Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Buccaneers finished last season 2-14, tied with the Tennessee Titans for the worst record in the NFL, and got the #1 pick in the draft. They might not have been definitely the worst team in the NFL, but they were pretty close, finishing 30th in rate of moving the chains differential, thanks to an offense that ranked 28th in rate of moving the chains and a defense that ranked 29th in rate of moving the chains allowed. As you can probably imagine, poor quarterback play was a huge part of the problem.

Josh McCown made 11 starts last season and was awful, grading out 34th among 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. He completed 56.3% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. Mike Glennon was a little better, but only by default and he didn’t see much action because head coach Lovie Smith preferred to stubbornly stick with the veteran unless there was an injury to McCown or his play was so horrible that he needed to be benched. Glennon completed 57.6% of his passes for an average of 6.98 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in 6 games, 5 starts and 1 in relief of an injured McCown.

McCown is gone now, being cut ahead of a non-guaranteed 5.25 million dollar salary for his age 36 season in 2015. Glennon will remain a pure backup because, like many teams do when they have the 1st overall pick (13 of the last 18 instances), the Buccaneers selected a quarterback, taking Jameis Winston out of Florida State. Glennon has shown some upside in limited action in his career, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2013, but taking a quarterback like Winston when they had a rare opportunity to do so was a no brainer.

It’s unclear how good Winston can be as a rookie, but he should represent an immediate upgrade, even though he’ll only be in his age 21 season. He could struggle as a rookie, as, over the past 10 years, quarterbacks drafted in the top-5 have completed just 57.7% of their passes for an average of 6.85 YPA, 148 touchdowns, and 140 interceptions, finding life in the NFL much harder than they expected it to be. Buccaneers fans will have to be patient. Those kinds of numbers wouldn’t be a death sentence, as that group includes the likes of Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Matt Stafford, but it’s definitely a reality. Developing a young quarterback is a marathon, not a sprint. Winston should help them win a few additional games this season though. It’ll be up to the rest of the team to also be improved if the Buccaneers are going to make any real noise this season.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers

Winston walks into a pretty good situation as far as #1 picks go. Most #1 pick quarterbacks walk into horrible situations and that’s true for Winston in a lot of areas, but he has a great wide receiver duo to work with. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson were one of 4 wide receiver duos last season to each have a 1000+ yard season (Calvin Johnson/Golden Tate, Demaryius Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders, and Jordy Nelson/Randall Cobb). While those other 3 duos all had good quarterback play (Matt Stafford, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers), Evans and Jackson had abysmal quarterback play. Both players could be even more productive this season with a competent quarterback under center.

Evans was the better of the two last season and figures to see the bigger uptick in production in 2015. It wasn’t just that Evans had more yards than Jackson last season (1051 to 1002), he also graded out 13th among wide receivers and caught 58.6% of his targets, while Jackson graded out 32nd and caught 50.7% of his targets. Evans is also younger and has much more upside, going into his 2nd year in the league, only his age 22 season. The 7th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft had a dominant rookie year and rookie wide receivers aren’t really supposed to do that, even the really good ones. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Evans has as much upside as any receiver not named Odell Beckham going into the future.

Jackson, meanwhile, is on the way down, going into his age 32 season, and will be more of a complementary receiver opposite Evans this season. That doesn’t mean he can’t have 1000 yards again with a better quarterback under center and a receiving corps that still lacks a proven good 3rd option, but I don’t see him finishing 9th among wide receivers in targets again like he did last season (138 targets) and he won’t have 1300-1400+ receiving yards, which Evans definitely could. The days of Jackson grading out 6th among wide receivers, like he did in 2012, are gone, but he’s graded out at least above average in all 8 seasons on Pro Football Focus’ history and he could do that again in 2015.

As I mentioned, the issue with this receiving corps is they didn’t have a good tertiary receiving option behind Evans and Jackson. Evans and Jackson are a great duo, but the Buccaneers would probably prefer to not have to target them on 47.8% of pass attempts (254 out of 531) like they did last season. The player most likely to step up this season, if anyone does, is 2nd year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who graded out below average on 464 snaps as a rookie. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league in 2015.

Seferian-Jenkins, at the very least, should see a significant increase in playing time this season, making him an every down starting tight end and pushing Brandon Myers and Luke Stocker into complementary roles at most. Myers and Stocker played 475 and 331 snaps respectively last season, but really struggled, especially Myers, who graded out 53rd among 67 eligible tight ends in 2014. Neither of those two has a good history, as Myers hasn’t graded out above average since he did so on just 84 snaps as a 6th round rookie in 2009, while Stocker has graded out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2011.

