Bucs GM Licht heads into Year 4 confident, focused

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht chat before an NFL football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht chat before an NFL football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La.
Published March 3, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS — Jason Licht knows you can't build a Super Bowl contender in a day, but you better be laying bricks every hour.

That's why the Bucs general manager has taken more laps in Indianapolis this week than an Indy car. There are weigh-ins and workouts to attend in the morning. Agents to meet in the afternoon. Players to interview at night. Rinse, repeat.

The NFL scouting combine is the exhausting unofficial start of the 2017 season, which will be the fourth for Licht in Tampa Bay.

His fourth year of free agency. His fourth draft. He has his franchise quarterback and his handpicked coach.

It's, well, Licht years from when he came aboard in 2014 and held his nose while signing players such as Josh McCown, Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson.

"We've done a much better job of bringing in the right type of guy and, with the vetting process, using our resources to find out about the guy," Licht said. "That's something that the first year I should've done a better job with. I'd be the first to admit that."

The job Licht has done for the Bucs hasn't been good enough to break their playoff drought, now at nine years. But the Bucs are coming off a 9-7 record, the first season under Dirk Koetter as coach. And it appears Licht's labors are finally bearing fruit.

Sixteen of the 22 starters last year came to the Bucs through the draft or as rookie free agents. All that is left is to put the finishing touches on a young, strong core of players.

"Dirk and I have a lot of conversations, and we're on the same page here, and he said at the end of the year that we had to add playmakers," Licht said. "So we'll always look to add playmakers to this team, to surround Jameis (Winston) with guys who can make plays. That's not to say we don't have that now, but you can always have more."

Licht isn't tipping his hand, but it's pretty clear the Bucs' priorities are adding a running back and a No. 2 receiver.

Fortunately for the Bucs, this year's draft class is loaded with both in the early rounds. Perhaps it's just that the NFL is a copycat league, but ball carriers are back in vogue with the success of Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott last season.

LSU's Leonard Fournette, Florida State's Dalvin Cook and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey are expected to be selected in the first round, and it's possible one of them could fall to the Bucs at the No. 19 overall pick.

If not, there are sticky-hand receivers such as Clemson's Mike Williams, Western Michigan's Corey Davis and Washington's John Ross who would look good in pewter and red.

If you were listing the Bucs' biggest needs, the consensus would be running back, receiver and safety, because starting safeties Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald are free agents.

"(The draft) matches up to what we think are some areas (where) we need help (for) our team," Licht said. "We really like the running back class, like the receiver class, safeties and defensive line. It's really deep at corner. There's more tight ends that I can remember in a long time. It's a very, very deep draft."

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Missing from that list of needs is offensive linemen, and that may surprise you. Licht and Koetter seem comfortable standing pat on the offensive line. Tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet have two years under their belts. The Bucs have flexibility in their interior line, and guard J.R. Sweezy has been cleared to return to work.

"Dirk and I and our staff, we're not down on our offensive line," Licht said. "Yeah, there's some things we need to do to clean up our overall play, and I think the players would say the same thing. We've got to cut down on the penalties. But overall, we're in a good place in terms of our mind-set right now."

The Bucs have more than $66 million of salary cap space, fifth most in the NFL. But some of that money will be held back for future extensions for young stars such as Winston and receiver Mike Evans.

"Every penny that we save now is going to be money we put to use in the future," Licht said.

And the future for the Bucs appears brighter than it has in almost a decade.

KOETTER TO KEEP calling plays: Koetter is expected to remain the primary play caller, but, he said, he will expand the duties of offensive coordinator and receivers coach Todd Monken. "It's time we start giving Todd more and more responsibility," Koetter said. "But when it comes down to the play calling, that's something I really like and enjoy doing. We're going to let that go a little bit longer, but we'll see."