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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2023 Draft Wrap: Speed Kills, But Production Matters Most

The Bucs' 2023 draft class includes some of the fastest players available at their positions but more importantly features proven producers who fit some of the team's most pressing needs

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' newly-minted 2023 draft class includes the fastest defensive tackle in 20 years and the speediest wide receiver at this year's Combine. It's clear that the player-acquisition crew, headed by General Manager Jason Licht and Vice President of Player Personnel John Spytek, heard Todd Bowles and the Buccaneers' coaching staff calling for more overall team speed. But when it came to the moments that Tampa Bay was actually on the clock over the last three days, those player evaluators valued actual football production over sheer footspeed.

Where those two things intersected, though, was particularly nice.

"Todd obviously said that and that was always a B.A. (Bruce Arians) moniker too: 'Speed kills, speed, speed, speed,'" said Spytek at the end of the Bucs' drafting efforts on Saturday night. "But, at the end of the day, they've got to be good football players too. We're not just going to draft guys that run fast, but can't play the game of sports. The combine is helpful for some of that stuff, but yeah, I think we turned in a lot of guys that ran good 40 times. If you turn on the film and watch the film, they play fast too. It's one of the many things we look for, but it was a priority this year and we feel good about what we did from that standpoint."

That lightning-quick defensive lineman was Pittsburgh's Calijah Kancey, the showpiece of this year's draft as the 19th player selected overall on Thursday night. The deep-threat receiver is Nebraska's Trey Palmer, who ran a 4.33 at the NFL Scouting Combine after putting up huge receiving numbers for a typically run-heavy Cornhuskers crew. Palmer was one of three players the Bucs picked up during a frenzied sixth round that capped a run of eight total picks at seven different positions. Five of those eight picks were on the defensive side of the ball but Spytek thinks the Bucs gave a boost to new Offensive Coordinator Dave Canales, as well.

"It was really fun working with Dave and his new staff," said Spytek. "They were really thorough and described the players they were looking for really, really well, which is such a valuable thing for the scout. It doesn't leave us guessing out there. The back and forth we had with them – in a good way – was a lot of fun. At the end of the day, he came in and was super-excited for all of the guys we picked. I'm sure that's going to shock all of you because he's a pretty high-energy guy, but I'll take it. He came in and was jacked up for all of the picks, so I feel like we did a good job so far."

The Bucs hit obvious needs on the interior defensive line, at tight end, edge rusher and slot corner and made some long-term plans at off-ball linebacker. They notably did not draft an offensive tackle, which was the pet pick of most mock drafters in the first round for Tampa Bay. Four offensive tackles went among the first 14 selections in the first round and that didn't create a good opportunity for the Bucs to address the position after releasing Donovan Smith in March.

"It just sometimes doesn't go the way you want," said Spytek. "I mean we all would've loved to add tackles, but I don't want to lose enough games every year to be up there where those tackles typically go. We've got guys we feel good with. We've got guys who we know can compete. [Matt] Feiler has been out there before. Luke [Goedeke] did a good job out there last year. Tristan [Wirfs] is obviously one of the best there is. Brandon Walton has played out there and played in a pinch in Week 2 against the Saints last year. Would we have loved to? Sure, I think we would have loved to, but at the same time, we're not going to force players around here. That is, I think, the worst thing to do. You end up taking a guy in [Round] Two that you have fourth-round grades on and then he walks through your door, and you go, 'Yeah, he's a fourth-round pick and we missed all of these other guys.'"

The Buccaneers went into the draft with a total of nine picks, six of them in the fifth round or later. In the end, they left the draft with eight new players, as Licht continued to aggressively make small trades up the board to make sure he didn't miss on a coveted player, something he has done frequently throughout his tenure with the team. In this case, he moved up two spots in the second round before selecting North Dakota State tackle Cody Mauch and later jumped up four spots in the fifth round in order to nab Purdue tight end Payne Durham. The cost for the two trades were sixth and seventh-round picks, numbers 179 and 252 overall.

Licht also traded back into the sixth round to land one more player who was standing out on their board late Saturday afternoon. The Bucs sent their 2024 fifth-round pick to the Eagles to get pick number 191, which they used on Nebraska wide receiver Trey Palmer. It's reminiscent of a deal Licht made in last year's draft, when he sent a 2023 fourth-rounder to Jacksonville to pick up an extra fifth in 2022 in order to land cornerback Zyon McCollum.

Here is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2023 Draft Class:

Table inside Article
Round (Overall) Pos. Player College Notes
1 (19) DL Calijah Kancey Pittsburgh 14.5 sacks, 27.5 TFL in 2021-22
2 (48) G Cody Mauch North Dakota State FCS O-Lineman of the Year
3 (82) OLB YaYa Diaby Louisville 9.0 sacks, 14.5 TFL in 2022
5 (153) ILB SirVocea Dennis Pittsburgh 94 tackles, 7.0 sacks in 2022
5 (171) TE Payne Durham Purdue 253-lb. blocker w/56 recs. in '22
6 (181) DB Josh Hayes Kansas State 71 tackles, 7 PD, 5.5 TFL in 2022
6 (191) WR Trey Palmer Nebraska 71-1,043-9 receiving in in 2022
6 (196) OLB Jose Ramirez Eastern Michigan 12.0 sacks, 19.5 TFL in 2022

For the third year in a row, the Buccaneers used their top pick in the draft to energize their defensive front, with Kancey following the selections of edge rusher Joe Tryon-Shoyinka at number 32 in 2021 and Houston defensive lineman Logan Hall at number 33 in 2022. Kancey has blazing speed for a 281-pound pass rusher and can play all along the front, possibly even as an edge rusher in some packages. What pushed the former Pitt star over the top in the eyes of the Buccaneers' brass was his demeanor in pre-draft meetings.

