With the Bucs slotted to have the No. 32 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft, it puts Tampa Bay in a unique position where they could trade up, trade down or stay put and pick the top player from their board. Add in the fact that the Bucs have returned all 22 starters from their Super Bowl-winning roster, leaving themselves with very few needs, and Tampa Bay has essentially endless freedom when they go on the clock.

These realities make it tougher than ever to predict what the Bucs will do with their first-round selection, but a few players have been most commonly mocked to the Bucs over the past five months.

According to Grinding The Mocks, first round pick predictions for the Super Bowl champs have been dominated by defensive linemen and running backs. Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore has fallen to Tampa Bay in 16 percent of all mock drafts since December, with Iowa defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon and Alabama running back Najee Harris coming in behind Barmore at eight percent. Outside of the top three are Clemson running back Travis Etienne (seven percent), and edge defenders Jaelan Phillips from Miami and Jayson Oweh from Penn State (six percent each).

While mock drafts are always nice to look at, they lack the difficult reality that the Bucs will ultimately face by picking at No. 32. What will other teams do ahead of them?

It’s been a bit simpler mocking to the Bucs in years past. When Tampa Bay is picking first, or fifth, or 11th, or even 19th, there are far less opportunities for their top players to be nabbed earlier in the first round. But with Barmore generally accepted as the top defensive tackle in a thin class at the position, the chances that the former Alabama standout slides down to No. 32 in the first round are pretty small. And while running backs always seem to be a wild card – with Clyde Edwards-Helaire becoming the first running back selected at No. 32 in 2020 – it’s nearly impossible to know if both, or neither, Harris or Etienne will still be available.

Despite all of these players being mere guesses as to which one may land with the Bucs, they could each prove impactful players should they land with Tampa Bay. Barmore, Nixon, Phillips and Oweh would all be crucial depth pieces along a defensive line that currently has no room for injuries. While the Bucs are blessed with a ton of experienced, first-string talent up front in Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, Will Gholston, Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett, the depth at both interior defensive line and edge rusher are razor thin.

After Vea went down with a fractured ankle in Week 5 last season the Bucs were fortunate to add Steve McLendon in a trade with the Jets. McLendon served his role as the replacement nose tackle, but Vea’s presence was clearly missed as the Bucs’ pressure rate dropped from 33.9 percent to 26.6 percent without him on the field. With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Bucs immediately racked up five sacks in his return against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.

Barmore and Nixon are both high-upside defensive tackles with questions. Barmore immediately brings plus pass-rushing ability, with good pass rush moves and the quickness and strength to see early playing time. But he also has inconsistencies in focus and processing, with technique that needs to improve at the next level.

At edge, Phillips and Oweh are both supreme athletes who could step in on Day 1 and be impactful rotational players for the Bucs, potentially also landing a starting job down the road when Pierre-Paul’s career runs its’ course in Tampa. That depth at such a premier position is something the Bucs could absolutely use this season. Tampa Bay was fortunate enough to see both of their starting edge rushers play nearly the entire 2020 season, with Barrett missing just the Bucs’ Week 17 win over Atlanta after being placed on the COVID-19 list. Cam Gill, Anthony Nelson and Pat O’Connor combined for just 17 total tackles, two sacks, 12 hurries and six quarterback hits.

While running back is a relative position of comfortability across the Bucs’ roster, Harris or Etienne could immediately be an improvement in one key area that Tampa Bay has repeatedly tried to improve upon: a genuine pass-catching threat out of the backfield. Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette were each credited with five drops in 2020, leaving them both tied for the fourth-most drops by a running back per Pro Football Focus.

The Bucs tried to improve that part of the backfield by drafting Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the third round last year and tried again with the signing of LeSean McCoy just prior to the beginning of the season, but neither made a significant impact. The presence of Jones and Fournette would ease the transition into the NFL for Harris or Etienne by allowing their career to start in a limited fashion, similar to what we saw from Jonathan Taylor with the Colts or Cam Akers with the Rams this past season. Both of Tampa Bay’s high-profile running backs will be free agents come next offseason, and it would be nice to have a feature back replacement waiting in the wings.

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About the Author: Taylor Jenkins

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1 month ago

I really don’t understand why you guys keep talking like Jones isn’t our RB1. Jones has been improving every year while sharing the work load. The guy was about 37 yards away from 1k rushing and he missed 3 or 4 games. It’s not all about catching, however he’s actually improved in that area of his game too. It’s like some of you don’t know what to look at while watching film, if the line gets beat on a run play, how do you expect the RB to gain any positive yards? Jones is a hard runner that blasts through… Read more »

Reply to  Sheldon
1 month ago

I agree with you completely Sheldon. RoJo seems to still be carrying the stigma of having a bad rookie season with the PR staff but Licht knew he wasn’t much of a pass catcher when they drafted him. To his credit’ he has worked diligently on that aspect of his game and improved steadily. I see no reason why he won’t this year in his contract season. Vaughn is another player who has talent and ability that BA likes but PR discounts. In the mean time they think the world of OJ Howard who can’t make it through a season… Read more »

Reply to  Sheldon
1 month ago

I agree that ToJo should be the feature back and is bound to be even better this year. It’s just that apparently in the current state of the NFL, running has become a byproduct of the RB position. I hate it because I still love to see solid running games on teams, but everything is going pass pass pass nowadays and RBs are also expected to pass block while at the same time nobody values the position anymore. It baffles me that so much more is expected out of a RB yet nobody thinks it’s important to invest in anymore… Read more »

1 month ago

Harris, and Etienne are rated higher then 32, taking either one is an immediate upgrade over what we have. They’d add a juice to our offense, and have more game winning impact then any other player we could choose there. It’s not even close to added win value with either one of these two. Best choice if we want to win it all again.

1 month ago

I prefer to see the Bucs go with an edge rusher with the 32nd pick. I don’t think we need a running back this year. However, if Etienne is on the board, I wouldn’t be disappointed if they took him. Javonte Williams does not impress me. He’s more of what we already have in Jones, 4nette – good capable backs… However, Etienne is a special talent. With good blocking in front of him, I could see him becoming one of the great running backs of NFL history. He could be for the Bucs everything that David Johnson was for the… Read more »

1 month ago

If the Bucs want to throw caution to the wind they will draft one of the top two RB’s if they are still available. If not, they better go defense in the front 7 since 5 of our 7 starters are 30 and older.