32 NFL Teams in 16 Weeks: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

As we work our way through the NFC South, it’s time to take a look at worst performing team in the league last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Is it really as bad in Tampa as their win total suggests though? Can this team go from worst to 1st in the NFC South?

Another Problematic Year.

There was a fair amount of hope in the Bucs camp last year. Recently fired by the Chicago Bears, Lovie Smith came in to replace the ever controversial Greg Schiano, who had seemingly done his best to alienate everyone in the organisation. The Schiano fallout was pretty huge and he took a number of members of the front office with him. With Schiano went GM Mark Dominik, offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, who was replaced by Jeff Tedford, special teams coordinator Dave Wannstedt who had Kevin O’Dea take over and defensive coordinator Bill Sullivan who made way for ex-Viking head coach, Leslie Frazier. All proven coaches that were thought to be able to get the most of a talented roster.

However it didn’t really go to plan. Jeff Tedford had been a force in college, considered a real scholar of the game and this was his moment to shine. Unfortunately for Tedford before the final pre-season game, his health took a turn for the worst. Tedford passed out in his hotel and was forced to have a coronary angioplasty, taking him out of the role and sadly away from his big shot. A sad story for Tedford, that also left the Bucs with QB coach Marcus Arroyo to take over, who had at that point had very little experience at running an offence, let alone a new offence that had only had only been in place for a couple of months. As well as inexperience running the offensive scheme the offensive line was a huge issue, one that they’d invested a massive amount of money in. In free agency before the start of the 2014 season the Bucs had added Anthony Collins, Evan Dietrich- Smith and Logan Mankins, which at the time was considered a steal. One stat that stands out for me was highlighted on twitter by NFL writer Scott Kacsmar. The Bucs were 2nd in short sacks allowed, which is basically sacks that take less than 2.6, with 24. That’s 24 sacks that were mostly given up to poor line play. Making both McCown and Glennon’s job exceptionally hard. Which let’s be honest, showed in their inability to move the ball. The Bucs have 2 giant receivers in Evans and Jackson, as well as a break out player at tight end in Austin Seferian-Jenkins, yet outside of Evans they struggled to make the most of the vast amount of talent they have in their pass catchers. The Bucs only had 2 games where they scored over 27 points, which they won both of and showed that if the whole team is on the same page, they can get results.

The Defence wasn’t great either, but they did show flashes of what they’re capable of, in-between games allowing 56 and 48 points. Whilst there were clear issues on defence, it really wasn’t helped by the turnover differential, which saw the Bucs ranked 31st in turnovers lost, compared to being ranked 14th in turnovers gained. Lovie Smith’s defence relies heavily on taking opportunities from turnovers, which just couldn’t happen with the frequency that the offence turned the ball over. Against the run they were even better, ranked 7th in the NFL for yards allowed. There are clear holes on the defence, but they really weren’t given much of a chance to perform.

With the 1st Pick of the 2015 NFL Draft…

So big changes were needed in the off-season obviously. But in my opinion not at head coach. So keeping Lovie Smith on for at least one more season is something I commend the Bucs for doing, giving him a chance to put it all together after a poor 1st season. Jeff Tedford left the team and with him so did Marcus Arroyo. Tedford is now the head coach of CFL team the BC Lions. Arroyo has been hired by Oklahoma State as an assistant. Replacing Tedford is ex- Falcons coordinator Dirk Koetter, who had done a great job working with Matt Ryan. At QB, McCown was considered to be the saviour of the Bucs offence just a season ago, but after just one season he was released.

McCown’s replacement was pretty much decided as soon as the whistle blew in the final game, with Jameis Winston being considered by most to be the top QB prospect in the draft, but seemed to come with some risk regarding his off the field issues. The Bucs at least have appeared to do their due diligence in the process. GM Jason Licht interviewed everyone around Winston as well as working out Mariota, just to be sure that he is their guy. Which it appears he is.

Aside from picking up Winston, the Bucs have made a number of big changes. For starters a large number of expensive free agent pickups were forced out of the team. Both ex-Bengals Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson spent one season at Tampa before being released. Johnson was then re-signed by the Bengals for a fraction of the money he was on before. Da’Quan Bowers was also released after 4 years of disappointment for the Bucs. Bowers was a pickup in the 2nd round of the 2011 draft, but has failed to really do anything. Other players released included Adrian Clayborn, Chandler Jones and Michael Reynolds. After the release of a total of 10 players and a number of poor contracts, the Bucs have generated a staggering $21m in dead money. Now is the time to stop the rot.

Coming in to the Bucs it feels like they just picked up ex- Bears players, with Chris Conte, Khaseem Greene, Isaiah Frey and Henry Melton joining Major Wright on Lovie Smith’s defence. Personally I don’t think putting together the ex- Bears safety duo of Chris Conte and Major Wright, won’t be striking fear into the hearts of the rest of the NFC South.

Whilst Winston will steal the Bucs draft headlines, it’s worth looking at their other pickups. Personally I liked how they put it together. They picked up the clear QB talent with the no. 1 pick, then grabbed a couple of 2nd round offensive linemen to bolster a clear area of weakness that will directly affect their new signal caller. Kwon Alexander was a draft steal in the 4th round and is expected to make an immediate impact on the Bucs defence, joining a talented group led by last year’s standout player Lavonte David. Alexander was the only defensive player they took in this year’s draft, with a 5th and a 6th going to Kenny Bell and Kaelin Clay. Bell will be a 3rd target on the outside for Winston, who can beat defensive backs with his pace. Clay looks like work in progress, but could eventually be their slot guy. Until then he should do a decent job as a return man.

