Buccaneers Projected to Draft Pass Rusher Compared to T.J. Watt

Laiatu Latu

Getty UCLA defensive end Laiatu Latu.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could add another elite pass rusher in April’s 2024 NFL draft.

In his seven-round mock draft published on March 27, ESPN’s Matt Miller has the Buccaneers selecting UCLA defensive end Laiatu Latu at No. 25 overall, which would mark the fourth consecutive year Tampa Bay has selected a pass rusher with its first pick.

“You won’t find a more productive pass-rusher in this class,” Miller wrote. “Latu put on a clinic in pass rushing the past two years at UCLA, posting 23.5 sacks and 112 pressures.”

Latu, who NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein compares to T.J. Watt, has elite size and speed at 6-foot-5, 259 pounds, with a 4.64-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.

“He could become a Pro Bowler as a 3-4 outside linebacker with a heavy influence on the game,” Zierlein wrote.

Latu spent the first three seasons of his college career at Washington before transferring to UCLA for the past two seasons.

He was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and First Team Associated Press All-American in 2023 as well as winning the Lombardi Award as the nation’s top college offensive lineman/defensive lineman and the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end.

Buccaneers Have Eye for Elite Pass-Rushing Talent

The Buccaneers have leaned heavily on drafting pass rushers in the last three drafts, using their first pick on defensive end Calijah Kancey in 2023, defensive end Logan Hall in 2022 and outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka in 2021.

Outside linebacker YaYa Diaby, the Buccaneers’ third-round pick in 2023, led the team with 7.5 sacks in 2023 while Kancey (4.0 sacks), and Tryon-Shoyinka (5.0) were also among the team leaders.

Drafting Latu could be a move for the future on the defensive front as well. The deadline to make a decision on Troyon-Shoyinka’s fifth-year option for 2025 looming on May 2 and the draft is scheduled for April 25-27 in Detroit.

Per Spotrac, Troyon-Shoyinka is due to make approximately $2.1 million in 2024 — a number that could jump up to $13.25 million in 2025.

Laiatu Latu Has Shaken Off Injury Concerns

One thing to consider with Latu for any team interested in drafting him will be a serious neck injury that sidelined him for two full seasons early in his college career.

Latu played in 12 of 13 games as a true freshman at Washington in 2019 before a neck injury in practice sidelined him for all of the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

At one point, Latu was told by doctors at Washington that his football career was over. Former Washington head coach Jimmy Lake even announced before spring practice in 2022 that Latu had “medically retired” from football.

Latu’s mother reached out to neck specialist Dr. Robert Watkins to get another opinion on whether his football career could continue. Dr. Watkins was who Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning turned to after a potentially career-ending neck injury in 2013.

Former Washington assistant coach Ikaika Malloe landed at UCLA after Lake and his staff were fired following the 2021 season. Malloe brought Latu, a Sacramento native, with him to Westwood and he was cleared for individual drills during spring practice in 2022.

Latu was given the green light to resume all football activities following spring football. Malloe was promoted to defensive coordinator in January.

“I’ve been dreaming of the NFL since I was a kid, and I never gave up on it all,” Latu told ESPN’s Jeff Legwold in February. “I just understood what I wanted to and that I wanted to get back to playing football again.”

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