It was time.
Just as they did in 2015, when for the first time in franchise history the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used every single one of their draft picks on offensive players, team architects clearly went into the 2019 NFL Draft intending to give the defense a deep and broad talent infusion. As such, The Buccaneers opened this year's draft with five straight picks on that side of the ball, and eventually devoted six of eight choices to that cause.
The defensive restoration project was amplified by the arrival of a new coaching staff, headed by Bruce Arians and with Todd Bowles as his defensive coordinator. The Buccaneers are transitioning to a 3-4 scheme and, perhaps even more to the point, they want to play a much more aggressive brand of defense. There was a good core of defensive talent in place before the draft, maybe even some returning players who are better suited to the new scheme, but more was needed.
Four years after the aforementioned all-offense draft, the Buccaneers are coming off a season in which they broke most of their offensive single-season records, including those for most points, touchdowns, yards, passing yards, passing touchdowns, first downs and third-down percentage. The team is now determined to make a similar rebound on defense, hopefully even more quickly.
In addition to their desire to stop opposing offenses, most of the Buccaneers' 2019 draft picks shared one other trait: speed. Apart from the defense-heavy haul, that was the theme of this draft class. First-rounder Devin White is uncommonly fast for an inside linebacker, which helps him make plays in the middle of the field, in coverage and as a pass-rusher. Cornerbacks Sean Bunting and Jamel Dean ran 4.42 and 4.30-second 40-yard dashes, respectively, at the NFL Scouting Combine. Safety Mike Edwards clocked a 4.53. Wide receiver Scotty Miller, a potential slot option taken in the sixth round, was one of the fastest players in the draft with a 4.30 40.
"We love speed," said General Manager Jason Licht at the conclusion of the draft. "When I called Scotty and told him we were going to pick him I said, 'We've got the need for speed and I've got the coach right here who wants to talk to you.' So, fast guys that can play on special teams – one way or another – is very important to us, but also guys like Devin – you've seen Devin now, the way Devin carries himself, the way Sean [Bunting] carries himself, all of these guys that we have this year, one thing that we're just really excited about is their passion and their energy that they're going to infuse the locker room with. It's going to be a great thing, I think."
The Buccaneers made one trade during the three-day draft, accepting the 94th and 99th picks from the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for number 70 on Friday night. Dean and Edwards were the spoils at the end of the third round, as the team made it clear that there will be deep competition and surely some changes in the secondary. The Bucs also devoted one pick, in the fifth round, to a critical special teams position, selecting top-rated kicker Matt Gay out of Utah.
The Buccaneers have been searching for a long-term solution at the kicker spot for some time, and those efforts included a draft investment in Florida State's Roberto Aguayo three years ago. That didn't work, nor have several veteran acquisitions settled the situation. Gay will get an opportunity to do so, though he will face competition from incumbent Cairo Santos, who finished the season in 2018 after Chandler Catanzaro was released.
"He's a big guy with a big leg and he's also accurate, so those are a lot of good things that we like about him," said Licht. "He kicks in Utah, but he's also good at sea level. He can kick it far at sea level as well. We liked him as a person. We think he's a very confident guy and we've exhausted everything we can to try to find a kicker. We'll continue to, like every other position. We've drafted one, signed free agents, UFAs, street free agents, gone to Denmark, so we like this guy. Like I said, like all positions, we will continue to do what we can to try to find the guy we like."
The jewel of the draft, of course, was White, who should quickly become a foundational piece in the Bucs' new defense, forming one of the NFL's best inside linebacker duos with veteran Lavonte David. But the impact this draft class could make on the Bucs' defensive structure and the team's overall speed could be enormous.
Here is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2019 Draft Class:
|1 (5)||LB||Devin White||LSU||Butkus Award Winner (top LB)|
|2 (39)||CB||Sean Bunting||Central Michigan||9 INTs, 24 PDs in 3 seasons|
|3 (94)||CB||Jamel Dean||Auburn||4.30-second 40 at Combine|
|3 (99)||S||Mike Edwards||Kentucky||10 INTs, 33 PDs at Kentucky|
|4 (107)||DE||Anthony Nelson||Iowa||23.0 sacks in 3 years at Iowa|
|5 (145)||K||Matt Gay||Utah||2017 Lou Groza Award winner|
|6 (208)||WR||Scott Miller||Bowling Green||Slot WR; 104.4 YPG in 2018|
|7 (215)||DT||Terry Beckner||Missouri||32 tackles for loss in 4 seasons|
In addition to his playmaking abilities, White could quickly become an emotional leader on the field for the Bucs' defense, just as he did at an early age at LSU.
