New regime, same old mission for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Bruce Arians is the latest coach taking a stab at making the Bucs relevant again.
The former Arizona Cardinals coach came out of retirement in January to replace Dirk Koetter, who was fired after another losing season extended the club’s playoff drought to 11 consecutive seasons.
And while Arians insists the Bucs are not in a rebuilding mode, it sure seems that way heading into yet another draft where Tampa Bay will continue an ongoing effort to fill holes in a leaky defense.
General manager Jason Licht is working with a third head coach in six years and is banking on the bond he developed with Arians while they were both in Arizona will help him finally get it right with the Bucs.
“I have a great relationship with Bruce. I have a good feel for him, what he likes. We’ve had many, many meetings together, they’ve all been great, very productive,” Licht said. “It’s an open door, no walls between the scouting and the coaching, which is what we had in Arizona and we’ve had here too.”
Mistakes in free agency and recent drafts contributed to a tight salary cap situation that’s placed limits on how much the Bucs could spend to fix one of the league’s worst defenses this offseason.
Over the past three drafts alone, they’ve used a first-round pick and a pair of No. 2s on cornerbacks who’ve yet to make compelling cases that they can be long-term solutions or even bona fide starters.
Jason Pierre-Paul, a pre-draft trade acquisition a year ago, became the first Tampa Bay player to have at least 10 sacks in a season since Simeon Rice in 2005, yet bolstering an inconsistent pass rush remains a priority a year after Licht used a first-round pick and invested heavily in free agency to overhaul the defensive line around veteran tackle Gerald McCoy.
Licht said the toughest part of the evaluation process for the draft is not gauging a prospect’s talent.
“It’s what the player is all about and how willing he is to put in the work, what kind of a teammate he’s going to be. So you can kind of separate the guys that don’t have the talent to make it. The guys that do have talent, you rank them into how talented they are, but then the tough part is reading the player,” the GM said.
“Bruce doesn’t live by a lot of mottos. … But one thing he does adhere to that I took from him in Arizona is, ‘trust, loyalty, respect.’ You’ve got to have players that trust each other, trust the coaches, are loyal to everybody and respect everybody,” Licht added. “So if you can get a talented guy that you know hits on all three of those things, you have a really good chance.”
Barring a trade, the Bucs hold the fifth overall selection. In addition to improving the pass rush and secondary, they likely will seek help for the offensive line and, possibly, at running back in later rounds.
“We have at least five players that we think — at least five — that if we stay in our spot that we’d be very happy with,” Arians said.
McCoy, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, is due to earn $13 million next season, his 10th with the Bucs. Both Arians and Licht have shied away from talking specifics about how the defensive tackle fits into the plan for 2019, including whether he could be traded on or before the opening day of the draft.
“That’s hypothetical,” Licht said. “Right now, we are focused on the draft.”
RATING THE CLASS
While Licht expects to find help regardless of whether the Bucs stand pat at No. 5 or wind up trading down in the draft order, the GM said there is a clear drop-off in the level of talent available after a certain point.
“I would say after a certain number — which I won’t give — then they kind of all are together,” Licht said. “It’s tougher than most years to really rank the let’s just say top 50 players, because of that.”
Staying put could mean taking one of the defensive studs up front — Quinnen Williams of Alabama, Ed Oliver of Houston, Montez Sweat of Mississippi State — or linebacker Josh Allen of Kentucky.
CUPBOARD NOT BARE
Despite going 5-11 and missing the playoffs again ast season, Licht feels entering the draft that Tampa Bay’s roster is more than talented than it was this time a year ago.
“We think we have a talented team, but we know that we have some pieces that we need to add, too,” the GM said. “We are not a finished product. We have the draft coming up, we have moves that we can make all the way up through training camp.”