Good football teams build from the trenches as a solid defensive line elevates the rest of the defense. The Buccaneers’ recent draft and free agent misfires in that area are a major reason for their recent defensive failures. Despite having one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles in Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay otherwise lacks playmakers and depth at both defensive end and tackle. The Bucs should address both in this year’s draft.
While the Bucs badly need an edge rush upgrade, this year’s draft is better stocked with interior linemen. It’s so well-stocked that it’s not entirely clear which defensive lineman would be the best value at the Bucs’ ninth overall pick.
There are many qualities that could make a defensive lineman a top pick, but there is one attribute he must have: pass rush. A tackle could be the ultimate run-stopper, but without the ability to get to the quarterback he’s not going to crack the top half of the first round.
The top four interior linemen all have prowess or at least potential to be quality pass-rushers. Their talent ceilings and projections will be the key factors in determining their rank for the Bucs.
Another important factor is fit. New Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith made it clear his defense would implement a variety of looks and fronts. No doubt this as well as compatibility playing next to Gerald McCoy will affect the Bucs calculations of interior linemen.
This year’s draft is loaded with defensive tackle talent, but that doesn’t mean the Bucs should pass on the top prospects. Defensive tackle is a highly valued position and could be depleted early. If any of the top tackles are available at the ninth pick, there should be at least consideration of each.
The cream of the crop includes four players:
Robert Nkemdiche, Mississippi
Sheldon Rankins, Louisville
Andrew Billings, Baylor
A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama
There are other good tackle prospects, but these four are the most likely to have their names called early on April 28. The question is, who should have his name called when the Bucs are on the clock?
All four prospects have pass rush value, but there’s a clear delineation among them. Nkemdiche has the best combination of power and quickness. The 6’3", 294 pound monster blends a lightning-fast first step with tremendous power, hitting blockers before they can set their feet or deliver a strong punch.
Nkemdiche has the potential to be the best pass-rusher of the bunch, but his game is far from complete.
Ball-awareness is a glaring weakness in Nkemdiche’s game. He drops his head and locks in on beating his assignment, losing track where the ball is moving. Play-action fakes, counter runs and quarterbacks that can manipulate the pocket confound him.
The problem here isn’t that he didn’t make the play. The problem is how slowly he reacted to the first run-fake and the actual hand-off.
Sheldon Rankins isn’t the physical specimen Nkemdiche is, but he is a more trustworthy pass-rusher. Nkemdiche collected a mere seven sacks at Ole Miss, an unfortunate byproduct of his poor finish. Rankins on the other hand was the model of interior pass rush production the last two years, notching eight sacks in 2014 and six in 2015. He brings tremendous quickness comparable to Nkemdiche.
There’s some Aaron Donald in Rankins’ game. His key trait is athleticism but it's his mental acuity that makes him dangerous.
Showing great patience here, Rankins shoots the gap at just the right point to make the tackle. This blend of smarts and quickness will make him a productive NFL pass-rusher. What’s missing are consistent get-off and counter moves. He’s too often a step behind the snap, giving linemen an opportunity to get set in their blocks.
Nkemdiche and Rankins’ problems come from a similar source: indecision. Neither have second or counter moves when their initial rush is well-blocked. Rankins’ poor get-off appears less a deficiency in speed than failure to anticipate the snap.
This problem could be fixable with pro-level coaching but it's risky to assume that it will get fixed.
Though he played nose tackle in Baylor’s 3-4 scheme, Andrew Billings proved disruptive in the pass game with power and strength. He isn’t as quick or athletic as Nkemdiche or Rankins. However he comes with even more strength particularly in his upper body and can swat away an initial punch and still have strength left over to swat offensive linemen out of the way.
Billings owned TCU center Austin Schlottman during this game. He could not be blocked one-on-one, winning match-ups with sheer strength and surprising speed. Problem is, that’s all Billings has at the moment. He has no pass-rush moves to speak of aside from a bull rush.
As a nose tackle, Billings simply wasn’t tasked with taking down the quarterback himself that often. TCU frequently 2-gapped which mean Billings had to hold his man with superior strength. Similarly, A’Shawn Robinson was not asked to get to the quarterback much. However, he may be the most effective in commanding the line of scrimmage and generating pressure.
