Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Buccaneers bottomed out in 2014, finishing 2-14 with Josh McCown and Mike Glennon at quarterback. That allowed them to get the #1 overall pick, which they used on quarterback Jameis Winston. Winston has made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons since and hasn’t been bad. He finished 19th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2015, 20th in 2016, and has completed 59.6% of his passes for an average of 7.38 YPA, 50 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions, while adding another 378 yards and 7 touchdowns on 107 carries on the ground (3.53 YPC). Only going into his age 23 season, Winston still has an incredible upside and could easily take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2017. A top-15 season would not be surprising for him.

Under the new rookie salary cap, getting a good quarterback on a rookie deal is so valuable to a team. The rookie salary cap has allowed for veterans to start getting paid more and a lot of the money has gone to veteran quarterbacks. There are currently 22 quarterbacks signed to contracts that pay them at least 15 million annually. Having a quarterback like Winston who makes just about 6.3 million annually gives you a lot more flexibility to build your roster around him. As a result, the Buccaneers entered the off-season among the top teams in the league in salary cap space, despite already having a solid roster, coming off of a 9-7 season.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Armed with all of that cap space, the Buccaneers were aggressive in addressing needs in free agency this off-season and still have over 25 million in cap space to roll over to next season. Their biggest splash signing was wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who comes over from the Redskins on a 3-year, 33.5 million dollar deal. He gives them a much needed threat opposite Mike Evans. Evans caught 96 passes for 1321 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, the 6th most catches, the 4th most receiving yards, and the 2nd most receiving touchdowns in the league.

Evans is unlikely to get the 175 targets (most in the NFL) that he had last season again, with Jackson now coming in, but he should be more efficient on a per target basis with Jackson on the other side taking some of the coverage off of him. The 7th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Evans has topped 1000 yards in all 3 seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 24 season. He’s been a top-19 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, with his highest rated season coming in 2016, when he finished 2nd at the position. His best days could easily still be ahead of him and he could have another huge statistical season in 2017.

Jackson, meanwhile, has topped 1000 yards in 3 of the last 4 seasons, with the only exception being 2015, when he was injured for most of the first half of the season. Even in 2015, he produced at a 1000-yard pace in the second half of the season. He also finished above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including last season, when he finished 36th among wide receivers. His age is a bit of a concern, as he enters his age 31 season, but he should have a couple solid seasons left in the tank. He and Evans could easily both top 1000 yards in 2017.

At the very least, Jackson should be an upgrade over Adam Humphries, who was underwhelming as the #2 receiver last season. Humphries will now be the #3 receiver, though he could be pushed for snaps by 3rd round rookie Chris Godwin at some point this season. Humphries had just a 55/622/2 slash line on 82 targets and 478 routes run (1.30 yards per route run) in 2016 and was underwhelming on 437 snaps as a rookie in 2015 too. The former undrafted free agent isn’t bad depth, but this passing offense is definitely better as a result of the addition of Jackson.

Godwin wasn’t the only pass catcher they added in the draft, as they also added Alabama tight end OJ Howard with the 19th overall pick in the first round. Tight end was not a big need for the Buccaneers, but Howard slid on draft day unexpectedly and was too good to pass on. He’s one of the best tight end prospects in years and will immediately compete for a role with incumbent Cameron Brate. Brate had a mini-breakout season in 2016, finishing 2nd on the team in receiving with a 57/660/8 slash line on just 441 routes run (1.50 yards per route run). Also a capable run blocker, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th overall ranked tight end. Brate was solid on 348 snaps in 2015 too, in the first significant action of the 2014 undrafted free agent’s career.

Howard is a better blocker and a better athlete though and he provides insurance in case Brate leaves as a free agent next off-season. Both players will have roles this season. The Buccaneers have the ability to pass effectively out of two-tight end sets and could use two tight ends frequently. With the additions of OJ Howard and DeSean Jackson, as well as Chris Godwin, the Buccaneers are much deeper and more talented in the receiving corps and Mike Evans is still one of the best receivers in the game. That will help Jameis Winston as he tries to have a breakout season.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Despite a slight improvement in the passing game from Winston’s rookie season to his 2nd season in the league, the Buccaneers fell from 10th to 17th in first down rate in 2016, as a result of a steep dropoff in production from the running game. The Buccaneers finished 2nd in the NFL in yards per carry in 2015 with 4.72, but averaged just 3.57 yards per carry in 2016, 29th in the NFL. They had just 2 fewer carries in 2016 than they did in 2015, but they totalled 546 fewer yards. The Buccaneers have improved the receiving corps for sure, but they will need to be better on the ground too. If they continue to struggle to run the ball, it will hold this offense back.

