TAMPA — When the Bucs passed on Kentucky defensive end Josh Allen, one of the nation’s premier pass rushers with 17 sacks, to select LSU inside linebacker Devin White No. 5 overall in the NFL draft Thursday, collective groans could be heard from Tierra Verde to Temple Terrace.
The thought of the Bucs bypassing a position with such a high value as edge rusher shocked the senses of those who have been led to believe a player who can get the quarterback on the ground has the most value. Tampa Bay fans had watched its team go 13 years without a Bucs player recording double-digit sacks in a season until Jason Pierre-Paul broke that streak with 121/2 last year.
Arians, however, says the emphasis is different in the 3-4 scheme they plan to run.
“That value bull---- about linebackers? They don’t know our defense, first of all,’’ coach Bruce Arians said of his detractors.
Under Arians, the Bucs defense is being remodeled, if not rebuilt. The draft was proof of that as the first five players and six of eight overall selected were on defense.
Not only did Arians inherit a team that allowed 29 points per game, but the Bucs play in the NFC South where running backs such as the Saints’ Alvin Kamara and the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey can’t be corralled in the open field by pass rushers.
It takes a centerpiece in defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ scheme to bring the renovations up to 2019 standards. The tired read and react zone scheme that was Charmin soft will be replaced with speed, versatility and an attacking man-to-man mentality.
That’s why Arians said he settled on drafting White six weeks ago.
“We blitz up the middle a ton and when you watch him come off the edge, he is really special,” Arians said. “And we’re going to use that with (linebacker) Lavonte (David) more than we have in the past. I think our fans and everybody thinks we’re in a 4-3 defense, which is not what we play.”
But Arians didn’t stop there.
Although known as an offensive head coach, Arians allowed general manager Jason Licht to focus on defense in the draft and the result was the selection of White, three defensive backs, a defensive end and a defensive tackle.
“It’s one of the many things I love about Bruce,’’ Licht said. “When he first came on board we both knew we needed to address that side of the ball and being an offensive guy that he is usually, I was a little afraid that he would say, ‘screw it, let’s go all offense.’ But he really understands the concept of building the team.”
The three defensive backs they drafted last year combined for 40 games and had zero interceptions.
So this weekend, Licht took another swing at it with Arians. The Bucs drafted three more defensive backs: Central Michigan cornerback Sean Bunting (second round/39th overall), Auburn cornerback Jamel Dean (3/94) and Kentucky defensive back Mike Edwards (3/99).
“You’re just always trying to get better and it’s not really an indictment on the guys that are here,’’ Licht said. “It’s a long season and you guys have seen firsthand throughout the years — last couple years — when injuries start stacking up and our depth wasn’t where we would like it to be. We needed to add and infuse some talent in the secondary.’’
Bowles’ scheme relies on pressure that’s as unpredictable as it is unrelenting. When David or White are asked to blitz, a defensive end has to be versatile enough to drop into pass coverage.
Unlike some teams that rely on their defensive line to bring the heat, Bowles loves the double A-gap blitz with his linebackers. That puts pressure on the safeties to cover.
“Position flexibility is huge for us,’’ Arians said. “Obviously, (White) is a three-down player. He can walk out on the edge and do some things. He can cover backs. He can cover the great backs man to man. With all the spread that’s coming in, there’s no quarterback that is going to outrun him.’’
The Bucs will need to avoid the 2018 defensive debacles where they struggled to cover backs like Chicago’s Tarik Cohen and Taylor Gabriel and Carolina’s McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel.
At 6 feet, 238 pounds with 4.4 speed in the 40, White possesses the strength to stop the run and the speed to blitz the quarterback or cover running backs and tight ends.
“You don’t draft for need,’’ Arians said. “But when the need and the player match? Man, you hit a home run. Well, this is one of those home runs. This is a grand slam.”
White will be key, but the Bucs used what little salary cap room they had to bring back linebacker Kevin Minter and add linebackers Shaq Barrett on the outside and Deone Bucannon on the inside. Minter, drafted by Arians and cut by Bowles last year with the Jets, re-signed with the Bucs for one-year, $895,000. Barrett, a former Broncos outside linebacker, signed a one-year, $4-million deal. Bucannon, who played with the Cardinals last year, got one-year, $2.5-million.
To pay for the refurbishing, the Bucs will likely have to cut or trade defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, a pillar of their defense for the past nine seasons. McCoy is due to make $13 million in 2019, but the money is not guaranteed. Tampa Bay is last in the league in cap space with $1.79 million.
The Bucs are banking a lot on Bowles and his coaching staff to develop players and implement a pressure scheme that will work in the quarterback-rich NFC South.
And they’re also banking on White, a 21-year-old rookie who possesses the physical skills and intangible attitude Arians covets.
“Those are all people that I can take down and get them on the ground,” White said. “Cam Newton, the bigger you are the harder you fall. Matt Ryan, I don’t think he can outrun me. And Drew Brees, I definitely don’t think he can outrun me. He can get it out quick, but I can get in the passing lanes and I can hold his guys. I’m ready to accept the challenge. You know the bigger the challenge, the better I play. I told [the Bucs] last night: pressure either busts pipes or makes diamonds. For me it makes diamonds.”
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLStroud.