I have to admit, this was the most up-in-the-air draft for the Bucs I've seen in a long time. Unlike other years where clear needs led to obvious draft picks (or at least picks for position), this was a draft that could have gone in three different ways (or even four) and still make some sense afterwards. I would argue this was the most open-ended First Round for the Bucs since 2011.
With that said, we were facing a lot of needs for starter-quality players at key positions - Offensive Tackle, Edge/OLB, Safety (even after the FA signing of Ryan Neal), Tight End - and serious depth upgrades - Defensive Tackle/End, Cornerback, Wide Receiver, Running Back, Kicker (!), maybe even Quarterback - across the whole roster. Anything could have happened beginning with the First Round, in spite of the fan expectations that we'd be aiming for OT or Edge.
So this is how the Buccaneers draft for 2023 ended up, with various trades, stunning picks, and surprisingly few questionable ones...
First Round (19) - Calijah Kancey, DT, Pittsburgh
Coming into this First Round, there were several directions the Bucs front office could have gone: Take care of Offensive Tackle starter need, get help with the pass rush with an Edge/OLB starter, or add to the Safety (or Corner) roster with improved depth (and challenge FA signing Ryan Neal for the starting gig opposite Winfield).
Problem with this year's draft is how the Offensive Tackle talent were all taken well before the Bucs could draft one, barring any trade-ups Licht could make... and he could not.
So while the fanbase expected getting an OLB to fulfill the blitzing schemes our coaches love - with some expecting Tight End or Safety as both had best talents still on the board - it was a bit of a shock to see them take a Defensive Tackle in Kancey.
The positives on his scouting has Kancey as the fastest DT available this year, with "explosiveness" and "high speed every play." He reportedly has all the countermoves and pushes that coaches love to see in their pass rushers to get through blocks into the backfield. The knock on him is size: Kancey does not have the height or girth that people expect in DTs. Thing is, he physically matches another notable DT from Pittsburgh who turned out to be a pass-rush monster in Aaron Donald. Bucs fans quickly took note that Kancey matches almost by height and weight another historic DT in Warren FREAKING Sapp. Considering that Kancey is going to line up next to Vea - who is a force of nature, not a pure blitzer - he may not see the big OL players double-teaming him, which should give him more opportunities to disrupt the pocket.
Player Fit A Need? YES. Our defensive line had glaring holes minus Hicks and Gholston. Kancey takes care of the DL spot alongside Vea and opposite last year's draft pick Logan Hall.
Makes the Team? YES. You want your First Rounder playing by Day One, that's the whole point of drafting a guy this high! Sheesh. Seriously, Kancey was a top five DT on most scouting boards, and he was the second DT taken overall, so the Bucs got someone who can pencil in as a starter right away.
Grade: B+ overall, considering how Kancey is a top-tier talent who can contribute right away. I am knocking this down because he may not be a good fit as a DE-hybrid in the 3-4 system Bowles has been working with, and I am still concerned that OT was a higher need (even if it meant drafting Anton Harrison, who went 27th overall to the Jaguars) and that a better Edge talent in Nolan Smith (who went Eagles, damn them) could have been a solid alternative.
Second Round (48) - Cody Mauch, OT, North Dakota St.
As mentioned above, the fanbase expected either pass rush or offensive tackle picks as both were lacking heading into this draft. In the case of OT, it was due to the lack of actual players covering that roster spot. Only Tristan Wirfs and someone I can't even remember from the Practice Squad were on the depth chart. We needed bodies and we needed them NOW.
If OT wasn't addressed in the First, it HAD to be addressed by the Second due to the decline of starter quality as you slide down the draft. As much as the top-tier guys were already gone by the the the Bucs drafted 19th overall, there were a number of raw talents (small college types) that could be found here, and where the Bucs have had some success in finding them (ALI MARPET Y'ALL).