In 2015, Doug Martin and Charles Sims were one of the best running back duos in the NFL, finishing 2nd and 5th respectively among running backs on Pro Football Focus. Martin rushed for 1402 yards and 6 touchdowns on 288 carries (4.87 YPC) and added 33 catches for 271 yards and another touchdown through the air, while Sims rushed for 529 yards on 107 carries (4.94 YPC) and added 51 catches for 561 yards and 4 scores through the air.

In 2016, both dealt with injuries. Martin was limited to 144 carries in 8 games and Sims was limited to 51 carries in 7 games. Both also struggled when on the field, averaging 2.93 yards per carry and 2.92 yards per carry respectively. Both finished well below average on Pro Football Focus. Martin and Sims are both still young, going into their age 28 season and 27 seasons respectively, so they have bounce back potential, but neither has been particularly durable throughout their careers.

Martin, a 2012 1st round pick, was a top-8 running back in both 2012 and 2015, but, in his other 3 seasons, has averaged a combined 3.39 yards per carry and has missed 23 of 48 games. Sims, a 2014 3rd round pick, also missed 8 games with injury as a rookie, before his strong 2015 season, and he averaged 2.80 yards per carry that season when he did play. Martin is reportedly having a strong off-season and Sims is at least a good pass catcher when on the field (3.26 catches per game and 10.01 yards per catch over the last 2 seasons), but Martin is also suspended for the first 3 games of the season and it’s unclear if Sims (3.85 YPC average in his career) can carry the load in his absence.

With Martin and Sims missing time, Jacquizz Rodgers actually led the Buccaneers in carries last season with 129 and wasn’t bad, averaging 4.34 yards per carry. The Buccaneers brought him back on a 2-year, 3.3 million dollar deal and he should be in the mix for carries, especially early in the season with Martin suspended, but he has a career YPC average of just 3.83 on 448 carries in 6 seasons in the NFL. He’ll be pushed for playing time by 5th round rookie Jeremy McNichols, who has some upside. The Buccaneers should be better on the ground, but a lot is still up for grabs at the running back position and I doubt they’ll be nearly as good on the ground as they were in 2015.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

It would help this running game bounce back if the offensive line played well, something they did not do in 2016. Signed to a 5-year, 32.5 million dollar deal last off-season, guard JR Sweezy didn’t play a snap in his first season in Tampa Bay because of back problems, but his return won’t really help, as the 2012 7th round pick has never finished above average in his career. He’s plenty experienced, with 49 career starts, but was massively overpaid in free agency, even before the back injury happened.

Sweezy will play right guard this season, moving right guard Ali Marpet inside to center. Sweezy was originally going to play left guard last season, but he spent the first 4 seasons of his career at right guard with the Seahawks and they like Kevin Pamphile, who played left guard in Sweezy’s absence last season. It’s unclear why they like him though, as he struggled mightily in 14 starts in the first significant action of his career. The 2014 5th round pick finished 68th out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. He’s a weak starting option.

It’s possible Marpet could move back to guard at some point this season, but that would leave the Buccaneers with a weak starting option at center. Joe Hawley has made 29 starts at center for the Buccaneers over the past 2 seasons, in his first 2 full seasons as a starting center, but has struggled, finishing 28th out of 39 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 28th out of 38 eligible in 2016. Regardless of where Marpet plays, the Buccaneers will have at least one hole on the interior of their offensive line and JR Sweezy is a shaky starting option as well.

Fortunately, Marpet should play at a high level wherever he plays, which elevates the level of play of the interior of this offensive line. A 2nd round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Marpet is off to an impressive start to his career. He finished 34th among guards on Pro Football Focus as a 13-game starter in 2015 and then finished 13th at the position as a 16-game starter in 2016. Leaving him at guard for the sake of familiarity seems to make more sense than changing his position, but he could easily develop into one of the best centers in the league. His stay at center could be short lived though, if Sweezy gets injured again or Pamphile struggles again.

Left tackle Donovan Smith was also a 2nd round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, but has not had nearly as good of a career as Marpet. Smith has started all 32 games at left tackle in 2 seasons in the league, but has struggled mightily, finishing 71st among 77 eligible offensive tackles in 2015 and 66th among 78 eligible offensive tackles in 2016. Only going into his age 24 season, Smith still has upside, but is entering a make or break 3rd season in the league and could easily never develop into a capable starter.

