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Devin White will make the Bucs better, but will he make them a playoff team?

Tampa Bay had a chance to draft a higher impact player on the edge, but went with a safer pick at inside linebacker.
LSU linebacker Devin White (40) will be counted on as the quarterback of the Bucs' 3-4 defense in Tampa Bay. (AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)
Published Apr. 26
Updated Apr. 26

TAMPA – Great kid. Good player. Wrong pick.

That’s probably an unfair assessment. Chances are, Devin White is going to be a fine NFL football player and, 10 years from now, may be celebrated as a Tampa Bay icon.

But he’s an inside linebacker in an era when that position is more blue-collar than bright lights. Defensive linemen? They change teams. Outside linebackers? They impact opposing game plans.

Inside linebackers? They’re more like a bass player than a lead guitarist. They’re an important part of a good defense, but they’re not usually chosen in the top five picks of the NFL Draft.

In that sense, drafting White feels like settling for a safe pick

You see, most everyone agrees White will be an asset in any team’s huddle. He’s the kind of solid, high energy player who will hold those around him accountable. He’ll probably lead the Bucs in tackles in 2019, and may get mentioned on some all-rookie teams.

But will he make a big enough difference?

Because it’s been a while since a Tampa Bay draft has truly changed anything. The 2018 draft didn’t. Neither did 2016 or “17. The 2015 draft will eventually be franchise-defining, but that could still go in either direction depending entirely on Jameis Winston.

That means the Bucs cannot afford to merely get a longtime starter with this pick. For a team in an 11-year playoff drought, the No. 5 pick has to be a difference maker.“

That’s why we took him when we did,’’ said general manager Jason Licht. “We felt he was one of the better inside linebackers we’ve seen in a long time coming out of college.’’

So what should Tampa Bay have done?

Josh Allen, one of the best edge rushers in the draft, was available at No. 5. So was Ed Oliver, a potentially dominant defensive tackle. Both are probably higher risk choices, but also have higher upsides.

Now I could be completely wrong. In fact, chances are I’m just some doofus with no real insight. On the other hand, I’ve drafted just as many Pro Bowl players as Tampa Bay has in the past three years.

“We went through a lot of exercises. We’ve talked about these guys over and over,’’ Licht said. “We’ve watched every play they made in college and we felt very comfortable we made the right decision. Devin is a linebacker but he’s also an attacking player. He’s a pressure type linebacker. He can get to the quarterback as well.’’

White had been linked to the Bucs often in the weeks before the draft. The consensus was he would be a smart pick to step into the role vacated by Kwon Alexander.

That’s actually a troubling thought. Alexander was a fine player, completely worthy of the millions thrown his way in San Francisco. But do not romanticize his value in Tampa Bay.

The Bucs gave up an average of 25.5 points per game during his four years here. Cleveland and San Francisco are the only teams that surrendered more points.

By himself, Alexander was not a difference maker. And that has something to do with the position he played. There is a reason there have been more than twice as many defensive linemen than linebackers chosen in the first round in the past decade. It’s simply a question of value.

When people talk about White, they often call him a sideline to sideline player. The Bucs do not need another player who makes tackles a few yards downfield. They need players who make tackles in the backfield, or keep the quarterback from completing passes.

The past two seasons, Tampa Bay is near the bottom of the NFL with 60 sacks, which goes a long way toward explaining why opposing quarterbacks have a 102.6 passer rating against the Bucs.

Getting a younger, slightly better version of Kwon Alexander is not going to change that.

How many Tampa Bay first-rounders have met expectations, let alone exceeded them in the last 10 years? You’ve got Mike Evans in 2014. Gerald McCoy in 2010. Maybe Doug Martin, and potentially Winston. That means most of the first-rounders have been disappointments to some degree.

I have a feeling White will actually live up to expectations.

I’m just not sure the expectations are high enough.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.

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