'I'm Calijah Kancey': Why Aaron Donald comparisons can be fair (and unfair) for the Bucs' first-round pick

DT Calijah Kancey impresses with a 4.7 40-yard dash (0:21)

Calijah Kancey starts the combine with a bang as he runs a 4.78, the fastest defensive lineman time so far in the 2023 draft. (0:21)

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' newest first-round pick, Calijah Kancey, is not Aaron Donald.

There are a lot of similarities that are hard to shake -- same college (Pittsburgh), same position (defensive tackle), about the same (under) size (6-foot-1 at around 280 pounds) and an undeniable chip on their shoulders from being the underdog.

Though the rookie considers it a "great comparison," he puts it simply: "I’m Calijah Kancey."

"I think it's always unfair to compare a player to a several time All-Pro and first ballot Hall of Famer,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht said of Kancey being likened to the Los Angeles Rams' star, "but you can see some of the similarities in the way he plays. [They are] undersized but super explosive, super competitive [and have] off-the-charts athleticism.”

That last attribute is something that the Bucs have been looking for at defensive tackle since Todd Bowles took over the defense in 2019, even before he ascended to head coach in 2022. They’ve had bigger bodies who can take up space, but they were looking for speed and quickness, something to bring a jolt to the defense -- one that runs a similar scheme to what Donald has thrived in.

“You’re talking about a guy who’s really, really explosive -- that’s what we thought,” Bucs run game coordinator/defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers said. “In the past couple years, we’ve been really big and powerful -- now we want to tweak and add some quickness and more explosiveness.”

Kancey was the 19th pick and comes in at 281 pounds, and Licht quickly pointed out that size was also a concern with Donald, who weighed in at 285 at the NFL combine in 2014, when the Bucs scouted him in Licht’s first year as GM in 2014.

“People said that [Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle] Warren Sapp was undersized, too," Licht said. “I'm sure Warren is very happy about this pick because I am pretty sure he'd like this guy -- they have a very similar play style.”

Kancey’s 1.64 10-yard split on the 40-yard dash at the combine was just .1 second behind Donald’s 10-yard split, while his overall time of 4.67 was .1 faster. His 40 time was also the fastest by a defensive tackle at the combine since 2006, when ESPN Stats & Information began tracking data from the event.

By comparison to what the Bucs have had previously, Akiem Hicks had a 1.77 10-yard split and a 5.24 40-yard time. Vita Vea had a 10-yard split of 1.77 with a 5.10 40-yard dash. Then going back to the Bucs’ last two 3-techniques prior to Hicks, Gerald McCoy came in at a 1.74 10-yard split and 5.04 in the 40, and Ndamukong Suh posted a 1.74 10-yard split and a 5.09 in the 40.

The Bucs’ defensive line struggled to get to the quarterback outside of Vea, who led the Bucs with 6.5 sacks in 2022. But he was double-teamed 65.8% of the time (where he still was able to record five sacks). Their defensive tackles as a group ranked 26th in the league in pass rush win rate last season (6.2%). They’re hoping that lining Kancey, whose 15.5 sacks were the most of any Power 5 defensive tackle from 2020 to 2022, up at 3-technique next to Vea will create more winnable one-on-one matchups for both him and their edge rushers.

Their 3-technique last year, Hicks, weighed 324 pounds and was 6-5, though. Run game coordinator/assistant head coach Harold Goodwin said that facing him and the 364-pound Vea at nose tackle in practice every day was like “trying stop a motor home.”

The Bucs looked to get faster with their top draft pick last season, Logan Hall, and originally thought of him as a 3-technique. Despite his strong showing at the 2022 combine, the Bucs believe with his 6-6 frame that he is better suited to be more like former defensive end Will Gholston. Hall can line up on the offensive tackle’s inside shoulder while Kancey lines up on the guard’s outside shoulder. There's hope that there will be more stability and less shuffling with their defensive front.

“With these different pieces we’ve got, Logan can be in one position all the time and doesn’t have to go all over,” Rodgers said. “Kancey can be in one position all the time. Vita can be in one [spot]. We’ve been playing musical chairs in a lot of ways.”

Kancey is hopeful people can measure him by his intangibles, though. He credits his mother and cousins for keeping him grounded, giving him an earful when they feel he didn’t perform up to par. He said he's longed to play in the NFL since he was 4, and he calls himself “blue collar,” comparing his approach to fellow Miami Northwestern Senior High graduate, and longtime Bucs defensive captain, Lavonte David.

“[We just] stay on the course and [don’t] forget that we have that chip on our shoulders,” Kancey said. “I’ve been overlooked my whole life – not too many people believing in me, not passing the eyeball test for many guys -- but also just proving myself right and not trying to prove anyone wrong.”

Former Pitt teammate SirVocea Dennis, who was also just drafted by the Bucs in the fifth round this past April, had high praise for Kancey, too.

“[He’s] a real competitor and an even better guy,” Dennis said. “He’s a great teammate and a good all-around person. He’s something special.”

"One thing we loved about him is the extreme mature nature about him,” Licht added. “He's a leader, he's very smart, he was like talking to a grown, 40-year-old man. He’s really got a great head on his shoulders.”

But no matter what his career has in store for Kancey, there is one variable that will never change for him, and that's who he is.

“At the end of the day, I’m Calijah Kancey," he said, "and that’s who I want to make a name for.”