TAMPA — If you don't have a franchise quarterback in the NFL, the search for one is always a draft priority. And once you have one, another must is a dominant pass rusher who can get to the other team's franchise quarterback.
Do the Bucs have such a pass rusher on their roster? Noah Spence had 5.5 sacks as a rookie last year. But until the Bucs can get 10 sacks in a year from someone, anyone — it hasn't happened since Simeon Rice in 2005 — they'll be closely linked to pass rushers as potential top picks.
So though running back is still the position most frequently paired with the Bucs at No. 19 in mock drafts for next week's event in Philadelphia, defensive end is another possibility. Tampa Bay has brought in for interviews several defensive ends who could be available at 19, Tennessee's Derek Barnett and Michigan's Taco Charlton, for starters.
This draft class is such that even at 19, the Bucs might be able to land the best defensive tackle in the draft, generally thought to be Michigan State's Malik McDowell. Tampa Bay hasn't drafted a defensive tackle in four years, so a high pick would complement starters Gerald McCoy and Chris Baker, both 29, and top backup Clinton McDonald, who is 30 and in the final year of his contract.
"Ideally, we would like to inject some youth into that position," general manager Jason Licht said. "We feel comfortable with our players that we have there. We have some very good players along that d-line, and they are going to get better, too. … But you're always trying to inject youth."
The Bucs sent defensive line coach Jay Hayes to the pro day of Florida, which could offer a second-day option at tackle in Caleb Brantley. They also brought in an intriguing small-school prospect, Albany State's Grover Stewart, massive at 334 pounds but impressively productive with 27 tackles for loss in the past two years.
Defensive line is perhaps the draft's biggest strength. Texas' Myles Garrett, Stanford's Solomon Thomas and Alabama's Jonathan Allen could go in the first five picks. But there's solid depth to extend to the Bucs' pick, if not even to their No. 50 pick in the second round.
In drafting Spence in the second round last year and in giving end Will Gholston a $27 million contract extension in March, the Bucs have already invested well in defensive ends, but their defense starts at the line of scrimmage, so until they have a Pro Bowl talent at defensive end, they'll be searching for one in the draft.
Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee: Totaled 32 sacks the past three years, using strong hands and strength to shine among SEC's best defensive players.
Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan: Had 9.5 sacks as a senior. Long at 6 feet 6. Very athletic. Seen by critics as inconsistent.
Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State: Tall and long at 6-6. Has athleticism rare for interior lineman. May end up a 3-4 end but has all kinds of upside.
Jordan Willis, DE, Kansas State: Might sneak into first round. If he falls, Bucs know him well. Ran 4.53 seconds in 40-yard dash at draft combine at 255 pounds; had 39-inch vertical.
Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE, Villanova: Had all kinds of buzz early this spring. Is 6-7, 290 pounds and very intelligent. Had 11 sacks last year as part of 21.5 tackles for loss.
Derek Rivers, DE, Youngstown State: Quick and strong. Ran 4.61 in 40 at combine at 248 pounds; got 30 reps in bench press. Had 14 sacks as a senior.
Grover Stewart, DT, Albany State: Has had too many predraft team visits to stick around long. Massive at 334 pounds; has played bigger. Intriguing as a Division II phenom.
Bryan Cox Jr., DE, Florida: Father coached with Bucs coach Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith when they were in Atlanta. Has been limited by injuries but had 10.5 tackles for loss as junior.
Jeremiah Ledbetter, DE, Arkansas: Father Weldon was a Bucs' draft pick in 1983. Had 5.5 sacks as a senior. At 280 pounds, could shift inside as three-technique in NFL.