Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers aim to be more competitive in loaded NFC South
Zsa Zsa the parrot was supposed to announce the Bucs’ fourth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. But the bird simply perched on the shoulder of a pirate on the ship at Raymond James Stadium and kept his beak shut.
The Bucs should take a cue from the Catalina Macaw: the less said, the better.
A year ago, Tampa Bay squawked a lot about how it was going to make a move in the NFC South. Instead, the Bucs finished 5-11 and watched as all three other division teams went to the playoffs.
Quarterback Jameis Winston is entering his fourth season, having recovered from a shoulder injury that forced him to miss three games in 2017. He’s spent more time improving chemistry with DeSean Jackson. The NFL’s worst defense has been rebuilt. But the franchise’s playoff drought is now a decade old.
“It’s about that postseason, man,” Winston says. “It’s about getting some wins together, it’s about bringing this community behind us, it’s about really changing this culture around here, and we’re taking strides to that but now it’s time to get it done.”
Winston was only 3-10 as a starter last season, and he struggled throwing the deep ball. In fact, coach Dirk Koetter had a tape made of all the times Jackson won his route or got behind the defense and the Bucs quarterback was unable to deliver the ball to him.
“I’m able to get past defenders with my speed and tracking down balls,” Jackson says. “So, for a quarterback, it’s just one of [those] things, you just have to have a feel for it. Last year, it was hit and miss.”
Good health from Winston would certainly help. In the offseason, Winston researched the most durable quarterbacks in the league to try and gain some tips. “Just typical research. You watch ‘Tom vs. Time’ and you see how [Tom Brady] maintains his body,” Winston says. “You read articles about LeBron [James] and investing a lot of money into his body and you see how he’s been prolific throughout his career. You see Floyd Mayweather and how he continues to train and continues to keep toxins and stuff out of his body. So, you just learn from the guys that are very successful at it and the guys that are doing it and you try to apply it to your regimen every day.”
Unfortunately, Winston will miss the first three games of the season after being suspended by the league under the personal conduct policy. The suspension stems from an 2016 incident in which Winston was accused of groping a female Uber driver. After initially denying the allegations when they first came to light in 2017, the NFL's nearly eight-month-long investigation resulted in the suspension being handed down in late June. The Bucs will turn to veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who went 2-1 as the starter when Winston was injured last season.
Elsewhere on the offense, Jackson is back along with Mike Evans, who notched his fourth straight 1,000-yard receiving season and earned a five-year, $82.5 million contract. The Bucs also have a good slot receiver in Adam Humphries and pass-catching tight ends in Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard, who combined for 12 TDs.
The biggest improvement on offense should come from the ground game. Gone is Doug Martin, whose No. 22 will be worn this year by rookie second-round pick Ronald Jones II. Jones gives the Bucs what they haven’t had -- a home-run hitter. Jones had 12 runs of 40 yards or more for USC in his career. The Bucs averaged only 3.7 yards per carry due largely to an inability to produce the breakout run. Martin, who had two seasons with at least 1,400 yards rushing with the Bucs, averaged only 2.9 yards per carry in his last two seasons.
The offensive line will look different thanks to the addition of Ravens center Ryan Jensen. Ali Marpet moves from center to left guard. Caleb Benenoch is penciled in at right guard but could fill in at right tackle as Demar Dotson recovers from a knee injury.
Gerald McCoy is a big fan of superheroes. His favorite is Batman, in part because he has to be self-reliant and creative to get the job done. Like the Caped Crusader, McCoy has had to go at it alone much of the time. But whether it’s the Justice League or the National Football League, you need some help from your friends, and finally, McCoy has help.
After finishing last in the NFL in total defense, sacks and third-down percentage, the Bucs spent the offseason rebuilding their defensive line. Not surprisingly, they raided the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, signing free-agent tackle Beau Allen and end Vinny Curry. They also traded for Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and used the 12th overall pick on Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea. That gives Noah Spence, who was limited to six games due to injury in 2017, the luxury of being a designated pass rusher.
“We overhauled that defensive line room a little bit, well, quite a bit,” Licht says. “Dirk Koetter and I thought that that was a necessity after last year. Like I said, it starts up front, and you can never go wrong having some ass kickers up there.”
Says Koetter: “Last year this time, everybody was talking about Noah Spence getting 15 sacks. Yesterday I heard somebody rattle off seven D-linemen and they didn’t even mention Noah Spence. What’s that tell you? Maybe we’re a little deeper.”
Linebacker Lavonte David and Pierre-Paul were teammates at Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College, and David says that JPP’s mentality is the same as it’s always been.
“I played with Jason in junior college so I know what he’s bringing to the table, and from what I see, nothing changed,” David says. “I still kept up with him when he went to South Florida and then when he went to the Giants. So, nothing’s changed. Those long arms are going to help out tremendously for us, too. … He always wants to dominate. So I know what I’m going to get out of him.”
In the back end, the Bucs drafted two key pieces in North Carolina’s M.J. Stewart and Auburn’s Carlton Davis, who at 6'1" gives them a tall defensive back.
The defense is united in its desire to atone for 2017.
“Coach put our stats and stuff on the board and let us know that this is what we put out when we were out there on the field,” David says. “All of the guys, we were hurt by that.”
The Bucs went 3-7 in one score games last season, in no small part because of their placekicking problems. They converted only 25-of-34 (73.5 percent) field goal attempts. That’s why they signed Chandler Catanzaro, who should provide them with a stronger, more accurate leg. He made 25-of-30 field goals with the Jets in 2017, though he did miss five attempts between 40-49 yards. Punter Bryan Anger took a small step back in 2017 but has the ability to change field position and kill the football inside the 20. Humphries is likely to handle the punt return duties again, while running backs Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims will return kickoffs.
Koetter and Licht are on the hot seat. Licht is well aware that his reshaped roster needs to produce. And he’s confident the right moves have been made.
“Last year, there’s no sugar-coating the disappointment,’’ he says of a season in which the Bucs were 3-7 in one-score games. “I feel like we were a much better team than our record suggested, and we’ve talked over and over about the close games that we were in and the ones that we couldn’t find a way to finish. I feel like we’ve added some really quality players that have been in those situations. Not that that’s always the answer, but I just love this locker room. I love the heartbeat of this locker room. I love the vibe, and I think we’re a lot closer than some people think. I think we have a chance to do something really good.”
Winston needs to re-establish himself as a quarterback capable of getting his team to the postseason. The schedule is much tougher, especially in September. If the rebuilt defense is successful and Jones restores balance to the offense, the Bucs will be contenders again in a tight division. If not, they could easily repeat their last-place finish.