’d call me back.
“Here’s what’s crazy: I’m almost at the point where I like working this way, I’m getting so much done. And going back to the office . . . it’s going to be different. It’s amazing how much we’ve been able to get accomplished working this way.”