Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s almost impossible to find something talking about the 2014 Buccaneers without hearing about the Buccaneers’ “basketball offense” (and I guess now that I mentioned it, this isn’t the outlier). You hear it so much you’d think the Buccaneers were an NBA team. They talk about how they added Mike Evans (6-5 231) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6-5 262) in the first and second rounds of the draft respectively to go with Vincent Jackson (6-5 241).

They talk about how the Buccaneers brought in quarterback Josh McCown from Chicago, who excelled last season in Chicago’s “basketball offense” with Brandon Marshall (6-4 222), Alshon Jeffery (6-3 216), and Martellus Bennett (6-6 259). They talk about how McCown will continue that success in Tampa Bay because he has tall receivers there as well. As a result, the Buccaneers are commonly mentioned as someone who could surprise this season (to the point where it wouldn’t be a surprise if they did) and yet the Buccaneers’ over/under win total remains steady at 7 wins. The Buccaneers are at the point where they’ve been mentioned as overrated so many times that they’ve become underrated. Because no one has ever thought of using tall receivers before.

There are two flaws in the “basketball offense” logic. The first is that McCown won’t just continue having the kind of success he had in Chicago just because his receivers are tall like they were in Chicago. McCown doesn’t get to bring Bears’ head coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer with him to Tampa Bay. Lovie Smith is the head coach in Tampa Bay. Smith was a good hire, but, as good as his defenses were in Chicago when he was head coach (2004-2012), his offenses usually struggled, especially at quarterback.

He also typically had issues hiring competent offensive coordinators to run his offenses. Going into his first year in Tampa Bay, he has tabbed Jeff Tedford to be his offensive coordinator. Tedford is a bit of a wild card. He coached 6 different future NFL 1st round pick quarterbacks while in college at the University of California, the University of Oregon, and Fresno State, but only Aaron Rodgers panned out as the other 5 included Kyle Boller, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, and David Carr, who are among the biggest busts in NFL history (the 6th is Trent Dilfer). He also doesn’t have any NFL experience and was unemployed last season after the Golden Bears fired him mid-season in 2012. I want to give Smith the benefit of the doubt with his judgment of offensive minds, but he hasn’t earned that with his history. McCown is definitely downgrading in terms of the offensive minds he’ll be working with.

There’s also a very good chance that McCown would have regressed even if he had stayed in Chicago with Trestman and Kromer, though probably not as much as he will in 2014 in Tampa Bay. Going into last season, Josh McCown was a 34-year-old quarterback who hadn’t posted a quarterback rating of over 70 since 2006. McCown played very solid in limited action with the Bears last season, completing 66.5% of his passes for an average of 8.17 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 1 interception on 224 attempts, but it’s hard to believe that he suddenly just became a better quarterback at age 34.

Now he’s going into his age 35 season. Sure, a tried and failed quarterback suddenly having a legitimate late career breakout isn’t completely unprecedented. Rich Gannon is a name that comes to mind. However, that’s hardly the norm and even Gannon deteriorated very quickly once he got into his mid-to-late 30s and fell out of the tutelage of Jon Gruden and Bill Callahan. Now in Tampa Bay without Trestman and Kromer, McCown will probably struggle and it won’t matter how tall his receivers are.

If McCown struggles so much that he needs to be benched, the Buccaneers will have to turn to Mike Glennon. He’s probably the better option for the Buccaneers. Mike Glennon wasn’t perfect in his first year in the league last season, but he was the best of the rookie quarterbacks and showed enough that he deserved another chance to be the starter. He completed 59.4% of his passes for an average of 6.27 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions.

He only graded out 33rd out of 42 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and the Buccaneers only moved the chains at a 67.20% rate in the 13 starts that Glennon made, but he showed some of the tools necessary for him to develop into the type of quarterback that can take this team somewhere. The Buccaneers have to hope that bringing in McCown and making him the starter doesn’t stunt Glennon’s development and confidence long-term.

Grade: C

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The other flaw in the “basketball offense” logic is that just because the Buccaneers have tall receivers like the Chicago trio doesn’t mean they are good as Marshall, Jeffery, and Bennett. Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are mere rookies. Evans is really talented, but he’s a raw rookie who doesn’t even turn 21 until the end of August. Rookie wide receivers tend to struggle anyway, even first round talents.  Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies.

