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Jason Licht deserves credit for Tampa Bay’s ascension to the Super Bowl

Buccaneers GM Jason Licht chats with Peter King to describe what all it took for Tampa Bay to punch their ticket to Super Bowl LV, from Tom Brady joining the team to drafting Tristian Wirfs and Antoine Winfield jr.

At the end of the regular season, Bills G.M. Brandon Beane emerged as the executive of the year. As the end of the postseason approaches, Buccaneers G.M. Jason Licht merits plenty of praise for the work he’s done in Tampa.

The arrival of quarterback Tom Brady pushed the Bucs to where they now are, and Brady’s arrival in Tampa ultimately was more about the player picking the team not the team picking the player. Still, the Buccaneers had to be willing to go all in with a 43-year-old quarterback -- and they also needed to have the pieces in place to get Brady to choose to land there.

Licht systematically put those pieces in place over the past six years.

He arrived in 2014, and his initial first-round pick was receiver Mike Evans, who became the first player in league history to generate 1,000 receiving yards in seven straight seasons to start his career. Other key players drafted by Licht since 2014 include receivers Chris Godwin, Scotty Miller, and Tyler Johnson, running back Ronald Jones, tight end O.J. Howard, offensive linemen Tristen Wirfs, Donovan Smith, and Ali Marpet, defensive tackle Vita Vea, linebacker Devin White, and defensive backs Antoine Winfield Jr., Sean Murphy-Bunting, Carlton Davis, and Jordan Whitehead.

Licht, in 2014, first signed undrafted free agent Cameron Brate; although they gave up on Brate in 2015, they signed him from the Saints’ practice squad after an injury to Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Brate has been a mainstay ever since.

Veteran free agents added by Licht include center Ryan Jensen in 2018, pass rusher Shaquil Barrett in 2019, and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in 2019. In 2018, Licht and the Bucs traded for pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul.

Then came 2020, starting with Brady. Brady led to the trade for Rob Gronkowski. Then came running back Leonard Fournette. Cut just before the season started, Fournette gradually has grown into a key contributor for the Buccaneers.

Yes, Licht’s resume includes the indelible stain of the decision to use a second-round pick on kicker Roberto Aguayo in 2016. But the Bucs didn’t double down on the mistake; after a year, they acknowledged it and moved on.

They also moved on from coach Dirk Koetter after the 2018 season, and Licht’s relationship with Bruce Arians played a role in getting Arians to take over the job.

Finally, they moved on from quarterback Jameis Winston, the guy in whom Licht and the Buccaneers placed a significant amount of faith by making him the first pick in the 2015. When Winston’s contract expired, Licht didn’t try to convince Arians to give Winston another year in the system. Arians was done with Winston, and Licht trusted Arians’ judgment.

So as Super Bowl week begins, it’s only fair to point out the role of the G.M. in putting together the team that found its way to the top of the NFC, capping an 11-5 regular season with three straight playoff wins.

What’s that, you say? The Bucs have sold their soul for a short-time stint with Brady? He’ll surely be back in 2021, and who knows how long he’ll stay after that? He could end up playing for the Buccaneers as long as Winston did, and they could be waiting a lot less than another 18 years to get back to the Super Bowl.