TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Once the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided they were comfortable with Jameis Winston becoming their quarterback, the rest of the NFL draft was about improving his chances of being successful.
Even the selection of LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander in the fourth round Saturday reflected a commitment to bolster a defense that will need to do its part to help Winston fulfill expectations of transforming the Bucs into championship contenders.
There’s still work to be done to escape the NFC South cellar, however general manager Jason Licht believes the franchise is headed in the right direction after concluding the team’s second draft under him and coach Lovie Smith.
Article continues below ...
”We can’t solve everything. We know that,” Licht said Saturday. ”But we know that we can compete for this division with what we’ve got, and we’ll continue to add pieces incrementally.”
The selection of Alexander deviated from the course the Bucs followed on the first two days of the draft, when Winston, tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet were brought in bolster a sputtering offense.
In fact, Alexander became the first defensive player selected by Smith and Licht, who joined the Bucs in January 2014.
Tampa Bay used its entire 2014 draft on offensive players, yet still wound up ranking 25th in passing, 29th in scoring and 30th in total yardage while going 2-14 last season.
They nearly did it again this year, using six of seven selections to address deficiencies on offense.
Alexander was LSU’s leading tackler in 2014, opted to skip his senior season, and was drafted No. 124 overall. The Bucs finished up Saturday, adding Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell in the fifth round, Utah receiver/kick returner Kaelin Clay in the sixth and Hawaii fullback Joey Iosefa in the seventh.
”I thought I had a pretty good year. I was just ready to go, just ready to go pursue my dream,” Alexander said.
To get the linebacker, the Bucs made a trade with Oakland to move up four spots in the fourth round. The Raiders received the 128th pick, as well as one of the two selections Tampa Bay was scheduled to have in the seventh round.
Ideally, the team would have liked to find a pass rusher, although there’s been less emphasis placed on finding defensive help after trading for George Johnson and adding linebacker Bruce Carter, tackle Henry Melton, safety Chris Conte and cornerback Sterling Moore through free agency this offseason.
”People keep talking about the draft,” Smith said. ”But in free agency we’ve brought in quite a few defensive players, so it’s leveling out a little bit.”
The Bucs signed Winston to a four-year, $23.35 million contract on Friday, then beefed up the quarterback’s protection by drafting a tackle and guard in the second round.
Smith and Licht rebuilt the offensive line a year ago, however the team made a mistake signing left tackle Anthony Collins in free agency and injuries created a hole at guard. Collins was one of four highly-paid veterans released after last season.
Penn State’s Donovan Smith will get a chance to earn the starting left tackle job. Marpet, a tackle at Hobart College, will shift to guard with Tampa Bay.
They’re excited about the prospect playing in front of Winston.
”Obviously, Jameis is a great player. I think Tampa addressed that need, and I think he’s going to impress people next year,” Marpet said. ”He’s a heck of an athlete and, from what I hear, he’s a heck of a teammate, so I’m excited to play with him.”
The Bucs are excited about the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Marpet, too. The NCAA Division III standout impressed NFL scouts at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine, where he measured up well against players from bigger schools.
The 2014 Liberty League co-offensive player of the year, who shared his path to the draft in a diary written for The Associated Press, didn’t attract much attention from larger schools as an undersized tackle in high school.
”The Senior Bowl was huge for me, obviously, because I was able to show teams that I was able to step up to the completion, and that I could play with the speed and the size of the next level,” Marpet said.
”I know the NFL is obviously a bigger jump than the Senior Bowl,” he added. ”But I honestly think that I can.”
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL