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“The Amateur Ward:” NFC South Preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Before we discuss the Tampa Bay Buccaneers I would just like to say that the world of sports lost two great souls over the past week, and may we all remember and honor them for what they did for sports as well as for humanity. We thank you Pat Summit and Buddy Ryan.

2015 was neither the best nor the worst of seasons for the Bucs. For starters, their offensive line improved from being one of the very worst  in 2014 to being one of the top 10 lines in all of the following areas: yards per play, rushing and passing yards per attempt, sacks allowed and first downs gained. This tremendous turnaround was due to the success of second year linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet and free agents Gosder Cherilus and Joe Hawley. Add to this that the Buccaneers had the third highest percentage of offensive snaps by rookie linemen (Patriots, Rams) and the fact the Bucs started a rookie at QB, Jameis Winston, then their 6-10 record was not as bad as it seemed. Digging a little deeper into the run blocking aspect of the Buccaneers offensive line, they had the highest yards per attempt of any team in the NFL- 4.86 (RBs gained the most yards behind the line), helping Doug Martin (The Dougernaut) to have a revitalizing season. With another offseason of this line together and the addition of the inconsistent, yet beastly run blocking left guard JR Sweezy (SEA) to replace the retired Logan Mankins, this unit and offense could be even more potent in 2016 if Sweezy can improve his consistency in both pass protection and run blocking.

For starters, Jameis Winston had a very solid rookie season, finishing as PFFs Rookie of the Year and showing natural touch for the deep ball. He had some great weeks, as well as some absolute dump weeks (four picks versus CAR in Week 4), and finished with 4042 passing yards, 22 passing TDs and 6 rushing scores. Had it not been for the Rams Todd Gurley, Winston would have won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year and been the first Buc since Carnell “Cadillac” Williams to win the award. As it stands, among past rookie QBs who have won the award, Winston had the most passing TDs (22) and second most pass yards (4042), only behind Cam Newton (4051 in 2012). So, by the numbers, he had one of the best rookie seasons of any rookie QB, and has the pedigree to be a perennial Pro-Bowl caliber QB. He has a cannon for an arm, but did have a tendency to rush a few passes in 2015 and did not always handle pressure well. Most of his turnovers came when he was under pressure or forced to scramble. However, when given ample time to make plays and a clean pocket, he was spot on accurate and looked the part of a rising star in the NFL. With another season under his belt, Winston will correct the mistakes he made as a rookie and continue his emergence. In addition to a strong arm with great touch on the deep ball, Winston is more than capable as a runner and makes plays with his legs. The fifteen picks should not cause reason for concern as a few of them could easily be blamed on his receivers who had absolutely horrible hands and route running last season.

Speaking of receivers, Mike Evans is one of the better young receivers in the game, but his hands last season were butterfingers. He has no issue imposing his strength or speed on would be defenders.  But,  he dropped a good number of passes, including ten in one game  versus the Giants. Last season’s sophomore slump is likely the exception with Evans as he only tallied three scores after a rookie season in 2014 that was filled with promise (he posted 12 TDs).  A lack of discipline, work ethic and concentration are what led Evans to drop 15 passes last season–something he vowed to address in the offseason. Thus far he seems serious as he and Winston spent time this offseason working on route running and Evans’ work ethic. This early commitment should help Evans bounce back and be a force every game, rising to the league’s elite receiver level. Evans was not the only one who struggled last season as Vincent Jackson had his first disappointing season since signing a five year deal with the Bucs in 2012. Since his signing he had posted over 1000 yards receiving in his first three seasons.But last season he only posted 543 yards and three scores. Of all 18 players to sign a 5 or 6 year contract in 2012, Jackson is one of only three that have the chance to play out their contract, joined by only Pierre Garçon (WSH) and Brandon Carr (DAL).  Yes, Jackson was bad in 2015 and he may be aging, but even at the age of 33 and with another season with Winston, a return to 1000 yards is totally attainable.He is not the scoring threat he was in San Diego, but he still keeps defenses honest and defenses will have to respect his red zone prowess. The key for the Bucs will be finding a slot receiver who has reliable hands. Last season the team tried Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye as a third option, but between them they only amassed 38 receptions and two scores for 392 yards. Dye is talented, but he has yet to prove he can reliably hold onto the ball and run crisp routes.

Doug Martin was a very nice surprise for the Bucs in 2015 as he revitalized his career and earned a new contract to the tune of five years and 35.75 million.  This is pretty risky, since injuries have prevented him from eclipsing the 500 rushing yard plateau that he hit in his rookie season in 2012 when he ran for 1454 yards and 11 scores. At one point in 2015, before he proved he could be an every down back, he even was in a platoon with the likes of Mike James and Charles Sims.  Now, armed with a new contract the pressure is on him to prove 2015 was the norm, not the exception. TheDoug Martin Dougernaut is a highly talented back, but sometimes looks lost on the field. He has the ability to find a second gear and break tackles at an alarming clip as well as being a capable pass catcher out of the backfield. Sims will be Martin’s backup and see the field when Martin needs a breather or when defenses throw sub package looks at the Buccaneers because Sims was one of the top pass catching backs last season and has more reliable hands than Martin. The rush attack is definitely a strong point for the Bucs and if they can get improved play from their receivers, they will be a tough out every week.