Areas of Concern

I don’t think there was a great deal they could do about it but the offensive line is still a huge concern. The team has spent a fortune on the offensive line over the last few years and all of the pickups have been disappointing. This year they picked up players through the draft in Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet, with Smith expected to win the right tackle spot and Marpet filling in at right guard after an impressive senior bowl. This will leave last year’s free agent signings Evan Dietrich-Smith starting at center and Logan Mankins at left guard. After being a lone standout player on a disastrous offensive line last year, Demar Dotson is believed to be the favourite to start at left tackle. My issue with this is, that with 2 new players and with 1 player moving from right tackle to left and with 2 free agent pickups that performed very poorly last year, it feels like they have very little guarantees. I do feel that Dirk Koetter will improve the line performance and add some stability that simply wasn’t there when Tedford was forced out of the game, I’m just concerned that there might be a dangerous mix of inexperience and sloppy play that could see Winston hit the ground an awful lot.

Aside from my worries about the line, my biggest concern is in the secondary, in particular in the safeties. Chris Conte and Brad McDougald aren’t game changing pickups. Conte gets an unfair amount of criticism from Bears fans for a couple of plays that he gave up, which happen to be in key moments. More often than not he’s been pretty solid, but still not a player that will put a stop to any of this team’s glaring issues at defensive back. Given a chance though I think the free agent pickup of Swearinger could work out if they can keep him under control. Swearinger is a tough hitting, loud mouthed safety. This could be just what this team needs. At corner, Verner and Banks had a rough season last year. I would hope that was just a glitch, but it is a concern. If they can’t start creating turnovers for this defence, the whole scheme falls apart.

My final concern is in the pass rush. The Bucs were ranked 21st for sacks with a total 36 total sacks. Of these 13.5 of them came from 2 players from the inside, Gerald McCoy with 8 and Clinton McDonald with 5.5. defensive ends Jacquies Smith and Michael Johnson only accounted for 10.5. So there is a glaring weakness at edge rusher, which they didn’t really do a great deal about. The only real signing at defensive end comes from George Johnson, who brings with him from last year 6 sacks. Despite the addition of Henry Melton at tackle it feels like the line will continue to struggle if they can’t create pressure from the edge. Johnson and Smith look like they might have their work cut out for them.

What to Look Out For

The receiver group could be a top 5 unit, if Jameis Winston can connect with his big receiver duo of Evans and Jackson. Evans was one of a number of wide receivers that had an outstanding season overshadowed by the play from Odell Beckham Jr. Now however he has a potential game changing QB throwing to him and we could even see an improvement on last year. Fellow wide receiver, Vincent Jackson and tight end Austin Seferian- Jenkins are no slouches either, with all 3 being big targets to make it easier for a rookie QB that might have struggled with a few accuracy issues in college. If the line can improve enough to give Winston some time to sling the ball, we could see a far better passing game from the Bucs. I however do still have my reservations about how much that offensive line has improved.

The sheer depth at line-backer makes this a unit that they can build a defence around. Danny Lansanah played in every position last year, due to a number of injuries, showing that he’s a handy player to have around. Hopefully though for him this year he can settle in one spot, which from what I read is expected to be strong side with draft pick Kwon Alexander challenging for the starting position. Bruce Carter joins the team from Dallas and moves to a very similar system. He’s expected to line up at middle line-backer, but if he’s at all disappointing, then they can probably move Lansanah over. The only player to have solidified his position at line-backer is Lavonte David who was one of few stand out players on this team last year. With David and Lansanah this unit has a strong base to build on with either Carter or Alexander being given a chance to make a real difference.

I can’t finish this post without at least mentioning Gerald McCoy, who if Suh struggles with his transition to Miami, is at the very least in the conversation for an All-Pro season. McCoy had similar stats to the Dolphins defensive tackle, but with 3 games less. The penetration McCoy can get from the middle is staggering and single-handedly raises the ability of that front 7. What’s crazy is that I still don’t think we’ve seen his best season yet.

What to Expect

As I go through each team in this division one thing becomes abundantly clear to me. They’re all getting better at the same time. It’s like they’ve all put their hand on the shoulder of the team in front and taken a step forward.

This is unfortunate for the Buccaneers. Whilst I think they’ve got better, with the addition of a potential franchise QB being a vital one, I still think they’re probably the worst team in the Division, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. What I do think though, is that the skeleton is there for something quite special in the future. There is a lot of talent on this team, that with a few tweaks could come together to create a playoff contender. Just not this year. My biggest concern is that they still don’t have a solid offensive line, which is no criticism of the team. I do get why they’re now reluctant to spend money on linemen after consistently being let down by big men on bigger contracts and with Winston being picked up in the 1st, picking 2 linemen up in the 2nd is about as much as you can do in the draft. But I still think it won’t be quite there this season.

The Bucs are an interesting team loaded with talent, waiting for the right mix of supporting players to bring them all together.