The same isn’t necessarily true for tight ends, but Seferian-Jenkins is a mere 2nd round rookie and won’t necessarily even start as the Buccaneers have yet to give him the starting job over Brandon Myers. That should remind you to temper your expectations for him in his rookie year because Myers isn’t very good. Myers has graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in 4 of 5 seasons since being drafted in the 6th round in 2009, including in the last 2 seasons as a starter in Oakland and with the Giants. He ranked dead last in 2012 and 53rd out of 64 eligible in 2013. And if that doesn’t convince you he’s not very good, he’s only 6-3!

Vincent Jackson is the only proven one of the group. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since their origin in 2007, maxing out at #1 with San Diego in 2009 and #6 in 2012 with Tampa Bay. Over the past 6 seasons, he’s caught 351 passes for 6227 yards and 43 touchdowns on 624 targets (56.3%) and 2835 routes run, an average of 2.20 yards per route run. He’s a deep threat and not a consistent volume receiver, but he’s one of the better wide receivers in the league. The one minor concern is that he’s going into his age 31 season, but that’s probably not a problem yet.

The Buccaneers don’t really have a proven #3 wide receiver and there are several players competing for the slot receiver role. Louis Murphy is reportedly the favorite, but he’s graded out below average in each of the 5 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2009. He also only played 100 snaps last season with the Giants. Chris Owusu was a 2012 undrafted free agent and has played 297 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined, struggling mightily last season on 272 snaps. Robert Herron is a mere 6th round rookie.

Tim Wright could also be in the mix. He played 626 snaps last season at tight end as an undrafted rookie. The 6-4 220 collegiate receiver struggled as a blocker, but graded out slightly above average as a pass catcher, catching 54 passes on 72 attempts (75.0%) for 571 yards and 5 touchdowns on 386 routes run, an average of 1.48 yards per route run, running 62.2% of his routes from off of the line, 6th among eligible tight ends. He could be a better fit in a situational role as a slot receiver, but he was also undrafted in 2013 and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 55th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible last season. He could be a better blocker as a slot receiver this year, but he could struggle as a pass catcher. Overall, the receiving corps is not nearly as good as people think. The same thing is the case for the whole passing offense.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Buccaneers completely revamped their offensive line this off-season. They only have one starter locked in to the same role as last season. That starter is right tackle DeMar Dotson. Dotson has been a very solid starter since becoming a starter in 2012. He was Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked offensive tackle in 2012 and then he was even better in his 2nd season as a starter last year, grading out 14th among offensive tackles (2nd among right tackles). He’s still a one year wonder as a top level player so he could regress a little bit this season, but he should still be one of the better right tackles in the game.

The Buccaneers also upgraded the left tackle and the center position through free agency this off-season. Anthony Collins was signed to a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal. He’s been the Bengals’ swing tackle for years and he’s always shown well when given the chance, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in limited action in every season since 2009. In 2013, he was given his biggest chance yet, with Andrew Whitworth moving to left guard in place of the injured Clint Boling and Anthony Collins taking over at left tackle.

Collins played a career high 592 snaps and didn’t allow a sack or quarterback hit all season, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked offensive tackle despite the limited action. He’s unproven, but he should be an upgrade over last year’s starter, the aging Donald Penn, who graded out 32nd at his position last season, struggling in pass protection. The Buccaneers made the right move releasing Donald Penn, saving 7.4 million in cap space, and then signing Collins to that deal.

At center, they signed ex-Packer Evan Dietrich-Smith to a 4-year, 14.25 million dollar deal. Dietrich-Smith took over as the starting center from Jeff Saturday late in the 2012 season and played solid in limited action and then graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked center in 2013 in his first full season as a starter. He’s still just a one year wonder, but it was absolutely the right move trading Jeremy Zuttah for a late round pick, saving 4.5 million on the cap, and getting Dietrich-Smith. Zuttah was Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked center last season and was not worth his salary.

The guard position is a serious weakness and completely up for grabs. The Buccaneers cut Davin Joseph after he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst guard last season and they cut Carl Nicks after he was limited to 605 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined by injuries, including just 150 last season. There are four players competing for 2 spots. Jamon Meredith is the only player involved in the position battle who played guard for the team last season, playing 488 snaps, primarily at left guard, in the absence of Carl Nicks last season. He struggled mightily, grading out 64th out of 81 eligible guards, despite the limited playing time. That’s nothing new as the 2009 5th round pick hasn’t graded out above average since 2009, when he played just 265 snaps.

