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The night of April 23, 2020 changed the fortunes of several NFL teams. For the Buccaneers, it was an enchanted evening.

It was the day Tristan Wirfs received a phone call from Jason Licht, who had just selected the Iowa tackle with the 13th overall pick. To say that Wirfs fell into Tampa Bay’s lap isn’t entirely accurate. The Bucs moved up a spot to get Wirfs, giving up a fourth-round pick to the 49ers.

Tristan Wirfs

San Francisco general manager John Lynch could have held his own at No. 13 and drafted Wirfs, but he had his eyes on defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw.

Two years later, it looks like a gaffe of epic proportions.

Wirfs made the All-Pro team last year and hasn’t missed a single offensive shot in two regular seasons. A year ago, his peers named Wirfs the 89th best player in the league. He’s poised to crack the Top 50, possibly even the Top 25, as the list continues to unfold this weekend.

For those who say the Bucs never take a break, the 2020 draft proved otherwise.

The Jets, Giants and Browns all had their shots on Wirfs, but picked different offensive tackles.

With Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Wills and Mekhi Becton all out of the picture, Licht made his choice. He wasn’t going to walk away without one of the Big 4 tackles, but he’d be lying if he said he knew Wirfs would stand head and shoulders above the rest two years later.

How good is Wirfs? He is fantastic. With all due respect to Tom Brady and Mike Evans, Wirfs might be the best player on Buc’s roster.

“I think he did an amazing job,” Brady said of his solid right tackle. “He’s a great player, a good person, a great teammate and a great worker.”

The only game Wirfs missed as a pro came in the playoff game against the Rams seven months ago. He couldn’t go after injuring his ankle the previous week against Philadelphia. Without Wirfs, the Bucs trailed 27-3 late in the third quarter and Brady was beleaguered.

Historic choice of general manager Jason Licht, writes Ira Kaufman.

No equal

The three tackles chosen before Wirfs each struggled with injury and inefficiency.

Thomas allowed 10 sacks as a rookie, barely what the Giants expected when they drafted him at No. 4. Ankle issues slowed his development and New York’s offense was abysmal since Thomas arrived in the Meadowlands. Wills, off the board at No. 10, has been flagged for 15 penalties in two seasons, plagued by ankle injuries and COVID.

“Last year was a struggle,” Wills said. “It was no secret.”

The Jets just announced that Becton needs kneecap surgery and will miss the entire 2022 season. He injured his knee in Week 1 last year and missed the rest of the 2021 season. In 14 games as a rookie, Becton allowed four sacks and six penalties.

What about Javon Kinlaw? Let’s say it didn’t make much noise.

He had to have ACL surgery after four games last season. In 18 NFL games, he had 1.5 sacks and 5 QB hits. Don’t look for him in the NFL’s Top 100 list. The 49ers say he’s healthy and enjoying a strong camp, but Kinlaw has a lot to prove as a pro.

Buc fans don’t want to think about what would have happened if the Giants, Browns or Jets grabbed Wirfs when they had the chance. Wirfs is now a stabilizing force for an offensive line that will feature three new starters in Week 1 at Dallas.

If Licht hadn’t gotten San Francisco’s pick at No. 13, another team might have made a deal with Lynch to come up on the board and pick Wirfs. We’ll never know.

What we do know as the Bucs prepare for the 2022 season is that Tristan Wirfs has emerged as the best right tackle in the game.

An enchanted evening.

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