Mauch fits that description to a T. A highly scouted OT from a small college where he dominated the opposition, Mauch checked off all the things Licht wants to see in the front-line guys: Power, aggressiveness, surprising amount of speed. It's when you get to the weak spots - the reasons why a guy this good didn't go in the First - that questions arise: Mauch's wingspan is not enough to justify an OT spot, and he shares some of the developmental concerns that turned promising OG talent from last year's draft Luke Goedeke into a problem at Guard. The scouting mostly argued that Mauch is better off as a Guard at the NFL level as well, which begs the question "who is taking the OT spot opposite All-Pro Wirfs?"
There is still a likelihood Mauch can get into the Right Tackle position - where his blocking aggressiveness could aid the running attack - but it may have to involve Goedeke - whose physical qualifications to play Tackle is slightly greater - flipping to the outside while Mauch takes the interior role.
Player Fit A Need? YES, As a pick for Offensive Tackle. As an overall OL, it's going to cause a round of musical chairs to get someone as a starting Right Tackle while Wirfs shifts to the Left.
Makes the Team? YES. Mauch is the mauler-type lineman that fits this scheme. It's just a question WHERE Mauch ends up on this O-Line that hasn't been resolved yet.
Grade: A- grade here, in that Mauch has the opportunity to be an A-lister like Wirfs on the right side, but the hazy future of getting moved interior weakens the impact just a little.
Third Round (82) - YaYa Briaby, OLB/Edge, Louisville
With this pick, you can see where the Bucs' draft agenda was heading. Head Coach Bowles loves an aggressive pass-blitz 3-4 system, and when it's not getting pressure on opposing QBs it's not working. Last year saw a decline in both sacks and turnovers compared to previous years - partly due to Shaq Barrett's season-ending injury, partly due to previous First-Rounder Joe Tyron-Shinoka's inconsistency, partly due to Jason Pierre-Paul's decline and departure from the Super Bowl year - and so Bowles wants to rebuild that pass rush as much as possible.
Briaby comes in as a pass-rush powerhouse, with top-end speed and an instinct to get after the ball-carrier with solid stats on TFL as well as sacks. Briaby's drawbacks are that it's all he's good for: he's weak on play recognition and not as good in coverage, which makes him a bigger project to develop than what you'd like for the Bucs at the moment.
Most scouting had Briaby as a Fourth Rounder at best, which makes this pick seem much like a reach, unless you realize that the Bucs had no Fourth picks, and it seemed few opportunities at this point to safely trade down. This was a choice Bowles needed, and if the coaching can fix Briaby's problems this becomes a huge steal.
Player Fit a Need? YES. The Bucs' outside pass rush degraded last season and needs the infusion of younger talent.
Makes the Team? YES. We don't know what Barrett's situation is yet for 2023, and the team needs to complement JTS on the edge. Whether this all works depends on if JTS can compensate in pass coverage to free up Briaby as a blitzer.
Grade: B+ Some post-draft comments view Briaby as a reach, but he's exactly what the Bucs need to improve a weakened pass rush. His TFL numbers against running backs suggest he can be a surprising boost to the run defense as well.
Fourth Round (Traded) - dammit
Fifth Round (153) - SirVocea Dennis, LB, Pittsburgh
By this point in the draft - where addressing depth need at Safety hadn't been addressed at all - that everyone could tell the Bucs were fixated on fixing the front defensive seven.
Dennis is, much like Kancey and Briaby before him, a blitz monster - speedy and aggressive - attacking from the inside spot. He's okay in pass coverage but not great, which means another coaching project to get him up to the level of where Lavonte David (or even Devan White) is at. It's noted that Dennis is a teammate of Kancey's, which encourages the likelihood that they are familiar with each other's playing style and can boost team performance overall (this is a similar tactic Philadelphia's done recently to great effect).
Player Fit A Need? YES. The Bucs inside linebacker situation both short- and long-term are shaky. White's demanded a trade to force a better contract extension deal. David is only here for one more year, expected to retire. Backup KJ Britt never developed in the two years here to be a reliable rotational player. So getting ILB help was a priority.
Makes the Team? YES. Bowles wants to upgrade the pass rush and Dennis fits that want.
