This is the 28th in a 32-team series.
The Departed: Doug Martin (Raiders), Chris Baker (Bengals), Clinton McDonald (Broncos), Robert Ayers (Unsigned), Kevin Pamphile (Titans), Joe Hawley (Unsigned)
New Faces/Retained: Vinny Curry, Jason Pierre Paul, Ryan Jensen, Beau Allen, Mitch Unrein, Evan Smith, Keith Tandy
Hopes were high for the Buccaneers heading into the 2017 season, but things went south quickly. Tampa Bay finished a distant fourth in the NFL’s most difficult division, but it is very encouraging that Jameis Winston returned from injury to finish the season very strong. The Buccaneers did a fine job reinforcing the roster in free agency. They don’t have a third round pick, but do select seventh overall.
Winston was very up and down (with more down than up) before missing time with his injury last year, but he did come back extremely strong. Winston will never be a model of consistency and at times, it very much works in Tampa Bay’s favor that he has a short memory and can be very aggressive in an attacking manner. He is very gifted and that shows up over and over throughout the course of a game. But there is no denying that Winston makes far too many terribly ill advised throws and that has to decrease.
He has gotten leaner since entering the league and has become very effective playing on the move as a runner or passer now than ever. Winston also throws with good anticipation for a young signal caller, but is simply still too volatile with turnovers, including fumbles. His fundamentals as a passer and overall accuracy still very much need work. When blitzed, Winston was either great or awful. He also isn’t as strong of a deep passer as you would expect, even though he is very capable of making “Wow throws” deep down the field. His coverage recognition still needs a lot of work, as Winston’s poor throws are not always the case of forcing the ball in an aggressive nature, but also simply misreading what the defense gives him. In the red zone in 2017, Winston didn’t throw one interception, but did throw a dozen touchdowns. He is capable of greatness.
To help real Winston in, Tampa Bay needs a foundation running game. Right now, they certainly do not have the foundation running back, though. Simply put, the combination of Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber isn’t going to get it done. Both are okay players and will be viable depth running backs with much different skill sets, but the Buccaneers need to find their top player at this position early in the draft. Don’t be surprised if their second round pick is Derrius Guice, Sony Michel or Nick Chubb.
JR Sweezy played the second most snaps of any Tampa Bay offensive player, but still only saw the field for about 83% of their snaps, which just shows how injured this offense was throughout the season. Donavan Smith did play the most snaps on offense, but too many of those snaps were ineffective. Clearly there was a lot of shuffling with Tampa Bay’s offensive line last year. The Buccaneers gave Ryan Jensen big money to solidify the center position, which then bumps their best offensive lineman, Ali Marpet, to guard. Sweezy is likely to start at the other guard spot with Evan Smith possibly pushing him for playing time or backing up all three interior positions. The Buccaneers run a lot of inside zone, but failed to open much running room on the interior last year. That should now change for the positive in 2018.
At tackle, Smith remains on the left side and Demar Dotson should very capably hold down the right tackle job. Smith is the weak link in this unit though and this is a make or break year for him as he enters a contract year. But now the Buccaneers should be able to better help Smith with presumably the other four positions in pretty solid shape right now. Still, going back to 2012, Tampa Bay has been below average in the NFL every year in pass protection. That is rough on a young quarterback and Winston took far too many sacks on third downs in particular, although some of that blame goes to the quarterback without question.
The Buccaneers’ offense is too predicated on receivers winning one on one matchups, which also hasn’t made Winston’s maturation any smoother. But fortunately, this offense is loaded with receivers that are highly capable of winning such individual matchups. Of course this starts with Mike Evans, but he isn’t alone by any means and Tampa Bay really doesn’t have to look to this draft to fortify their wide outs or tight ends.
There isn’t much that needs to be said about Evans. His size obviously stands out and he has really developed as a route runner to all levels of the field. What is maybe most unbelievable about this great receiver is that Evans is only 24-years-old. Just think how many touchdowns Evans will catch over his career.
DeSean Jackson was brought in a year ago as what looked like the perfect complement to Evans as a true speedster on the outside. It didn’t quite work out that way, but Jackson remains as dangerous as ever. He could be pushed for playing time this year though by Chris Godwin, who has a much more well-rounded game. Godwin needs to get on the field. Adam Humphries played the second most snaps of Tampa Bay’s wide receivers and is coming off a fine season, but he could possibly become the forgotten man behind these three.
