After finishing the 2014 season tied for the worst record in the league at just 2-14, the Buccaneers took a big step forward in 2015, winning 6 games. It wasn’t a great season, but it certainly gives them a lot of hope for the future. The offense was easily the biggest reason for their improvement, as they went from 28th in rate of moving the chains in 2014 to 8th in 2015. An improvement was bound to happen, given that they used the #1 pick on quarterback Jameis Winston out of Florida State, but that big of an improvement is really remarkable. No other offense had as big of an improvement from 2014 to 2015 as the Buccaneers.
Winston wasn’t great, but he was impressive for a rookie, completing 58.3% of his passes for an average of 7.56 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, while adding 6 touchdowns and 213 yards on 54 carries. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked quarterback, just slightly below offense. He’s still only going into his age 22 season and has immense upside so I expect him to be better in his 2nd year in the league in 2016. A top-15 season is a pretty reasonable estimate for him this season.
While the passing game was certainly better under Winston in 2015 than it was in 2014, the running game was where the Buccaneers’ biggest improvement was, thanks to an improbable huge season from running back Doug Martin. He rushed for 1402 yards and 6 touchdowns on 288 carries, an average of 4.87 YPC. He finished 2nd in rushing yards to Adrian Peterson, but Peterson had 39 more carries than Martin and only 83 more yards to show for it and Martin’s YPC average was best among running backs with more than 200 carries. He was also Pro Football Focus’ highest ranked running back among players who played as many snaps as he did. Le’Veon Bell was #1 overall, but sent most of the year injured; Martin played all 16 games, totalling 633 snaps.
Martin also had a great year as a 1st round rookie in 2012, rushing for 1454 yards and 11 touchdowns on 319 carries (4.56 YPC) and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked running back, but his 2015 was still improbable because of how disappointing he was in 2013 and 2014. Struggling with conditioning and durability issues, Martin was limited to just 17 games over those 2 seasons and rushed for a combined for 950 yards and 3 touchdowns on 261 attempts (3.64 YPC), less combined than he had as a rookie, grading out well below average in both seasons. He was the Robert Griffin of running backs.
Martin showed what he can do when he’s right last season, but he’s had injury problems dating back to his collegiate days and it’s hard to trust him to have back-to-back top level seasons. Fortunately, the Buccaneers didn’t have to pay too much to keep him as a free agent this off-season, giving him 35.75 million over 5 seasons, a good value considering DeMarco Murray got 40 million over 5 years from the Eagles last off-season and Chris Ivory got 32 million over 5 years from the Jaguars this off-season. His upside alone makes him worth that contract and another strong season is certainly a possibility.
Martin wasn’t the Buccaneers’ only good running back last season, as #2 running back Charles Sims, a 2014 3rd round pick, had a bit of a breakout year on 107 carries, rushing for 529 yards, while catching 51 passes for 564 yards and 4 touchdowns. His 4.94 YPC is a bit misleading because he was the passing down back and played almost exclusively against defenses expecting the pass, playing in sub packages against 3+ wide receivers. However, he’s an excellent receiver out of the backfield who finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back on 457 snaps. Martin’s not a great pass catcher, so Sims is obviously locked into the passing down role again, but could also have a larger role as a runner, at the expense of Doug Martin’s carries, in an effort to keep Martin fresh long-term. Any way you look at it, the Buccaneers have a two headed monster at running back that most teams would envy.
Despite the offense’s overall improvement, the Buccaneers’ receiving corps was actually worse last season than it was in 2014, when Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson were one of four wide receiver duos to both top 1000 yards. Evans still topped 1000 yards and the 2014 #7 overall pick actually improved on his rookie numbers with 74 catches for 1206 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he caught just 50.3% of his targets and led the league with 11 drops. As a result, he fell from 13th to 19th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Still, it was a strong season for a player who is still only going into his age 23 season and could have a huge breakout year in 2016. If Winston takes a step forward as well, Evans could be a top-5 receiver in terms of receiving yards in 2016, after coming in 11th in 2015.
