The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been open and honest about their plans for the 2021 NFL Draft this offseason since the free agency period came and went. With all 22 starters as well as key depth players from last season on the roster for another run, the Buccaneers plan to draft with the future in mind.
Three of Tampa's five starters on the defensive front, from one edge to the other with three interior linemen in between, will be 30 or more years old before this offseason is over. All three of those players have one year remaining on their contracts as well: Edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul and defensive ends Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston.
The old cliché is that you can never have enough pass rushers on your team - in this case, edge rushers and interior linemen both count. Reasonably, the Buccaneers have frequently been mocked prospects at both positions in the weeks leading up to the draft, but after general manager Jason Licht spoke with media on Wednesday, it would seem as though Tampa Bay favors one position over the other this year.
"It's not as deep as it has been in some years, we've known that for some time," Licht said about the group of defensive linemen in this year's draft. "Now there are still some that we like, but it went into our thought process of re-signing [Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Steve McLendon]."
According to the consensus defensive line big board on NFL Mock Draft database, only Alabama's Christian Barmore falls within the top 32 overall prospects in the upcoming draft (No. 27). Eight defensive linemen can be found in the top 100 prospects, but only two come in the top 50.
Not often will a general manager admit that their team re-signed players - particularly, inexpensive backups - with the idea of a weak class of prospects at a certain position in mind, but that's essentially what Licht did. In addition to those signings, Licht expressed confidence in seventh-year lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter and second-year lineman Khalil Davis while acknowledging that former first-round pick Vita Vea should return to full health this year after an injury-riddled 2020.
"So, we've got depth for this year," said Licht. "In the future that may be a position that we need to look at, and you know, that could come out of this draft. But we feel good about going into this year with the group that we have."
Licht sang a bit of a different tune about this class of edge rushers. Five such prospects crack the top 32 overall and 13 can be found in the top 100 on the consensus edge rusher big board. Namely, Miami's Jaelan Phillips and Gregory Rousseau, Georgia's Azeez Ojulari, Penn State's Jayson Oweh, and Texas' Joseph Ossai are projected to be selected in the range of the Buccaneers' first-round pick.
The Buccaneers signed Shaq Barrett to a four-year extension in March after he posted 27.5 regular-season sacks over the past two years. Barrett's edge-rushing counterpart, Jason Pierre-Paul, led the team in sacks last season with 9.5 and has posted 30.5 sacks in three seasons with the Bucs, but is entering the final year of his contract and will be 33 years old before the deal expires.
"There is a group there that's interesting, so we have to then do our due diligence of ranking them compared to other positions on the draft board," Licht responded to a question about the class of first-round caliber edge rushers. "We're in a great position once again that we don't have to go after what may be perceived as the bigger need. If there's a better player at another position, we can go that route."
Sure, Barrett and Pierre-Paul make up one of the best edge-rushing tandems in the NFL right now. Barrett is also on a path toward finishing his career in Tampa Bay when that time comes. It's reasonable to consider a future starter on the interior line as a bigger need than a future starter on the edge so long as Pierre-Paul continues to produce, as the interior line features two starters and three depth players with one year left on their contracts.
However, adding a third threatening edge rusher to Tampa Bay's room of outside linebackers could pay huge dividends as well. Should that player turn into a complete edge rusher, it would become easier to let Pierre-Paul go when his age begins to catch up with him. And in the short term, a role-playing edge rusher could allow Pierre-Paul and Barrett to lessen their workload - both players logged over 800 snaps in the 2020 regular season.
It's difficult to predict which way the Buccaneers will lean come draft night with an endless number of scenarios that could come to fruition before pick No. 32. But if it comes down to selecting the best player available and a defensive lineman and edge rusher both fit that bill, one of those positions appears to be preferred over the other for Tampa Bay.