Saturday, January 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs draft focus includes pass rushers

INDIANAPOLIS — It's a simple formula to win in the NFL. You need a good quarterback and somebody who can put the other team's quarterback on the ground.

"You want to take the head off the snake, and the best way to do that is to get to him," general manager Jason Licht said.

Which is why, when it comes to finding pass rushers, the Bucs are snakebit.

Quarterbacks who faced Tampa Bay last season had a combined 102.5 passer rating with 31 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, tied for 21st in the league. That's not just facing Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Eli Manning. It's also Ryan Mallett, Matt Cassel and Case Keenum.

The roulette wheel of defensive backs last season also failed to keep receivers from running free.

After using 13 of their past 14 picks on offense the past two years — the exception being rookie middle linebacker Kwon Alexander — the NFL draft for the Bucs will be all about improving the defense, right?

"You would think so. What was it, 13 out of 14 have been offensive players the last two? But I think there's eight guys in there that look like they're going to be solid NFL starters," coach Dirk Koetter said. "So Jason and his guys have done an awesome job, and they also have not been afraid to move on from some guys that maybe didn't look like they were going to be that. So I think that's really good. We need to just have another one of those drafts. Look at Carolina. They have hit on their draft picks, and they've allowed those guys to grow up together. We're off to a good start. Now we have to add to it."

By now you know the Bucs have not had a player reach at least 10 sacks in a season since 2005 when Simeon Rice had 14. Rice turned 42 years old Wednesday. Since he played his last game for the Bucs in '06, they have drafted eight defensive ends, including the late Gaines Adams and Adrian Clayborn in the first round and Da'Quan Bowers in the second. The high-water mark by those players was 71/2 sacks by Clayborn as a rookie in 2011.

There also was the one who got away. Defensive end Michael Bennett, an undrafted player from Texas A&M, led the Bucs with nine sacks in 2012 but was allowed to walk for a one-year, $5 million contract with Seattle. In reality, the Bucs simply wanted to eliminate competition for Bowers. Bennett had 10 sacks for the Seahawks last season, 251/2 over the past three years with four forced fumbles.

Other than quarterback, an edge pass rusher might have the biggest bust rate high in the draft. The Bucs, who select ninth overall, might be out of range for the elite pass rushers: Ohio State's Joey Bosa or Oregon's DeForest Buckner.

That might force the Bucs to consider Noah Spence, who got kicked out of Ohio State and the Big Ten after two seasons for testing positive for the drug ecstasy, forcing him to finish his career at Division I-AA Eastern Kentucky. At the Senior Bowl, Spence stood out as a natural pass rusher and maybe the most talented in the draft.

"Luckily, we have some time before April 28," Licht said referring to the NFL draft. "We have a lot of players that we like that we think are going to be there at nine. We have a lot of work to do yet though, in terms of their background and things like that. So it's a little bit different this year where you're playing the chess match in your head: Who's going to be there? Who are they going to take? Right now, all the mock drafts and everything that you see is just pure guessing. We haven't even hit free agency yet, so some of those perceived picks in front of us will change."

Koetter already expects new defensive coordinator Mike Smith to dial up more pressure this season. You also have to wonder what four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy would do with some help from an outside rusher.

"In this day and age, because most teams are going to attack you with their quarterback, you've got to give the quarterback some different looks," Koetter said, careful to say he wasn't knocking the Tampa 2 scheme.

"The guys I've seen so far look solid. Again, pass rushers are hard to find," Cardinals GM Steve Keim said. "Quarterback, left tackle and pass rusher, to me, are the three hardest positions to find. It comes down to only so many people are walking the earth with the skill set to be big enough, athletic enough and have the traits to be able to rush the passer."

Since 2006, none of them have worn a Bucs uniform. This year, that has to stop.

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