Jackson didn’t even come close to his 2014 numbers, catching just 33 passes for 543 yards and 3 touchdowns in 10 games in an injury plagued 2015 season. He still graded out above average for the 9th straight season, dating back to Pro Football Focus’ origin in 2007, but a down year like that is definitely a concern, given that he’s going into his age 33 season. Charles Sims is a good pass catching back, but the Buccaneers probably don’t want him finishing 2nd on the team in catches and receiving yards again in 2016, so the Buccaneers will need a strong season from the declining Jackson. Adam Humphries is the 3rd receiver, but he was unimpressive on 437 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2015, so they don’t have much depth at behind Evans and Jackson.
Along with Jackson, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins also missed a lot of time with injury last season, missing 9 games with a shoulder injury, after missing 7 games with injury as a 2nd round rookie in 2014. This off-season, he’s reportedly been unimpressive. He still has upside, flashing on 218 snaps last season, but his star is a lot dimmer than it was 2 years ago when he came into the league. He’ll face competition for his starting job from Cameron Brate, a 2014 undrafted free agent who was alright on 348 snaps in 2015 and made 4 starts in ASJ’s absence. Either player will be at best the 4th option in the passing game behind Evans, Jackson, and passing down back Sims in a solid receiving corps.
The only weak unit on Tampa Bay’s offense is their offensive line. The Buccaneers basically had completely different starting offensive tackles between 2014 and 2015, as left tackle Anthony Collins was released, while right tackle Demar Dotson was limited to 201 snaps by injury. Instead, 2nd round rookie Donovan Smith and veteran Gosder Cherilus started. Smith wasn’t any worse than Collins, who struggled mightily in 2014, but he wasn’t any better either, finishing 71st out of 77 eligible offensive tackles. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be good. Meanwhile, Cherilus wasn’t much better on the right side, finishing 58th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles, but he was replacing a much better player in DeMar Dotson.
Dotson is supposedly healthy going into 2016, which would be a huge boost for the Buccaneers. Prior to 2015, he made 48 out of 48 possible starts from 2012-2014 and, even in any injury plagued season in 2015, he still graded out above average, making it 4 straight seasons in which he’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus. He maxed out at 14th in 2013. Going into his age 31 season, coming off of a major injury, it’s possible his best days are behind him at this point, but he should still be a solid player and a big re-addition. The Buccaneers were confident enough in him to give him a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been a contract year in 2016.
Dotson isn’t the only starting offensive lineman to be coming off of an injury, as veteran center Evan Smith was limited to 386 snaps by injuries this season, splitting time between guard and center. A natural center, Smith should make all 16 starts there if healthy in 2016 and has decent bounce back potential, even if he is heading into his age 30 season, as he’s graded out above average in 3 straight seasons. If healthy, he’d be a big upgrade over Joe Hawley, who was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked center out of 39 eligible in 2015. Hawley fits best as a reserve at both center and guard.
While the Buccaneers do get Dotson and Smith back this season, they also lost left guard Logan Mankins to retirement this off-season, ahead of what would have been his age 34 season. Despite his age, he was arguably their best offensive lineman in 2015, ending the year as Pro Football Focus 13th ranked guard. The Buccaneers signed ex-Seahawk JR Sweezy to a 5-year, 32.5 million dollar deal to replace Mankins, but he’s a major downgrade. He’s made 49 starts in 4 seasons in the league, since getting drafted in the 7th round in 2012, but he’s graded out below average in all 4 of those seasons. The Buccaneers definitely overpaid for him. He’s also dealing with a back injury that puts his status for the start of the season into question.
Rounding out the offensive line is 2nd year guard Ali Marpet. Unlike fellow 2nd round pick Donovan Smith, Marpet played well as a rookie, grading out above average and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked guard. The Buccaneers will need him to take another step forward in his 2nd year in the league with Mankins gone, as Marpet might be their best offensive lineman right now. He’s certainly their most promising, though he’s still unproven. He’s mostly their best offensive lineman by default. It’s a weak offensive line overall.
