Jason Licht had an offer to trade down early on Friday night but declined. Later that evening, he accepted another proposal, and the overall results of those two decisions was a deep infusion of new talent in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' secondary.
Presiding over the Buccaneers' 2019 draft, Licht stayed put at pick number 39 in the second round of the 2019 NFL draft and selected Central Michigan cornerback Sean Bunting, believing – accurately, as it would turn out – that a run on that position was forming. Tampa Bay was slated to pick next at number 70 in the third round but Licht accepted an offer from the Los Angeles Rams to turn that selection into two picks later in the round, numbers 94 and 99.
When the Buccaneers eventually used those assets to land Auburn cornerback Jamel Dean and Kentucky safety Mike Edwards, it solidified the theme of the first two nights of this draft for Tampa Bay: Defense, defense, defense. And, more specifically, speed, versatility and much-needed depth in the secondary.
This is Licht's sixth draft as the Buccaneers' general manager but his first in tandem with new Head Coach Bruce Arians, with whom he previously formed a relationship during a shared stint with the Arizona Cardinals. There's an implicit trust and understanding between the two, and the draft-preparation process was seamless, but Licht did consider the possibility that Arians would want to focus his first Bucs draft on offense. That would be counterintuitive for a team that finished third in the NFL on offense and 29th on defense the year before, and in fact Arians was fully committed to fixing the latter issue in this draft.
"It's one of the many things I love about Bruce: When he first came onboard we both knew that we needed to address that side of the ball," said Licht. "Being an offensive guy that he is, I was a little afraid that he would say, 'Screw it, let's go all offense.' But he really understands the concept of building the team. He's been around a long time and he knew that defense, special teams were things that we really needed to upgrade."
After taking do-it-all linebacker Devin White in the first round on Thursday night, the Buccaneers spent the entire second evening of the draft addressing a secondary that has produced subpar results in recent years. That was partly the result of how the board fell on Friday night, but also a nod to how difficult it is to build and maintain depth in the defensive backfield.
"It's a long season and you've seen first-hand throughout the years, the last couple years, when the injuries start stacking up and our depth wasn't where we'd like it to be," said Licht. "We needed to infuse some talent in the secondary. I wasn't really happy with the play of the secondary as a whole last year, just because of the lack of depth, and just the way the board fell at this point we still felt like we had guys that could eventually move into starting roles or had the talent to do it. Competition is a beautiful thing in this league."
There will be plenty of competition because the Buccaneers also drafted cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves and Ryan Smith in 2016, safety Justin Evans in 2017 and the DB trio of M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead last year. There will be a lot to sort out but there is reason to believe that new Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles, a very creative schemer who likes versatile defenders, will find a way to utilize most or all of those assets.
"The more versatility and the more sheer numbers of players helps with injuries and things like that," said Licht. "But Todd runs a very multiple scheme. He's going to infuse a lot of different looks, and to have guys like this with different skill sets, it can put an offense off-balance."
One unifying factor of not only the Bucs' three secondary additions on Friday night but also the selection of White in Round One is speed. White has tremendous range. Bunting is both fast and a ballhawk. And the two third-round selections should be able to keep up. Dean ran a 4.30 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, while Edwards clocked in at 4.53 at Kentucky's Pro Day.
"We didn't stack the board by speed, we stacked it by talent, but it just so happens that those guys are fast and we did want fast guys that were good football players," said Licht. "Speed, you can't coach and speed is something that's very important in the NFL."
The Buccaneers have also added players who were able to take the ball away during their collegiate careers. Bunting had nine picks and 24 passes defensed over three seasons at CMU. Edwards picked off 10 passes and broke up 33 in his four seasons with the Wildcats. Dean broke up 17 passes in the past two seasons and had two interceptions in 2018.
"Jamel is a big guy," said Licht. "Obviously, I know the talk is how he blew it up at the Combine, ran very fast, but he plays a physical game. He's a really good press guy, he's a really good tackler and he's a really sharp kid, as well. And then with Mike, Mike is a playmaker from the safety position. He's moved around, he's played a little bit in the nickel position. We see him more as a safety for us. He as well has good speed, tough guy, finds his way to get his hands on balls or intercept balls."
The Bucs started their 2019 draft with four straight defensive players, something they haven't done since the famous 1995 draft that produced Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. The Buccaneers don't necessarily need Hall of Fame talent to find better results on defense, but they did need more speed, versatility and playmaking skills. They just may have found it on Friday night.