Bucs expected to focus on the trenches in NFL draft

TAMPA — For Bucs general manager Jason Licht, there are specific traits that take precedence over talent when it comes to selecting a player in the NFL draft.

As a reminder, the identifiable qualities that Licht, assistant general managers John Spytek and Mike Greenberg and their scouting staff look for are listed to the left of a pair of grease boards in the team’s draft war room at Advent Health Training Center: Accountable, Competitive, Confident, Passionate, Resilient.

Above the boards, in giant capital letters, is the phrase, “I am that man.” To the right is a silhouette of a faceless Bucs player.

Not surprisingly, that heretofore unidentified player is linebacker Lavonte David, the 13th-year veteran who has put together a Pro Football Hall of Fame-worthy resume.

“He is the epitome of it. He is the poster child, literally, for us,” Licht said. “... He is the one that we look for every year. He is the standard.”

Those qualities will be prominent in Licht’s mind before the Bucs select a player with the No. 26 overall pick Thursday night.

Identifying which player will still be available is a little tougher. Even though the Bucs have been to the playoffs four straight seasons and won the NFC South for the third consecutive year, they may not be able to address all of their needs in this year’s draft.

“We have a lot (of needs), and that is OK to have a lot of needs,” Licht said. “I think that is a good thing, actually. We came very close to the NFC Championship game last year and still signed our guys back, and I think that shows that if you do it right over the next couple of years and even this year, we can compete.”

The most glaring needs are for an edge rusher and interior offensive lineman — either a center, guard or both. Licht’s first three selections in 2023 and his first two in 2022 were either offensive or defensive linemen.

The Bucs also need a third receiver for new coordinator Liam Coen’s offensive system, another running back to pair with Rachaad White, an inside linebacker to eventually replace David, another tight end, a nickel cornerback and one more safety.

“I always like the trenches, and I think we need help in both trenches,” Licht said. “… If there is a great corner that is sitting there and he is staring us in the face and he is clearly a better player than what we have at certain positions, then it would be hard to resist.”

The Bucs tried to fill some of their holes through free agency, which they dedicated mostly to re-signing their own high-profile free agents, such as quarterback Baker Mayfield, receiver Mike Evans and David, while using their franchise player designation on safety Antoine Winfield Jr.

They added former Eagles guard Sua Opeta and Giants offensive lineman Ben Bredeson, who could compete at guard or center. After trading cornerback Carlton Davis to Detroit for a third-round pick, the Bucs added Jets cornerback Bryce Hall and Texans defensive back Tavierre Thomas in free agency.

Since Licht became GM in 2014, the Bucs have drafted 10 offensive linemen, the last nine having played tackle in college. They successfully moved tackles such as Ali Marpet, Alex Cappa and Cody Mauch to guard. But Luke Goedeke was unable to make that transition.

The Bucs have never really replaced center Ryan Jensen or Marpet. Licht also has realized asking players to make that transition in the NFL is more difficult than people think.

“The guy, first of all, has to be tough,” Licht said. “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.”

While Robert Hainsey, who was a tackle at Notre Dame, has been adequate at center, the Bucs appear to have zeroed in on a few prospects who could replace him. They have spent significant time with three who might be worthy of the No. 26 pick: Duke’s Graham Barton, Oregon’s Jackson Powers-Johnson and Wisconsin’s Tanor Bortolini.

An even bigger need may be at edge rusher. Shaquil Barrett signed with the Dolphins as a free agent. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka has never eclipsed more than five sacks in a season. The Bucs love what they got from rookie Yaya Diaby, who had 7½ sacks in 2023.

Florida State’s Jared Verse, Penn State’s Chop Robinson or Western Michigan’s Marshawn Kneeland would be the Bucs’ primary targets among edge rushers that may still be available.

If the big men are gone, Licht may address the receiver position. Evans will be 31, and Chris Godwin is in the final year of his contract. The Bucs had Florida State receiver Keon Coleman in for a top-30 visit. They also like Georgia’s Ladd McConkey, who was coached by new Bucs assistant Bryan McClendon.

“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.”

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