The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have started their last three drafts with Washington edge rusher Joe Tryon-Shoyinka at pick number 32, Houston defensive lineman Logan Hall at number 33 and, most recently on Thursday night, Pitt defensive lineman Calijah Kancey at number 19. All of those picks have occurred since Todd Bowles has taken over the Buccaneers' defense, first as the coordinator and then as head coach. The Buccaneers also used the 12th overall pick on Washington defensive lineman Vita Vea in 2018, one year before Bowles' arrival.
The results up front have been good for most of that time, in no small part thanks to the addition of outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett in 2018. From 2019 through 2021, the Bucs racked up 142 sacks, tying for the third most in the NFL in that span. In the 2020 Super Bowl season, in particular, Tampa Bay's defense was seventh in sack rate and was dominant up front in the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl.
The Buccaneers were 12th in sack rate last year and tied for seventh overall with 45 sacks, but 14 of those sacks came from defensive backs and off-ball linebackers. Bowles has stated that his defense needs to get more pressure off the edges in 2023, and even though Kancey is nominally an interior lineman, his addition could be what ties it all together and returns that pass rush to its dominant form.
"It gives us versatility," said Bowles. "We can line up in a three-down, a four-down. All of them can play across the line of scrimmage, which is important in our defense. So we can utilize them in a lot of different ways depending on the gameplan. We're always looking for guys that can do more and not just play one position. He gives us a lot of versatility."
The Bucs referred to Kancey as a "defensive end" when they drafted him on Thursday night, and indeed the two linemen who flank the nose tackle (Vea) in a 3-4 front are generally given that term. In Kancey's case, he actually may see some time on the edge, along with the three-technique spot and other assignments. At 6-1 and 281 pounds, Kancey is smaller than the players the Bucs have typically employed up front, but his size, quickness and power may render that irrelevant. Bowles says that adding the former Panthers star to what the Bucs already have along the front line does not represent a departure from how the team has operated in the past.
"He fits perfectly," said Bowles. "We do a lot of things. We wanted to get faster at all levels in this draft, whether it was offense or defense. We got a power player who is also a fast player and he can play across the line of scrimmage. The size, I don't think, really matters much. He's very good against the run, he has a good base, a run base, and he's very good in the passing game as we all know. Just the overall player is good.
"He's not just a quick player, he's not just blowing them off the ball, I can tell you that much. That was important for us as well. I don't know if we're evolving. We have gotten a lot quicker up front with him and Logan and Tryon. Hopefully we got a lot quicker and more athletic and we can do some things."
Kancey, who started playing football at the age of four, may have evolved into a defensive lineman but he always identified more with the "skill-position" players growing up. Rather than watch highlights of a Warren Sapp or a Richard Seymour, he favored the stylings of Reggie Bush, Michael Vick and Randy Moss. He may have grown out of those positions but he can still do a lot of different things on the football field, and his 4.67-second 40-yard dash at the Combine was the fastest by a defensive tackle in 20 years. He saw action all along the line at Pittsburgh and is more than ready to do the same at the next level. At his introductory press conference at the AdventHealth Training Center on Friday, he seemed to like the idea of being used on offense around the goal line.
"Just me being the type of player that I am, being able to go out there [at multiple spots]," he said. "If Coach needs me to play defensive end, I can play defensive end. If he needs me to play defensive tackle, nose, whatever the position the team needs me at and just going out there and being able to give my all and actually produce on the field and help the team out."
If the Buccaneers are indeed going to mix up their defensive front packages more liberally after the addition of Kancey, it will behoove those involved in all that creativity to know what's expected at each position. That's not a problem for the newest member of the group, who has always made it a point to understand the assignments for everyone on the field.
"That's something I take pride in, just being able to know what everyone around me is doing so that I can be able to take that risk and know what risk I'm taking and being able to fix it," said Kancey. "Just knowing what everyone is doing, knowing where everyone should be at so that I'm able to take a risk or go make a play or be in a better position to go help the team."
Kancey is the latest in a series of big-time investments in the Buccaneers' defensive front. He could be the one that brings the whole thing together.