It certainly wasn’t an assumed result among most analysts or fans, who probably felt more confident in other frequently floated names like Georgia’s Nolan Smith, Oklahoma’s Anton Harrison, and even Kentucky’s Will Levis.
That said, the Bucs decided to invest in the second-best defensive tackle in the draft. Let’s examine why Tampa might’ve gone this direction and what Kancey brings to the table.
Why Did the Bucs Pick Kancey?
Simply put, the Buccaneers absolutely needed to improve their pass rush after nose tackle Vita Vea led the team in sacks last year. The team’s top selection in 2022, Logan Hall, didn’t really flash much as a rookie, and they’re still waiting for former first-rounder Joe Tryon-Shoyinka to take the next step in his development.
While questions at left tackle loom large, there’s better value presented by Kancey or Smith over someone like Harrison, who was the last “best” tackle available after the earlier run on other O-linemen.
We saw a lot of buzz around Smith, and it’s easy to see why the Bucs may have liked him given his versatility, agility, and character. Passing over him may indicate they feel good about Shaq Barrett’s recovery and JTS’s continued developmental track.
Ultimately, when you compare the two, there’s probably one fact that loomed over all else: Kancey is a better pass rusher right now, and he shows an elite ceiling in that area despite his small frame.
Replacing veteran stop-gaps like Ndamukong Suh and Akiem Hicks with a long-term partner for Vea is a solid strategy, and the result is a Bucs defensive line that has three presumed starters under 28 years old.
What Kind of Prospect is Kancey?
Kancey came out as a redshirt junior at Pitt, where he was dominant and enormously productive in three seasons.
Calijah Kancey’s career totals at Pittsburgh:— PFF College (@PFF_College) April 26, 2023
91.8 PFF Grade
92.1 Pass Rush Grade
111 QB Pressures pic.twitter.com/O8Q3kSAkHX
Over two full years as a starter, he collected 14.5 sacks and a whopping 27.5 tackles for loss. He was a unanimous first-team All-American and All-ACC in 2022, and that’s with missing two games due to injury.
The 22-year-old is a fascinating case of weighing historic thresholds versus all of the positive traits he brings to the table. Just look at this insane spider chart from MockDraftable.
He continues Jason Licht’s streak of selecting freaky athletes with his first-round selections. This one comes with the added benefit of proven production at the Power 5 level, which has not always been true in the past.
Calijah Kancey is a DT prospect in the 2023 draft class. He scored a 9.60 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 64 out of 1585 DT from 1987 to 2023. https://t.co/dcq1CsV4Ty #RAS pic.twitter.com/W2ibNltPey— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 7, 2023
The biggest reason for pause is Kancey’s sub-31” arms and lower weight (280 pounds). He is quite literally in a class of his own from a length perspective, measuring in the 1st percentile.
It’s a legitimate concern, but it’s so hard to ignore how good Kancey is at everything else. His unbelievable 40-yard dash, splits, agility drills, and jumps were all through the roof as a defensive tackle, and they even grade out well when measured as an edge. That all shows up on film, too.
Kancey’s burst is special, as he explodes off the snap and pierces through blockers with overwhelming lateral agility and active hands. He’s short but he still has a built-in leverage advantage that he knows how to utilize against all levels of competition (see the absurd TFL number).
Finished up the Calijah Kancey:— Luke Grant (@LukeGrant7) April 18, 2023
I have no idea how he isn’t a consensus top 10 pick. If you run a 4-3 front, you should WANT him on your team.
His hand usage is out of this world. The bag is deep. Club/swim, rips, cross/chop. Stacks moves, with a nasty spin to the inside. pic.twitter.com/fbqv2LcyhP
If the team wants a backfield menace at three-technique with a relentless motor, that’s what it will receive. He’s got the movement skills to be versatile across the formation, too. I could see Bowles experiment with devilish looks like spot dropping Kancey in the flat or rushing him wide of the tight end. He’ll be a nightmare on stunts and twists because how swiftly he can work across the formation.
The size concerns are honestly more prominent in the run game, where he may struggle to anchor versus stronger offensive linemen who can engulf him. But if he brings the juice on passing downs as expected, that shouldn’t matter as much.
In the end, this isn’t the pick that most people expected or wanted, but it’s one that makes plenty of sense and should pay immediate dividends.