Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Going into 2017, many expected the Buccaneers would have a breakout season and make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2007. The Buccaneers went 9-7 the year prior and added much needed weapons for young quarterback Jameis Winston, who was a popular breakout candidate going into his 3rd year in the league. Instead, the Buccaneers finished 5-11 and in dead last in the NFC South.

A lot of factors went into their disappointing record, but a big reason is simply that Jameis Winston was not healthy for a big chunk of the season. Winston got off to a strong start, completing 61.0% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in the first 4 games of the season. After 4 games, the Buccaneers sat at 2-2 and could have easily been 3-1 if they didn’t miss 3 field goals in their week 4 loss to the Patriots.

Winston then went down with a shoulder injury in their week 5 loss in Arizona and, though he returned the following week in Buffalo, he did not look like the same quarterback. Winston played through the injury for 3 starts, all losses, and completed 63.2% of his passes for just 6.96 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, before being shut down and missing the next 3 games.

After nearly a month off, Winston seemed back to his early season form in the final 5 games of the season, completing 67.2% of his passes for an average of 8.66 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. The Buccaneers went just 1-4 in those 5 games, but four of those games, including their win, came against teams that finished .500 or better and their 4 losses came by a combined 12 points. In Winston’s 9 healthy starts, the Buccaneers picked up first downs at a 39.73% rate, which would have been the second best rate in the league over the course of the season, only behind New England. Given how he played at the beginning and the end of last season, Winston could have easily had a breakout year in 2017 had he stayed healthy.

Going into 2018, Winston is still only going into his age 24 season and the former #1 overall pick still has a huge upside. In addition to staying healthy, he’ll also need to a better job of taking care of the ball and avoiding penalties. His 8 pre-snap penalties were 2nd most in the league in 2017 and his 59 turnovers are the most in the league since he entered in 2015. Fumbles in particular have been a concern, as he has 15 lost fumbles in his career, including 13 over the past 2 seasons.  If he can stay healthy and clean up his game a little bit, Winston could have a Pro-Bowl caliber season this season.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

How Winston played down the stretch last season after returning from injury is even more impressive when you consider that his return coincided with the Buccaneers losing their top-two offensive linemen for the season. Center Ali Marpet and right tackle Demar Dotson were both placed on injured reserve the same week Winston returned. They finished the season ranked 6th among centers and 8th among offensive tackles respectively on Pro Football Focus, so both were big losses, especially since they were the Buccaneers’ only offensive linemen to earn positive grades from PFF.

In an effort to improve their blocking upfront, the Buccaneers signed center Ryan Jensen from the Ravens in free agency and also drafted Humboldt State offensive tackle Alex Cappa with the 94th pick in the draft (3rd round). Jensen’s 4-year, 42 million dollar deal makes him the highest paid center in the NFL in terms of average annual salary, so he’s obviously locked in as the starter at center, which will move Marpet back to guard, where the 2015 2nd round pick made 29 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league. Marpet was PFF’s 10th ranked guard in 16 starts in 2016, so it shouldn’t be a hard switch for him. With Marpet going into the final year of his rookie deal, the Buccaneers will probably look to extend him before the start of the season.

The problem is Marpet will likely look to top Jensen’s deal and could have his eyes on being the highest paid guard in the NFL, after Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Norwell have cashed-in in the past two off-seasons with deals worth 60 million and 66.5 million respectively over 5 years. Jensen was solid in 2017, finishing as PFF’s 13th ranked center, but it was a shock that he got as big of a deal as he did, given that the converted guard only had 9 career starts in his first 4 seasons in the league prior to last season. He’ll likely struggle to live up to his salary, but should still be a nice addition to this line.