The one intriguing addition this off-season was Tim Wright. It was technically a re-addition because Wright was traded by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with a 4th round pick, to the New England Patriots for guard Logan Mankins before the start of last season. When the Patriots released him this off-season, the Buccaneers snatched him off of waivers and reunited with him. Wright was decent in his one season in New England, grading out right around average on 357 snaps, so it’s unclear why the Patriots let him go, but the Buccaneers will take him back.

The 6-4 220 pound 2013 undrafted free agent has carved out a nice role for himself in the NFL as a hybrid player. He can play both as the 3rd wide receiver and the 2nd tight end for the Buccaneers, depending on the situation, and should see similar to the 626 snaps he saw in 2013 in his rookie year with Tampa Bay. He graded out above average as a pass catcher, catching 54 passes for 571 yards and 5 touchdowns, but understandably struggled as a blocker. He could have a decent impact in the passing game this season. His biggest competition for snaps as the 3rd receiver will be Louis Murphy, the incumbent, who graded out 102nd among 110 eligible wide receivers on 472 snaps last season. The 2009 4th round pick has graded out below average in all 6 seasons of his career and shouldn’t be seeing significant snaps. The Buccaneers have a strong wide receiver duo, but their lack of a tertiary option and lack of depth hurts this offense.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Since 2005, 19 of 25 teams that have selected a quarterback in the first round have used their next pick on an offensive player, which I don’t think is a coincidence. If you make a huge investment in a young quarterback, you tend to plan the rest of your draft around helping him feel as comfortable as possible as a rookie. The Buccaneers were no exception, taking Donovan Smith with their 2nd round pick. He’ll start at left tackle as a rookie. Smith will obviously be hard to trust, but he should be an upgrade over Anthony Collins, who graded out 63rd among 84 eligible offensive tackles last season and got himself released this off-season, as a result.

DeMar Dotson remains at right tackle, where he’s been quietly one of the better right tackles in the game over the past few seasons. A 2009 undrafted free agent who didn’t become a starter full-time until 2012, Dotson has graded out 40th, 14th, and 28th among offensive tackles over the past 3 seasons respectively, making all 48 starts over that time period. Dotson has spent much of the off-season trying to get a lucrative contract extension from the team ahead of his age 30 contract year in 2015. Owed just 1.75 million this season, Dotson is vastly underpaid, in addition to being underrated and, even going into his 30s, deserves a pay raise and some long-term security.

Dotson may or may not get that extension, but either way, he should be an above average right tackle for the Buccaneers again this season. There was talk earlier this off-season about him moving to left tackle to replace Collins, but, when the Buccaneers drafted Smith, they announced Smith would be the starting left tackle, while Dotson would be moving back to right tackle. Ordinarily, you want your best offensive tackle on the blindside, but Dotson has barely played left tackle in his career (4 career games) and you risk wasting a solid right tackle if he moves to the blindside and struggles, so I don’t mind the move to let Smith play left tackle. It’s certainly the safer choice.

Smith won’t be the only rookie they start upfront on an offensive line that was clearly seen as a problem by the Buccaneers this off-season, after a 2014 season where they ranked dead last among teams on Pro Football Focus in pass blocking grade (though 8th in run blocking grade). Ali Marpet, another 2nd round pick, after the Buccaneers traded up from the top of the 3rd round to grab him, is expected to start at right guard. Like Smith, Marpet could struggle as a rookie, especially since he comes from Division III Hobart College, but, like Smith should be over Collins, Marpet should be an upgrade over incumbent Patrick Omameh. He graded out 55th among 78 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus last season. Like Collins, he was a big part of their poor pass protection last season.

A pair of solid veterans round out their offensive line, with left guard Logan Mankins and center Evan Smith locked in as starters again, after they made 31 of 32 starts last season. Logan Mankins came over from the Patriots right before the season started, in the aforementioned trade that sent Tim Wright (along with a 4th round pick that turned out to be defensive end Trey Flowers) to New England. Mankins was largely a salary dump by the Patriots and he is overpaid at a scheduled 7 million dollar salary, but he played well last season and the Buccaneers are hurting more for talent than cap space.  He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked guard last season, grading out above average again, something he’s done in all 8 years of Pro Football Focus’ history. He’s definitely on the decline, as he goes into his age 33 season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t continue being a solid starter this season, coming off yet another strong season.

