Where are the pass rushers?
Where are the defensive linemen in what is one of the deepest defensive line drafts in recent memory?
Where is Tampa Bay’s right tackle of the future?
Why in the world did Bucs general manager Jason Licht draft cornerback Sean Bunting in the second round, then trade down in the third round to draft another cornerback in Jamel Dean and then a safety in Mike Edwards?
Why draft three more defensive backs when Licht had already drafted six defensive backs since 2016 for a total of nine over the past drafts, including two cornerbacks in M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis last year and safety Jordan Whitehead in last year’s draft?
I’m here to try to explain what I think Licht’s rationale was – not necessarily condone it or justify it. Time will tell if adding three more defensive backs with premium picks was wise or foolish. We truly won’t begin to know the answer until the season is underway.
For those that think that spending a second-round pick on a pass rusher is an automatic hit and better use of a second-rounder, I’ll remind you that Da’Quan Bowers, Brian Price and Noah Spence were all second-round picks and rarely got to the quarterback. Just like using a second- or third-round pick on a cornerback does not automatically mean the Bucs will find the next Donnie Abraham, Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly or Dwight Smith.
Tampa Bay’s secondary was an obvious weakness last year – and even the year before – and played a big role in the team going 5-11 in each of the last two seasons. With injuries to starting cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves III and Brent Grimes and starting safeties Chris Conte and Justin Evans, the Bucs were forced to start reserve cornerback Ryan Smith, who is better suited for special teams, and start Davis and Stewart as rookie cornerbacks, in addition to playing the likes of reserve nickel cornerback Javien Elliott. Whitehead was forced to start at safety as a rookie alongside reserve Isaiah Johnson, who was in his second season.
The Bucs’ lack of depth was so bad last year that Licht was forced to try to find saviors off the street. He had to sign cornerback De’Vante Harris and safeties Josh Shaw and Andrew Adams mid-season and start them because of mounting injuries.
That’s a recipe for disaster in a division like the NFC South with quarterbacks such as New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Carolina’s Cam Newton, along with wide receivers like New Orleans’ Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn, Jr., Atlanta’s Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley and Carolina’s D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel.
So what did Licht do when a good deal of defensive linemen were selected and a run on cornerbacks began in the second round? He looked at the remaining players on the draft board and decided to flood the secondary this year like he flooded the defensive line in 2018 when Licht traded for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, signed defensive end Vinny Curry, signed defensive tackles Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein and then drafted defensive tackle Vita Vea. Licht then claimed defensive end Carl Nassib off waivers right after training camp ended at the start of the season.
The Bucs had a big-time weakness when it came to rushing the passer, generating a league-low 20 sacks in 2017. Thanks to the new additions, Tampa Bay had 38 sacks this past season, nearly double its output from the year before with Pierre-Paul (12.5 sacks) and Nassib (6.5 sacks) leading the way.
I noted Licht’s “flood it” approach in a recent SR’s Fab 5 this offseason and Licht appears to have done it again – but this time in the secondary.
Licht is hoping that by flooding the secondary and adding competition that Bunting, Dean and Edwards either push Hargreaves, Davis and Whitehead towards greatness or push them to bench.
“You’re just always trying to get better, and it’s not really an indictment on the guys that are here,” Licht said. “It’s a long season and you guys have seen firsthand throughout the years – last couple years – when injuries start stacking up and our depth wasn’t where we would like it to be. We needed to add and infuse some talent in the secondary. wasn’t real happy with the play of the secondary last year as whole just because of the lack of depth – and just the way the board fell. At this point, we still felt like we had guys who could eventually move into starting roles or have the talent to do it and competition is a beautiful thing in this league.”
Out of the nine defensive backs that Licht has drafted over the past four years, the law of averages suggests that only half of those picks will pan out. Why do you think that New England head coach Bill Belichick likes to trade down and acquire picks? He stockpiled a total of 12 picks this year – the most in the draft – and knows with the law of averages that only six will pan out. Of that six, only three will likely become starters and the other three will be reserves.
On the outside looking in, it looks like early losers appear to be Stewart, Smith and Whitehead – although that depends on how quickly Bunting, Dean and Edwards can learn the defense and get acclimated to the NFL.
At the very least if Stewart, Smith and Whitehead end up being reserves they will have learned Todd Bowles’ system, and have been beaten out by what turned out to be better players. This means that they will be better equipped to step into the lineup in case injuries strike than anyone Licht can sign off the street instead.
As for the team’s pass rush, the Bucs are expecting Nassib and newcomer Shaq Barrett to step up and ball out in their contract year, and Tampa Bay expects another double-digit sack season for Pierre and improvement from Vea and Spence, who will be better suited to play outside linebacker instead of defensive end.
Factor in way more blitzes from Bowles, who will be sending first-round pick Devin White and veteran inside linebackers Lavonte David and Kevin Minter after the quarterback more often up the middle, and Licht expects the team’s pass rush to not miss a beat – whether or not the Bucs add another defensive lineman on Day 3 of the draft or Gerald McCoy returns for a 10th season or not.
Licht was warned that he had to draft better in the second round, and he’s gambling that not only will Tampa Bay’s pass rush be okay this year without adding any edge rushers other than Barrett, who will split time with Nassib at strongside linebacker, but the Bucs G.M. is also gambling that he drafted the right players to upgrade the team’s porous secondary.
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