In the 2022 NFL Draft, three edge rushers were selected in the top five: Travon Walker, Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux. This year, several players in the position group will likely hear their names called in the first round. In a pass-oriented league, a premium is placed on those who can collapse the pocket. Over the next week as the draft looms, we are going to look at potential draft targets for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at six different positions, which are listed below. Some of these prospects will presumably be first-round picks, but we will also take a dive at late-round developmental options that could align with the Bucs' needs. Today, our focus is at the line of scrimmage with edge rushers.
(NOTE: The following is the analysis of the author alone. It is not meant to reflect or reveal thoughts or strategies regarding the 2023 draft by Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht, Head Coach Todd Bowles or any member of the scouting or coaching staffs.)
For edge rushers, production is often dictated by a specific stat line: sacks. However, as history will attest, sack numbers do not tell the whole story, whether that refers to players being asked to eat blockers, having to take on double teams or the opposing quarterback releasing the ball quicker in a short passing attack to mitigate pressure. Bucs General Manager Jason Licht provided insight on that very topic – how the staff evaluates pass rushers.
"We try to look at the whole picture," said Jason Licht. "I wouldn't say that we're going back to their freshman year but their last two years. In this case for this year's draft, their 2021 [year] because we know what a lot of those players turned out to be that they're going against. So, we know that they were going against a really good tackle for instance, as opposed to a guy that didn't make it with a team or is on the streets. So, you have to look to where the production comes from and you're not just looking at the sack numbers and the pressure numbers, you have to look at the whole play. There are some players that don't have great stats, but we feel are tremendous pash rushers. For whatever reason the quarterback got out of the pocket before he could get there, or they're double-teaming him, or whatever the case may be. So, you've got to look at the whole thing."
Tampa Bay did re-sign Anthony Nelson, one of the club's most improved players in 2022, but are in need of additional depth. Both Carl Nassib and Genard Avery remain unsigned free agents and the club could be in the hunt to fortify the rotation, adding firepower to Todd Bowles' arsenal. The Bucs should find a long-term successor for 30-year-old Shaq Barrett, who is coming off a torn Achilles. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka has immense upside with tantalizing traits but has not fully tapped into his ceiling. After the conclusion of the 2022 season, Bowles detailed the desire to see more "consistent pressure" from the team's edge rush in 2023.
Most mocks have the Buccaneers taking an offensive lineman or a quarterback in the first round, but there are _always _surprises on draft night as boards settle. If the preferred prospects at offensive tackle or quarterback are already off the board, here are some options at edge rusher that the Bucs could target on Day One and Two:
Nolan Smith, Georgia
Over the previous five years, the Bucs have prioritized freak athletes in the first round, taking Vita Vea, Devin White, Tristan Wirfs, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and Logan Hall (first pick in the second round, 33rd overall). Jason Licht disclosed that the Bucs need to prioritize speed in the 2023 NFL Draft and Georgia's Nolan Smith fits the mold. Smith put on a show at the Combine, with both his 4.39 40-yard dash and 41.5-inch vertical ranking No. 1 among front-seven defenders in Indianapolis. The twitchy pursuit athlete plays with a relentless motor and boundless energy on the gridiron. During his four seasons in Athens, Smith never reached 4.0 sacks, however, he was used interchangeably to optimize his agility. Smith was often asked to read or drop, complementing his post-snap burst. The explosive and well-rounded pass rusher would certainly create intrigue if he is still on the board at 19.
B.J. Ojulari, LSU
LSU's B.J. Ojulari is projected to be a second-round pick but recently, some mocks have him sneaking into the first round. Ojulari, a team captain in 2022, has been praised for not only his effort but high football character. With a quick get-off and variety of finesse pass rush moves in his repertoire, Ojulari is consistently in the backfield. Over the previous two seasons, Ojulari combined for 103 pressures – only two FBS players acquired more during that span. With his bendy frame and understanding of pursuit angles, Ojulari offers enticing potential and scheme versatility.
Felix Anudike-Uzomah, Kansas State
Felix Anudike-Uzomah is projected to go in the second round, with an impressive resumé. In 2022, he earned third-team Associated Press All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors with team highs of 11 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. At the Combine, Anudike-Uzomah drew attention from NFL scouts and personnel with his approach to creating a pass rush plan, noting to reporters that he devises a collection of moves throughout matchups that exploit the opponent's weakness after testing offensive tackles at the start of games. Anudike-Uzomah comes with violent hands, a rare accelerator and consistent production at the collegiate level. With great awareness against screen games and reactive skills to shutdown mobile quarterbacks, Anudike-Uzomah would be a quality addition in the second round.
Will McDonald IV, Iowa State
Another prospect projected to go in the second round, Will McDonald IV possesses a coveted profile of length, twitch, lateral mobility and bend. In Iowa State's 3-3-5 base scheme, McDonald posted a school-best 34.0 sacks – tied for the all-time lead in the Big 12 with one more than Von Miller's 33.0. He was an 'unknown' during the recruiting cycle after not playing football until his junior year of high school but flashed his potential at ISU. In 2021, McDonald was named a third-team Associated Press All-American and the Big 12 Co-Defensive Lineman of the Year for his contributions in 13 games with 11 starts. He started all 12 games in 2022 (36 tackles, 7.5 for loss, team-high five sacks, four pass breakups), again being named a first-team all-conference athlete. He could become a valuable sub-package developmental pass-rusher with the Bucs and boasts an outstanding tackle radius. With continued strength at the NFL level, McDonald's ceiling will rise. He has experience lining up both inside and outside the offensive tackle, which would benefit the Bucs down the stretch of the season.
Derick Hall, Auburn
Derick Hall, likely a second or third round pick, possesses the qualities that the Bucs covet in evaluations: leadership, perseverance through adversity and urgency in play. In 2022, Hall was voted a team captain and became a finalist for the Jason Witten Man of the Year Award. Known for rallying his teammates, Hall led Auburn in tackles for loss and sacks during his respective junior and senior campaigns. With an effective speed-to-power conversion, physicality against the run and downhill athleticism, Hall has the tools to become a potential NFL starter.