The Bucs also should employ a high percentage of double tight end sets. They just locked up Cameron Brate to a substantial contract even after using last year’s first round pick on OJ Howard, one of the NFL’s most talented players at the position. Brate clearly had the better year of the two in 2017, but rookie tight ends take to take quite a bit of time before they reach their peak in this league. Howard did improve greatly as his rookie season went on though and profiles as a true two-way tight end, a rarity in today’s NFL.
Tampa Bay’s pass defense has gotten worse each of the last few years and it was clearly amongst the worst in football in 2017. Both the pass-rush and coverage were very much to blame. So far, the Bucs have been very aggressive to improve up front, but haven’t done a lot on the backend. What is pretty amazing is that Tampa Bay didn’t have one defender even play 80% of the defensive snaps for the season in 2017, so injuries were a big factor on this side of the ball too.
The Buccaneers had the fewest sacks in the NFL last year. Getting Noah Spence back from injury should help, but adding Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre Paul absolutely will help. Curry is actually probably the better player of the two at this stage of both careers and should align next to Gerald McCoy on passing downs with Pierre Paul and Spence on the outside. That could be an extremely potent four-man rush.
Tampa Bay also reinforced their defensive tackle situation by signing Mitch Unrein and Beau Allen. Of course McCoy is the top player here as a true disruptive 3 Technique. McCoy was the brightest spot on Tampa Bay’s defense last year and is truly a great player against both run and pass. But now the Buccaneers should have true depth and a rotation to give McCoy a breather from time to time. Allen has a thick strong body and plays with great effort to the whistle every snap. Unrein also plays very hard and some alignment versatility. They also could add one more player here in the middle rounds to develop.
The Buccaneers allowed the most yardage to opposing wide receivers in the entire league last year and allowed far too many big plays, without breaking up nearly enough passes. The resigning of 35-years-old Brent Grimes was a good move, but not enough to change this huge need area.
Tampa Bay plays a high percentage of off coverage and zone. Grimes still fits this defense very well and reads the route and breaks on the ball very well with suddenness an very good ability to play the ball in the air despite his small stature. Still, Grimes is clearly a declining player, is allowing too much of a cushion now and doesn’t tackle as well as he once did, which is imperative in this scheme. He would be a great influence on an early round draft pick however.
Vernon Hargreaves is also undersized, but he has yet to live up to his first round billing. Hargreaves is certainly best in a zone scheme like the one he is in and isn’t overly fast or athletic. Like Grimes, he is playing with too much cushion and is often a step late getting to the catch point. If Tampa Bay added a cornerback with size, maybe moving Hargreaves into the slot would be prudent.
Ryan Smith plays the run well and shows toughness, but he was far too often exposed in coverage last year. He saw far too many snaps on defense and is best suited for special teams duties. Robert McClain is another undersized Tampa corner coming off a below average campaign. At 30-years-old, McClain has bounced around the league and is overmatched by bigger slot receivers although effort or aggressive certainly isn’t an issue with him. Every one of Tampa Bay’s cornerbacks needs bumped down a rung with the addition of a top prospect added to the equation at this position.
Safety is also a problem spot and the Bucs have been linked heavily to Derwin James or Minkah Fitzpatrick with the seventh selection overall. Of course either would be a welcome addition, even though they are very different prospects. But this isn’t a real diverse or expansive defensive scheme. Would Tampa Bay use the fantastic versatility that either James or Fitzpatrick bring to the table and maximize these great prospects abilities? That is highly debatable.
Nonetheless, the Buccaneers certainly need more safety help. Chris Conte, Keith Tandy and last year’s second round selection, Justin Evans, are the safeties of note right now. Tandy absolutely should be a backup and special teams player. Conte was actually one of the Buccaneers best cover men, but he isn’t a great tackler and isn’t likely to be the long-term starter answer. Meanwhile, Evans is highly promising a deep defender with great range and athletic ability.
The second level of Tampa Bay’s defense has been the most reliable and stable aspect of this side of the ball for some time now. Much of that is because Lavonte David remains one of the very best in the business, even though he rarely gets credit for his consistent greatness. His recognition skills and pursuit are absolutely amongst the best in the game. Kwon Alexander and Kendall Beckwith are more hit or miss, but do have talent as run-and-hit second level players. This is a very rangy and athletic group overall, with Beckwith more a downhill hammer than David or Alexander, who are the superior athletes.
There is no doubt that last year was a disappointing one for Tampa Bay. This team looks like one that is closer to a contender than a team that earned the seventh overall pick in the draft, but the Buccaneers are also pretty squarely behind New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina is the league’s most difficult division.