While the offense was much improved in 2015, the defense was still horrible. Part of the reason was disappointing play by their two defensive stars: defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and outside linebacker Lavonte David. I’ll get into David in the linebackers section, but McCoy is an obvious bounce back candidate. The 3rd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, McCoy was a top-2 defensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 2013, and 2014, the only defensive tackle in the league who could say that. However, he fell much closer to middle of the pack in 2015, thanks to a shoulder injury he suffered early in the season. Injuries were a problem for him early in his career, but he should be healthy again in 2016 and, just going into his age 28 season, McCoy could easily be one of the top defensive tackles in the game again. That would obviously be a huge boost for this Tampa Bay defense.
The addition of defensive end Robert Ayers in free agency should also be a huge boost for this Tampa Bay defense. A 2009 1st round pick, Ayers looked like a bust early in his career in Denver, but he has very quietly turned his career around since moving from 3-4 outside linebacker to 4-3 defensive end, ranking in the top-14 at his position in 3 straight seasons. Last season was probably the best of his career, as he ranked 8th overall among edge defenders. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he was an absolute steal on a 3-year, 19.5 million dollar deal this off-season. He and McCoy have the potential to be a very formidable inside/outside duo.
The Buccaneers also added Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence in the 2nd round, though he’s obviously far less proven. Spence will compete with veteran holdovers William Gholston and Jacquies Smith for playing time. Gholston played well last season and should at least be nominally the starter opposite Ayers to begin the season. The 2013 4th round pick graded out below average on 320 snaps and 587 snaps respectively in the first 2 seasons of his career, but finished above average on 675 snaps in 2015. He could have another solid season in 2016 and is at least a capable starter. Smith, however, was horrible in 2015, grading out 101st among 110 eligible edge defenders on snaps. The 2012 undrafted free agent has never graded out above average in 4 seasons in the league. There’s a reason they added, not just Ayers, but Spence too. Spence could easily open the year as the 3rd defensive end.
Unlike at defensive end, the Buccaneers did not add anyone at defensive tackle this off-season and actually lost veterans Henry Melton and Tony McDaniel. However, they were both terrible last season so that’s actually addition by subtraction and they also get veterans Clinton McDonald and Akeem Spence back from injury, which is addition by re-addition. McDonald is the better of the two, grading out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, including last season on 153 snaps in just 8 games. The 6-2 297 pounder excels against the run and should get his old base package job back.
Spence, meanwhile, has graded out below average in all 3 seasons in the league, but even he was better than Melton and McDaniel last season. Still, finishing 91st out of 123 eligible defensive tackles is not good and he also missed 10 games with injury. He’s a weak counterpart to McDonald even if he is, by default, an upgrade over what they had last season. The Buccaneers also have a pair of defensive ends in Robert Ayers and William Gholston that are big enough to rush the passer from the inside in sub packages (6-3 275 and 6-6 281 respectively), with Spence then coming in as an edge rusher in sub packages. It should be a vastly improved defensive line with Ayers coming in and McCoy getting healthy.
As I mentioned, outside linebacker Lavonte David also had a disappointing year in 2015. A top-7 4-3 outside linebacker in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, David also fell much closer to middle of the pack in 2015, after signing a big 5-year, 50 million dollar extension last off-season. Like McCoy, he’s got a great chance for a bounce back year in 2016. The Buccaneers will need him to do just that. He’s only one of their best players at his best, but the rest of the Buccaneers’ linebacking corps is a big problem.
The Buccaneers signed ex-Raven Daryl Smith to a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal this off-season. He’s played 48 out of 48 possible games as an every down middle linebacker over the past 3 seasons, but is expected to play the other outside linebacker spot opposite David in Tampa Bay for 3 reasons. The first is that the Buccaneers run a 4-3, while Baltimore runs a 3-4, and Smith’s original professional position was 4-3 outside linebacker, prior to moving to middle linebacker in Baltimore’s 3-4.
