Speed was the operative word for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers through most of the 2017 NFL Draft, but with their last pick they emphasized size in order to take greater advantage of one of their defensive strengths.
The Buccaneers did not have enough size for the liking in the middle of their defense last year, which prompted the midseason signing of Sealver Siliga and then the March free agency rush for former Washington Redskin Chris Baker. On Saturday, with pick #223 midway through the seventh round, the Bucs added yet another big defensive tackle in USC's Stevie Tu'ikolovatu.
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The idea with all three additions is to get to third down more often and more quickly. Tampa Bay's defense led the entire NFL in 2016 when it allowed only 34.4% of opposing third-down attempts to succeed. Unfortunately, the Bucs ranked 22nd in both rushing yards allowed per game and average yards allowed per carry, which meant opponents often were able to move the ball without ever facing a third down.
"On first and second down, you've got to be able to stop the run," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "We got to third down and our defense led the league in third-down defense last year but it all starts with stopping the run on first and second."
Enter Tu'ikolovatu, who is listed at 6-1 and 320 pounds but might actually be an even bigger presence in the middle of the line, and one who can move with surprising agility.
"He's a big guy, he plays really physical," said General Manager Jason Licht, who sent a 2018 seventh-round pick to the Miami Dolphins in order to move up 14 spots in the seventh round to make the pick. "He's actually got good quickness for a big guy. You can see that in every game you watch, but in the bowl game it really stood out. He's a two-down player, but he's very powerful, plays with great technique, he's got really good instincts and he's got what we've been saying with all these guys – he's a great guy."
The Buccaneers made a total of six draft picks over the weekend, three each on offense and defense. All three of the offensive picks – tight end O.J. Howard, wide receiver Chris Godwin and running back Jeremy McNichols – boast outstanding speed, a coveted trait for Licht and his crew this year. The same is true of second-round safety Justin Evans, a Texas A&M product. However, the Bucs added a significant amount of size with Tu'ikolovatu and third-round linebacker Kendell Beckwith, another player they traded up in order to secure.
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Beckwith will eventually compete for the starting strongside linebacker job. Assuming Tu'ikolovatu makes the regular-season roster, he will likely be in the game-day D-Line rotation, coming in when the Buccaneers really need to clog up the middle against opposing rushing attacks.
"He's a productive player," said Licht. "He's a run stuffer. That's one thing – last year during the season we went through a patch there where we felt like we needed to get bigger inside. We addressed that – we brought in Sealver Siliga last year, obviously adding Chris Baker to the mix and now bringing Stevie in."