Smith, meanwhile, is going into his age 30 season. He’s only been a starter for the past 2 seasons, as the 2009 undrafted free agent didn’t become a starter until his 5th season in the NFL. He played well in 2013 with the Packers, grading out 7th among centers on Pro Football Focus in 16 starts, which got him a 4-year, 14.25 million dollar deal from the Buccaneers last off-season. Smith wasn’t nearly as good in his first season in Tampa Bay, grading out right around average (19th among 41 eligible centers), but he was decent and should be a decent starter again in 2015. He’s being paid appropriately.

The Buccaneers struggled on the offensive line last season, but they should be a lot better this season Collins and Omameh won’t be starting any more, and, even though they’ll be replaced with rookies, they should be better at left tackle and right guard respectively, as a result. Right tackle, center, and left guard were not problems last season and will not become problems this season. Along with the rookies coming in and replacing Collins and Omameh, they should also have better depth this season, a huge problem last season. Omameh isn’t great as a starter, but he’ll be better depth than the likes of Oniel Cousins and Garrett Gilkey were last season. Cousins was Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible on just 343 snaps in place of an injured Collins, with no one grading out worse on fewer snaps at the position, while Gilkey was horrible at both guard and center last season on just 214 snaps. They’re still not a great offensive line, lacking top level talents and relying heavily on rookies, but they’ll be better.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Buccaneers also struggled on the ground last season, ranking 24th in the NFL, averaging 3.90 yards per carry. The offensive line wasn’t bad in run blocking, as I mentioned, so the blame does fall on the backs themselves. They didn’t add to the position this off-season and are left without a clear lead back, with 3, if not 4 guys who could see a decent amount of action. Doug Martin (134 carries, 13 catches), Bobby Rainey (94 carries, 33 catches), and Charles Sims (66 carries, 19 catches) all saw decent action last season. They all could see decent action again, as could Mike James, who only saw 20 touches last season, but played well in limited action in 2013.

Martin figures to get the first short at the lead back job, the 4th straight season he’d be the week 1 starter, since being drafted 31st overall by the Buccaneers in 2012. He burst onto the scene as a rookie, rushing for 1454 yards and 11 touchdowns on 319 attempts (4.58 YPC), adding 49 catches for 472 yards and another score, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked running back. However, his star has faded significantly over the past 2 seasons.

The running back equivalent of Robert Griffin III, Martin missed 15 games with various injuries over the past 2 seasons and also really struggled while on the field, combining for 950 yards and 3 touchdowns on 261 attempts (3.64 YPC) over those 2 seasons, less combined than he had as a rookie. He also graded out 53rd out of 55 eligible running backs in 2013 and 45th out of 57 eligible in 2014. He’ll face a ton of heat for his starting job from Charles Sims, who was drafted in the 3rd round in 2014, but struggled on 237 snaps (2.80 YPC) as a rookie, after missing 8 games with an ankle injury. They’ll be hoping that, now healthy, he can be a lot better in his 2nd year in the league.

That leaves Rainey and James fighting for the #3 job, though either could see a decent amount of action. Rainey is a 2012 undrafted free agent who has rushed for 972 yards and 6 touchdowns and 244 attempts, an average of 3.98 YPC, in his career, all while struggling mightily in pass protection. He was decent last season, rushing for 406 yards and 1 touchdown on 94 attempts, an average of 4.32 yards per carry, while adding 33 catches for 315 yards and another touchdown through the air, but graded out well below average overall because of awful pass protection. James, meanwhile, flashed as a 6th round rookie in 2013, rushing for 295 yards on 60 carries (4.92 yards per carry), but then rushed for just 37 yards on 19 carries this season (1.95 yards per carry) in 2014. Going into his 3rd season in the league, he’s an inexperienced former 6th round pick who is averaging 4.20 yards per carry on 79 career carries. They don’t figure to be strong on the ground at all this season.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

The Buccaneers had some good players on their defense last season, but didn’t play well as a unit because they had so many holes and no depth in too many spots. They attempted to patch up holes this off-season. Michael Johnson (648 snaps), William Gholston (587 snaps), and Jacquies Smith (470 snaps) led the team in snaps at defensive end, grading out 53rd, 37th, and 38th respectively among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. They didn’t do a ton to fix the position, cutting Michael Johnson and bringing in George Johnson on a 3-year, 9 million dollar deal through a trade from Detroit for a 5th round pick.

