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Super Bowl champ Bucs focused on building depth in NFL draft

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

FILE - Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht, left, address the audience with linebackers Lavonte David, center, and Devin White during a celebration of their Super Bowl 55 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Tampa, Fla., in this Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, file photo. When Jason Licht declared he was going to do everything he could to keep the Tampa Bay Buccaneers together, no one envisioned the process going as smoothly as it has for the Super Bowl champions. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

TAMPA, Fla. – Jason Licht is enjoying the perks that come with being the general manager of a reigning Super Bowl champion.

That includes the challenge of getting a late start on preparing for the NFL draft and not having a selection until the tail end of the first round as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers continue to get acclimated to what life’s like with Tom Brady.

“It’s a good problem to have,” said Licht, who already has had a successful offseason by making good on a bold promise to do whatever necessary in free agency to keep an all-star roster assembled around Brady. With all 22 starters from the Super Bowl returning, the Bucs find themselves in unfamiliar territory for a club that missed the playoffs 12 consecutive seasons before Brady’s arrival set a new course in March 2020.

For the first time in franchise history, Tampa Bay truly enters a draft without a need for immediate help at any position.

“It is really a feeling this year that literally just about any player at any position we could take,” Licht said before cutting himself short.

“I guess I’ll say I won’t take a kicker,” the GM added with a smile, mindful of recent draft-day blunders including Tampa Bay’s selection of Roberto Aguayo (second round, 2016) and Matt Gay (fifth round, 2019), both of whom were released after disappointing rookie seasons.

“But liberating is a probably a very good word’’ to describe what’s it’s like to be picking 32nd overall compared to the top 10. “It’s a luxury we can pick the player we think is going to be the best in two years instead of two games.”

And despite having no intentions of moving on from Brady, who signed a contract extension that’ll keep him in Tampa Bay for at least two more seasons, Licht and coach Bruce Arians have not ruled out selecting a quarterback at some point in the draft.

“We go into that every year. If the guy’s there at the right time that we really think has a great future, then there’s no better time to have one sit for a couple of years and learn,” Arians said. “Each round there’s going to be one of those guys in that picture to try to see who’s the best (player) available right then.”

Brady turns 44 in August and Ryan Griffin, who’s thrown four passes over six NFL seasons, is the only other QB currently under contract.

Licht said what the Bucs won’t do is draft a quarterback “just to pick a quarterback.”

“You want everybody to be on board, and the guy’s got to have the right mindset. He’s got to be, obviously, talented and can throw the ball, but he’s got to be someone we all feel comfortable with above the neck,” the GM said. “There’s always positives to drafting a quarterback if those things align.”

WHAT WE COVET

Unlike a year ago when Tampa Bay’s top two draft picks — right tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. — became immediate starters and flourished, the Bucs are focused on finding prospects to contribute on special teams as rookies, and compete for larger roles in 2022 and beyond. Arians said an emphasis will be placed on adding speed on defense, as well as depth on both lines of scrimmage.

“Speed and physicality ... and a love for the game,” Arians said.

NO PRECONCEIVED PLAN

Licht said as always the Bucs will be open minded at the prospect of moving up or down in the draft order, depending on who’s available at a particular time.

“All those options will be on the board, just like they are every year,” the GM said. “There are opportunities for us to get better.”

Licht stressed that virtually every position could be on the table, especially in the first two rounds.

“Your needs and your desires in April are completely different when it comes time for September,” Licht said. “Sometimes you can take players and people scratch their head: ‘Why would they take him?’ Then come September or December, you’re glad you took him.”

NOTABLE DIFFERENCE

When Super Bowl champions call, veteran players listen. Just ask running back Giovani Bernard, who signed a one-year contract this month after being released by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Draft prospects have been happy to hear from the Bucs this spring, too.

“One of the questions we’ll ask to kind of get a gauge of their football passion is how many players can you name from our team? In the past, they’d be able to name a few,” Licht said. “But it seemed like this year they could name the entire starting lineup, both sides of the ball. ... There was a little bit of players sitting up more, a little more wide-eyed, and a little bit more excited to talk about our team."

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