TAMPA — Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht recently detected in coach Lovie Smith a behavior pattern that suggests Smith has a little more passion for the draft prospects working the defensive side of the ball than those on offense.
According to Licht, Smith has a tendency to sit back in his chair when the two break down tape of an offensive prospect. Turn on the tape of a defensive player, however, and Smith suddenly moves to the edge of his seat.
“It’s pretty interesting,’’ Licht said with a laugh. “As for me, I’m always right in the middle.’’
Smith’s defensive leaning shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. As a former Bucs linebackers coach and Rams defensive coordinator, that likely is the side of the ball he knows best.
But his interest in defensive players extends to the draft, as well. Of the 67 players drafted by the Bears during Smith’s nine-year tenure as head coach in Chicago, 38 played defense, including 14 of the 25 selected in the first three rounds.
The pattern doesn’t hold true, though, in the first round.
The Bears had a first-round selection six times during Smith’s reign, and on all but two of those occasions they spent the pick on an offensive player. Oh, and in two of the three years in which Smith’s Bears didn’t have a first-round pick, it was because they’d traded them away for a quarterback.
That’s what happened when the Bears traded quarterback Kyle Orton and their first-round selections in the 2009 and 2010 drafts to the Broncos for quarterback Jay Cutler, meaning that under Smith the Bears invested six of their nine first-round picks in the offensive side of the ball.
Chances are, that trend will continue this year.
The Bucs go into the three-day 2014 NFL draft, which begins tonight with the first round, sorely in need of help at wide receiver, where their lone returning starter is 31-year-old Vincent Jackson, and in dire need of help at right guard, where undrafted second-year pro Patrick Omameh was working with the first team during the team’s recent minicamp.
The Bucs might also be in the market for upgrades at left guard, where they are crossing their fingers Carl Nicks can bounce back from two seasons lost to foot injuries, and possibly tight end, where an elite-level talent has been missing since the long-ago days of Jimmie Giles.
And then there’s the quarterback position. Smith has already named 34-year-old career backup Josh McCown as his starter for this year, but even McCown admits he’s only a bridge to the quarterback of the future, which might not be 2013 rookie starter Mike Glennon.
Though Glennon, a third-round pick who took over the job in Week 4, led all rookie passers with an 83.9 rating after throwing 19 touchdowns against only nine interceptions, the Bucs have yet to endorse him as their quarterback of the future.
Add it all up and the Bucs’ needs on the offensive side of the ball far outweigh those on the defensive side, where Tampa Bay addressed its one true desire, which was to upgrade the pass rush, by signing end Michael Johnson and tackle Clinton McDonald in free agency.
Good thing, too, because this year’s draft is not long on pass-rushing talent. After South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney, who could go first overall to Houston, and linebacker Khalil Mack, who might best be suited for a 3-4 scheme, the pass-rush talent drops off precipitously.
“This draft is not deep in edge rushers,’’ said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, who is among those who believe the Bucs will continue the trend of Smith’s teams drafting offensive talent in the first round.
During a conference call with NFL reporters last week, Mayock said he did one unofficial mock draft in which the Bucs took Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins with their first pick, seventh overall.
Mayock also mentioned Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans and North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron as possibilities for the Bucs, should they opt against trading down in the first round and keep the seventh selection.
“A lot of the teams in the top 10 are talking about trading down because it’s such a good draft, but I think Tampa Bay is in a pretty good place to get a really good football player,’’ Mayock said. “If they were to get Watkins, that would be a great pick for them because you pair him with Vincent Jackson and all of a sudden you help both of your quarterbacks, whether it’s McCown or Glennon or whoever.
“And with Ebron, I think the interest (among teams) starts right there with Tampa because he’s going to go somewhere, I believe, between seven and 13. But either way, whether it’s Watkins or Ebron, if you add a playmaker to help that offense, I think that would be awesome for Tampa..’’
It wouldn’t be the first time Smith opted for a playmaker in the first round. He chose running back Cedric Benson fourth overall in 2005 and tight end Greg Olsen 31st overall in 2007.
The other offensive players selected in the first round by the Bears during Smith’s tenure were tackle Chris Williams (14th overall) in 2008 and tackle Gabe Carimi (29th overall) in 2011.
But Smith’s Bears teams typically waited until the second or third round to draft receivers, using second-round picks on Mark Bradley (2005) and Alshon Jeffrey (2012) and thirds on Bernard Berrian (2004), Earl Bennett (2008) and Juaguin Iglesias (2009).
As for quarterbacks, Smith has never been in much of a hurry to get one. Even before he traded for Cutler he spent only a fifth-round pick on Craig Krenzel in 2004 and a fourth-round pick on Orton in 2005.
Once Cutler was on board, the need for QBs diminished in Chicago and Smith’s draft strategy reflected that. He took a flier on Dan Lefevour in the sixth round in 2010 and another on Nathan Enderley in the fifth in ’11.
Just how much the Bucs’ need for a quarterback is diminished by the presence of McCown, Glennon and Mike Kafka is hard to know, but Smith actually seems rather pleased with his team as it sits right now.
“I think if we had to play tomorrow, we could line up a pretty competitive team at every position,’’ Smith said last week. “But you’re always trying to upgrade your team, no matter what.
“And there are some positions we would like to upgrade this year. But I’ll be saying that every year, because that’s the way you should always be thinking. Again, having a chance to see guys in our minicamp, I think we’re close.’’