Could Bucs get their edge back in the pass rush at NFL draft?

TAMPA — When the Bucs signed 49ers free agent Randy Gregory earlier this month, there may have been a perception that acquiring an edge rusher was no longer a top priority for them in the NFL draft.

But general manager Jason Licht slammed that notion with all the subtlety of a blindside hit on a quarterback.

“We were just looking for some depth there, however it turns out,” Licht said. “I think he even answered that he didn’t have his (mind) set on being a starter. He just wants to contribute. He has to earn it. We wanted some depth there, but it’s not going to affect how we approach the draft. We could always use a higher-end pass rusher. I think every team can..”

The Bucs have been remarkably consistent when it comes to compiling sacks under Todd Bowles, who has called defensive plays since arriving as Bruce Arians’ defensive coordinator in 2019. They had 47 that year, 48 in 2020 (when they won Super Bowl 55), 47 in 2021, 45 in 2022 and 48 in 2023.

What’s changed is how they are getting them.

Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who was released by the Bucs and signed with the Dolphins in March, led the NFL with 19½ sacks in 2019. His bookend mate, Jason Pierre-Paul, added 8½. That’s 28 of 47 sacks coming from the starting edge rushers. Linebackers Lavonte David (one sack) and Devin White (2½) combined for only 3½.

But since then, the Bucs have had only one edge rusher reach double-digit sacks: Barrett with 10 in 2021. Meanwhile, they picked up the slack with an array of blitzes that got home. White had nine sacks in 2020, and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. last season had six, most of any defensive back in the league.

“I was frustrated with the four-man pressure,” Bowles said. “The pressure that we get when we go five or more (pass rushers) is outstanding. Now, we’ve missed some or we’ve fallen off them. But the four-man pressure at times went stale, and they had too much time to throw the football that resulted in a lot of big plays in the secondary.”

Outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka’s five sacks last season was his career high. The Bucs are high on Yaya Diaby, who had 7½ sacks as a rookie. Still, they would be blessed if an outside pass rusher worthy of a first-round pick was there when they select 26th overall.

“The good thing is all of them played,” Bowles said of the team’s current group of rushers. “We don’t have anybody who’s going to play for the first time. Even (Markees) Watts played some snaps. Yaya played a ton of snaps. Joe played a ton of snaps, (Anthony) Nelson played a ton of snaps, and Cam (Gill) played a lot of snaps.

“We’ve got guys that played. You’re always looking for pass rushers and you never turn them, down but we’re confident in the guys we have.”

Confident, but not complacent.

To that end, the Bucs had top-30 prospect visits with Florida State outside linebacker Jared Verse and Western Michigan edge rusher Marshawn Kneeland, and met with Penn State’s Chop Robinson at the NFL scouting combine.

Verse was a late bloomer with only a Football Championship Subdivision offer when he came out of high school at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds. After a couple of seasons at Albany, he transferred to Florida State, where he had nine sacks in each of his two seasons.

With the Seminoles, Verse said, he learned the technical details that will matter in the NFL.

”Just the slightest tilt to my foot, my hand being a little bit more by my side instead of being too far out in front of me and just learning that stuff,” he said at the combine. “... It’s made me so much of a better player. I don’t think I can even compare to the player I was in 2022.”

Robinson, who transferred from Maryland, produced only 11½ sacks and 20 tackles for loss in his final three collegiate seasons, including the last two at Penn State. He has a high ceiling, but does he sound too much like Tryon-Shoyinka?

Because he went to Penn State, Robinson hears comparisons to Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons.

“I like Micah. I’ve been watching Micah since I was in high school,” Robinson said. “So, to see how hard he played, it was very relentless, very consistent with everything he does. So, I try to pattern my game after him.”

Kneeland’s stock is rising, and he is being talked about as a late first-round pick though he never had more than 4½ sacks in any season.

Suffice to say, the Bucs may be thrilled if any of these players are still available at No. 26. They do own the Lions’ third-round pick for trading cornerback Carlton Davis if they need currency to move up.

The draft may not fall right for the Bucs, but perhaps only an interior offensive lineman would fill a need comparable to what drafting an edge rusher in the early rounds would do.

Barrett is gone. The Bucs have never seen a pass rusher have the kind of season he did in 2019.

“It’s one of the best I’ve seen, especially that I’ve coached,” Bowles said. “He came in, hair on fire. He had a point to prove. He got by every offensive tackle in the league. He helped us with the (Super) Bowl run, he’s a big part of the success we’ve had the last five years, and that doesn’t go unnoticed.”

But how do they replace him?

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