Demar Dotson rounds out the offensive line at right tackle. He’s been a solid starting right tackle for a while, finishing above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons. The concern is he’s going into his age 32 season and has had some injuries over the past couple of seasons. He’s missed 13 games over the past 2 seasons combined and hasn’t played in all 16 games since 2014. If he can stay healthy, he could easily be a solid starter for another couple of seasons, but he’s a shaky bet going forward at this point. The addition of JR Sweezy won’t help this offensive line much, so the Buccaneers will need Dotson to hold up for another season and Marpet to be comfortable at his new position. Even if they do so, it could still be a tough season for the Buccaneers upfront.

Grade: C-

Defensive Line

Even though the Buccaneers declined on offense from 2015 to 2016 because of their struggles on the ground, they still improved by 3 wins, going from 6-10 to 9-7. That’s because their defense was much improved, going from 31st in first down rate allowed in 2015 to 20th in 2016. There are a lot of reasons why they improved, but one of the biggest reasons is they got a bounce back season from defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who finished 7th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, after an uncharacteristically average season in 2015. The bounce back season wasn’t a surprise though, because he was a top-2 defensive tackle for 3 seasons from 2012-2014. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, McCoy should have another strong season in 2017.

Another reason why they improved was the addition of defensive end Robert Ayers, who came to Tampa Bay from the Giants in free agency on a 3-year, 19.5 million dollar deal last off-season. Ayers missed 4 games with injury, but played pretty well when healthy, finishing 13th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. He’s been a top-14 player at the position in 4 straight seasons, but is going into his age 32 season and hasn’t played more than 12 games in a season since 2013. He could have another couple strong seasons left in the tank, but that’s far from a guarantee.

With plenty of available cap space remaining, the Buccaneers also added to their defense in free agency this off-season, so they could be even better defensively in 2017. Defensive tackle Chris Baker was their biggest defensive addition, signing for 15.75 million over 3 years. Like DeSean Jackson, he comes over from the Redskins. Like DeSean Jackson, he’s getting up there in age, going into his age 30 season, but is still playing at a high level. A late bloomer, Baker has finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons.

In Tampa Bay’s 4-3, he’ll be a defensive tackle and he has true three down ability. He has good size at 6-2 320 and stops the run well, but also has 9.5 sacks over the past 2 seasons and has rare movement ability for his size. His age is a bit of a concern, but he and McCoy both should play every down at defensive tackle, with veteran Clinton McDonald sprinkled in as a reserve. Once a solid rotational player, McDonald is now going into his age 30 season and finished last season 119th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus on 485 snaps.

The Buccaneers also used their cap space to bring back William Gholston on a 5-year, 27.5 million dollar deal this off-season, following the expiration of his rookie deal. A 4th round pick in 2013, Gholston plays the run well at 6-6 281, but has just 10 sacks in 4 seasons in the league and has finished below average in 3 of 4 seasons on Pro Football Focus, so the deal he received looks like an overpay. Primarily a base package player, Gholston only played 586 snaps last season and probably won’t have a bigger role in 2017.

Gholston will split snaps with second year defensive end Noah Spence, a 2nd round pick in 2016. Spence finished below average on 566 snaps as a rookie, but flashed as a pass rusher and could be better in his second season in the league in 2017. The Buccaneers also get Jacquies Smith back, after he missed all but 2 snaps in 2016 with a torn ACL. Smith has never finished above average in a season in 5 seasons in the league, but he won’t have a big role and he should be an upgrade over DaVonte Lambert, a 2016 undrafted free agent who was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 defensive end on 374 snaps as a rookie and now could be on the outside looking in for a roster spot. The Buccaneers are deeper and more talented on the defensive line in 2017.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Another reason why this defense was improved from 2015 to 2016 is because Lavonte David had a bounce back season as well. A top-7 4-3 outside linebacker in each of his first 3 seasons in the league from 2012-2014, David fell to the middle of the pack in 2015, particularly concerning considering the Buccaneers had just locked him up with a 5-year, 50.25 million dollar extension before the season. David didn’t have his best season in 2016, but finished 10th among 4-3 outside linebackers and is still in his prime in his age 27 season. He’s had issues against the run over the past 2 seasons, but is still as good as any linebacker in the league in coverage and is incredibly athletic at 6-1 233.

Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander having a breakout 2nd season in the league also helped this defense. Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked middle linebacker as a rookie, Alexander shot up to 27th in 2016 and made all 16 starts. He was only a 4th round pick and he’s still a one-year wonder, so he could regress in 2017, but he could also continue developing into an above average starting middle linebacker. Like David, he has issues against the run, but is great in coverage at 6-1 227.

Daryl Smith, the 3rd linebacker last season, is no longer with the team, but he only played about half the snaps (475) and didn’t play all that well, but so he won’t really be missed. Third round rookie Kendell Beckwith is a candidate to replace him, but he’ll face competition from 2016 6th round pick Devante Bond. Bond missed his entire rookie season with a hamstring injury, but the coaching staff reportedly likes him and he has a legitimate chance to earn a role.

Whether or not Beckwith beats Bond out could depend on his own health, as he returns from a torn ACL suffered in November when he was at LSU. That injury probably dropped him a round in the draft and he could develop into a capable run stopping linebacker long-term if he can stay healthy, but he’s questionable for the start of his rookie season and is missing a lot of valuable off-season work. Regardless of who wins the 3rd linebacker job, it’s just a part-time base package role, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, so it’s not a huge deal. The Buccaneers will need David and Alexander to play at a high level as the every down linebackers.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The single biggest reason for the Buccaneers’ defensive improvement was probably the addition of cornerback Brent Grimes. The Buccaneers’ cornerbacks were terrible in 2015 and Grimes, signed to a 2-year, 13 million dollar deal, finished as Pro Football Focus’ #4 ranked cornerback in his first season in Tampa Bay. Grimes is going into his age 34 season, so he’s unlikely to play as well as he did in 2016 again, but he’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 6 of the last 7 seasons, with 3 seasons in the top-4 among cornerbacks. He could easily have another good season in 2017, though any decline from him hurts this secondary.

Grimes wasn’t the only cornerback the Buccaneers added last off-season, as they used the 11th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft on Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. Hargreaves did not nearly have as good of a first season in Tampa Bay as Grimes did. He made all 16 starts, but finished 89th among 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He still has a bright future though and could be much improved in his 2nd season in the league in 2017. They’ll need him to develop with Grimes aging.

Safety was a position of need this off-season, with Bradley McDougald (16 starts) and Chris Conte (11 starts) set to hit free agency. Conte was re-signed, but he was Pro Football Focus 89th ranked safety out of 90 eligible in 2016, so they still needed safety help even after bringing him back. They took the same approach at safety this off-season as they took at cornerback last season, signing veteran JJ Wilcox to a 2-year, 6.25 million dollar deal and using a high draft pick on Texas A&M’s Justin Evans, taking him 50th overall in the 2nd round.

Conte has finished above average just once in 6 seasons in the league and was brought back inexpensively on a 2-year, 5 million dollar deal, so he’s unlikely to have a starting job. Wilcox and Evans are the favorites for the starting jobs. Wilcox was Pro Football Focus 27th ranked safety last season, but only played 553 snaps in 13 games as a part-time safety with the Cowboys and struggled mightily as a starter in 2014 and 2015 (29 starts combined). The 2013 3rd round pick is now going into his 5th season in the league and may have turned a corner, but he could easily struggle as a starter again. Evans has long-term upside, but the rookie could also struggle in 2017. Keith Tandy could also be in the mix. He flashed in 5 starts down the stretch last season after Conte got benched, but has made just 12 starts in 5 seasons in the league, so he’s very unproven.

Tandy could also be an option on the slot too. The Buccaneers completely lack depth at the cornerback position and don’t have a clear #3 cornerback. Behind Grimes and Hargreaves, their leading returning cornerbacks in terms of snaps played in 2016 are Jude Adjei-Barimah (289 snaps) and Javien Elliott (185 snaps). Adjei-Barimah is a 2015 undrafted free agent and Elliott is a 2016 undrafted free agent. Neither player has impressed in limited action in their career and both would be weak options as the #3 cornerback. The Buccaneers still have a shaky secondary.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Buccaneers should be improved both on the ground and in the air on offense this season and have a good chance to be improved on defense as well. The Buccaneers added several useful veterans in free agency and should hopefully be healthier at the running back position in 2017. That could easily get them into the post-season in 2017. However, they still have glaring flaws on the offensive line and in the secondary and the NFC has a bunch of teams competing for wild card spots, so the Buccaneers will have competition to make the post-season. 

Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in NFC South

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