Grade: solid B. Dennis seriously needs to get coached up on pass coverage in a hurry, otherwise mixing him into complex blitz packages won't sell.
(171) - Payne Durham, TE, Purdue
Where the Bucs had starter concerns taken care of with D-line (Kancey) and O-line (Mauch), and had the linebacker depth concerns well taken care of with (Briaby and Dennis), other depth concerns were still on the board. Tight End being one (Safety still the other: damn you Licht, JL Skinner is still on the board at this point). Durham was the pick that takes care of that.
Where all the other Bucs picks so far shared common traits - speed, "explosive" and "aggressive" playing styles - Durham represents a different pace. Not as fast as possible for a TE, not as aggressive a blocker you may want in a TE, Durham instead is a scoring machine, a legitimate touchdown threat inside the Red Zone able to find the soft spots midfield to make catches and gain some ground. Durham's best stat are the Drops (missed catches) percentages, where he scored the lowest percentage of all TEs in the draft. He is, in short, a sure-handed mid-range target that QBs like Baker Mayfield can target all game long. A better receiving threat than Otton (who isn't shabby), which could make some 2-TE formations a wonderful playcall.
Player Fit A Need? YES. Bucs were slight on reliable Tight Ends on the roster - only Otton and Ko Kieft - and so this fills depth need.
Makes the Team? YES. Durham has incredible upside, if the coaches can improve on his downfield blocking skills to make him a major TE threat. Durham is not a starter but can challenge Otton for the role all season long.
Grade: A. Vastly underrated talent that slid into the Fifth Round - a lot of TEs slid in this draft - who can contribute early and could fit a starter role in case of emergency.
Sixth Round (181) - Josh Hayes, Safety, Kansas St.
This is the point in the draft where the GM throws a curveball or twelve by getting a player so far off the radar that nobody had scouting reports on him. Thing is, Hayes is coming from a big college program in Kansas St. and still nobody adequately scouted him to where an analysis was handy for immediate reporting for the online draft trackers.
Hayes is a defensive back with a performance history at both Cornerback and Safety, so in terms of taking care of depth he can do that. The concerns are that he hasn't been impressive enough at his colleges (North Dakota St, Virginia, Kansas St.) to warrant attention, and that of all the speedy defensive players taken so far, Hayes doesn't match that. Not noted as a ball-hawk or turnover magnet.
This pick becomes increasingly frustrating while looking at the draft board seeing all the higher-scouted Safeties still there that are arguably more pro-ready and more likely to start/contribute than this pick.
Player Fit A Need? YES. Bucs depth at Safety was questionable, even as we have good starters in Winfield and recent FA pickup Ryan Neal.
Makes the Team? NO. Hayes has every sign of being a journeyman college player, reliable enough at that level of play but questionable at the pro level.
Grade: D. And I'm making it that high because this DOES fill a need at Safety. Otherwise this would have been an F (and I don't grade that often). The problems for me are that Hayes is a questionable talent, someone who was otherwise doomed to post-draft UFA signing, unworthy of a pick. And there were other, better-scouted talents still on the board - JL SKINNER! DeMarco Hellams! Even Gevarrius Owens out of Houston was scouted as a late round gem! - who could fit the aggressive play style that they're carving out of this draft lineup. Hell, drafting a Kicker here would have been a better move.
(191) - Trey Palmer, WR, Nebraska
Another roster spot that had depth concerns was Receiver, especially as Free Agent departures - Julio Jones not re-signed, Scotty Miller leaving - opened up roster spots.
Palmer fills the immediate depth concern, but also provides a decent upgrade to that depth behind All-Pros Evans and Godwin (and still-unproven Gage). Palmer resumes the Bucs' draft pattern of drafting for speed - Palmer is one of the fastest WRs this draft - giving the Bucs a much-needed deep-threat for 3-4 WR sets. An interesting upside is build, which is bigger than other speedy (Smurf-ish) receivers, making him a taller (better) target. Palmer did slide this far for big reasons: poor route-running and questionable hands. If he's coached up, he can be an effective backup and long-term starter for when (sadly) Evans and Godwin depart (retirement or FA).
