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I really wish Ndamukong Suh had been officially re-signed by the time I published this article, but alas, it appears the Bucs are going to make us wait it out. The re-signing of Suh has actually become quite critical for the Bucs, who are running out of options to improve their interior defensive line this offseason. With most of the top free agents snapped up by other teams, bringing back Suh and Rakeem Nunez-Roches should at least keep the Bucs where they were last year at defensive tackle, which was obviously a pretty good group, as the team ranked No. 1 in run defense for the second consecutive season.
And it’s a good thing, because the 2021 NFL Draft class is not exactly replete with defensive tackle talent. Yes, there are some safe run defenders with limited upside and passing downs impact, and there are a few high-ceiling linemen who struggled to find down-to-down consistency based on their college tape. Neither scenario sounds especially appealing right now for the Bucs, who are staring at a two-year window where they can compete for a Super Bowl, provided they keep adding talent through the draft.
Sadly, this might not be the year to do that at defensive tackle, at least not in the early rounds. For this week’s Bucs Briefing, I offer some quick thoughts on the top interior defensive linemen in the class and why they might not be right for the Bucs.
Christian Barmore • Alabama • Redshirt Sophomore • 6-5, 310
Barmore is the one defensive tackle I wouldn’t hate to see the Bucs grab at No. 32, but it would be a slight surprise if he were still on the board at that point. The 2020 season revealed how far Barmore still has to go to be the type of run defender Alabama has consistently cranked out over the years. Barmore’s pad level swells consistently, and he survived in the trenches due to brute strength more than good technique or the ability to decipher and work through blocks consistently.
Alabama DT Christian Barmore – Photo by: USA Today
If you listened to Monday’s Pewter Report Podcast you know that Bucs legend and Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp is not a Barmore fan. And Sapp personally worked with Barmore last week in Tampa. Does Barmore love the game? That’s something NFL teams must figure out prior to the draft.
As a pass rusher Barmore exploded over the last 5-6 games of the year with five of his eight sacks in 2020, which is exciting for his pro potential. But he’s widely considered to be the first defensive tackle off the board in a very weak defensive tackle class. Some team will overdraft him and he’ll likely be gone by No. 32.
Levi Onwuzurike • Washington • Senior • 6-3, 290
Already 23 years old, Onwuzurike has the length and fluidity that teams will want to develop at defensive tackle, but can you really be expected to be a physically dominant NFL player when you never even posted a game of physical dominance in college? Onwuzurike was somewhat miscast playing a chunk of his snaps as an undersized nose tackle, but it also revealed his lack of pro-ready power at the position.
When Onwuzurike won in college, it was typically due to out-athlete-ing opponents rather than anything refined or polished about his game, and I don’t think he’s the type of transcendent athlete to rely on that process in the NFL. Onwuzurike was thought of by most as a Day 2 prospect (at best) with potential to become more after the 2019 season. Then he sat out 2020 and we moved him up the board … because no other defensive tackles stood out during the year?
It makes little sense, especially when Onwuzurike’s one day of Senior Bowl practice had more bad than good reps for the former Husky. I don’t think Onwuzurike is a bad prospect, but I’ll be shocked if there aren’t a handful of players I like more for Tampa Bay at No. 32 if he’s on the board.
Daviyon Nixon • Iowa • Redshirt Sophomore • 6-3, 306
Iowa DT Daviyon Nixon – Photo by: USA Today
Nixon’s highs are higher than Onwuzurike’s, but his lows are also lower. You see flashes of all the traits that matter from Nixon – burst, lateral movement, range, power, flexibility, but they are few and far between, often not showing up once during an entire game. All Nixon’s ability seems stuck behind a lack of instinct and feel for the game, keeping him from being able to string strong reps together, even against struggling offensive lines.
I think Nixon needs the right environment to bring out the best version of himself as a player. If he gets that, he could be the best defensive tackle in the class, but that will be down the road. Don’t expect an instant impact from him, and there are some learning issues he’s had to overcome in college that could slow the process down. Nixon feels a little bit like fool’s gold right now, especially at No. 32. At No. 64 I would consider drafting him as a project, but there will likely be more helpful players to the Bucs’ 2021/2022 cause still on the board, even at that point in the draft.
Alim McNeill • N.C. State • Junior • 6-2, 320
McNeill is a fire hydrant defensive tackle with the ability to stack-and-shed like a pro in the A-gaps. Ask him to do much else beyond that spot, and you’ll probably be disappointed. It’s not that he can’t move, as McNeill has actually flashed a good first step and decent range for a nose tackle. But McNeill doesn’t really have the speed, bend or creativity to find his way through gaps on the majority of his snaps, including dismal results as a pass rusher. He had 5.5 sacks in 2019 as a 3-tech and just one sack as a nose tackle in 2020.
McNeill isn’t a useless player, but the Bucs don’t need another run-plugger in the middle of their defensive line. What they need is a more dynamic, explosive defensive tackle to pair with Vea and wreak havoc on opposing offenses. When asked to fulfill those kind of expectations, I think McNeill is going to come up well short.
