The most important lesson Jameis Winston learned as a rookie was simply, in the NFL, you have to protect the football like a family heirloom. Why? • "Because you never know if you're going to get the ball back," the quarterback said. • Because the Bucs want to get the ball back to Winston as much as possible, something they struggled to do a year ago, their focus will be on defense when the NFL draft begins with the first round tonight. • Tampa Bay owns the No. 9 pick, which means there isn't as much buzz surrounding their first-round selection as there was in 2015 when Winston went No. 1 overall. • In fact, the Bucs have taken only one defensive player in the draft the past two years — LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander. • They hit a home run with Alexander, the team's second-leading tackler who was plucked in the fourth round. But the Bucs can't wait that long to address the two biggest needs on their team — a defensive lineman who can pressure the quarterback and a cornerback to stick to receivers.
Opposing quarterbacks completed 70 percent of their passes and threw 31 touchdowns against the Bucs last season. And while general manager Jason Licht added Giants free agent defensive end Robert Ayers and Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes, those guys are bridge players until some younger stars can take over.
"We put a lot of work in," coach Dirk Koetter said. "Jason and his guys have put a ton of work in, the coaches have put a ton of work in. My first time being in the role of head coach and seeing all stuff on the backside of the curtain over there … my first time watching a hundred defensive players on tape. I've never done that before, I've always been watching just offensive guys. I'm anxious to see how it plays out."
So who will be joining them? Even the Bucs won't be sure until they are on the clock.
It's helpful that the Rams and Eagles traded up to the top two spots in the draft, presumably to take Cal quarterback Jared Goff and North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz. That should push more defensive players toward the Bucs.
Fortunately for Tampa Bay, the draft is deep in defensive linemen and cornerbacks.
Most of the mock drafts at No. 9 have the Bucs taking Florida defensive back Vernon Hargreaves, a Tampa native. But Hargreaves is only 5 feet 10 with less than 31-inch arms, and he ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash. Those numbers might scare away some teams in the top 10, but his game film is pretty impressive, and he covered elite NFL receivers in the SEC such as Odell Beckham and Amari Cooper.
But the Bucs might favor another top-tier defensive back such as Houston's William Jackson or Ohio State's Eli Apple.
Putting pressure on the quarterback in an NFC South Division that includes Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan is paramount, and no Tampa Bay player has reached double-digit sacks in a season since defensive end Simeon Rice in 2005.
Four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is entering his seventh season and has little help. In addition to Ayers, defensive end Jacquies Smith has had trouble staying healthy and is not a three-down player. Inside, Clinton McDonald missed most of 2015 with a torn pectoral, and Akeem Spence will become a free agent.
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Finding an edge rusher is high on the wish list, and several should be in the Bucs' range, such as Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson, who had 20 sacks and 45 tackles for loss in three seasons. Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence may be the best pure pass rusher in the draft, but a drug issue got him kicked out of the Big Ten and Ohio State.
Defensive line coach Jay Hayes conducted a private workout with Oklahoma State defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, but he and Ohio State's Joey Bosa could be gone before the Bucs' turn.
Two years ago, Licht chose receiver Mike Evans instead of defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who went to the Rams. Donald is a two-time Pro Bowl player with 20 sacks. Evans is 12th in receiving yards over the past two seasons, but you could argue players such as Donald bring more value. That's why you can bet Louisville's Sheldon Rankins is on the Bucs' radar in the first round.
One common approach to the draft is to take the best player available. Depending on how it falls, that could be an offensive tackle such as Notre Dame's Ronnie Stanley or Michigan State's Jack Conklin. But the Bucs already have a pair of veteran right tackles in Demar Dotson and Gosder Cherilus.
Winston plans to greet the first-round pick with open arms.
"I can't wait. … I'm going to be like, 'Bro, be yourself.' That's the easiest way that you can have success quickly in this league," Winston said.
And get Winston the ball back.