2019 NFL draft: The Buccaneers have been building their defense wrong. Here’s a fix.

They might want to follow the lead of the Patriots, whose blueprint is the complete opposite.
The Bucs' salary cap management amuses Patriots coach Bill Belichick. [CBS]
The Bucs' salary cap management amuses Patriots coach Bill Belichick. [CBS]
Published April 8, 2019|Updated April 8, 2019

In Super Bowl LIII in February, the Rams, down 10-3 late in the fourth quarter, were in Patriots territory. A potential touchdown pass had just slipped through Brandin Cooks’ hands.

On second and 10, quarterback Jared Goff looked Cooks’ way again as he sprinted toward the end zone. But New England, sensing that Los Angeles would take another deep shot, sent safety Duron Harmon on a blitz. Goff rushed his throw, and as the pass began its descent, cornerback Stephon Gilmore jumped in front of Cooks and snatched the ball out of the air. The interception, which sealed the Patriots’ sixth Super Bowl championship in 18 years, was a textbook example of the interdependence of a defense’s pass rush and its pass coverage.

The prevailing narrative about Super Bowl LIII was that New England put on a defensive clinic, that Rams boy wonder Sean McVay was no match for Patriots cerebral tactician Bill Belichick. That might be so, but the game also revealed a significant shift in NFL strategy, a shift we easily could overlook while we’re busy deifying Belichick. It’s not as if his blueprint for success is locked away in the bunker of his Nantucket compound. No, it’s on display for all to see.

And that blueprint? It’s the complete opposite of whatever it is the Buccaneers are following.

The blueprint is this: Invest heavily in your secondary and gives what’s left to the defensive line.

That’s how the Patriots operate. And it has paid off.

Case in point: In March 2017, New England re-signed Harmon, a 2013 third-round pick, then added Gilmore, one of the best free agents available. Tampa Bay’s most notable defensive acquisition that offseason, by the way, was defensive tackle Chris Baker.

As Robert Mays wrote recently for the Ringer, “anyone who studies how Bill Belichick and Co. allocate resources can see that New England never, ever breaks the bank for a pass rusher. When star defensive end Trey Flowers hit free agency this spring, Belichick was content to let him sign with the Lions on a monster five-year, $90 million deal with a whopping $56 million guaranteed.”

Mays found that none of the past four Patriots teams to appear in the Super Bowl ranked higher than 23rd in percentage of cap space allocated to edge rushers. In 2018, they ranked 30th at 5.7 percent, according to Spotrac.

The Bucs in 2018? They ranked fourth at a whopping 20.4 percent. The return on their investment: a defense that generated pressure at the second-lowest rate (the Raiders, who traded Khalil Mack, were worse).

This season, New England, because of its trade for Michael Bennett, ranks 17th at 14.6 percent. Tampa Bay ranks third at 20.7 percent, the largest chunk of which ($14.9 million) it is allocating to Jason Pierre-Paul.

Meanwhile, the Patriots remain as committed as ever to their secondary. They’re dedicating almost a quarter of their salary cap to their cornerbacks and safeties, a percentage that ranks second to only the Ravens.

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Guess who is at the other end of the spectrum. The Bucs’ investment is not even a third of the Patriots’. They rank dead last at 7.2 percent.

Why does this matter? Quarterbacks are neutralizing edge rushers. They’re throwing the ball before the edge rushers can get to them. This is of particular importance to Tampa Bay, which will feature an aggressive scheme this season that will leave its defensive backs in man coverage.

It’s not as if the Bucs have completely ignored their secondary. They drafted Vernon Hargreaves in the first round in 2016, Justin Evans in the second round in 2017 and M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis in the second round in 2018.

Here’s the thing: They’re all question marks.

Maybe Hargreaves, who excels in press coverage, will rediscover his confidence in Todd Bowles’ defense.

Maybe the boom-or-bust Evans is more boom than bust.

Maybe Stewart will find that he’s better suited to play safety than cornerback.

Maybe Davis, who surrendered four touchdowns and allowed a 113.3 passer rating as a rookie, will make major strides in his sophomore season.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

Bowles’ best defenses were his Cardinals defenses in 2013 and 2014. He had Patrick Peterson, an All-Pro. He has nowhere near that caliber of player on this defense. At least not yet.

When it’s the Bucs’ turn to pick at the NFL draft in a couple of weeks, they’ll have the option of choosing Greedy Williams, the cornerback from LSU, or Deandre Baker, the cornerback from Georgia. Most analysts, however, are expecting them to take either LSU linebacker Devin White or Mississippi State defensive end Montez Sweat. Here’s a roundup of the latest predictions:

Will Brinson, CBS Sports: White

“Just an easy connection to make here. White fits the type of linebacker you would expect Bowles to covet and there’s a clear need here after the departure of Kwon Alexander, even if the team added Shaq Barrett and Deone Bucannon in free agency.”

Walter Cherepinsky, Sweat

“Sweat was considered a top-eight lock prior to a report that he was medically flagged for a heart condition at the combine. Something like this caused Maurice Hurst to plummet in the 2018 NFL draft, but it doesn’t sound like Sweat’s condition is nearly as serious.”

Charles Davis, White

“I still believe that Sweat is a strong possibility here, but with Alexander now in San Francisco, Tampa Bay reloads with another LSU sideline-to-sideline speed merchant who thumps.”