Last season, only 3 players played fewer snaps than Meredith at guard and graded out worse. One of those players was Oniel Cousins, of the Browns, who is also competing for a starting job in Tampa Bay. Cousins graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 71st ranked guard out of 81 eligible on 322 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse. Prior to last year, he had played just 473 snaps in 5 seasons in his career and graded out below average in 4 of them.

The other two competitors have never played a snap in the NFL. Patrick Omameh was signed off of San Francisco’s practice squad last season and didn’t play a snap as an undrafted rookie. Somehow, he’s reportedly the leader in the clubhouse for one of the two starting spots, which shows you how bad things are here. 5th round rookie Kadeem Edwards is in the mix as well. Other than the guard position, the Buccaneers’ offensive line is very solid and better than it was last season, but their guards really hold them back.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Doug Martin, a 2012 1st round pick, had a great rookie year, rushing for 1454 yards and 11 touchdowns on 319 carries, 4.56 YPC, and adding 49 catches for 472 yards and another score. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked running back overall. His sophomore season was about the opposite. Martin lasted 6 games before going down for the season with a shoulder injury and in those 6 games, he rushed for 456 yards and a touchdown on 127 carries, 3.59 YPA, and added just 12 catches for 66 yards. Despite playing just 317 snaps, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst running back overall and no one played fewer snaps and graded out lower.

Given that, the Buccaneers didn’t really miss him when he was gone. All three of the backs who replaced him averaged more yards per carry than Martin did last season. All 3 also graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in rushing grade. Mike James was the best of the bunch, rushing for 295 yards and 2 touchdowns on 60 attempts, an average of 4.92 yards per carry. That’s even better when you consider that the Buccaneers’ offensive line struggled to run block. James averaged 3.10 yards per carry after contact and broke 9 tackles on 70 touches. Despite his limited playing time, he would have been Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked running back in rushing grade if he were eligible, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher in that regard.

Brian Leonard and Bobby Rainey, meanwhile, averaged 3.87 yards per carry (182 yards on 47 carries) and 3.88 yards per carry respectively (532 yards on 137 carries), largely being inhibited by this offensive line. The Buccaneers also drafted Charles Sims in the 3rd round and have mentioned on several occasions that they’re going to more of a committee in the backfield. Martin is highly unlikely to match the 368 touches he had in 2012, even if he stays healthy. Meanwhile, James and Rainey are battling for one roster spot as Martin, Sims, and return man Jeff Demps all seem locked into roster spots.

Martin should be healthier this season and he should bounce back somewhat as a runner, but he has an injury history dating back to his collegiate days and he’s still a one year wonder in terms of being a proven NFL running back. Martin’s 2012 seems out of reach for him at the moment, especially given how bad the Buccaneers’ run blocking could be this season. They ranked 28th as a team in run blocking grade last season and they could be even worse this season, given their pathetic situation at both guard spots. Something like 220 carries for 900 yards seems reasonable for Martin, with Sims and James siphoning off about 150-170 carries combined.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Buccaneers also struggled defensively last season, though not as much as they did offensively. They finished 21st, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 72.95% rate. This was despite having the trio of Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, and Darrelle Revis all grade out among the very best at their respective positions. All three players arguably showed themselves to be top-10 players in the NFL at any position. The issue is they were incredibly top heavy. As good as those three players were, they were the only three players they had who played more than 452 snaps and graded out above average.

The good news is threefold though. One, it’s easier to find several starting caliber players to fill out around top level players than it is to find a top level player to elevate the level of the defense. Two, the Buccaneers did spend a fair amount of resources upgrading their defense this off-season, losing Darrelle Revis, but adding Alterraun Verner, Michael Johnson, and Clinton McDonald. Three, the Buccaneers added Lovie Smith, who is a fantastic defensive head coach.

Revis is gone, but, as much as he will be missed, he wasn’t an ideal fit for Smith’s defensive scheme and the talent the Buccaneers added this off-season will cancel out that loss and then some. McCoy and David, meanwhile, are ideal fits for Smith’s scheme. McCoy was the 3rd overall pick in 2010 and he has immense talent. He was limited to 19 games in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he flashed when he was on the field in 2010 and 2011.

