Bucs GM Licht eyes trenches ahead of tough 2024 draft decision

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TAMPA, Fla. -- During the earlier part of Jason Licht's tenure as a first-time general manager leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bucs had their choice of a top-10 pick in the draft nearly every year.

They selected wide receiver Mike Evans at No. 7 in 2014. They took quarterback Jameis Winston at No. 1 in 2015. They traded down and still landed their choice at cornerback in Vernon Hargreaves III at No. 11 in 2016. They traded down from No. 7 to No. 12 to land defensive tackle Vita Vea in 2018. And they selected inside linebacker Devin White at No. 5 in 2019.

A Super Bowl and three straight NFC South titles later, and Licht has had to take a different approach with the first pick -- playing the waiting game. In fact, there was one player remaining on the Bucs' big board at No. 19 overall last year: "Calijah [Kancey] -- and we were happy with that," Licht said with a smile.

"I would say that the biggest challenge, at least for me, is you're trying to target who might be there," Licht said. "Right now, we have five to seven guys we think might be there. Then you start kind of falling in love with them and you're like, 'OK, one of these guys is going to be there, and we're going to be so happy.' Then, there's the chance that none of them are. I think that's the hardest part about picking down there late."

Quarterbacks and offensive tackles will come off the board early, and that will push other positions down. With the 26th pick being the Bucs' first selection this year, this could line up well with their biggest needs.

"We have a lot [of needs]," Licht said. "And that's OK, to have a lot of needs. I always like the trenches, and I think we need help in both trenches."

Specifically, the Bucs need upgrades at guard, center and outside linebacker. They signed offensive linemen Sua Opeta and Ben Bredeson to one-year deals in free agency -- but those are more depth signings -- and recently signed 31-year-old outside linebacker Randy Gregory, a former second-round draft pick.

"We wanted some depth there, but it's not going to affect how we approach the draft," Licht said of Gregory. "We could always use a higher-end pass-rusher -- I think every team can. It's not going to affect the way we approach it."

But how does the team factor in the depth of a class? For example, this class is considered much deeper at offensive line than it is at outside linebacker. Some prognosticators consider Alabama's Dallas Turner, UCLA's Laiatu Latu, Florida State's Jared Verse and Penn State's Chop Robinson as the top four edge rushers in this class, and there is somewhat of a dropoff after that.

For example, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper's latest two-round mock draft, did have the Bucs selecting Latu at 26, but the next edge rusher didn't come off the board until No. 61 -- the bottom of the second round -- with Penn State's Adisa Isaac.

"I guess when you feel certain positions are deeper, you feel maybe if you have a higher pick, maybe that's a position of need, but you can maybe take another position because you can still get one later on in the draft," Licht said. "But, at the end of the day, you still want to take the best player -- the player that you had the best feel for, especially collectively as a group.

"You wouldn't want to pass on a player, regardless of position, if you have a lot of love for him -- knowing even if that's a deep position. None of us know -- we don't have a crystal ball here. You can feel like a position is deep and then you can look back on it three years from now and maybe it wasn't so deep."

Defensive line shouldn't be excluded from the conversation, either. The Bucs have Vea and Kancey, but they've both missed time with injuries, and Logan Hall, the Bucs' second-round pick in 2022 hasn't blossomed as a pass-rusher in the way the team has hoped. Licht has also gone that direction twice in the first round when it wasn't as obvious of a need as prognosticators felt.

The team did sign outside cornerback Bryce Hall and nickelback Tavierre Thomas in free agency after trading Carlton Davis III to the Detroit Lions, but Licht said that doesn't mean they wouldn't consider one. It's considered a relatively deep class at corner, and they were able to get Zyon McCollum, who started nine games last season and will compete for a starting role, in the fifth round in 2022.

The Bucs did bring in Alabama's Kool-Aid McKinstry and Michigan's Mike Sainristil recently for visits.

"If there's a great cornerback that's sitting there, and he's staring us in the face and he's clearly a better player than what we have at other positions, it would be hard to resist," Licht said.

They also need to consider succession plans for Evans, who turns 31 in August, and Chris Godwin, who enters the third year of a three-year contract worth $60 million. They got great value in the sixth round last year in selecting Trey Palmer. He caught three touchdowns last season but had a large midseason lull.

Florida State's Keon Coleman and Western Kentucky's Malachi Corley, both wide receivers, came in for pre-draft visits.

"It's another position that you can't have too many of those," Licht said. "I think [offensive coordinator] Liam [Coen] can find a way to use a lot of very good receivers and playmakers. ... We really like Trey, and we like what [Rakim Jarrett] was showing before he got injured last year.

"It's another position that I would consider a need, and you can't fill them all right now in the draft, but we'd love to get one."