Johnson (George) is the definition of a one-year wonder. A 2010 undrafted free agent out of Rutgers, Johnson played a combined 155 snaps in his first 4 seasons in the NFL, spending time on both the Buccaneers’ and the Vikings’ rosters, not recording a single sack, and not playing a single snap in 2013. Detroit signed him as a camp body last off-season and he ended up not just making the final roster, but recording the first 7 sacks of his career. The Buccaneers are banking that Johnson (who was signed off their practice squad by the Vikings in 2012) is more of a late bloomer than a one-year wonder.

However, it’s obviously a risky deal as Johnson is already going into his age 28 season and, even in the best season of his career last year, Johnson still only graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus, obviously playing well as a pass rusher in a situational role, but struggling against the run. The transition to being an every down player could be tough for him even if he doesn’t regress. All that being said, he should be an upgrade over what Michael Johnson was in 2014.

Gholston and Smith remain and will play the same roles this season, meaning this is still a position of weakness. Gholston is the favorite to start again. The 2013 4th round pick has graded out below average on 320 and 587 snaps respectively in 2013 and 2014 to start his career. Smith, meanwhile, is a 2012 undrafted free agent who graded out below average on the first 470 snaps of his career in 2014. Weirdly enough, the Buccaneers didn’t use a single draft pick on the position, aside from the one they traded to Detroit for George Johnson, even though it’s such a weak position.

Things are better at defensive tackle. Gerald McCoy is one of the best defensive players in the game. The 3rd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, McCoy has graded out above average in all 5 seasons of his career and has beaten early career injuries problems to grade out 2nd, 1st, and 2nd in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. After missing 13 games with injury in 2010-2011 combined, he’s missed just 3 over the past 3 seasons. The Buccaneers locked McCoy up on a 7-year, 95.2 million dollar extension this off-season, which looked like a bargain when Miami paid 114 million over 6 years for a comparable player in Ndamukong Suh. The only defensive tackle to grade out in the top-2 at his position in each of the last 3 seasons, McCoy very much makes the defensive line respectable by himself.

Akeem Spence was the big problem at defensive tackle last season, grading out 79th among 81 eligible defensive tackles on 502 snaps, after grading out 67th among 69 eligible on 712 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2013. He won’t have a very big role at all this season, barring an injury to McCoy or free agent acquisition Henry Melton. Melton has had issues with injuries in the past, but was very much worth the 1-year prove it deal he was given this off-season, worth 3.75 million.

Henry Melton was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle in 2011 and 6th ranked in 2012, both seasons with the Bears, but he was limited to 125 snaps in 3 games in 2013 by a torn ACL. Because he was playing on the franchise tag in 2013, he hit free agency last off-season and signed with the Cowboys. The Cowboys only paid 2.25 million plus incentives for Melton in 2014, declining his 3-year, 24 million dollar option this off-season.

Melton did play well when on the field in 2014 though, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle, but he had recurring knee problems and played just 433 snaps. He’s still relatively young (going into his age 29 season), he played well last season when on the field, and he could bounce back in his 2nd year since the injury. Being reunited with Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith, a strong defensive mind who was Melton’s head coach in Chicago for his best years, certainly doesn’t hurt him. He was a great free agent addition and will be a serious upgrade over Spence.

Clinton McDonald, the starter next to McCoy last season, will be the 3rd defensive tackle this season and rotate with Melton. He’s very qualified for the role. A late bloomer, McDonald, a 2009 7th round pick, didn’t grade out above average once in his first 4 seasons in the league, up through 2012, on a combined 794 snaps. However, he had a breakout 2013 season in Seattle, grading out 27th among defensive tackles, earning him a 4-year, 12 million dollar deal with the Buccaneers. McDonald proved he wasn’t a one-year wonder in 2014, grading out 31st among defensive tackles, above average for the 2nd straight season. He should continue being a solid value for them this season, as the 3rd defensive tackle. The additions of George Johnson and Henry Melton might not seem huge, but they’re both significant upgrades over the players they’re replacing and them give them two much needed supporting players on the defensive line around McCoy.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Buccaneers also had a huge problem last season at middle linebacker, as Mason Foster and injury replacement Dane Fletcher were horrible. Like defensive tackle and defensive end, they have upgraded the position this off-season, signing Bruce Carter to a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal. Even though he was overpaid, Carter should still help this defense this season. The Cowboys drafted Bruce Carter in the 2nd round in 2011 despite the fact that he tore his ACL late in his final collegiate season at North Carolina. Carter was limited to 41 snaps as a rookie, but he looked on his way to a breakout 2nd season before a serious arm injury cut his season short. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked middle linebacker on 625 snaps and 11 starts that season, 2012.