"One thing we'd loved about him is the extreme mature nature about him," said General Manager Jason Licht. "He's a leader, he's very smart. [It] was like talking to a grown 40-year-old man. He's really got a great head on his shoulders. So I think that kind of separates a lot of these guys and he's got a chip on his shoulder, he wants to win and he's an ultimate competitor. So that's going to give him a chance. I don't want to say that we're expecting him to have 15 sacks or anything next year, but I know he's going to contribute and I know he's going to help us."

Speaking of personalities, the Buccaneers think they landed one in the second round in North Dakota State offensive lineman Cody Mauch, who played tackle for the Bison but is expected to start out at guard in Tampa and possibly move to center at some point down the line. Mauch is a great blocker on the move and the type of tone-setter the Buccaneers love on their offensive line, in the vein of Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen.

"I love it – absolutely love it," said Licht. "Jensen has been texting ever since we took him, [saying] 'He and I are going to mess some things up.' He didn't use the word mess. If you could somehow clone Jensen and [tight end] Ko Kieft together, you get Cody Mauch. It's great. Who doesn't like that? I talked about it the other day with offensive line – the guys that you have fun watching, it just so happens that we were watching him together for the 18th time. He was one that we have a lot of fun watching.

"His extracurricular activity when the whistle is still echoing, his pure passion for the game, his athleticism is really, really underrated – he's a great athlete. Really quick, Really flexible, great bend. You see when he's going for a little shot at the end how quickly he gets up. He's a great athlete. He's a great puller, he's great in space."

In the third round, the Bucs tapped into a deep pool of intriguing edge rushers in this year's draft class, nabbing Louisville's YaYa Diaby with the 82nd overall pick. Diaby had a breakout season in 2022, racking up 9.0 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. The Buccaneers wanted to get faster all over the field and more effective rushing off the edge, and Diaby can help in both regards.

"He's very explosive," said Licht. "He's big, he's long – I believe he's got like an 82-[inch] wing[span]. We really liked what we saw with him on tape and then meeting with him, he's all about football and that's kind of been the theme of these guys the last couple of days. Very excited about him – physical, fast, his best football is in front of him and that's what kind of excites us about him."

Diaby ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at the Combine but the Buccaneers didn't draft him simply due to his speed.

"He's a very good athlete, he's very strong – he's got speed to power, which is hard to find," said Licht. "I've found over the years that the guys who don't make it don't have an element of power. You can be fast as hell off the edge, but if you don't have any power to combine with it then you get figured out by NFL tackles. He's got speed, he's got power and he's got great effort."

On Saturday, the Bucs had to wait a while to get involved since they were without a fourth-round pick, but they eventually doubled up on Pitt defenders by taking off-ball linebacker SirVocea Dennis in the fifth round. The Buccaneers loved Dennis's instincts and intangibles. Dennis, whose father is a huge Bucs fan as part of a family with roots in St. Petersburg, could be an eventual replacement for Lavonte David and Devin White, both of whom are currently under contract for just the 2023 season. That would be a serendipitous outcome for Dennis, given his connection to the team.

"I grew up loving that conference and just watching everybody in that area," he said. "Growing up, I had this Derrick Brooks jersey that he signed and I never took it off. When I got older and really polished my game and studied film, I, of course, watched Lavonte David and Devin White to see how that maneuver, how they take the game and how [to be a] pro, really. Those guys, they really showed me a lot."

The aforementioned trade helped the Bucs land Durham in what was an historically deep class of tight end prospects. There were 11 tight ends selected before the Bucs' pick in the fifth round, and one more came off the board two spots later. But the Bucs, who drafted tight ends Cade Otton and Ko Kieft just a year ago, were still thrilled to land a versatile player who could be particularly effective in the red zone.

"He's a smart player, he's a high-effort player, he's obviously tall, he's long, he's got great hands," said Spytek. "He's not the fastest – I think the 40 time shows that. I think what you look for when you get guys like that, is they're going to be covered and they're going to be forced to make contested catches. He proved that to us over and over again, which is why he's a good red zone target, because the field gets small down there. You're not going to catch a lot of wide-open passes so you've got to find a way or have a knack for making those plays with guys hanging all over you or having a hand in your face. He has the size, length and ball skills to do that and it shows up with the 21 touchdown catches."

The Bucs finished up with three picks in the sixth round, hitting a variety of team needs. The last of those picks was Eastern Michigan edge rusher Jose Ramirez, who racked up 12 sacks last year. After already landing Kancey and Diaby, the Buccaneers made no hesitation in adding another player who might help them get the quarterback on the ground.

"In my career, it's been proven that if you can affect quarterbacks – however you do it – at a high level, you've got a chance," said Spytek. "I'm fortunate enough to have won two Super Bowls in my career and both times [were] because we couldn't stop hitting quarterbacks in the playoffs. We were relentless after them. You go back and watch the Denver playoff games, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware could not be stopped. Malik Jackson could not be stopped. You go back to what we did a couple years ago, I think people know what happened.

"Again, we weren't going to force it, but YaYa fell to us and we were excited about it and to add another one that has been productive – the MAC is a quality football conference, they play good football there and [Ramirez] won defensive player of the year and was around the quarterback all the time. The more you can affect those great quarterbacks, the better. It's easier to affect the quarterback than it is for our guys to cover forever."

As always, the Buccaneers followed their board over three days of drafting, mixing in positional importance where it mattered, and came away with an eight-man class that appears to hit some of the team's greatest needs. Time will tell how effective their efforts were, and late April is obviously the season of optimism in every NFL house, but it's undeniable that the Bucs added both speed and players with proven production in the 2023 NFL Draft.

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