The East-West Shrine Game and the Reese’s Senior Bowl have concluded. The NFL Scouting Combine is over and the 40 times and medical reports have been collected. Now Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht, director of player personnel John Spytek, director of college scouting Mike Biehl, head coach Dirk Koetter and the team’s scouts and assistant coaches are attending pro days and hosting private workouts, and will soon begin hosting NFL Draft prospects at One Buccaneer Place and stacking their draft board.
The Bucs have spent the fall and winter scouting prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft where Tampa Bay has the 7th overall pick due to a 5-11 finish to the regular season. The focus needs to be on bolstering the Bucs’ defense, especially in the secondary, in addition to improving Koetter’s running game on offense.
The Bucs have moved on ineffective running back Doug Martin and won’t re-sign free agent running back Charles Sims, who is too one-dimensional and doesn’t make enough plays. The team believes in Peyton Barber, but needs another running back or two with some explosive running ability.
The offensive line is a concern for many Bucs fans, but offensive tackles Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson are in the top half of the league at their respective positions, and Dotson had one of his best seasons before getting injured in late November. The real issue was in the interior where the guard play was sub-par. That has been aided with the signing of center Ryan Jensen, which moves Ali Marpet back to guard, as PewterReport.com forecasted back in January.
The return of J.R. Sweezy from a back injury was supposed to help Tampa Bay’s struggling ground game and prompted the move of Marpet from right guard to center. Marpet was a better guard in 2016 than he was center in 2017, but now it will be Jensen snapping the ball to Jameis Winston. Marpet may move to left guard to replace Kevin Pamphile, who signed with Tennessee. Evan Smith was re-signed for depth at both center and guard. The addition of Jensen, who starred in Baltimore, should greatly help the Bucs’ running game.
Tampa Bay’s defense definitely needed help along the defensive line as the team finished dead last in sacks with 22. Noah Spence is coming off his second shoulder surgery in 12 months but can’t be counted on to make the kind of necessary impact the team needs to effectively rush the passer. If he gets five to eight sacks upon his return that should be seen as a bonus.
So Licht addressed defensive end and defensive tackle in free agency with the signing of nose tackle Beau Allen and defensive end Vinny Curry from the Super Bowl champion Eagles squad and versatile defensive lineman Mitch Unrein. The Bucs moved on from defensive tackle Chris Baker and defensive end Robert Ayers as PewterReport.com forecasted back in January. Baker had half a sack despite getting paid $6 million as a free agent signing last year and failing to beat out Clinton McDonald, who will be a free agent in March. The oft-injured Ayers had two sacks last year after posting 6.5 the year before.
But the biggest defensive line news came when Licht traded a third-round pick and swapped fourth-round picks with the New York Giants for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to help Tampa Bay’s pass rush. Pierre-Paul, who played one year at nearby USF, had 15.5 sacks and two forced fumbles over the past two years.
The Bucs re-signed cornerback Brent Grimes, who turns 35 this year, and reserve safety Keith Tandy this offseason, but still need to address the secondary in the 2018 NFL Draft. Tampa Bay had the league’s worst pass defense in 2017 as neither second-year cornerback Ryan Smith nor Vernon Hargreaves III, who was the team’s first-round pick in 2016, played well. Tampa Bay could also use a strong safety to develop next to free safety Justin Evans, last year’s second-round pick, and compete with Chris Conte.
PewterReport.com offers up its fourth edition of the Bucs’ round-by-round draft projection in 2018, focusing mostly on adding players for Tampa Bay’s defense and players to bolster the team’s running game. PewterReport.com’s 2018 Bucs 7-Round Mock Draft is sponsored by Holliday Karatinos Law Firm – the official personal injury attorney for PewterReport.com. Call attorney Jim Holliday for a free consultation at (813) 868-1887 or visit them on the web at HelpingInjuredPeople.com
Round 1: Florida State SS Derwin James – 6-3, 215 – 4.47– Junior
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Previous pick: Washington DT Vita Vea
Assuming that Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb and Penn State running back Saquon Barkley are off the board by the time that Tampa Bay is off the clock, the Bucs stay in-state and draft James to bolster their secondary if the team can’t – or chooses not to – trade down to acquire more picks.
