It’s hard to find fault with Jameis Winston’s body of work as a rookie. He passed for more than 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns and rushed for six scores, earning Pepsi Rookie of the Year honors as voted by the fans. But Winston’s body? Well, that was another matter. When he got to the Pro Bowl, the Bucs quarterback looked pillowy compared to the hardened physiques of teammates such as Julio Jones and Russell Wilson.
“The first thing I learned is that everybody — they look the part,’’ Winston says. “I was like, ‘I’ve still got this college body. I’ve got to get this body right.’” So Winston hired Tim Grover, Michael Jordan’s trainer, and lost 18 pounds.
That realization was too late to save coach Lovie Smith. The biggest advocate for drafting Winston, Smith was fired after four straight losses to end a 6–10 season. “I was kind of down in the dumps because I was like what quarterback has been successful after they’ve lost their offensive coordinator, quarterback coach and head coach in the same year?” Winston says.
The Bucs promoted offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to head coach to keep some continuity on offense. Winston’s waistline has shrunk, but expectations won’t be any lighter.
Koetter will still call the plays, but as head coach, he expects to be more aggressive in the passing game while still relying heavily on running back Doug Martin, the NFL’s second-leading rusher who signed a long-term contract as a free agent after rushing for more than 1,400 yards. Martin and backup Charles Sims combined for more than 2,700 yards from scrimmage in 2015. “I will say when you’re the head coach and you’re the play-caller, you have a license to be a little bit more aggressive,” Koetter says. “You are the head coach. You make your game plan and you stick to your game plan.”
Winston’s first NFL pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by the Titans. But after a four-interception loss to Carolina in Week 4, Winston went more than a month without throwing a pick. “I kind of got spoiled a little at Florida State where I had a couple early turnovers, but I was able to bounce back and come back and lead us to a victory,” Winston says. “But every play matters in football in general, but especially in the pros.”
Winston still has solid targets in wide receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. The Bucs are hoping to get more from Evans, who has 2,257 yards receiving the past two seasons but was plagued with 11 drops last season, the most in the NFL. His touchdown receptions plummeted from 12 to three.
Jackson, at 33, still is productive when healthy, but two knee injuries limited him to 10 games, the fewest he’s ever played for the Bucs. Kenny Bell, a 2015 fifth-round pick who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, could emerge as the third wideout. Adam Humphries is a good option in the slot.
The tight end position would be deep if the Bucs could keep Seferian-Jenkins on the field. Knee and back injuries have sabotaged his first two seasons. Koetter would like to continue to tap into the chemistry between Winston and tight end Cameron Brate, who tied for second on the club with three TD catches.
The strength of the offense is the line, where left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet shined as rookies. The Bucs added former Seahawks guard J.R. Sweezy in free agency to replace the retired Logan Mankins.
The reason for Smith’s firing, as much as anything, was the under-performing defense. The Bucs cleaned house and brought in all new coaches on that side of the football, starting with former Falcons head coach Mike Smith to run the defense.
Opposing quarterbacks completed 70 percent of their passes with 31 touchdowns against Tampa Bay in 2015, so the Bucs addressed two of their biggest needs: a pass-rushing defensive end and lockdown cornerback.
First, Tampa Bay signed Giants free-agent defensive end Robert Ayers, who had a career-high 9.5 sacks last season. Then they signed Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes, who played for Smith in Atlanta. Grimes had 13 interceptions in three Pro Bowl seasons with Miami. The Bucs also used a first-round pick on Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who played high school football in Tampa. Hargreaves is only 5'10", but there’s no doubting the way he competes for the football.
Another key will be whether the careers of Johnthan Banks and Alterraun Verner can be resurrected after a revolving door of starters in the secondary last season.
The strength of the Bucs defense is their linebackers, with Lavonte David, who made his first Pro Bowl last season, and Kwon Alexander, who was second on the team in tackles despite missing the last four games after violating the league’s PED policy. Their speed is a weapon in coverage and against the run. The Bucs added Ravens free agent Daryl Smith, who has had more than 120 tackles in each of his past three seasons and will be a great mentor.
The Bucs need to show great improvement on the defensive line. They used a second-round pick on Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence, who has great bend and speed to get around the edge. He claims the drug issue that got him kicked out of Ohio State is behind him, and if so, he could be a great complement to four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Defensive end Jacquies Smith has been an effective pass rusher when healthy, but at 260 pounds, he can’t hold up against the run and is better off being used in passing situations.
The Bucs traded back into the second round to select Florida State placekicker Roberto Aguayo. It’s the highest a kicker has been drafted since Mike Nugent went to the Jets in the second round in 2005. Aguayo is the most accurate placekicker in NCAA history and has never missed a field goal from 40-yards or closer in his career. The Bucs are likely to have a new punter, having signed Jaguars free agent Bryan Anger to compete with Jacob Schum, who was 28th in the NFL with a 38.0-yard net average last season.
The return game will be in flux after Bobby Rainey signed a free-agent deal with the Giants. The Bucs will look to Sims to handle kickoff returns, while Bell and Humphries will be candidates to return punts.
Under Licht, the Bucs are building a strong foundation with young players acquired through the draft. Winston still has a lot of room for growth, particularly in his mechanics and decisions with the football. But his competitiveness is contagious, and the continuity with Koetter will speed up his development. Defensively, the Bucs are another draft away from being championship caliber, but Mike Smith will have them better prepared to face NFC South quarterbacks such as Newton, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. The Bucs may still be a year away from contending for the NFC South title, but a .500 record is a reasonable goal.