Playing out of the 5-technique at Alabama, Robinson didn’t have the same opportunities to play one-gap and go after the passer like Rankins or Nkemdiche. Nevertheless, he often commanded double-teams and forced protection his way when it became apparent his blocker was constantly on his heels.
Robinson used his strength to disrupt protections and apply pressure. Though he came up with no sacks, Robinson’s ability to take control of the line of scrimmage was a key factor for Alabama’s defensive dominance during his tenure.
While Robinson was typically asked to hold the point of attack rather than penetrate the line, there is evidence he possesses quickness comparable to his peers atop the draft rankings.
Robinson’s ability to change direction at his weight is nothing short of amazing. The key for him at the next level is to incorporate his latent speed and agility with more pass rush technique. His biggest issue is he at times plays too high and tries to muscle out of blocks with bad leverage, further slowing him down. Improved technique will help unlock his physical potential.
None of the four are complete prospects, but their talent ceilings scrape the sky. Nkemdiche trumps the pass rush potential of the rest, but Rankins is more likely to produce right away. Billings and Robinson would need additional factors to push them ahead of Nkemdiche and Rankins for the Bucs’ first-round pick.
While the Bucs need more pass-rushers, they also need defensive linemen who can share the field with their other playmakers as often as possible. Versatility and compatibility with the other Bucs linemen will influence the value of the draft’s top interior linemen.
At 6’1" and 299 pounds, Rankins is obviously small for an interior lineman. Though he played some five- and seven-technique at Louisville, his utility is best exploited inside. Here is where his fit with the Bucs becomes an issue.
The Bucs already have a great three-tech in Gerald McCoy. While subbing him out and resting him is a valuable role, the Bucs can’t afford to spend a first-round pick on a depth player, especially since Rankins is a mild stretch with a top-ten pick.
All off-field considerations being equal, Nkemdiche might be a better fit at the ninth pick. He has the strength, explosion and speed to play nearly any spot on the defensive line. His issue is the poor awareness he demonstrates on the field and some bad decisions he’s made off of it.
While one incident should not significantly mar his reputation, it does call into question Nkemdiche’s judgment. Poor decision-making is not a quality an NFL team wants in a player into whom they are investing a high draft pick and millions of dollars.
Still, his athletic profile makes him a fit inside or out in a 4-3 or at the 5-tech in a 3-4. His inconsistency as a pass-rusher may limit his usefulness as a plug-and-play lineman until he puts his game together.
Billings and Robinson are better fits for the Bucs’ current defensive assets and plans. Both are versed in 3-4 alignments and bring the kind of sheer power and strength the Bucs’ defensive line lacks. Robinson especially has experience eating up the double-teams that kept Gerald McCoy from exploiting his full potential as a pass-rusher. His strength and ability to control the line of scrimmage would expedite Bucs’ pass-rushers journey to the quarterback.
Andrew Billings is the dark horse in this race. Quick and violent, he was disruptive even at the zero-technique spot. Lining up next to Gerald McCoy, he would make an ideal nose tackle in the Bucs’ 4-3 base. His blend of speed and power gives the Bucs the ability to remain fast and athletic upfront without sacrificing strength at the point of attack.
With Billings the Bucs would get a little bit of everything.
Who do the Bucs draft?
Now to the final question: which of these defensive tackles do the Bucs pick at nine?
A solid draft pick balances history, potential and value. Rankins brings the history and a decent degree of potential. However his value of a top ten pick is questionable considering his size and optimal utility as a 3-technique.
Robinson and Billings are great fits, but they don’t bring strong pass rush resumes, weakening their overall value to the point where a top ten pick seems unlikely.
Nkemdiche’s potential is what makes him a first-round prospect but his potential alone. His sparse stat sheet reflects holes in his game and his poor judgment already hamstrung his value.
It appears Rankins would be the Bucs only real option at the ninth pick, but only if they are determined to draft a defensive tackle. Drafting for need is usually a quick way to the bottom of the standings. Ideally, to draft an interior lineman, the Bucs would trade down and collect additional picks and make their choice of a defensive tackle worth the price.