FAB 3. Licht Has Plenty Of Options In 2018 NFL Draft
The reason why free agency occurs before the NFL Draft is so that teams can sign veteran players to fill holes and then a team’s remaining holes can be filled with rookies. Thanks to what likes like a reasonably good free agency haul by Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht the team has fewer needs going into the 2018 NFL Draft as they had prior to the start of free agency on March 14.
The Bucs had just two defensive tackles on the roster before free agency in Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy and unproven second-year player Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. After the addition of free agents Beau Allen, who is slated to start at nose tackle, and Mitch Unrein, the Bucs now have five players capable of playing defensive tackle, including 290-pound defensive end Will Gholston, who has moved inside in nickel pass rush situations before.
Free agent Vinny Curry and the trade for Jason Pierre-Paul added two new defensive ends to a roster that already had Gholston, Noah Spence and Will Clarke, who was recently re-signed. Keep in mind that the versatile Unrein can also play strongside defensive end, so that’s essentially six proven D-ends on the current roster.
The Bucs added center Ryan Jensen, which moves Ali Marpet back to his original guard position, and he may play on the left side if the team plans on keeping J.R. Sweezy, which it is still contemplating. If he stays, the oft-injured Sweezy needs some competition, as he didn’t have an overly successful return to the field last year after missing the 2016 campaign with a back injury. But Marpet is a definite upgrade at left guard over Evan Smith and Kevin Pamphile, who signed a one-year deal with Tennessee.
Tampa Bay also solidified its quarterback position by re-signing Ryan Fitzpatrick before free agency, and already has Ryan Griffin on the roster as the No. 3 QB.
So what are the Bucs’ obvious needs? The top need is running back as Tampa Bay has moved on from Doug Martin and Charles Sims and only has two proven rushers on the team in Peyton Barber, last year’s leading rusher, and Jacquizz Rodgers.
The second need lies in the secondary where the Bucs could use another starting cornerback opposite Brent Grimes, who was re-signed to a one-year deal worth $7 million with $3 million more in incentives. While Tampa Bay plans on giving former first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves III one more shot at outside cornerback, the guess here is that he goes back to the slot as a nickel cornerback, which is where he played better last year.
Another pressing need in the defensive backfield is at strong safety where Chris Conte is the current starter and is in the final year of his contract. The Bucs want a young stud to pair with free safety Justin Evans to improve both the run defense and pass defense.
Because of free agency, Tampa Bay has lesser needs at guard, defensive end and defensive tackle, but Licht can’t afford to not continue to bolster the trenches. If the right quarterback is there on Day 3 don’t be surprised to see the Bucs grab one as the 35-year old Fitzpatrick is on a one-year deal, and Griffin is in the last year of his deal and has yet to play a down in a regular season NFL game.
So let’s take a look at what might happen at No. 7 for the Buccaneers in the first round. Don’t think for a second that Licht wouldn’t scoop up North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb in a heartbeat if he somehow fell to the Bucs at No. 7. Can you imagine having Pierre-Paul, Curry, Unrein, Gholston, Spence and Chubb at the defensive end position? Tampa Bay would go from having one of the most embarrassing defensive lines a year ago to an embarrassment of riches this year.
If Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson slid to No. 7 he’s inserted at left guard for the next decade and Marpet supplants Sweezy at right guard. The Bucs suddenly have one of the most physical interior offensive lines in the league if that happens.
If Penn State running back Saquon Barkley managed to slide to Tampa Bay he’s the pick and becomes the team’s starting running back. If he’s not there, look for the Bucs to draft a starting-caliber running back in the second or third round.
If Chubb, Nelson or Barkley are gone at No. 7, the Bucs could trade back in the first round with hopes of acquiring a third-round pick to make up for the one Licht shipped to the New York Giants for Pierre-Paul. That’s the kind of thing Licht values when he has traded away picks in the past. Licht also likes to use middle round picks to move up in the draft, as he did in 2015 for Marpet in the second round, for kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round in 2016, and for linebacker Kendell Beckwith in the third round last year.
Which players the Bucs might target later in the first round would depend on how far Tampa Bay slides back due to trading out of the seventh spot in the first round. But if the Bucs were forced to stick and pick at No. 7, Florida State’s Derwin James becomes the team’s starting strong safety if he’s selected. Ohio State’s Denzel Ward is the top-ranked cornerback could also be in play at No. 7.
And don’t rule out Washington defensive tackle even though the Bucs signed Allen and Unrein. Tampa Bay is high on the freakish 6-foot-4, 347-pound Vea, and views him as a Top 10 pick. Remember that McCoy is now 30 and has seen his sack totals drop in each of the past three years.
The Bucs will look at drafting another defensive tackle that could be the heir apparent, and Vea can play either the nose tackle spot or the three-technique position, as he did for the Huskies, whose multiple defenses consisted of both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts. Both Licht and defensive coordinator Mike Smith like big defensive tackles, and Smith’s defense had great success in Jacksonville with two massive Pro Bowl defensive tackles in John Henderson and Marcus Stroud.
Licht has said he won’t be drafting for need at No. 7 and will take the best player available on the board when it’s Tampa Bay’s turn to select. A lot of NFL general managers say they’ll draft best player available, but often revert back to drafting for need. Licht can actually follow through on drafting the best player available in April – or trading back to acquire more picks – because of a successful free agency haul in March.
Tampa Bay hasn’t has this much flexibility heading into the draft in quite some time, and the possibilities for the Bucs’ first-round pick appear endless as a result.