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Draft for Defense? Too Soon to Tell

Posted Mar 1, 2018

Because free agency comes before the draft, there's no guarantee that the Buccaneers' most pressing needs when they're on the clock will be on defense

In 2014, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers started their draft by taking Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans with the seventh overall pick. As the draft progressed over the next three days, with Jason Licht at the helm for the first time as the Buccaneers' general manager, the team added a tight end, a running back, two offensive lineman and one more receiver. By the end, famously, it was the first time the Buccaneers had ever finished an entire draft weekend without selecting a single defensive player.

Now, four years later, some might argue that the Buccaneers need to take the opposite strategy. With seven picks to spend and a defense that struggled through much of 2017, would the team be best-served to use all or more of those assets on that side of the ball? Given the release of defensive tackle Chris Baker and some likely losses in free agency in the weeks ahead, one could make a case for significant draft needs at defensive end, defensive tackle, cornerback and safety.

However, by the time the draft arrives on April 26, much of free agency will be a given. And that's why we can't yet assume that this year's Buccaneer draft will have a distinct defensive flavor.

"You would think that, but the way the calendar is set, [it's] what happens with our own guys, number-one; what happens in free agency, number-two; and then the draft is number-three and then undrafted college guys number-four," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Yeah, on paper of course you would say that [defense is the priority], but who knows what's going to happen in free agency? Maybe we sign five free agents on defense. We don't know that right now."

Take last year's Jacksonville Jaguars. In 2016, Jacksonville finished 3-13 and had the league's 25th-ranked offense and 25th-ranked defense. They could reasonably been in the market for help at multiple positions on both sides of the ball in the 2017 draft, but their situation was clarified by free agency. Jacksonville landed three new starters in defensive end Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Barry Church. That freed the Jaguars up to use their first two picks on a running back (Leonard Fournette) and an offensive lineman (Cam Robinson) and their fourth pick on a wide receiver (DeDe Westbrook).

The Jaguars improved to 10-6 in 2017 and made it to the AFC Championship Game. The most important thing they did was pick the right players in both free agency and the draft, but they also heavily influenced the strategy in the latter with what they did in the former. It's certainly possible the Buccaneers could do the same thing in the weeks ahead.

What Licht doesn't want to do is pigeon-hole his own team into a pick based solely on positional need. The Buccaneers clearly needed a number-one receiver when they took Evans, but that draft also had an extremely deep class of wideouts. The Buccaneers' number-one roster need this year is arguably pass-rushers, but there might not be an available player at that position worthy of their draft position when the Bucs are on the clock in the early going.

"If you any time force a pick – any time force a pick – because of a need, you run a greater risk of it not working out," said Licht. "I've seen that happen a lot of times."

Licht said this year's draft class is heavy on interior linemen on both sides of the ball and has good depth at running back and cornerback, as well. That matches up well with some of the Buccaneers' perceived needs and should allow the team to add talent on both sides of the ball, if it so desires. Given that the Buccaneers have a first-round pick at quarterback, wide receiver and tight end and two recent second-rounders on the offensive line, the defense seems like a more likely target on paper. But that paper could have some edits by late April.