With the 2021 NFL Draft kicking off on Thursday, April 29, Bucs general manager Jason Licht spoke with the media on Wednesday about Tampa Bay’s pre-draft plans.
Since Licht and company were able to bring back so many players in free agency, they can now turn their attention to adding depth in certain areas of the roster. One position in particular that generates interest is the interior defensive line. The Bucs could use an infusion of youth at defensive tackle, but instead re-signed veteran backups like Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Steve McLendon in the offseason.
“It’s not as deep as it has been in some years,” Licht said about the defensive tackle prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft class. “We’ve known that for some time. Now there still are some that we like, but it went into our thought process of re-signing Nacho [and] Stevie.”
Tampa Bay won’t have to worry about the outlook of their defensive line this year with Vita Vea, Suh and Will Gholston in the starting lineup and Nunez-Roches and McLendon backing them up. But in 2022 there could be holes to fill. Suh and McLendon are in their mid-30s and could call it a career after this season, and Gholston is set to become a free agent.
That would leave Vea, Nacho, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Khalil Davis as the remaining defensive tackles on the roster. Ledbetter is a four-year player with limited experience, playing in three games and recording one sack last year. Davis was a 2020 sixth round pick for the Bucs out of Nebraska, recording two tackles in two games last season.
“We’ve got depth for this year, in the future that may be a position that we’re going to look at,” Licht said. “But it could come out of this year’s draft. We feel good about going into this year with the group that we have.”
The consensus top interior defensive linemen in the 2021 NFL Draft are Alabama’s Christian Barmore and Levi Onwuzurike out of Washington. If the Bucs don’t use their first round pick on them, Licht said he’s confident in the young players that they have in Ledbetter and Davis, and is looking forward to their continued development.
“We’re excited where Jeremiah was last year when he had to play,” Licht said. “Khalil made some big strides for us, and we feel like he’s going to get better for us, and then of course we have Vita.”
Dominating the line of scrimmage has been the Bucs bread-and-butter since Todd Bowles became defensive coordinator two seasons ago. They’ve led the league in run defense for two straight years, allowing just 73.8 yards per game and 3.3 yards per attempt in 2019 and 82.7 yards per game as well as 3.6 yards per attempt in 2020. As arguably the best part of their defense, this would be an area that the Bucs can’t allow to falter after next season.