Player Fit A Need? YES. Our WR roster was down to three proven starters and three unproven backups.
Makes the Team? YES. Palmer's speed AND build make him a reasonably good option as a special teams kick returner, giving him a foot in the door. If he's coached up well this preseason, he's assured a roster spot.
Grade: B+ Arguably a steal pick this late in the draft.
(196) - Jose Ramirez, OLB/Edge, Eastern Michigan
Oft-times, the GM and coach keep drafting at the same roster spot to ensure not only starting talent is there but backups as well. With the LB and defensive front getting a drastic makeover, it shouldn't be surprising for one more pass-rushing monster get drafted at the end of the whole thing.
Ramirez is one of those journeyman college players - much like Hayes - who moved around a bit before settling in a spot to let his talent shine. He is a pure Edge rusher, with decent speed and well-coached moves to where the pro-level coaches won't have to teach him much (other than to get better at it). Physically he's undersized for a DE role he had in college, but the same can be said for Kancey. He is better suited to shift out to OLB as more depth for that spot. Whereas Hayes' value isn't apparent, Rameriz's value is: he's a proven and reliable talent who can rotate in on plays in relief of starters, and can cover as starter in a pinch if injuries flare.
Player Fit A Need? YES. While the Bucs were well-stocked for linebacker and defensive line talent, Ramirez helps with depth.
Makes the Team? MAYBE. He's going to have to prove himself against more veteran talent at the OLB spot for even the backup roles, but he may be an upgrade to the likes of Anthony Nelson and Cam Gill.
Grade: B+ This is the "small college" late round prospect who has a serious chance to make it.
Moves I Liked:
- Making serious effort to upgrade a weakened pass rush.
- Getting a talent like Kancey who could become the next Warren Sapp.
- Improving the OL one way (Right Tackle) or another (Left Guard) with the acquisition of Mauch.
- Adding depth at Tight End and Wide Receiver.
- Getting a sure-handed receiver-type TE in Durham.
- Finding legit diamonds in the rough like Palmer and Ramirez in the Sixth Round.
- Avoiding temptations for roster spots like QB and RB so that higher-value concerns were addressed. RB especially was something that the UFA addressed later.
Moves I Didn't Like:
- Going for a Defensive Tackle in Kancey for pass rush instead of a pure OLB Edge talent like Nolan Smith (it's minor, but grating).
- Reaching for Briaby whose draft value was lower round.
- Seriously reaching for an unscouted player like Hayes while higher-rated Safeties - some of whom were graded as starter-caliber - were still on the board.
- Failing to trade down - something Licht knows how to pull off - in order to get better mid-round draft positions to ensure getting Briaby and Dennis and the rest while adding more picks to cover more depth needs. I get the nagging feeling the Bucs could have traded down a few spots in the First to get an extra Third or Fourth, and still got Kancey later on. As a result, the picks of Briaby and Dennis feel like reaches.
Overall Draft Grade: B-.
This wasn't exactly a draft with marquee talent getting picked, but a reliable one that handled depth needs and arguably gave us at least one or two pass rush weapons that should improve the defense. Given the limitations the Bucs had with drafting - in the later ends of each round - they were able to cover three of the four major needs (OT, Edge, Safety, TE) I had them with pre-draft. Getting some nice developmental players towards the end is what lifts the grade up. This is one of the few times I've graded a draft where I've projected so many rookies actually surviving the preseason cuts.
It's that questionable Safety pick in Hayes that drags the grade down. I cannot imagine another team had him on their radar to where he was a risk of being unavailable for the post-draft UFA signing process - where the Bucs snagged some interesting talent at RB and QB that slid down - and freeing up that pick for a higher-regarded Safety. It's the one thing really dragging this whole draft down. Sorry, but that's how I'm calling it.
What do YOU think, you sons of pirates?