The weakest link on the Buccaneers is their tight end. Austin Seferian-Jenkins has had trouble staying healthy, missing 16 games in his first two seasons. When he has been on the field he has enjoyed limited success while costing the team multiple penalties with absurd TD celebrations. Dropped balls are also an issue.  He will face competition for targets this season as offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter liked what he saw from Cameron Brate late last season. Seferian-Jenkins may be the league’s most athletic tight end, but injuries and a lack of production may ultimately be his downfall as Brate continues to emerge. At this point, it is tough to trust either TE, and they are best left either on the waiver wire or a very late round draft pick.

Defensively, the Buccaneers are solid unit up front, but may struggle in the secondary as they lack size at the cornerback position and quality at the safety position. The front seven was a top 11 Brent Grimesdefense versus the run last season, but struggled versus opposing receivers. To help address the secondary issues during the offseason, Tampa Bay drafted Vernon Hargreaves III in the first round and signed Brent Grimes (MIA) to help shore up the corner position. The problem is, while Hargreaves has tremendous upside and can lure QBs into bad decisions, he can be blasted over the top and lacks size to contend with tall, physical receivers. Coming out of Florida, he profiles as a corner with great vertical leap and ball reading skills and tackler who finishes the assignment. While he may be a work-in-progress, teams will learn to shy away from him and throw more at Brent Grimes (he allowed a passer rating of 103.8 last season, including six scores). Alterraun Verner has also fallen off off considerably. After ranking as the seventh best corner in 2014, he fell to 92nd last season, leaving fans wondering how someone can regress so much in one season. Unfortunately, the answer is that he has never been an elite cover corner and in 2015 he was exploited by opponents. Granted, the corner core for the Buccaneers was horrible as a whole, but Verner pretty much takes the cake. The hope for the Bucs in 2016 is that Grimes can rediscover his form from the first few seasons of his career where he was stout in coverage, Verner turns it around and Hargreaves can provide an immediate punch for the secondary.

The safety position for the Bucs is not much better than the cornerback, and the team still does not know who their starters will be. The favorites should be Bradley McDougald and Chris Conte as they were the best options at safety last season.  The team wisely decided to bring Conte back on a one year deal after he produced a solid line of two picks, six passes defensed and two forced fumbles in 14 games. He is definitely the logical starter at free safety and the team should give McDougald a look at strong safety as they do  not really have any other solid options. Truth be told, none of the strong safeties was anything special in 2015, but at least McDougald was not horrible. He profiles as a useful safety versus the run and has pass defense in the middle of the field.  But  he displayed neither last season and he was benched in their 2015 season finale. If the secondary is going to be solid versus the pass this season, the safeties must step up and allow the starting outside corners Grimes and Hargreaves and slot corner Verner to do their job. The secondary is still a weak point for the Bucs and it will be hard to trust any of them, outside of a late flier on Hargreaves this season.

The defensive line, however, is very stout and the additions of free agent Robert Ayers and pass rush specialist Noah Spence from the second round of the draft will definitely help bolster a Lavonte Davidsolid unit from 2015. If there is one weak point on the front seven it would be Gerald McCoy. He took a step back in his running game prowess last season, but should be a candidate for a rebound in 2016. Many thought the team should have addressed the DT position in the draft.  They did not, but still came out on top as they were able to nab Spence who could very well be a week one starter at defensive end opposite Robert Ayers or play outside linebacker if Daryl Smith falters or misses time. Smith is a solid, savvy vet with a knack for racking up tackles and providing pressure on the QB and in the running game. Lavonte David, is flat out one of the best weakside linebackers. The real diamond for the Bucs has been Kwon Alexander, who silently put together a solid season from the MLB position as he amassed seven stuffs and three sacks. The key to becoming a true dominating defense could be the play of Robert Ayers at defensive end. If he can show that 2015’s sack and defensive production were for real, then the Buccaneers defense is going to be very nasty and could be a top five unit versus the run and in sacking the quarterback. The core of Alexander-McCoy-David-Smith-Spence looks to be a very dominating unit in 2016.

On a side note: Bucs, I know Roberto Aguayo is a special talent at kicker.  But was he seriously worth trading up for in the second round? I’ll cut the team some slack as they had virtually zero kicking game last season, but c’mon man!

Tune in next week for the New Orleans Saints preview!


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I am a recent college graduate from a small liberal arts school in Atlanta, GA. I'm a sports junkie and a diehard Atlanta sports fan.

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