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The Bucs’ 2019 draft is a referendum

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Devin White is good, but he doesn’t fix what ails the Bucs.

LSU v Mississippi Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Let me get this out of the way: Devin White is really good.

I’m not taking anything away from White. My argument isn’t built on the opinion that White is a bad player. Rather, it’s built on an understanding of what the NFL is, and what it isn’t.

The Buccaneers are a bad football team. They’ve been a bad football team for a while. If the Cleveland Browns make the playoffs next season and the Bucs don’t, the Bucs will own the NFL’s longest playoff drought. That’s where we’re at - verging on ‘Tampa Bay Browns’ territory. Even just by blind odds and chance the Bucs should have made the playoffs sometime in the last ten years. We’re all frustrated by it.

There’s a lot of reasons for this, from poor drafting and player development, to a revolving carousel of poor coaches, hired for bad or inexplicable reasons. No plan, no vision, no execution. A self-fulfilling prophecy that continues to turn in circles despite whoever is sitting at the wheel.

But during this time of Buccaneer misery the NFL has changed. As the 1990s rolled over into the 2000s, and as the Buccaneers began to fade shortly after that, the NFL was changing. It went from a running back dominated league to a passing league. And now that the dam has finally broken on “college” spread systems, the NFL looks like a pass-centric league for the foreseeable future. It’s now a space game, basketball on grass, where the best offensive minds scheme new, creative ways to get their freak athletes in space so they can make plays.

The only way to combat this evolution is getting players who can cover and make tackles in space. I’m not even saying that Devin White doesn’t help in that regard. He does. He’s replacing Kwon Alexander, and he’s basically Alexander but with a higher floor. He absolutely makes the Buccaneers better than they were.

But he doesn’t fix the Buccaneers’ problems. Problems that go far beyond drafting White.

Since 2001, sixteen linebackers have been drafted in the top ten. At least seven of those sixteen were primarily edge rushers, despite their listed positions as a linebacker. The rest were all off-ball linebackers. But four of the top six in terms of draft slot were pass rushers. In fact, since 2011 and before last Thursday night, the only linebackers to be drafted in the top five were Von Miller (2nd overall), Dante Fowler (3rd overall), and Khalil Mack (5th overall). All elite pass rushing prospects, who were pass rushers first and foremost. Miller and Mack have lived up to their potential. All of the off-ball linebackers drafted in the top ten went eighth or ninth. The last off-ball linebacker to be drafted in the top five before Devin White was Aaron Curry in 2009, who went 4th. A decade ago.

The Bucs didn’t get as much value for their selection as they should have, though Bruce Arians and the Bucs feel differently. Quarterbacks, pass rushers and elite defensive tackles, elite cornerback prospects, and offensive tackles go top five. Not off-ball linebackers. Maybe Devin White is that good. Maybe he really was a top five player in this draft class. Maybe White is the exception to the rule. But they also thought Vernon Hargreaves was the exception to a rule.

As the NFL has evolved, so has the players teams look for. Wide receivers are getting bigger and heavier. They’ve gotten three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier, on average. Consequently, teams have looked for bigger, longer, rangier cornerbacks to keep up. Some teams won’t even look at a cornerback under 6’0. Hargreaves was supposed to be the exception; not tall, an average athlete for the NFL. But he was supposed to be so good in the other areas of his game that he’d be fine. He hasn’t been fine. Sure, Mike Smith deserves some of the blame. Maybe most of it. But it wasn’t just a scheme issue. It was also a talent issue.

Hargreaves’ situation is a microcosm of the Bucs and their lack of success. In order to succeed and win in today’s game, you have to be able to pass well, and to defend the pass well. They’ve certainly done a good job at the first part, minus having a red zone package. But the Buccaneers’ defense has been nothing short of terrible. At times even historically bad. The Bucs haven’t had a top ten defense since 2013, two years before they drafted Jameis Winston. Before that it was 2008. They’ve had a bottom-ten defense in four of the last ten years, including the worst defense in the NFL the past two seasons. It’s not a mystery why the Buccaneers have struggled so much and can’t win games. If you want to stop the pass, what do you need most? Edge rushers and cover guys.

Here’s a list of all the edge rushers the Buccaneers have drafted in the first round since 2001, eighteen years ago:

That’s it. That’s all of them. The best pass rushers almost never see free agency. Because they’re so valuable. The Bucs got lucky in getting Simeon Rice. They haven’t been lucky since. Sure, they hit big on Michael Bennett, but they ran him out of town. They traded a third round pick for Jason Pierre-Paul. But he’s on the wrong side of thirty now and unlikely to repeat his 2018 sack production as he shows the subtle but telltale signs of slowing down. We’ve already seen it with Vincent Jackson and Brent Grimes; the Bucs have a habit of keeping players for a year longer than they should. Will it happen again with JPP? If they want to win they can’t keep making the same mistakes. Building a team isn’t just about plugging holes, it’s also about anticipating them and filling them before they become a problem. But my point is that these should be priority positions in the first place.

Here’s a list of all the defensive backs the Bucs have drafted in the first round since 2001:

Talib is good, but the Bucs were forced to move on from him due to off-field issues. Mark Barron was never even a corner and wasn’t used correctly as a safety and eventually traded. And that leaves just Hargreaves, who as he enters the last year of his rookie contract hasn’t come close to living up to his draft slot.

