The Bucs will face a murderers’ row of quarterbacks this season: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning in addition to NFC South gunslingers Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan.
Some may believe that that’s what gave the team the excuse to raise ticket prices for the second year in a row. But the truth is, the Bucs believe that quarterback Jameis Winston is more than worth the price of admission.
If you’re going to be involved in an arms race, it helps to have a prodigious young passer like Winston, who led his team to a 9–7 record last season, narrowly missing the playoffs by the third tie-breaker. It was enough to attract “Hard Knocks,” the HBO sports miniseries, to Tampa Bay.
The Bucs engaged in a Weapons for Winston program in the offseason, adding free-agent receiver DeSean Jackson while drafting Alabama tight end O.J. Howard and Penn State receiver Chris Godwin to go with Mike Evans and Cameron Brate.
“You want to give a young quarterback weapons to throw to,” general manager Jason Licht says. Mission accomplished.
Evans was targeted an astounding 175 times, the most of any player in the league. He caught 96 passes for 1,321 yards and 12 TDs, but he won’t have to carry the offense anymore now that Jackson and Howard are on board.
Licht decided that the single biggest need for the Bucs was speed. “In fact, in my office I have it written on my grease board. It’s been there for several months now,” Licht says. Check that one off the list with Jackson’s arrival.
Coach Dirk Koetter has lamented the lack of “explosive” plays, which he defines as runs of 12 yards or more and receptions of 16 yards or more. “DeSean has averaged an explosive play for his career,” Koetter says. Jackson’s career per-catch average is 17.7.
“DeSean, obviously, nothing needs to be said there,” Licht says. “Everybody knows DeSean and what he brings to the table with his body of work over the last few years, since 2008. We’re certainly very, very excited to have him.”
Howard will serve more as an in-line blocking tight end who can get behind the defense. “First day of Senior Bowl practice in pads, Jason and I were sitting on the 35-yard line, and O.J. is putting on a clinic out there,” Koetter says. “After about two periods, I stood up and said to Jason, ‘I’ve seen the guy I want,’ and I walked down the stairs.”
Brate tied for the league lead among tight ends with eight touchdown receptions, and with the addition of Howard, he will be free to run option routes down the seam.
The biggest question mark on offense is at running back. Doug Martin will miss the first three games serving a suspension for PEDs. The Bucs re-signed Jacquizz Rodgers, and both Charles Sims and Peyton Barber return. Tampa Bay used a fifth-round pick on Boise State running back Jeremy McNichols, who has the best hands and is the best pass protector among backs in this year’s draft.
Winston has to cut down on his turnovers. He’s had 42 in two seasons (33 interceptions and nine lost fumbles). The Bucs expect him to have more time to throw the football, which should help alleviate that problem. The plan entering training camp was to move guard Ali Marpet to center to make room for J.R. Sweezy at right guard. That could lead to more inside zone runs and a good screen game with Marpet leading the way.
All those weapons in the passing game should help a Tampa Bay rushing attack that slumped to 24th in the league last season. Opposing defenses won’t be able to play as many eight- or nine-man fronts against the Bucs.
The Bucs retained defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who signed an extension after kicking the tires on some head coaching jobs during the offseason. He’ll earn every cent of his paycheck after the Bucs did very little in free agency or the draft to help a defense that was middle of the pack at best a year ago.
Of Licht’s 26 draft picks as the team’s general manager, only eight have come on defense. This regime has clearly devoted more resources to the other side of the ball.
Redskins free agent Chris Baker will give the Bucs some more size inside. But there’s no new help for defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who is 29 and entering his eighth season. The Bucs have to hope that end Noah Spence (5.5 sacks) makes a leap in his second pro season the way the Falcons’ Vic Beasley took off. Tampa Bay has to be excited about what Baker will bring to the field — 9.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and 100 tackles the past two years with Washington — and fans will enjoy the lighthearted personality he will bring to the locker room and the community. “I think I’m a funny guy. I like to dance a lot,” says Baker, who signed a three-year deal worth nearly $16 million, with $9 million guaranteed. “But I like to win. … I’m always that guy that plays around probably a little bit too much, but that’s just me. I’ve never been ultra-serious.”
The biggest holes are in the secondary. Cornerback Brent Grimes will be 34. Vernon Hargreaves had a good second half as a rookie but recorded only one interception. After that, the cupboard is bare. The Bucs plan to move Ryan Smith from safety to cornerback. They also drafted Texas A&M safety Justin Evans in the second round. He’s a big hitter who nevertheless missed a lot of tackles. The Bucs have Chris Conte and J.J. Wilcox to go with Keith Tandy at safety.
Linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David should benefit from some continuity with Mike Smith’s return.
The Bucs would be the first to say that the decision to move into the second round and select Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo in 2016 was a mistake. He made only 22-of-31 field goal attempts (league-worst 71.0 percent), and his long was a 43-yarder. But credit Licht and Koetter for not wanting to compound a mistake. The Bucs seem ready to move on from Aguayo if he wobbles at all in training camp. They signed veteran Nick Folk, guaranteeing him $750,000. Folk would seem to have an edge with his experience, but Aguayo won’t go down without a fight.
The punting is solid behind Bryan Anger, who was signed to a three-year extension. The Bucs have never been very good at returning kicks; in fact, Koetter actually prefers touchbacks.
The Bucs have some momentum on their side following their playoffs near-miss, but what will start with an appearance on Hard Knocks could end with the hard reality that the NFC South could be the toughest division in the NFL. The final two months of the season will be filled with division games that will be extremely important to the team’s postseason hopes. Still, Winston is a special player who now has a full complement of weapons.
“You’ve got the last two MVPs in our division and the last two Super Bowl teams (from the NFC),” Koetter says. “It’s just an unbelievable, competitive division. Our guys say, ‘Hey, this is possible because we beat those teams and then watched them make it to the Super Bowl.’ Expectations are a good thing, because if you don’t have them, you’re not going to be around as a player or as a coach.”
The key this season may be whether the defense can hold up its end of the bargain. A 10-win season and at least a wild card appearance to end a nine-year playoff drought appear possible.