The second reason is that Smith struggled mightily in 2015, finishing 71st out of 97 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus, leading to his release by the Ravens. That’s just the 2nd time he’s graded out below average in Pro Football Focus’ history, but, now going into his age 34 season, it’s very possible that Smith is at the end of his line. Fortunately, the other outside linebacker job is primarily a base package job, meaning he’d mainly see snaps on run plays and come off the field for a 5th defensive back in obvious passing situations.
The third reason Smith will play outside is that the Buccaneers already have Kwon Alexander locked into the starting every down job at middle linebacker, going into his 2nd year in the league. The 2015 4th round pick has more upside than Smith, but was even worse than Smith was in 2015, finishing his rookie season 96th out of 97 eligible linebackers in 12 games, before being suspended for the final 4 games of the season for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. The Buccaneers still like him long-term, but he could easily struggle again in 2016. Regardless of whether or not David has a bounce back year, this should still be a below average group, though a big year from David would obviously be huge for this defense overall.
As bad as the Buccaneers’ defense was overall in 2015, cornerback was easily their worst position, with Johnthan Banks, Alterraun Verner, Mike Jenkins, and Jude Adjei-Barimah all finished in the bottom-30 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. The Buccaneers added both veteran Brent Grimes and rookie Vernon Hargreaves this off-season and they’ll both start in 2016. Hargreaves was the 11th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, while Grimes comes over on a 2-year, 13.5 million dollar deal.
Like Daryl Smith, Grimes is an aging player, going into his age 33 season, but he’s coming off of a much better season, finishing 41st among cornerbacks. Gone are the days of him grading out 2nd like he did in 2013 or 3rd like he did in 2011, but he’s graded out above average in 5 of the last 6 seasons and could easily have another solid season in 2016. That’s certainly not a guarantee at this stage of his career, but, at the very least, both he and Hargreaves should be massive upgrades at the starting spots for Tampa Bay.
Despite the fact that only 2 million of his 6.75 million dollar salary is guaranteed in 2016, the Buccaneers did not release Alterraun Verner after adding Grimes and Hargreaves, suggesting they still have a role for the veteran, probably as the 3rd cornerback, though he could conceivably begin the season as the starter instead of the rookie Hargreaves. Verner struggled mightily last season like all of Tampa Bay’s corners, grading out 91st out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but he’s the only one of them with any bounce back potential.
A 2009 4th round pick, Verner was the only cornerback to grade out in the top-25 among cornerbacks in every season from 2009-2014, prior to last season’s disappointing year. A lot of that is because of how good he is against the run, but he still graded out above average in coverage in all 6 of those seasons. Last season, he didn’t do well in coverage or against the run, but, only going into his age 28 season, he definitely has some bounce back potential. Given that and the additions of Grimes and Hargreaves, this looks like a much improved group of cornerbacks in 2016.
At safety, incumbent starters Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald return. Conte was the better of the two in 2015 by a significant margin, finishing 32nd among safeties on Pro Football Focus. He’s a one-year wonder though, grading out below average in each of the first 4 seasons of his career from 2011-2014, after getting drafted in the 3rd round in 2011 by the Bears. He could have another solid season and prove to be a late bloomer, but I’d bet against it right now. He’s locked into the starting job either way though.
McDougald, on the other hand, struggled in his first season as a starter in 2015, grading out 65th among 89 eligible safeties on Pro Football Focus in 15 starts. The 2013 undrafted free agent flashed on 455 snaps (5 starts) in 2014 in the first significant action of his career, but was overstretched in a larger role. The Buccaneers don’t have a better option, so he’ll remain the starter in 2016. The Buccaneers’ safeties are not as good as their cornerbacks, but it’s a capable and overall improved secondary.
The Buccaneers’ offense could take a step forward this season with 2nd year quarterback Jameis Winston under center, but where they’re most improved overall is on defense. Robert Ayers, Brent Grimes, and Vernon Hargreaves enter, while Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David are obvious bounce back candidates. Defense was definitely their biggest problem last season, as they finished 8th in rate of moving the chains, but 31st in rate of moving the chains allowed. An improved defense should allow this team to take the next step right into the playoff mix, after improving from 2 wins to 6 wins last season.
Prediction: 7-9 2nd in NFC South