In the first round, where you’re far more likely to find these impact players at those premium positions than any other round, the Buccaneers’ draft strategy has been woefully inadequate. The lack of talent has fed into the poor schemes and vice versa, like a chicken-and-egg feedback loop. Don’t have the athletes so they have to play soft coverage to keep everything in front of them. Soft coverage gets burned anyway. Blitz and get burned worse. Draft more guys who don’t fit the athletic benchmarks for this era. Rinse and repeat.

First round edge rushers are far more likely to accrue double-digit sacks in a season, and far more likely to do it in multiple seasons, than even second round edge rushers. The really good ones are rare and only go in the top ten, or even top five. Edge rushers hit in the first round at about the same rate quarterbacks do, around 50 percent, and the hit rate falls off at about the same precipitous rate in all other rounds. Lockdown cornerbacks can transform a defense, allowing them to roll coverage to the other side of the field, making everything easier for everyone.

Around the rest of the NFL, for the same time period from 2001-2018, 82 edge rushers and outside linebackers have been drafted in the first round, many of them also pass rushers in 3-4 alignments. The Bucs only drafted two of those 50+ edge rushers. There have been over 50 cornerbacks drafted in the first round during that span, and over 100 defensive backs. The Bucs have only drafted three of them. Hargreaves is the only 1st round player of either group the Bucs have drafted in the last six years.

Tampa Bay has ignored the most important, impactful positions on defense for more than a decade. They have systemic issues in the way they approach team-building in this era. It has kept them from putting together a complete football team.

What we’ve seen this weekend during the draft is no less than a referendum on those mistakes. On the second day of the draft they took three defensive backs. 6’0 cornerback Sean Bunting, 6’1 cornerback Jamel Dean, and slot cornerback/safety Mike Edwards. Bunting ran a 4.4 40yard dash and Dean a blazing 4.3. This new staff with Arians and Todd Bowles took a look at the mess that is the Buccaneer secondary, including all the defensive backs the Bucs took last year, and made a conscious choice to try to replace them.

Devin White is really good. Bucs fans should be confident that he’ll make an instant impact in the way Hargreaves hasn’t. Bunting and Dean appear to fit the mold the Buccaneers should have been drafting this whole time. But right now White isn’t great at pass coverage. He’s got the range, but he’s aggressive on play fakes and is inconsistent with his route recognition and zone coverage spacing. The same issues Alexander struggled with. Those are all things that will be exploited, at least early in his career. Bunting needs polishing, and Dean has had multiple knee injuries. Edwards is a good slot man cover corner but is more of a low-ceiling player.

Where are the elite players at edge and corner?

In this decade Tampa Bay has had five top-ten picks. They took a defensive tackle, a defensive back that didn’t hit and was later traded and moved to linebacker, a receiver, a quarterback, and now a linebacker. A quarterback and a defensive tackle make sense, and no one will complain about Mike Evans. But in the rest of the first round this decade they’ve taken an edge rusher who didn’t hit, an outlier cornerback who didn’t hit, a nose tackle, a running back, and a tight end. It’s not a mystery why their defense continues to be bad. It shouldn’t be a surprise when the Buccaneers keep losing.

They say ‘an ounce of disguise is worth a pound of scheme’. Maybe that will help. We’ll see what defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has up his sleeves. He’s definitely going to have some blitz packages for White. Surely Bruce Arians and Bowles are better than Dirk Koetter/Mike Smith and Lovie Smith/Lovie Smith. This draft, if nothing else, seems to indicate that Arians and Bowles at least understand the way things are. And if White develops properly he’ll be a really good coverage linebacker for a long time. He’s a good piece of the kind of defense you need in today’s game. But how much can he move the win column without elite players off the edge and in coverage behind him? This isn’t even really an argument that the Bucs should have drafted either Josh Allen or Ed Oliver, though I think they should have. By consensus there was no cornerback available that was worth the fifth overall pick. But is taking six defensive backs in the 2nd and 3rd rounds in the last two years going to fix it either?

The Buccaneers passed up another opportunity to get some of the pieces they don’t just really need, but must have; even if Bunting and Dean and Edwards are steps in the right direction, they aren’t the elite prospects that change the course of franchises. This draft is a referendum on all the mistakes the Bucs have made since drafting Winston, and it still only goes so far in correcting those mistakes. They have horribly mismanaged the advantage that comes with a quarterback on a rookie deal. Even if Hargreaves turns around his career under Bowles, he’s still unlikely to be the player the Bucs need him to be. The safety position is still an uncertain mess as Edwards is probably best suited to a slot cornerback role. Pierre-Paul’s impact and time is finite, and Carl Nassib isn’t a reliable No. 2 rusher. These are pieces that Devin White can’t substitute for. The ones that have to be there if the Bucs want to win in today’s NFL. Maybe Devin White was the best choice in a tough situation. Maybe he was just the best player on their Board. But it feels like the selection still marked a further delay in the Bucs’ never-ending quest to return to being a winning football team. Because while he’s good, and has a chance to be a special player, he doesn’t solve what ails the Bucs. And if they keep passing on the players who will they’ll keep finding themselves on the outside looking in.