Many questions will be answered in the upcoming weeks regarding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster as the free agency frenzy and 2023 NFL Draft commence. In a post-Tom Brady world, the obvious unknown is who will be under center this upcoming season commanding Dave Canales’ offense. With 23 pending unrestricted free agents and salary-cap limitations, there are many holes on the Bucs’ roster that have to be filled before the inception of the regular season in September. The Bucs’ personnel department is undoubtedly feeling the pressure to nail this year’s draft with an infusion of impact players. There is no certainty as to which players the Bucs’ scouting department have zeroed in on during this stage of the interview process at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine or which positions will be addressed via free agency; however, position groups that would benefit from acquired depth can be identified. Here is an overview of the Bucs top needs as the draft approaches and possible first-round value picks.
The Buccaneers’ secondary is likely to take a hit in free agency. Tampa Bay has three safeties with expiring contracts, including Mike Edwards on the final year of his rookie deal and veterans Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal who served their one-year contracts. Additionally, the Bucs could lose two of their top three cornerbacks in Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting this offseason, which would leave much to be desired in terms of depth behind Carlton Davis III. The Bucs will have challenging decisions ahead with the current cap situation, so look for the club to reload their depth via the draft.
With Tom Brady’s retirement and Blaine Gabbert set to become a free agent, Kyle Trask is the only quarterback currently under contract for the Buccaneers next season. Trask, who has thrown nine NFL passes and has been on the active roster for only two games, is unproven at the pro level. Both Head Coach Todd Bowles and General Manager Jason Licht made it clear that regardless of who is brought in, Trask will have the opportunity to compete for the starting role under center for 2023. Even if the Bucs give Trask the gig to prove himself as the full-time starter, they will still need to find a quality depth option or two.
Anthony Nelson, one of the Bucs’ most improved players in 2023, along with veteran Carl Nassib, are set to hit the open market in March, while Shaq Barrett is rehabbing from a torn Achilles suffered in Week Eight of last season. Third-year player Joe Tryon-Shoyinka has flashed potential but has not reached his ceiling. In his 2022 assessment of the position group, Head Coach Todd Bowles vocalized the need for more consistent pressure and a higher sack-production from the unit. “This is the first 3-4 [defense] team I’ve been a part of where the outside linebackers have not led the team in sacks,” Bowles described. “We’ve got to get better in that area, I think.” The Bucs will have to bolster their pass rush and there are many intriguing options in the draft.
Longtime defensive captain and tone-setter Lavonte David is set to become a free agent if he and the Bucs don’t reach accord on a new deal. David has established himself as one of the best coverage linebackers of his generation, achieving both consistency and longevity. The 33-year-old’s 88.5 coverage grade in 2022 ranked second among all off-ball linebackers per PFF. David is still playing at a high level, garnering attention from around the league. Losing a step with age is expected but David seems to defy it, encompassing both play recognition and quickness out of breaks. The legendary Buccaneer has made it clear that he wants to stay in Tampa Bay for the duration of his career. If both sides can reach an agreement, David could take the field once again in 2023.
All-Pro tackle Tristan Wirfs is the anchor of the Bucs’ offensive line long-term and there are key veterans in place with center Ryan Jensen and right guard Shaq Mason; however, there are improvements to be made. Rookie guard Luke Goedeke faced a gauntlet of elite three-techniques in 2022 that led to an “unfair evaluation” of the first-year player per Licht. The staff will continue to develop Goedeke, with a priority on strength training. Both guard Aaron Stinnie and tackle Josh Wells are set to become free agents and guard Nick Leverett an exclusive rights free agent. The Bucs are in need of quality competition at tackle and guard to bolster the line, in addition to finding a long-term successor for Donovan Smith at left tackle.
Nose tackle Vita Vea had arguably his best season in 2022, accumulating a team-best 6.5 sacks. When three-technique Akiem Hicks was healthy last season, he solidified the interior, boosted the club’s run defense and occupied blocks to free up Vea to get to the quarterback. Looking ahead, change is evitable along the defensive line. Will Gholston, the Bucs’ longtime stout strongside run defender, is set to become a free agent, along with Hicks and Rakeem Nuñez-Roches. In Year Two, Logan Hall will have an increased role in the trenches. “He needs to add some good weight, but he has to get some strength,” Licht described. “I think he’s so athletic and he’s doing all the right things. I definitely think we’re going to see progress this year.” Having a rotation of bodies will be essential for the Bucs after their depth is expected to take a hit.
Prospects to Watch
CB Christian Gonzalez (Oregon)
The transfer from Colorado established himself as one of the best non-quarterbacks in this year’s draft class during his final season at the University of Oregon. Christian Gonzalez is long and athletic, matching up against opposing teams’ No. 1 receivers on the boundary, generally lining up in a press technique. Gonzalez is effective at getting his hands on receivers right off the snap, disrupting the timing/tempo of releases. With improved ball skills and willingness to deliver a blow in the open field, Gonzalez projects as an immediate starter in the NFL. He possesses quickness and fluidity in-and-out of breaks to match route combinations. He would help the Bucs reload in the secondary for 2023.
CB Joey Porter Jr. (Penn State)
The Buccaneers have certainly found success in NFL bloodlines with Antoine Winfield Jr. and could again in the case of Joey Porter Jr. He is the son of longtime NFL sack artist,Joey Porter, with football being engrained as a child. Porter Jr. plays with an aggressive style befitting of the Bucs’ defense. Porter Jr. leverages his length to disrupt at the line of scrimmage, influencing releases. He would add value in the Bucs’ secondary as a lockdown option or in zone. With elite ball skills at the catch point – an alluring trait for the Bucs – and high football IQ, Porter Jr. has the capability of becoming a day-one starter.
Edge Lukas Van Ness (Iowa)
Iowa’s Lukas Van Ness is effective at converting speed to power and leveraging his bull rush to disrupt the pocket. He has inside/outside versatility, with experience as an A and B-gap defender, as well as playing on the edge. With explosive power, functional strength and improved block recognition, Van Ness has risen on mocks with an enticing untapped ceiling. Van Ness was not a starter for the Hawkeyes this past season but led the team in tackles for loss with 11. He would add a “speed and energy” element to the defense that the Bucs have been searching for.
With nickel cornerbacks becoming the norm across the NFL – hybrids with the capability of playing sticky coverage in man and are adept in run support – teams often prioritize defensive back versatility. As the Bucs are faced with a potential mass exodus in the secondary in free agency, Brian Branch would be a coveted prospect if he fell to No. 19. He is an instinctual defender with the flexibility to plug-and-play at a variety of spots in Tampa Bay’s defense. Branch has experience playing deep safety, aligning at strong safety in the box, nickel corner, linebacker and blitzing off the edge at the line of scrimmage. With elite play recognition and athleticism, Branch would serve as a developmental pillar for Todd Bowles on the back end.