Buccaneers relish opportunity to build through NFL draft

Tannenbaum: Brady saying he might want to return a 'massive statement' (1:02)

Mike Tannenbaum and Domonique Foxworth react to Tom Brady saying he isn't ruling out a return to football. (1:02)

TAMPA, Fla. -- Just three months ago, a retooled Tampa Bay Buccaneers team led by quarterback Baker Mayfield and featuring one of the youngest rosters in the NFL was in search of a Super Bowl dream that fell short in a 31-23 divisional playoff loss against the Detroit Lions.

Two things stood out that day aside from the earsplitting noise that engulfed Ford Field on every third down. First was the unrelenting pressure Mayfield faced from a Lions defense that pressured him a season-high 37% of his dropbacks. Second was a Bucs defense that failed to affect Lions quarterback Jared Goff.

How fitting that the Bucs would be back here seeking help to potentially get them over that hump, when the NFL draft kicks off Thursday (8 p.m. ET on ESPN, ABC, ESPN App).

Only one of the Bucs' 2023 draft selections didn't see action in that game -- outside linebacker Jose Ramirez, a sixth-round pick -- while three registered starts, with a fourth, tight end Payne Durham, getting a start in the wild-card round against the Philadelphia Eagles. Had they opened up in nickel, Christian Izien, an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers last season, would have gotten a start too. That's what happens when a team plays with $80 million in dead cap space and has to say goodbye to several high-priced stars.

"There are some years you're going to depend on them a little bit more, like we did last year," general manager Jason Licht said. "We're going to depend on this class, too. We're hoping to get some players that can come in and contribute and help us right away, like last year with Calijah [Kancey] and Yaya [Diaby] and Cody [Mauch] and Trey [Palmer]. We're hoping for that. It doesn't always work out that way -- sometimes it takes a little bit longer."

With the trenches being the biggest area of need, where will the Bucs turn to with the 26th overall pick?

There's still a significant void at the outside linebacker position after the departure of Shaquil Barrett. They also have not one, but two needs along the offensive line at center and left guard. Then there's cornerback, with the Bucs sending starter Carlton Davis III to the Lions in exchange for a third-round pick, while surrendering a sixth round-pick and a 2025 sixth-round selection. And they could look to the future at wide receiver with Chris Godwin entering the third and final year of his contract and Pro Bowler Mike Evans turning 31.

Along the offensive line, it's a talented class with several offensive tackles who could move inside, such as Troy Fautanu out of Washington, Alabama's J.C. Latham and Oklahoma's Tyler Guyton. Duke's Graham Barton spent three seasons as a left tackle but he's likely moving to center or guard, with Oregon's Jackson Powers-Johnson considered one of the top players at the position as well.

The Bucs have shown a knack for converting college tackles to interior offensive linemen with Ali Marpet out of Hobart and Alex Cappa out of Humbolt State, and they've done so with success. But Luke Goedeke's struggles in 2022 before he settled into the right tackle spot, and center Robert Hainsey's challenges in pass and run blocking demonstrate that, as Licht put it, "It's not as easy as people think."

"Some people think, 'Just move a guy inside and it'll work out,'" Licht said. "The guy, first of all, has to be tough. He has to be able to have a lot of reactive athleticism because bullets are flying a lot quicker inside. You have people coming at you from different directions, as opposed to just coming off the edge. You have to be instinctive, smart, tough; you have to be able to bend, you have to be able to anchor, you have to have some stoutness, you have to be able to play with your cleats in the ground. There's a lot of things that go into it."

At edge, there's Alabama's Dallas Turner, UCLA's Laiatu Latu, Florida State defense end Jared Verse -- and all three could be immediate impact starters, with Latu the best pure pass-rusher of the three. But considering they're all in ESPN analysts Mel Kiper's top 20 picks and Jordan Reid's top 15, they might not make it to No. 26. That would leave Penn State edge rusher Chop Robinson, whose got off-the-charts speed with a 4.48 40-yard dash at the NFL combine (1.54 10-yard split was the fastest of any player his size over the past two decades). But he saw limited production with just 11.5 sacks in two seasons with the Nittany Lions and one at Maryland.

"I think with all players we don't necessarily ... I mean, you look at the stats. They're good to look at, but you look at just the raw skill and potential," Licht said. "They're all raw at this point. There are very few that are just the complete product. I think you just have to look at the potential for all of them. We have ways of grading other than production."

Would they consider trading down if they got to Robinson and instead selected Marshawn Kneeland out of Western Michigan, who has a nonstop motor but also has questions about his own production, or perhaps Robinson's Penn State teammate Adisa Isaac? Missouri's Darius Robinson did have the production with 8.5 sacks last season when lining up on the edge, and he was a two-year captain -- something the Bucs really value -- but he may have a lower ceiling.

As far as cornerbacks, there is Iowa's Cooper DeJean, who has the skills the Bucs cornerbacks so desperately need but may very well be off the board at No. 26. There's Alabama's Kool-Aid McKinstry, whom they did bring in for a top-30 visit, and there's Nate Wiggins, whom they met with at the combine.

And there may be a surprise pick at an area not perceived as a need -- like a defensive tackle such as Texas' Byron Murphy II, whom they did bring in for a visit, or Jer'Zhan Newton of Illinois -- which is what happened last year with Kancey as he never came for a visit.

It even caught Kancey by surprise.

"I didn't have a feeling at all," Kancey said. "I mean I met with the Bucs at the combine but other than that, hadn't talked to them. ... I asked my agent like, 'Man, why nobody like wanna call me in for a 30 visit? What's going on? I was really stressed out. It was hard. I was like, 'Damn, am I even going first round still?' You never know."

Licht said Kancey was the last player available on the Bucs' list of five to seven players they were hoping would be there. "We were happy with that," he said with a smile.

The reason they might draft another defensive tackle is because of inside pressures in Bowles' defense. That was one of the major keys to defeating Patrick Mahomes in Super Bowl LV. Kancey and nose tackle Vita Vea both missed time with injuries, and what may not be a need today could emerge as one tomorrow, a la Ryan Jensen's career-ending knee injury and Marpet's abrupt retirement.

Against the Lions, Kancey wound up forcing a third-down incompletion on Goff, sacking him on a third-and-1 and had a run stuff of David Montgomery. Diaby led the Bucs with 7.5 sacks last season, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries but did not make a statistical impact in that game.

"I think Goff's my favorite quarterback," Kancey joked. "That's something we wanna do. We wanna finish the game. ... There were times he got the ball off, and I was mad. I should have got him. But it was a great experience."

All have eyes on improving next year as the Bucs travel to Detroit to face the Lions for the third time in two years. Licht looks forward to seeing the impact this year's draft class can make.

"One of the things I love about Todd and his staff is that they're not afraid to coach up a rookie and put him out there," Licht said. "We saw that last year. It's very comforting as a GM to know that your coaching staff loves the challenge of getting rookies ready to go."