Buccaneers make improving defense priority of NFL Draft

- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers feel they're closer to assembling the talent necessary to become relevant again.

A year after drafting Jameis Winston No. 1 overall as part of an offensive overhaul, the Bucs are focused on putting a struggling defense in a better position to help their young quarterback be successful.

General manager Jason Licht and first-year coach Dirk Koetter made good on a promise to devote this year's draft to plugging holes in a leaky secondary and improving an inconsistent pass rush.

Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III was drafted 11th in the opening round. Defensive end Noah Spence was selected early in the second, and Licht made a surprising trade to move up 15 spots from the third round to late in the second to pick specialist Roberto Aguayo, one of the most accurate kickers in college football history.

All three of those players figure to become regulars right away, a prospect that brought a smile to Licht's face.

The GM's first two drafts with Tampa Bay landed six starters — receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins in 2014, and Winston, left tackle Donovan Smith, right guard Ali Marpet and linebacker Kwon Alexander a year ago.

Saturday brought four prospects — cornerback Ryan Smith (fourth round, North Carolina Central), offensive tackle Caleb Benenoch (fifth round, UCLA), linebacker Devante Bond (sixth round, Oklahoma) and fullback Danny Vitale (sixth round, Northwestern) — with a chance bolster depth and contribute on special teams.

"Obviously we feel very good right now. I have the same feeling right now that I did last year," Licht said. "All these guys ... I think have an excellent chance of making this football team."

Licht also deflected criticism directed at the team for giving up an extra fourth-round draft pick to move up late Friday and get Aguayo, who was 49 for 49 on field goal attempts inside 40 yards, as well as perfect 198 extra point tries at Florida State.

"That'll all go away once he's winning games for us," Licht said. "It's just so hard to find a great kicker. They come around once a decade, guys like this, in my opinion. So we could do what we had to do or we could wait another decade. I'd rather do it now."

Smith, who has a college degree in criminal justice and once aspired to be a U.S. marshal, was the 10th player selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft — No. 108 overall.

He had seven career interceptions at North Carolina Central, splitting time between cornerback and safety, where he likely will compete for a role in a defense that needs help after allowing opponents to complete 70 percent of passes and throw for 31 touchdowns last season.

Hargreaves is expected move right into the starting lineup. Spence will get an opportunity to contribute right away, too, with the Bucs hoping to improve an inconsistent pass rush.

Tampa Bay used 12 of 13 picks over the past two drafts to address deficiencies on offense.

"We needed to draft some defensive players," said Koetter, the team's offensive coordinator a year ago, when the Bucs finished 6-10 under former coach Lovie Smith and missed the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season.

"We're building this team, but we're not saying we're building it for three years from now," Koetter added. "Heck, who knows what's going to happen then. We're trying to be the best team we can be this season."

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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