Former First-Round Pick Refocused for Buccaneers 2024

Calijah Kancey

Getty Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman Calijah Kancey.

It’s impossible to call defensive tackle Calijah Kancey’s rookie season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a total success after he missed seven games due to injuries.

But to say Kancey didn’t have any success wouldn’t be accurate either.

In the 10 games he played in, Kancey showed flashes of the potential that made the Buccaneers select him out of Pittsburgh with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft and finished the year with 19 tackles, including 4.0 sacks and 9 tackles for loss.

Kancey played arguably his best game of the season in an NFC Wild Card win over the Philadelphia Eagles, recording 4 tackles, 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss and a pressure that contributed to a safety.

“I definitely feel like I caught up at the end. I was playing a little bit of catch-up, but it all worked out for me,” Kancey said on April 15 as the Buccaneers opened up OTAs. “It helped me learn my body and it helped me just not take this for granted because it can be (taken) away from you very fast. It just made me love the game even more.”

Kancey also reflected on losing a big chunk of his rookie season to injuries.

“I definitely learned a lot about myself,” Kancey said. “It was a little uncertain starting off, as far as being set back with the calf injury and starting the season off a little late. My main thing was getting back to myself and how I was in college. I wanted the NFL to be as easy as college. It came with patience. I had to learn a different scheme, going against veteran guys who’ve been in the league for a lot of years.

“I just had to get the repetition and when I got the repetitions, it just all started to pick up. That’s where I want to be at — I want to work off of where I finished off at and be better.”

Buccaneers Got Surprise Boost From Another Rookie

While Kancey struggled with injuries, the Buccaneers third-round pick in 2023, Louisville linebacker YaYa Diaby was arguably the biggest surprise on the defensive side of the ball.

Diaby led the Buccaneers with 7.5 sacks in 2023 and played well enough that Tampa Bay was able to release veteran outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who signed with the Miami Dolphins.

Kancey and Diaby formed a quick bond as rookies, even developing their own unique sack celebration.

“Yeah, the celebration, that just lets you know how strong the bond grew, because early on, it wasn’t (like) that,” Kancey said. “We still (were) like brothers and everything – on and off the field – but as we get the reps together, we kind of learned each other and played off of each other and it all connects.”

Healthy Kancey Could Be Difference Maker for Bucs

NFL draft analyst Lance Zierlein compared Kancey to Pro Football Hall of Famer John Randle in his pre-draft evaluation in 2023. Randle was a six-time NFL All-Pro who played at almost the exact same size as Kancey — both at 6-foot-1 and around 290 pounds.

“He’s a nightmare for offenses as a pass rusher,” Zierlein wrote. “His twitchy feet can slide and reset points of attack. His leverage and motor are often too much for guards to handle alone. Kancey might be most effective as a rotational run defender and full-time, sub-package rusher, but his size will not define him in the NFL.”

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