Luke Easterling, USA Today’s The Draft Wire: Ed Oliver, defensive tackle, Houston

(Easterling projects the Bucs will trade the No. 5 pick to the Bengals for the No. 11 pick.) “It’s no secret Gerald McCoy’s future appears to be in question, and this draft is the perfect chance for the Bucs to find an elite prospect to replace him. After moving back six spots and adding multiple premium picks, the Bucs still manage to land one of this year’s top overall prospects in Oliver.”

Cynthia Frelund, White

“Alexander signed in San Francisco, further depleting a defense that allowed a league-worst 110.9 passer rating last season. Adding my model’s highest-impact linebacker — and the one whose coverage potential is the greatest at the next level — moves the Buccaneers’ win-total needle the most.”

Vinny Iyer, Sporting News: Sweat

“Sweat crushed his combine workouts, running the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds and recording a vertical of 36 inches, which is ridiculous at his size (6-6, 260 pounds). He translates that into relentless pursuit of the passer, and Bowles will put him in positions to produce in a 3-4 defense right away.”

Danny Kelly, the Ringer: Sweat

“High-cut defensive end who knows how to use his Mister Fantastic wingspan and extraordinary explosiveness to beat blocks.”

Mel Kiper, ESPN: White

“White could be a replacement for Alexander, who joined San Francisco in free agency. Defensive end is another position to watch here.”

Robert Klemko, Sports Illustrated: Quinnen Williams, defensive tackle, Alabama

“McCoy’s slowed production in this defense showed in 2018, as the Bucs finished 24th in rushing yards allowed. Adding Pierre-Paul in 2018 provided a huge boost for the pass rush; now it’s time to complete the defensive line with an interior force like Williams.”

Todd McShay, ESPN: White

“White would be a great fit as the Bucs' defensive quarterback. His high-end instincts and speed helped him to 123 tackles in 2018.”

Steve Palazzolo, Pro Football Focus: Jonah Williams, offensive guard/tackle, Alabama

“There are still some question marks at guard, going to go Jonah Williams, he could play guard, but not just because his arms are short, there is obviously starting tackle ability there.”

Chris Trapasso, CBS Sports: Quinnen Williams

“While the Buccaneers are reportedly shopping McCoy, giving Bowles a force like Williams to add to McCoy and 2018 first-round selection Vita Vea on the defensive line would be something to see.”

Ryan Wilson, CBS Sports: Devin Bush, linebacker, Michigan

“Offensive line is an obvious need for the Bucs but Bush's pre-draft workouts have seen him rocket up the draft board. Some teams even like him better than White.”

Mock draft tracker

Will Brinson, CBS Sports: Devin White, linebacker, LSU (last update: April 8)

Bucky Brooks, Devin White (March 25)

Charley Casserly, Clelin Ferrell, defensive end, Clemson (Feb. 25)

Walter Cherepinsky, Montez Sweat, defensive end, Mississippi State (April 8)

Charles Davis, Devin White (April 8)

Nate Davis, USA Today: Montez Sweat (March 25)

Jared Dubin, CBS Sports: Brian Burns, defensive end, Florida State (April 2)

Luke Easterling, USA Today’s Draft Wire: Ed Oliver, defensive tackle, Houston (April 8)

Doug Farrar, USA Today’s Touchdown Wire: Devin White (April 2)

Cynthia Frelund, Devin White (April 8)

Vinny Iyer, Sporting News: Montez Sweat (April 8)

Daniel Jeremiah, Montez Sweat (March 11)

Kalyn Kahler, Sports Illustrated: Quinnen Williams, defensive tackle, Alabama (April 8)

Brad Kelly, the Draft Network: Devin White (April 2)

Danny Kelly, the Ringer: Montez Sweat (April 8)

Mel Kiper, ESPN: Devin White (April 8)

Robert Klemko, Sports Illustrated: Quinnen Williams (April 8)

Todd McShay, ESPN: Devin White (April 8)

Matt Miller, Bleacher Report: Quinnen Williams (March 25)

Conor Orr, Sports Illustrated: Devin White (March 25)

Steve Palazzolo, Pro Football Focus: Jonah Williams, offensive guard/tackle, Alabama (April 8)

Pete Prisco, CBS Sports: Devin White (April 8)

Chad Reuter, Josh Allen (April 2)

Peter Schrager, Good Morning Football host: Devin White (April 2)

Benjamin Solak, the Draft Network: Devin White (March 18)

Mike Tanier, Bleacher Report: Devin White (March 3)

Chris Trapasso, CBS Sports: Quinnen Williams (April 8)

Ryan Wilson, CBS Sports: Devin Bush, linebacker, Michigan (April 8)

Lance Zierlein, Devin White (March 25)

Past Mock Draft Mondays

Feb. 11: A lesson from the Bucs’ 1995 draft

Feb. 18: How the Kyler Murray decision and the Joe Flacco trade shake up the first round

Feb. 25: How does Gerald McCoy’s return affect the Bucs’ draft plans?

March 4: The hidden reason why the Bucs always have a top 10 pick

March 11: Why the Bucs No. 1 priority should be cornerback

March 18: Will Devin White be Kwon Alexander 2.0?

March 25: Don’t fall in love

April 2: Bucs trade-down scenarios

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contract figures are from Spotrac. Contact Thomas Bassinger at Follow @tometrics.