Tampa Bay’s defense needed to be overhauled this offseason after ranking last in 2017 in pass defense and in sacks. Bucs general manager Jason Licht revamped the defensive line, cutting Chris Baker and defensive end Robert Ayers, Jr. and finding upgrades in a trade for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, and signing free agent defensive end Vinny Curry, defensive tackle Beau Allen and versatile defensive lineman Mitch Unrein.
But outside of re-signing starting cornerback Brent Grimes and reserve safety Keith Tandy, improving the secondary was largely ignored in free agency and will need to be addressed in the draft. That’s where James comes in.
The Bucs love James’ athletic traits, length, tackling prowess and leadership ability. He’s the top-rated safety on Tampa Bay’s draft board ahead of Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, and could very well be the highest-ranked defensive back ahead of Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward, who also might garner consideration with the seventh overall pick.
Tampa Bay is looking for a premier strong safety to pair with free safety Justin Evans. Licht has put a lot of resources into trying to make improvements at safety, which shows how important the position is to him. He spent a second-round pick on Evans last year, signed J.J. Wilcox and then upgraded to T.J. Ward, who was paid $3.875 million last year.
James has drawn comparisons to Kansas City’s Eric Berry – although James is bigger – and Seattle Kam Chancellor – although he’s faster and more athletic. The buzz in the NFL scouting community is that James is a Day 1 starter and has the makings of a Pro Bowl safety, and he can affect the defense in many ways.
The Haines City, Fla. native had a sensational freshman season, recording 91 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss and was a menace to opposing teams’ running games. James is an angry tackler, who shows no fear making hard hits at or near the line of scrimmage. He also showed he could be an effective blitzer, registering 4.5 sacks with two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
James succumbed to a season-ending knee injury during the second game of his sophomore season, logging just 11 tackles and one interception. He bounced back last year and notched 84 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and showed more range in pass coverage, defending 11 passes and having a career-high two interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown.
James’ Florida State Career Defensive Stats 2017: 84 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 11 PBUs, 2 INTs, 1 TD 2016: 11 tackles, 1 INT 2015: 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sack, 4 PBUs, 2 FF, 2 FR
One of James’ best qualities his competitiveness and leadership. Jacksonville Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey played with James one year at Florida State and handed off the leadership baton to him when he left after the 2015 season.
“Leadership comes in a lot of different ways,” Ramsey said. “No matter how he does it, he can affect other players around him. He can affect the whole team. He is going to come in, work hard, do his job and lead by example. Guys will follow him just by of just the strength of what he is doing.”
The Bucs have quality leaders on defense with their trio of Pro Bowlers in the front seven – defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David. What the defense lacks is a leader in the secondary, and that’s the role James can assume.
Tampa Bay plays in the pass-happy NFC South division against Pro Bowl quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, and needs an every down defender to slow down the aerial assault and make plays. Whether it is breaking up passes, picking off passes or blitzing the quarterback, James is used to being used in many different ways as Florida State’s STAR defender, which is a hybrid linebacker-safety role.
“Derwin is special,” Ramsey told ESPN. “He has a true position as a safety and a lot of NFL teams will look at him as ‘OK, he’s the best safety.’ But not only that, he’s the best whatever you line him up at. That’s not always the case with guys. Yeah, you can line guys up and they can get the job done at those positions, but when you’re truly the best at it … it’s clear that he is the best safety in the country. It’s clear when he’s moving for a blitz package, he is the best at doing that, so really he’s totally different than Jabrill Peppers. So versatile on the defensive end and can change the game.”
Former Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher sees a bright future for James in the NFL and praised his football I.Q.
“He has the physical tools to do it, but he has the intelligence, too,” Fisher told ESPN. “People don’t realize, you have to be able to understand what’s going on around you. Not, let’s line up at the position, but to actually play the position. He understands that. I talk to him a lot about letting your athletic ability be the last thing you rely on.”
James replaces Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea, who was atop the last two PewterReport.com 2018 Bucs’ 7-Round Mock Drafts, but the Bucs haven’t ruled out Vea. Yet the more pressing need in Tampa Bay is at safety, and if James and Vea are about equal on the Bucs’ draft board as I believe they are, the Florida State defensive back will become a Buccaneer.
Click below to view Tampa Bay’s second-round pick in 2018.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com