Moving back to his natural position of 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013, many expected him to have a great season, but he did the opposite, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 35 eligible. In 2014, he was limited to 8 starts in 13 games and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 40 eligible. The potential he once appeared to have seems to have dissipated and now he’s a borderline starting linebacker and an injury prone one at that, with 15 missed games in 4 seasons and an ACL tear from late in his collegiate days. Carter did play well at middle linebacker in 2012, which is the intriguing thing about this addition, and he’s only going into his age 27 season, but he’s never played inside in a 4-3.

Lavonte David remains as the three-down 4-3 outside linebacker, a role which he plays arguably better than anyone in the NFL. David, a 2012 2nd round pick, has played 46 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, grading out 6th, 2nd, and 7th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Only going into his age 25 season in 2015, David is just entering the prime of his career. Going into his contract year, the Buccaneers are hoping to get him signed to an extension before the start of the season and will also be hoping that Carter can at least somewhat resemble the capable every down partner that David needs in the linebacking corps.

Danny Lansanah remains as the other starting outside linebacker, dominating in the two-down role last season, grading out 16th among 4-3 outside linebackers on 569 snaps, including 18th in pure run grade. That being said, he’s a career journeyman who is going into his age 30 season and whose history makes him hard to trust. Lansaneh, a 2008 undrafted free agent, had played just 4 career defensive snaps prior to last season, spending most of 2008-2013 either in the UFL or as an NFL special teamer. There’s talk that the Buccaneers could have him play middle linebacker every down if Carter proves incapable and needs to be moved to a two-down run stopping role outside, but it’s very unclear if he can handle that, as promising as he looked last season. It’s a solid linebacking corps that becomes more than that if Carter can live up to his contract.

Grade: B

Secondary

In the secondary, cornerback Alterraun Verner is another talented player who was stuck on a terrible defense with a horrible supporting cast in 2014, one that is expected to be a lot better this season. Verner performed well in the first year of a 4-year, 25.5 million dollar deal. He missed the first 2 games of his career (78 out of 80 starts made since being drafted in the 4th round by the Titans in 2010), but still graded out 7th among cornerbacks, a career best.

Much of that was because he was far and away the best run stopping cornerback in the NFL and he actually graded out slightly below average in coverage, but he’s still a solid cover cornerback with fantastic run stopping abilities and he has graded out above average in all 5 seasons in the league. He’s graded out 21st, 11th, 25th, 13th, and 7th respectively from 2010-2014, including 12th, 13th, 37th, 17th, and 50th in coverage. He’s the only cornerback in the NFL to grade out in the top-25 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons and should continue strong play into his age 27 season in 2015.

Johnathan Banks and Leonard Johnson struggled on 937 and 401 snaps respectively as the 2nd and 3rd cornerback respectively though. They graded out 93rd and 88th respectively, among 108 eligible cornerbacks. The Buccaneers are hoping that they’ll have better play at those two points and there are a couple reasons why they could. The first is that the Buccaneers brought in Sterling Moore on a 1-year, 1.525 million dollar deal, which could prove to be a complete steal, after Moore was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback last season.

Moore is a one-year wonder who played just a combined 683 snaps from 2011-2013, after going undrafted in 2011. However, he graded out above average in 2 of those 3 seasons and could continue being a solid contributor in 2015 and beyond. He’ll be at least the 3rd cornerback, as he specializes on the slot, but could win the other starting cornerback job opposite Verner. The Buccaneers would probably prefer that he be able to stay on the slot and that someone else steps up as the starter, because Moore is inexperienced outside, but he is an option.

Mike Jenkins was a cheap free agent acquisition last off-season, signing on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal. Jenkins played 32 snaps week 1, but went down with a torn pectoral and missed the rest of the season. The Buccaneers brought him back on a minimum deal this off-season and he’ll have a chance for playing time in this thin secondary. Even before the injury, Jenkins was a marginal player at best, grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of the previous 4 seasons from 2010-2013. 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 30 season and he’s graded below average in 5 of 7 seasons in the league. He’s unlikely to be an upgrade over Banks or Johnson, but he wouldn’t really be a downgrade either. In his last healthy season, Jenkins graded out 72nd among 110 eligible cornerbacks on 931 snaps, which is better than anything Banks or Johnson did last season.

