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NFL draft: Addressing the Bucs' greatest need

TAMPA — When it comes to the NFL draft under Bucs general manager Jason Licht, the offense has played with too many men on the field.

The first two years, Licht took only one player on defense: LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander in the fourth round in 2015 — a terrific talent who already is among the league's best at his position.

In fact, only five of the Bucs' 20 draft picks under Licht have been used on defense, including four last year.

While there is an abundance of talent at running back, receiver and tight end that promises to be selected in the early rounds of this draft, which begins Thursday, there's a pretty good argument to be made that the Bucs' biggest needs are on defense.

Specifically, Licht has to address an aging defensive line with Gerald McCoy (29), Clinton McDonald (30) and Robert Ayers (31). He began that process by selecting defensive end Noah Spence from Eastern Kentucky in the second round last year. While the Bucs made Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves their first-round pick in 2016, starter Brent Grimes will be 34 in July.

The Bucs don't need to apologize for building around Jameis Winston and securing more weapons or protection. But Licht admits defensive coordinator Mike Smith should be pounding the table for help on draft day because there's no denying the Bucs' biggest needs are on defense.

"You could say that, but we're still not going to go too far off of our board," Licht said. "We feel good, based off of the team we have right now, we could line up and play and we feel pretty good about it. We're in a position right now where we still can take the best player available.

"A lot of times you take the player that may look like, 'Why are they taking him? They are loaded at that position or they have bigger needs at another position.' But that player usually at some point, you look back and you say, 'I don't know where we would be without that player.' So, I'm not trying to tip our hand or anything. We have multiple places on this roster that we can add talent to."

Licht is right. You can't reach for a player of need and ignore a better player at a position where you might have one or two quality starters.

Say the Bucs were focused on acquiring a safety, and the best available at No. 19 was Washington's Budda Baker. He has good range and coverage ability, something the Bucs have lacked from the position. But he is a bit undersized at 5-10, 195 pounds.

At the same time, what would the Bucs do if Baker's Huskies' teammate, receiver John Ross, also were available? Ross ran the fastest 40-yard dash in NFL combine history at 4.22. He was very productive last season after recovering from ACL surgery and had 76 catches for 1,122 yards and 17 touchdowns.

The Bucs signed Redskins free agent DeSean Jackson to stretch the field opposite Mike Evans. But Jackson is 30. Eventually, the Bucs will need a younger receiver with wheels.

Any defensive position that can affect the quarterback has to be a priority. In addition to facing the normal array of NFC South passers such as the Saints' Drew Brees and the past two NFL MVPs — the Falcons' Matt Ryan and the Panthers' Cam Newton — the Bucs also will face Super Bowl quarterbacks Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers.

Tampa Bay allowed opposing quarterbacks to pass for 4,246 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. The Bucs re-signed safety Chris Conte and added Cowboys free agent J.J. Wilcox to go with Keith Tandy, who tied for the club lead with four interceptions in five starts. The Bucs plan to move Ryan Smith, their fourth-round pick a year ago, from safety to cornerback, where they have little depth.

In Mike Smith's first season, the Bucs finished 18th in total defense (346.4 yards per game) and 15th in scoring defense (23.1 per game). Eight of the league's top 10 scoring defenses reached the playoffs.

Weapons for Winston is great. But what will really help the Bucs quarterback is to get the ball back to him more often.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud.

NFL draft: Addressing the Bucs' greatest need 04/24/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 25, 2017 9:31pm]
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