Over the past 2 seasons, he’s graded out #2 and #1 overall respectively among defensive tackles and hasn’t missed a single game. He’s especially dominant as a pass rusher, with 10 sacks, 14 hits, and 56 hurries on 594 pass rush snaps (a 13.5% rate) last season as an interior defensive lineman, despite next to no help from the other Buccaneer defensive linemen. He’s the best defensive tackle in the NFL and the 6-4 295 pound one-gap penetrator is an ideal fit for Lovie Smith’s scheme, so he could be even better this season.

Clinton McDonald, who the Buccaneers signed to a 4-year, 12 million dollar deal coming over from Seattle, will start next to him. Clinton McDonald was a 7th round pick in 2009 and played just 794 snaps in his career before in 2013, failing to grade out above average in all 4 seasons in the league from 2009-2012. He was actually cut by the Seahawks in final cuts and re-signed in mid-September. Given that, it might seem weird that McDonald got that kind of money, but McDonald had a very solid season as one of the cogs on a Seattle defensive line that helped them win the Super Bowl.

McDonald was Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked defensive tackle, grading out above average overall. He struggled against the run (58th out of 69 eligible), but he excelled as a pass rusher (16th), which is more important. The 6-2 285 pounder is also an ideal fit for Lovie Smith’s scheme. He’s still a one year wonder and you don’t know how he’ll do outside of Seattle’s system, but he should still be an upgrade over Akeem Spence, who started and played 712 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2013. He played about as you’d expect, grading out 3rd worst at his position overall. Spence will be the 3rd defensive tackle this season, a role he’s better suited for.

McDonald wasn’t the biggest free agent acquisition the Buccaneers had on the defensive line, as they signed Michael Johnson to a 5-year, 43.75 million dollar deal. Johnson is an incredibly athletic defensive end who went in the 3rd round out of Georgia Tech in 2009 because a lot of his tape didn’t match his athleticism. He eventually put everything together in 2012 in the contract year of his rookie deal, as he recorded 13 sacks and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 4-3 defensive end.

The Bengals franchise tagged him instead of giving him a long-term deal because they wanted him to prove it again. At first glance, he doesn’t appear to have proven it, recording just 5 sacks, but he also added 16 quarterback hits and 40 quarterback hurries on 575 snaps (a 10.6% pass rush rate, as opposed to 10.3% in 2012), to go with 7 batted passes. Add in the fact that he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end against the run and you have a guy who was much better than his raw sack totals. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 defensive end. He’ll be an obvious upgrade over Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, who was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 defensive end last season.

Adrian Clayborn will continue to start opposite him. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 47th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 52 eligible last season. The 2011 1st round pick has largely been a bust and the Buccaneers declined his 5th year option for 2015 this off-season. However, he could be better this season. Much of his struggles last season could be attributed to the fact that he tore his ACL in 2012. He wasn’t great before the injury either, grading out below average in both 2011 and 2012 (doing so 187 snaps in 2012). However, in his only other healthy season (2011), he wasn’t as bad as he was in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 67 eligible. He still has some upside going into his 4th year in the league, but I wouldn’t expect big things from him. The Buccaneers should still be better at every spot on the defensive line around Gerald McCoy this season.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

As I mentioned, Lavonte David is another fantastic player who should excel in Lovie Smith’s scheme. David, a 2012 2nd round pick, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker as a rookie in 2012 and their 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013. He might be the best linebacker from the 2012 draft class and that includes Luke Kuechly. The 6-1 233 pounder excels in coverage and he’ll be like a rich man’s version of Lance Briggs for Lovie Smith.

Middle linebacker Mason Foster is a marginal talent who fits Lovie Smith’s defense like a square peg in a round hole though. The 2011 3rd round pick has graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, grading out dead last among middle linebackers in 2011, 38th out of 53 eligible in 2012, and 32nd out of 55 eligible in 2013. Lovie Smith mentioned earlier in the off-season that he’d ideally be able to find a replacement for him in the middle, some sort of at least poor man’s version of Brian Urlacher.

The Buccaneers failed to do that, only bringing in career reserve Dane Fletcher from New England. Fletcher could still win the job though. He’s only played 634 snaps in 4 seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2010, but he’s essentially been a league average player in limited action so he could end up being an upgrade over Foster. He’s also in the mix for the two-down outside role (as could Foster be if he loses the middle linebacker job).

Jonathan Casillas is currently penciled in there. He’s been decent on 455 snaps over the past two seasons, but he struggled in the only season in the league in which he saw significant action, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 39th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 45 eligible on 560 snaps in 2011. Most likely, he starts there, Foster starts inside, and Fletcher remains a reserve and a useful special teamer, but things are up for grabs in the linebacking corps other than the dominant David.

