A record 103 underclassmen declared early for this year's NFL Draft, and the result is a very deep pool of talent for the 32 teams to choose from this May. In fact, new Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht, who has been evaluating personnel in the NFL since 1995, thinks it may be the deepest draft class he's seen yet. And that's particularly true on one side of the line of scrimmage.
"[There are] very good players [in] all different levels of the draft," said Licht on Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. "Quantity and quality, both. [The] same can be said for, really, the whole draft; it's really strong. The best draft I've seen, but offensively – it's probably tilted a little bit more towards offense, but it's a strong draft."
Licht covered a variety of topics while addressing the media at the Combine on Thursday.
General Manager Jason Licht
(On how things are going in Tampa so far)
"It's been great, working with a great head coach and coaching staff. There's also some good people there on the staff on the scouting side, and we've just kind of jumped in. When I got hired – we've had our scouts in for draft meetings, we had UFA meetings, we had evaluations of our own team – that are all kind of colliding at once here, but it's been great."
(On wide receiver Mike Williams)
"Well, he has to prove that he shouldn't make headlines off the field, so let's start with that."
(On Head Coach Lovie Smith)
"I probably wouldn't have enough time here. He's phenomenal. He's great to work with. I think I one time said he can probably get along with the devil. He's really easy to work with, he tells you exactly what he wants in a player, which makes it easy for me to have my staff and myself go find those players. He brings a great energy, and he's just got a respect factor about him that's pretty rare."
(On how important it is for Lovie Smith to have a solid grasp of the offensive side of the ball)
"I think it's really important, but, usually, when you're a top defensive mind, you have a pretty good idea of what you're going against and what gives you problems, so you kind of want to mimic those for your opponent. So he's got a great grasp of that."
(On what he learned from his tenure in Arizona that will help him in Tampa)
"Well, I say this a lot to people when they ask me, 'What helped you most prepare for this?' I mean, you can't be totally prepared – it's like being a father for the first time, you know? You're not ready but you have to be ready. But Steve [Keim], being his first year as the GM, and sitting next to him through everything, from day one until through free agency, the draft, and seeing the kind of decisions he has to make was key. So there were very few surprises that I've had so far. But then, the number one thing is just the unity that they had there with Michael [Bidwill], Steve, and Bruce [Arians], and the coaching staff, scouting staff, everybody got along and everybody's a part of it, and that's the environment that we have here in Tampa now."
(On scouting for a team that plays a 4-3 as opposed to a 3-4 defense)
"You'd have to kind of fine tune, re-program yourself a little bit in the types of players that you look for at linebacker, for example, defensive line. But really what it comes down to is you've got to find good football players and good people, good leaders, but just good football players."
(On if the skill set or body type differs between a 4-3 and 3-4 player)
"Definitely. [In a] 3-4, you kind of want longer, bigger guys as your ends. [Players who] can stop the run in two-gap – a nose-tackle that's a two-gapper in 4-3. You're looking for more active players, twitchier – it's a common word we use in scouting – explosive players. So yeah, there's a difference, but you're still, every year, scouting the same players, and just happen to want to bring the ones that fit your scheme to your team."
(On his interview experience with Miami)
"It was a great experience interviewing in Miami. I didn't sense any power struggle or anything like that. I felt I got along great with them. Tampa came in and we interviewed with them three times and I felt real comfortable with it. Felt comfortable with ownership and the head coach, that's what it came down to. Not that I wasn't comfortable with Miami, but [Tampa Bay] offered me the job so I took it. I was excited about it."
(On if his time with New England helped him get to where he is today)
"Oh, yeah, I didn't mean to downplay that at all. Yeah, Bill Belichick is one of the smartest people I've worked for, and just from scouting players and what you look for, not necessarily just on tape, but their traits, valuing players, setting up a draft board, I mean, he's very good. Along with Scott Pioli, Nick Caserio, it was a great experience."
(On University at Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack)
"He's a productive, explosive, fast-twitch pass rusher."
(On if he thinks Mack has the versatility to play in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense)
"He does. I think he's one of those unique players that could fit either scheme. He's a pretty interesting guy."
(On what makes Mack stand out compared to other guys entering the draft)
"Well, he's a player that has speed along with power, and not just one or the other. And when you have a good combination of both, you know, you're a pretty good player."
(On how playing in the MAC influences Mack's projection as an NFL prospect)
"Now, good players are coming out of all divisions and all levels, so I guess, in the back of your mind, you're saying you'd like to see him go against top competition, but really, you can tell on tape that he's a good football player."
(On if there's an overriding concern about how Missouri defensive end Michael Sam could fit in an NFL locker room)
"People I've talked to, really, there is no concern, so I don't know if there's overriding concern or not. I think he's a football player and I don't foresee any problems. We look for players that can deal with adversity, get through adversity for their mental toughness, and he's a good example of somebody that has dealt with some adversity, and dealt with it well."
(On if Sam would fit into the Buccaneers' defense)
"We're still kind of going through evaluations with a lot of players, but I think he's got a little bit of both to him, which, you look for versatility, and that's good."
(On working with Houston Head Coach Bill O'Brien)
"I actually have known Bill O'Brien since 1999, we both lived in Atlanta. He was with Georgia Tech, so we were friends back then and I could say I saw back then, too. Really intelligent, really passionate, extremely intelligent but doesn't wear it on his sleeve. He can relate to players very well. He's got a plan, he sticks to his plan, he's very creative."
(On Mike Glennon and if he is the starter)
"Well, there's a lot of positions on our team that I'm sure Lovie would agree with that we don't want to anoint as the starter. We want competition for Mike. When you evaluate him off last year, we had injuries at receiver, we had injuries at running back, we had an offensive line that didn't play as well as they would've liked. I mean, we were 4-12 last year, so, you know, you throw in the fact he was a backup going into the season, getting thrown out there in the fire, there's a lot you still have to evaluate – you don't get a real fair picture of him just off the tape. So, it'll be exciting to get him through the offseason, and he'll get every chance to be the starter."
(On the idea of drafting multiple quarterbacks)
"I think you can't have too many good quarterbacks, and I've been fortunate to be at the Patriots where we took Tom Brady sixth round and worked in Arizona with Kurt Warner, and I wasn't with the team, with the Rams when they signed him as an undrafted free agent, or eventually got him, he's originally an undrafted free agent, but I can see you can get quarterbacks at all different levels of the draft."
(On if there's been any challenges in the balance of power between him and Lovie Smith)
"No, there's been none. We're truly working together. He's going to have his ideas, I'm going to have my ideas, we're just going to mesh them together. I know it sounds simple, but it really is. It's been seamless."
(On who has the final say on personnel decisions)
"We're working together on that."
(On if it's kind of a consensus between them when making decisions)
"Kind of a consensus, yeah. We're going to come to a decision together, and like I've said before, if we don't agree on a player, we'll move on. But not without a fight."
(On tight end prospects in this year's draft)
"It's a fairly strong tight end group. There's some elite-type players there, so it's a pretty exciting tight end group as well."
(On if he sees any pro-ready quarterbacks in this draft who might 'cause pause' and potentially step in right away to compete)
"I don't want to say 'cause-pause,' because it's rare that you find a guy that comes in right away, like an Andrew Luck, that comes in and has instant success. So, it's more if they are, it's a bonus, instead of something you're concerned about."