My guess is that Banks remains the starter opposite Verner with Moore on the slot. Banks is a naturally talented 2013 2nd round pick, but has graded out well below average in his first 2 seasons in the league, including 100th among 110 eligible as a rookie. He still has upside, going into his 3rd year in the league, but he’s probably on his last chance as a starter and the Buccaneers could have a quick hook with him. Johnson, meanwhile, could start the season as far down the depth chart as 5th because, unlike Banks, he doesn’t have much upside. Since going undrafted in 2012, Johnson has graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons, including a 2013 season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 108th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible. The Buccaneers’ cornerbacks should be improved by the addition of Moore, but it’s still a weak group overall after Verner.

At safety, Dashon Goldson was the big problem, grading out 86th among 87 eligible safeties. He was traded to Washington this off-season, in exchange for a swap of 6th and 7th round picks in 2016. The Buccaneers will still have to pay him the 4 million they owed him guaranteed, but they saved 4 million by letting him go and somehow got something in return. Like with so many other Buccaneer starters last season, it’ll be addition by subtraction. However, the Buccaneers do still have a completely unsolved safety situation this off-season, with Major Wright (520 snaps) and Bradley McDougald (455 snaps) returning and Chris Conte and DJ Swearinger coming in as free agents.

McDougald, I would guess, has the best claim to a starting job, considering he was the only Buccaneer safety to play more than 100 snaps and grade out above average last season. McDougald is an inexperienced 2013 undrafted free agent, but one who flashed on the first 455 snaps of his career last season, grading out above average, 32nd among eligible safeties. He’s obviously hard to trust, but he deserves a chance to be a full-time starter. The Buccaneers reportedly agree.

Major Wright played 520 snaps at safety for them last season and played pretty well, but will have to hold off free agent acquisition Chris Conte for the job. Both Wright and Conte played for Head Coach Lovie Smith in Chicago. Wright didn’t play terribly last season, but he still graded out below average, marking the 4th time in 5 seasons he had done so. Wright graded out 23rd as recently as 2012, but dead last as recently as 2013. He’s a one-year wonder who has had an overall poor career.

That being said, Conte probably isn’t much better, if he is at all. Conte was a 3rd round pick in 2011 and he made 52 starts in 4 seasons with the Bears, but he graded out below average in all 4 seasons, with his worst season coming in 2013, when he graded out 82nd out of 86 eligible safeties in the same awful secondary with Major Wright. Lovie Smith wasn’t coaching that defense so maybe he can get the most out of one of them, but I don’t expect either to ever have too firm of a hold on a starting job this season.

DJ Swearinger is in the mix and could push for snaps later this season. The 2013 2nd round pick is only going into his age 24 season, but was cut by the Texans despite two very affordable years left on his rookie contract this off-season for disciplinary reasons. The Buccaneers inherit those two years on his contract, by virtue of the waiver claim they put in for him, but he’s no guarantee to play well, after grading out 71st among 86 eligible safeties in 2013 and 78th among 87 eligible in 2014. He’ll need to improve both his game and his coachability to make it into the starting lineup in 2015. Outside of Alterraun Verner, it’s still a weak secondary.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Buccaneers have some talented players, including the likes of Mike Evans, Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, and Alterraun Verner, but went 2-14 because of so many horrible players playing significant roles. That includes guys like Josh McCown, Anthony Collins, Patrick Omameh, Akeem Spence, Michael Johnson, Mason Foster, Dashon Goldson, and Leonard Johnson, none of whom figure to play a significant role, if any, this season. The Buccaneers didn’t add a ton of talent this off-season, but upgraded a bunch of spots simply with addition by subtraction.

The biggest real addition is probably Jameis Winston, who will instantly upgrade the quarterback position. He might not play great as a rookie, but he gives them a ton of long-term hope and should be one of the reasons why they win more games this season. The Buccaneers over/under right now is 5.5 wins. Teams that have an over/under of 6 or fewer usually go over more often than not. This year, Tampa Bay is joined by Oakland, Jacksonville, and Tampa Bay in that group and I definitely think Tampa Bay has a better chance to go over than both Oakland and Jacksonville and maybe even Tennessee, who also adds a rookie quarterback. There’s money to be made here. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Buccaneers after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): With the Saints and Panthers both having rough Augusts, the Buccaneers had an opportunity to overtake them going into the season. Unfortunately, they had a rough August as well. Right tackle DeMar Dotson will miss at least a month with injury on an already weak offensive line. Meanwhile, rookie quarterback Jameis Winston struggled in the pre-season, as did free agent acquisition Bruce Carter, who has already been benched.

Prediction: 7-9 3rd in NFC South

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