The morning of the NFL Draft, Bucs general manager Jason Licht took a walk around the team’s three practice fields completely at peace with the decision to select Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with the No. 1 overall pick.
“It’s like your wedding day,” Licht says. “Without the cold feet.’’
For better or worse — and some would lean toward the latter — the Bucs’ fortunes and those of Licht and coach Lovie Smith are married to Winston, one of the most polarizing picks in modern NFL Draft history. A civil suit stemming from allegations of a sexual assault for which Winston was never charged, along with a series of relatively minor acts of immaturity, follow the mercurial former Seminole to the NFL.
But the Bucs' decision-makers are more than satisfied with Winston’s character after doing research that included conducting exhaustive interviews of more than 75 people.
“If he wasn’t a good guy, we wouldn’t have used a first pick on him,” Licht says.
On the field, Winston has few peers. He went 26–1 as a starting quarterback at Florida State, and he won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship.
“I would just ask our fans to give him a chance,” Smith says.
The Bucs believe Winston is a transformational quarterback who will eventually put them on equal footing with the other gunslingers in the NFC South — the Saints’ Drew Brees, the Falcons’ Matt Ryan and the Panthers’ Cam Newton.
Winston is a plug-and-play talent who comes from a pro-style offense. He can check protections, read the defense and get through all the progressions. Perhaps more impressive, Winston can make any throw on the field.
The key is whether the Bucs can find a way to protect him. Tampa Bay allowed 52 sacks last season, tied for the third-most in the NFL. That’s why Licht invested a pair of second-round picks on Penn State left tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet from Division III Hobart College. Both are projected to start as rookies. But the Bucs must get better performances from holdovers such as center Evan Dietrich-Smith, guard Logan Mankins and tackle Demar Dotson.
Winston does have 6-5 targets in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. Evans was a Rookie of the Year candidate despite missing most of the offseason with a hamstring strain. He had a monster three-game stretch in November in which he caught 21 passes for 458 yards and five touchdowns. Second-year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins missed the final four games of 2014 with a back injury but shows the ability to get downfield. He caught 21 passes for 221 yards but is capable of much more.
The Bucs decided not to pick up the fifth-year option on running back Doug Martin, who has played only 17 games in the last two years after rushing for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie. Martin doesn’t seem to be versatile or physical enough to fit Smith’s preference of running style, but at least he will be motivated in a contract year. The Bucs plan to increase the workload for Charles Sims, who missed the first half of his rookie season with an ankle injury. He showed more promise as pass catcher than runner. Licht attempted to upgrade the speed and athleticism on offense, beginning with the two linemen and Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell.
One of the biggest additions to the Bucs attack is offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who hung 56 points on Smith last season while operating the Falcons offense. Smith and the Bucs were dealt a setback with the loss of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, who never returned after a heart procedure, but Koetter is more than a stopgap replacement, and he has a spread-the-field passer in Winston like he had in Matt Ryan.
But make no mistake. The offense will develop as quickly as Winston does.
The Bucs struggled in the first year of Smith’s Tampa 2 scheme. After six weeks, opponents were averaging 34 points per game. That prompted the beginning of an overhaul that will continue through 2015.
The foundation is defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who led the team with 8.5 sacks, and linebacker Lavonte David, who has the distinction of being an All-Pro (2013) before making a Pro Bowl. McCoy needs help and got some with the waiver claim of Jacquies Smith, who had 6.5 sacks in seven starts last season. The Bucs traded a fifth-round pick to the Lions for defensive end George Johnson, giving them another edge rusher to complement McCoy.
The Bucs also changed their philosophy in free agency. They pulled off the Band Aid by cutting high-priced free agent busts — such as Michael Johnson after only one season — and replaced them on defense with players who have a history of success in Smith’s defense or the Tampa 2 scheme.
Safety Chris Conte and defensive tackle Henry Melton both played for Smith in Chicago. Looking for more playmaking ability at middle linebacker, the Bucs signed former Cowboy Bruce Carter, who had five interceptions last season. They used a fourth-round pick on LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander, another run-and-hit machine with speed.
The secondary is solid with cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Johnathan Banks. Banks led the team with four interceptions, and Verner, a former fourth-round pick of the Titans, was an under-the-radar free-agent acquisition last offseason. In addition to the rangy Conte, the Bucs believe the future is bright for strong safety Bradley McDougald, who took over following the trade of Mark Barron to the Rams. Tampa Bay also claimed former Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger off of waivers in May. A 2013 second-round pick, Swearinger made 22 starts for the Texans, but struggled last season.
Smith’s teams in Chicago were known for winning games on special teams. That’s hardly been the case in Tampa Bay, which struggled to settle on a kick returner. That’s why they drafted Utah’s Kaelin Clay, who had four returns for touchdowns last season to lead college football. The punt and kickoff return jobs are his to lose. Punter Michael Koenen is in the final year of his contract that pays him $3.75 million. But his pay didn’t match his production as he ranked 29th with a 37.1-yard net average and the team claimed former Cleveland punter Spencer Lanning off waivers in early June to create competition for the job. The Bucs’ placekicking game is solid behind Patrick Murray, who was 5-of-6 from 50-plus yards, including a long of 55. Overall, Murray made 20-of-24 field goals but is capable of more. The kick coverage teams should be improved with the addition of some athletic linebackers and receivers who have specialized as gunners such as Bell.
Winston has the talent and confidence to be a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. But until the Bucs improve around him, he won’t be enough to make them real contenders in the NFC South. The season opener against the Titans and Marcus Mariota offers a juicy storyline. But Winston has to be dedicated on and off the field to make this gamble pay off.
Prediction: 4th in NFC South
(Winston photo at top courtesy of Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Web site)