TAMPA — He wasn't the popular pick.
But he was the right pick.
In a draft that Bucs fans (and Florida State fans, too) will debate for years, Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht went against popular opinion and did the right thing for his football team. He took the best player on the board.
That player was not Dalvin Cook.
It took courage to do what Licht did. A portion of his fan base isn't happy. But you know the old saying: When you do what the fans want you to do, you end up sitting with them.
Instead, Licht ignored the pull of the fans, likely ignored the pull of his franchise quarterback and, yes, ignored that the Bucs do have major questions at running back.
But this might have been his finest moment as Bucs GM.
Turning his back on Cook could not have been easy. The FSU running back is a heck of a talent. He might turn out to be a heck of an NFL player. But when it came to picking the best player available with the 19th pick in Thursday's NFL draft, Alabama tight end O.J. Howard was simply too good to pass up.
Those who root for the Bucs and FSU are devastated. They wanted Cook. He could have joined his old teammate Jameis Winston in the Tampa Bay backfield. How perfect.
Fans cheer with their hearts, and that's understandable. But Licht picked with his head — and the heads of his staff — and they decided that finding an elite tight end is much more difficult than finding a productive running back.
Make no mistake, Howard was the best tight end available, a game-changer who will fit in nicely with an explosive offense that already includes high-powered receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson.
"We're beyond excited," Licht said.
He should be.
"That was the most excited I've seen the entire room since we picked Jameis with a first-round pick," Licht said.
Not only is Howard a tremendous talent on the field but highly respected off the field. He's what they call high-character. And, hey, can you ever go wrong picking a 'Bama guy?
"He checks all the boxes," Licht said.
Now, you might argue a running back touches the ball 20 times a game. A good one will account for 110 yards a game. A tight end, meantime, might catch the ball six times a game, picking up 60 yards. But he can block, too, helping a running game that could be addressed later in the draft.
"How he's available is beyond me," ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper said right before Tampa Bay's pick.
The Bucs were thrilled that he was and Licht wasted no time making the pick.
Licht said Winston was pleased with the pick. But, surely, some Bucs fans are not. For the next several years, every time Cook has a big game and Howard doesn't, fans will yell, "I told you so." That's the nature of the draft, where second-guessing after the draft is as popular as mock drafts are before.
But this feels like the right pick.
Even if some fans don't think so today.
Here are some other random thoughts from Thursday night's first round:
Former Bucs safety John Lynch wasted no time making a big impact as the new boss of the 49ers. He traded the second overall pick for two third-round picks and a fourth-rounder. That's a nice haul. Then he gets a star from his alma mater, Stanford DE Solomon Thomas, a player he could have had with the second pick anyway. Hmm, maybe Lynch might be better at this GM stuff than we originally thought.
Who had the worst night?
I'd vote for former Bucs QB Mike Glennon. He signed with the Bears in the offseason and expected to finally be a regular starting QB. But then the Bears traded two third-round picks and a fourth-rounder to move up one spot, to No. 2 overall, to take North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky. You think you do all that if you expect Glennon to be a long-term solution? Then again, he has a guaranteed $18.5 million coming his way, so his life isn't exactly awful. But he cannot feel great about what transpired at 8:20 Thursday night. And, oh, what exactly are the Bears doing? They give Glennon all that dough and trade a bunch of picks to move up one spot in the draft to take a QB who probably would've been there with the Bears' original No. 3 pick. The only way this doesn't make Chicago look like nincompoops is if Trubisky turns out to be a star.
Stop the run
Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith certainly has his work cut out for him this season because of two transactions this week made by NFC South Division rivals. First, the Saints signed veteran RB Adrian Peterson. Then, Thursday night, the Panthers drafted Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey with the No. 8 pick. That's a quarter of the Bucs' schedule right there. McCaffrey likely won't be a running back as much as a slot receiver eventually. Either way, Smith has lots to do. And we haven't even brought up the defending NFC champion Falcons.