As the NFL draft order goes, the Bucs find themselves nestled in no-man’s land.
With the No. 19 overall pick, general manager Jason Licht and coach Todd Bowles aren’t likely to find a generational quarterback or transformational pass rusher. Then again, draft science remains far less precise than Mel Kiper’s coiffure; the Bucs’ starting quarterback the past three seasons remains lanky, living proof of that.
But history suggests the pick — if the Bucs choose to stay at No. 19 — won’t be a slam dunk. Excluding 2021 first-rounder Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (on whom the jury’s still out), the last five first-rounders the Bucs have taken with the 15th pick or lower have been O.J. Howard (19th, 2017), Doug Martin (31st, 2012), Adrian Clayborn (20th, 2011), Josh Freeman (17th, 2009) and Aqib Talib (20th, 2008).
Martin and Talib evolved into first-team All-Pros. The other three have combined for zero Pro Bowls. Get the picture?
Still, the Bucs’ needs are so diverse, they’re bound to find someone — perhaps more solid than spectacular — capable of filling an immediate need when the draft commences April 27 in Kansas City, Missouri. So who could be available at No. 19? And whom might the Bucs be targeting? We’ve combed the smorgasbord of mock drafts congesting cyberspace and have come up with some preliminary names to ponder.
Naturally, this list (in alphabetical order) will fluctuate based on upcoming evaluations, including the Feb. 4 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
CB Christian Gonzalez, Oregon, So.
6-foot-2, 201 pounds
Of the 20 prospects receiving a first-round grade from ESPN’s Matt Miller, Gonzalez ranks No. 17, putting him right in the pewter vicinity. Long, fleet and brimming with ball skills, Gonzalez had four interceptions and seven pass breakups in 2022 after transferring from Colorado. Though still only 20, he has 30 college starts to his credit. By comparison, Jamel Dean played only 26 college games.
S Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M, Jr.
6-foot-3, 195 pounds
The draft’s second-ranked safety in Kiper’s rankings, Johnson could serve as a run-stuffing complement to Antoine Winfield Jr. and possesses the versatility to play nickel back. In 25 career games, he totaled 164 tackles, 14 for loss and four forced fumbles. Moreover, the Aggies led the nation in pass defense (156.2 yards per game) in 2022.
TE Michael Mayer, Notre Dame, Jr.
6-foot-4½, 265 pounds
At least one mock draft projects this throwback of sorts going to the Bucs, while several others slot him in the No. 15-20 range. Mayer (67 catches, 809 yards, two TDs in 2022) would be the closest thing to Rob Gronkowski the Bucs could hope to acquire: a sturdy blocker with soft hands who could create matchup nightmares downfield. Considering the Bucs’ blocking deficiencies on the left side, Mayer would seem to make sense.
LB Drew Sanders, Arkansas, Jr.
6-foot-5, 233 pounds
Two recent mock drafts, including one released by NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, have the Bucs taking this versatile Alabama transfer, who tied for the SEC lead in sacks (10) and ranked fifth in tackles (103) in 2022. Sanders has lined up on the inside and as an edge rusher and projects as an heir to Lavonte David should the future Ring of Honor inductee not return.
G O’Cyrus Torrence, Florida, Jr.
6-foot-5, 347 pounds
If the Bucs believe neither Nick Leverett nor Luke Goedeke represents the long-term answer at left guard, they could take a hard look at this orange-and-blue behemoth. An all-conference performer at Louisiana, Torrence followed Billy Napier to Gainesville and blossomed into a consensus All-American in 2022. In four college seasons (three at Louisiana), Torrence didn’t allow a sack, and he didn’t allow a hurry or commit a penalty in 698 snaps this past season.
DL Keion White, Georgia Tech, Sr.
6-foot-5, 286 pounds
Kiper projected this versatile, veteran dynamo going to the Bucs in his recent first-round mock draft. At the dawn of the 2022 season, The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman included White on his annual “Freaks List” for his blend of size, sleekness and strength (38 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press). He had 14 tackles for loss and 7-1/2 sacks this past season, including three sacks against North Carolina. Envision a world where Logan Hall breaks through in Year 2, Vita Vea continues wreaking havoc and White is added to the mix.
Bucs’ top 5 needs
The obvious X-factor is Tom Brady. If he departs as expected, Kyle Trask remains the Bucs’ only quarterback under contract.
Jamel Dean, whose stock soared in the 2022 season, is set to become a free agent. So is Sean Murphy-Bunting.
Mike Edwards becomes a free agent, and the team is not expected to retain veterans Keanu Neal and Logan Ryan.
4. Defensive line
Veteran William Gholston played on a one-year deal in 2022, and the team isn’t expected to re-sign 33-year-old Akiem Hicks.
5. Offensive line
Donovan Smith didn’t exactly solidify himself at left tackle this past season, and left guard is equally shaky.
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