"When I was growing up I was always thrown into a leadership role by being the best player," he said. "When I got to LSU, there were a lot of guys that were way better than me and those guys showed me just what you can do when you put in hard work and you don't say much. Guys will follow you just because you're doing it the right way. And I was really big on doing it the right way."
The Buccaneers' three defensive backfield picks are all playmakers; as Director of Player Personnel John Spytek said on Friday evening while discussing the Bunting selection, "I think if you're going to take a cornerback that high, he needs to get the ball back." Bunting and Edwards both had high interception totals in college and Dean broke up 17 passes over the past two years after coming back from several knee injuries.
"I would say my best attribute is being able to just take the ball out of the air," said Bunting. "I'm a ball hawk. I consider myself a receiving defensive back, so that's just something I take pride in being able to take the ball away and get it back to the offense and also getting my hands on it, getting physical. A lot of corners don't get physical at the line of scrimmage. A lot of them kind of like to open up and run and that's the part of my game that I like to elevate more and more each year and that's going to make me elevate my game in every way possible."
Bunting could compete immediately for the open slot-corner job but will likely be a long-term solution on the outside. The same could be true of the speedy Dean. Edwards played all over the field for the Wildcats and, as Licht noted above, the Bucs' new staff loves defensive versatility.
"I've got the speed, I've got the IQ," said Dean. "I'm glad that Tampa Bay gave me this opportunity so now I can prove myself every more because I feel like a lot of teams slept on me, but Tampa really had faith in me."
Said Edwards of filling multiple roles: "I love it. That's what I did at Kentucky. I did a lot of things. I played safety, corner, nickel – I played everything in the back end. I feel that I can help out the Bucs as soon as possible, any way possible. I feel like wherever they need me at, I can [play the position]. I can blitz, cover, play deep-middle – anything. I think I can fit into their scheme really well."
Because it's impossible to address every position of need with a limited number of draft picks, the Buccaneers headed into Day Three without a new addition for their defensive front line. White's all-around impact was too good to pass up in the opening frame and the team clearly prioritized mending a porous secondary on Day Two. However, early in Round Four the Bucs found a front-line defender who has the chance to be very productive in their new defense in Iowa's Anthony Nelson.
"With Anthony, we had him ranked pretty high on our board," said Licht. "He plays really hard, he's a good athlete, he bends very well. He has good speed to power, he's got really good instincts. We will probably play him a little bit in the outside linebacker role. We will see if he can rush inside. We'll have plenty of 4-3 looks in our defense. It's not just a base 3-4 all the time. So, we like the versatility and you have to be intelligent to do all those things with Todd [Bowles], so he fits that mold."
After the Gay and Miller picks, the Buccaneers went back to the defensive well one last time with the first pick of the seventh round. They had acquired that selection in the January trade that facilitated the hiring of Arians, giving up a sixth-rounder to the Arizona Cardinals. Tampa Bay used it land one more potential asset on the defensive front, Missouri's Terry Beckner Jr. Beckner will primarily be a 3-4 end and could help solidify the middle of the line. Beckner also had some success rushing the passer at Mizzou the past two years.
"Terry went through some adversity there early in his career, with knee injuries, one on each side," said Licht. "Then he's played, I think, 26 consecutive games now, two years in a row. He's really tough. Love the kid. Love the grit that he has, where he's grown up in East St. Louis. It would be tough for me to walk a day in his shoes, some of the things that he's had to go through. He's an awesome kid – smart, instinctive player. Like I said, strong, like the way he plays. He's going to compete I know and he's got a good chance to make this football team if he plays the way he did at Missouri and the way we evaluated him."
The Buccaneers' 2019 draft class has a good chance to be a memorable one, especially if it can transform the defense the way the 2015 group started a new era of offensive success (2014 first-rounder Mike Evans has helped quite a bit with that, too.) It will take time to determine how successful this draft was, but the Buccaneers boldly made an effort to add as much speed, versatility and defensive talent as possible.