TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have their building blocks in place on offense, with several coming from the last two drafts.
Quarterback Jameis Winston and guard Ali Marpet were selected last season. Receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins were drafted in 2014. Add in the contract extension signed by running back Doug Martin, who was second in the NFL in rushing in 2015, and the signing of guard J.R. Sweezy in free agency, and the Bucs have a pretty good offensive nucleus.
Now it’s time to start adding to the defense in the draft. The Bucs have selected just one defensive player in the last two years: linebacker Kwon Alexander in the fourth round last year.
Though that’s expected to be the plan next week, general manager Jason Licht was non-committal when recently asked about it.
"We’ve spent a lot of time on defensive players in this year’s draft, whether bringing them in or working them out," Licht said. "It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to pick a defensive player at nine. We did some things in free agency that gave us some flexibility.
"We have several needs on this team. We need to get better. There’s no getting around that. We still strive to pick players where ‘best available’ and ‘need’ intersect."
The Bucs’ top two defensive needs were cornerback and defensive end and they addressed both in free agency, though neither player signed is viewed as a long-term solution. Cornerback Brent Grimes has been one of the league’s more productive players (13 interceptions the last three seasons) but turns 33 in July. Defensive end Robert Ayers turns 31 in September and he has had 19.5 sacks in the last three seasons, including 9.0 in 2015. Before 2015, he had never had more than 5.5 sacks in a season.
The Bucs could go several directions with the ninth overall pick. Former Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who is a Tampa native, is the most popular pick in most mock drafts. Another possibility is former Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson. Both will certainly help improve one of the worst pass defenses the NFL in 2015.
The Bucs gave up 31 touchdown passes and opposing QBs completed an NFL-high 70 percent of their passes and had a 102.5 passer rating, which was worse than all but one team (New Orleans, 116.2). Better play in the secondary would help, but so would a better pass rush. A good pass rush can make up for a shaky secondary more than a good secondary can make up for a lack of a pass rush.
The Bucs do have some good, young players on defense, starting with Alexander. He finished second on the team with 93 tackles and had 3.0 sacks, nine pass breakups, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles despite being suspended for the final four games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
Linebacker Lavonte David, Tampa’s second-round pick in 2012, is coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he had 147 tackles, 3.0 sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the No. 3 overall pick in 2010, had 34 tackles and 8.5 sacks last season and made his fourth Pro Bowl despite dealing with hand and shoulder injuries throughout the season.
Alexander said they should thrive in defensive coordinator Mike Smith’s system, which he said will be significantly more aggressive than the one the Bucs ran under head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
But they need help, and Licht is expected to find some in this draft, which is regarded as deep with defensive talent. He’s just not saying much about it.
"We’re still looking for really good football players at the end of the day," Licht said. "I know it sounds vanilla, but from my chair, from our scouts, we’re looking for great football players that have a great mindset and have what we call the Buc mentality.
"That’s what we’re looking for."