Jalen Twyman • Pittsburgh • Redshirt Junior • 6-1, 301
I was fully prepared to stand on the table for Twyman in Round 3, but he bombed the athletic testing at Pitt’s pro day despite being an undersized defensive tackle. So now he is firmly in the Day 3 range of the draft. Twyman has a legit pass rush arsenal that you don’t often see from a college interior defensive lineman, which had me excited about his potential heading into the 2020 season. But Twyman curiously opted out of 2020 and then tested like a bottom tier athlete last week at his pro day, which is a massive warning sign for his NFL future. The numbers were just awful.
You can still talk me into Twyman, but not until Day 3. If the Bucs could get him in Round 5 or 6, the risk might be worth it. But Twyman has too many red flags to consider in the Top 100 picks.
Jay Tufele • USC • Redshirt Sophomore • 6-3, 305
Tufele’s situation is kind of like Onwuzurike’s in that he was never a dominant college football player for really even a single game of his career, yet is getting moved up the board by default compared to the rest of the defensive tackle class because it’s so weak. If Tufele hadn’t opted out of the 2020 season after an average 2019 campaign, would he be in the Day 2 conversation?
Tufele’s 2019 tape shows the quickness and hot motor you want in a 3-technique, but the USC product is a pretty linear player who needs more of a pass rush plan to excel on long-and-late downs. His run defense isn’t ready for a starter spot in the NFL, as double teams knocked him around and Tufele is often caught off-balance in the trenches. On Day 3, even in Round 4, maybe you could interest me. But early in the draft, the Bucs can find a more impactful player than Tufele.
Bobby Brown III • Texas A&M • Junior • 6-4, 325
Texas A&M DT Bobby Brown III – Photo by: USA Today
An absolutely massive nose tackle with elite length and solid athleticism, Brown is one of the more promising young defensive linemen in the class, although his junior year tape was marked with inconsistency. Brown is capable of unlocking devastating power and bull rush ability, but worrisome technique and pad level often held him back. Can he grow into a bigger role at the next level?
Although Brown is on the opposite end of the physical profile spectrum from Togiai, I also wonder about his fit in Tampa Bay. Brown projects more as a nose tackle in the NFL, and the Bucs already have a three-down stud in Vea. There’s no need for the team to spend high-end resources on a backup nose, especially one that isn’t ready to be a three-down player yet. Brown might blossom into a solid player elsewhere, but Tampa Bay can grab a solid, run-stuffing nose tackle on Day 3 of the draft. If he’s there in the fourth round I could see the Bucs pulling the trigger, but not before then.
Tommy Togiai • Ohio State • Junior • 6-2, 300
Even if Togiai’s tape looked like Grady Jarrett’s, it would be tough to trust his profile as a prospect enough to take him in at least the first two rounds. Togiai has played just 659 snaps in three seasons at Ohio State, never even hitting 300 in a single season, per Pro Football Focus. Couple that lack of experience with three collegiate sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss and physical measurables that will put him in the low percentiles at his position, and Togiai doesn’t exactly look like a top tier prospect on paper.
Togiai’s performance against Clemson in the College Football Playoff was the best of his career, as he showed how successful he can be when he’s able to slip through gaps and play up-field at the point of attack. But he lacks the girth of a similarly vertically-challenged, short-armed defensive tackle like McNeill, and isn’t a good enough pass rusher to be a starting 3-technique out of the gate. Togiai looks like a career rotational player in a scheme that likes to move gaps and keep a heavy rotation on their defensive line. It’s just not a great fit for him in Tampa Bay.
So … What’s The Bucs’ Draft Plan?
If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know how much I value building a strong and deep defensive line as a team. The Bucs have a great starting five up front, but they desperately need to cultivate better, younger talent behind their top dogs so the drop-off isn’t as significant as it currently is.
But that doesn’t mean reaching for talent that simply isn’t there in this class, and the Bucs would be wise to note that fact as they prepare for the draft. By reaching to fill a “need,” you end up with Ke’Shawn Vaughn in Round 3 when you could have gotten a similar value in Round 5. There isn’t much to complain about with Tampa Bay’s drafting philosophy of late, but the Vaughn selection is a pick I hope the team learned a lesson from.
Bucs DTs Vita Vea and Rakeem Nunez-Roches – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Re-sign Suh, sign another veteran free agent that could make an impact in a rotational role, especially as a pass rusher, develop Khalil Davis and maybe target a plug-and-play, low-ceiling, run-first defensive tackle on Day 3 of the draft, like Brown, USC’s Marlon Tuipulotu, BYU’s Khyiris Tonga or even LSU nose tackle Tyler Shelvin. That’s the formula for making the Bucs’ interior defensive line better in 2021 than it was a year ago – even if they don’t add much flash to the group overall.
Target guys with a good chance to step into the No. 4 or No. 5 roles on the interior when Nunez-Roches and Gholston move on, or if Davis can’t make the leap in year two. That way the depth stays strong while the search continues for Suh’s future replacement.
Eventually the Bucs will find Vita Vea’s perfect running mate, and it will be glorious. But in this draft, that appears unlikely to happen. So what should Tampa Bay do in the early stages of the draft? If defensive tackle is on the back burner, what’s the draft plan?
I’m glad you asked. We’ll jump into part 2 of the Bucs’ 2021 NFL Draft Plan for Rounds 1-3 in next Tuesday’s Bucs Briefing.