Grade: B+

Secondary

I mentioned that the Buccaneers released Darrelle Revis this off-season, even though he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked cornerback last season. Obviously, the loss of him will hurt, but his talents would have been wasted in the Buccaneers’ new zone coverage scheme under Lovie Smith and new regime decided he wasn’t worth his non-guaranteed 16 million dollar salary. They opted to replace him with Alterraun Verner, who has spent 4 years as a zone coverage cornerback in Tennessee, on a 4-year, 26.5 million dollar deal. All things considering, including price tag and scheme fit, Verner is the better value.

Verner has never been spectacular, maxing out 10th overall in 2011 (he graded out 13th last season). However, he’s made all 64 starts since being drafted in the 4th round in 2010 and he’s graded out in the top-25 on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, something only Joe Haden and Jason McCourty can also say at the inconsistent cornerback position. The common opinion is that Verner broke out last season, when he had a career high 5 interceptions, after a combined 6 interceptions in his first 3 seasons in the league, but that’s the danger with just looking at interception numbers. He’s been a solid player in entire career in Tennessee’s zone defense.

Johnthan Banks will continue to be the other starter. He struggled mightily last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible, finishing above average against the run, but finishing 107th out of 110 eligible cornerbacks in pure coverage grade. He was just a rookie and rookie cornerbacks do tend to struggle. He was a 2nd round pick so he has talent and upside. He could be noticeably improved in his 2nd year in the league, but there are obviously no guarantees.

Leonard Johnson also struggled last season, doing so as the 3rd cornerback, as the 2012 undrafted free agent unsurprisingly struggled in his first season of significant action, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 108th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible on 711 snaps. He was solid as a rookie, grading out 34th at his position on 594 snaps, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone he flopped last season given that recently (April 2012) no one thought he was even worth a draft pick. The Buccaneers brought in veteran Mike Jenkins to compete for the 3rd cornerback job and he could easily win it.

Jenkins is a marginal player at best, grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of the last 4 seasons. The 2008 1st round pick had a Pro-Bowl year in 2009, grading out 13th at his position, but it’s been all downhill from there. He’s already going into his age 29 season and he’s graded below average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league. That being said, he’s never been horrible and he was Pro Football Focus’ 72nd ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible last season. That’s not great, but he should be an upgrade over Johnson.

At safety, the Buccaneers have a pair of players that they invested heavy resources into that haven’t really panned out. Mark Barron was the 7th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, while Dashon Goldson got a 5-year, 41.25 million dollar deal last off-season. Barron has graded out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, grading out 70th out of 88 eligible safeties in 2012 and 55th out of 86 eligible in 2013. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but there are no guarantees. He could just end up being a bust.

Goldson, meanwhile, could easily end up being a free agent bust and 22 million guaranteed down the drain. He was Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked safety out of 86 eligible last season. This is nothing new for him as he graded out below average in 3 of 4 seasons as a starter in San Francisco, including 77th out of 88 eligible in 2009 and 64th out of 87 eligible in 2011. He was 20th in 2012, the year before he got that massive deal. The Buccaneers fell into the one year wonder trap and also signed someone who looked better than he was because of all the surrounding defensive talent the 49ers had. They’re stuck with him for another season as he goes into his age 30 season and he should struggle again. Outside of Verner, this secondary isn’t very good, but they have plenty of talent in the front 7 and a strong defensive head coach.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Buccaneers should have a pretty solid defense this season. They lost Darrelle Revis, but they added Alterraun Verner, Michael Johnson, and Clinton McDonald to a defense that needed all of those things and they added Lovie Smith as head coach. With the aforementioned trio and McCoy and David, they should be above average overall on that side of the ball. However, the optimism about their offense just because their receivers resemble a basketball team is unfounded.

Josh McCown goes from Marc Trestman and Aaron Kromer to Jeff Tedford and just because the Bears’ pass catchers are tall doesn’t mean they’re going to be as good as Marshall, Jeffery, and Bennett from Chicago. McCown will show his true colors this season as a journeyman in his age 35 season. The Buccaneers also have issues at guard. They had a well below average offense last season and I don’t see them being significantly better this season, which will hold this team back. I’ll have an official win total for them after I finish every team’s write up.

Prediction: 7-9 4th in NFC South

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