With Marpet moving back to guard, veterans JR Sweezy and Evan Smith will compete for the other starting guard spot. Sweezy is probably the favorite, but he struggled in 2017, finishing 64th out of 80 eligible guards on PFF. He hasn’t been much better in the past either, earning negative guards in all 5 seasons he’s played in his career and missing all of 2016 with a back injury. The 4-year, 21.75 million dollar deal he signed two off-seasons ago looked like a mistake when it was agreed to and hasn’t looked better with time. Sweezy has 60 starts in his past 4 healthy seasons, but should not be considered a lock to start in 2018. If he’s unable to lock down a starting job, he’ll likely be cut before the season starts, as his non-guaranteed 4.5 million dollar salary is hard to justify for a backup.

Smith is their other option and he’s probably the better choice. He has just 13 starts in the past 3 seasons, but he was a full-time starting center in both 2013 and 2014 and has the versatility to play all 3 interior offensive line spots. He’s going into his age 33 season, so his best years are probably behind him, but he was about average on 678 snaps last season, spending time both at center after Marpet got hurt and also at left guard, where struggling Kevin Pamphile finished last season 67th out of 80 eligible guards on 740 snaps. Even if Smith he doesn’t win the starting job outright, he’ll probably at least make a few spot starts somewhere in 2018.

Alex Cappa could also be an option at the other guard spot, but it’s more likely that he doesn’t make an impact until 2019, coming over from Division-II Humboldt State. It’s unclear where he ends up long-term, but he has the size to stay outside at tackle and the Buccaneers could have a big need at the position soon. Left tackle Donovan Smith has made all 48 starts over the past 3 seasons, since going in the 2nd round in 2015, but he’s struggled in all 3 seasons and finished last season 73rd out of 83 eligible offensive tackles on PFF, so the Buccaneers might be hesitant to bring him back long-term as a free agent next off-season. He’s allowed the most quarterback hits of any offensive tackle in the league in the past 3 seasons (34) and ranks 2nd in penalties (34).

On the other side, right tackle Demar Dotson was still playing at a high level before getting injured last season and has earned positive marks from PFF in 6 straight seasons (74 starts), but he hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2014 and is going into his age 33 season. With Dotson having just two years left on his deal, the Buccaneers may see Cappa as the right tackle of the future. With Jensen coming in and Dotson and Marpet likely returning healthy, this looks like an improved offensive line, but they still have obvious weaknesses.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

In addition to their struggles upfront, the Buccaneers also had issues on the ground, averaging just 3.73 yards per carry, 27th in the NFL. Part of that was because of their offensive line, but their backs also deserve a lot of the blame. Jacquizz Rodgers started early on in the season, but finished with just 244 yards on 64 carries (3.82 YPC). Doug Martin then took over as the starter after missing the first 3 games of the season with suspension, but was even worse, managing just 406 yards on 138 carries (2.94 YPC).

Down the stretch, 2016 undrafted free agent Peyton Barber was their lead back and he was definitely their best back. He rushed for 423 yards on 108 carries, an average of 3.92 YPC. That’s not that impressive, but, considering the state of the Buccaneers’ offensive line down the stretch, it’s pretty solid. He was Tampa Bay’s only running back that finished with a positive grade from Pro Football Focus, though he did struggle mightily in pass protection, allowing 2 sacks and 2 hurries on just 32 pass block snaps.

Barber should have a role into 2018, but the Buccaneers used a 2nd round pick on a running back, taking USC’s Ronald Jones with the 38th pick. With Barber as his only real competition, Jones should have a big role as a rookie and he has the passing down skills to complement Barber well. We’ve seen rookie running backs have a big immediate impact in recent years and Jones has the talent to continue in those footsteps. The Buccaneers also brought back Charles Sims as a passing down option, but he’s an underwhelming option who only received the ball on 56 of his team leading 380 running back snaps. The Buccaneers should be better at running back this season, but things are definitely still unsettled at the position.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

While Winston didn’t get much help from his offensive line or the running game, he did have a deep and talented receiving corps to throw to. Mike Evans remained his #1 option, putting up his 4th straight 1000+ yard season to start his career, though he did have the least productive season of his career, with “only” a 71/1001/5 slash line. Part of that was because of other options around him taking targets, part of that was because of his inconsistent quarterback play, but Evans himself also did take a step back performance wise, after finishing the 2016 season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver. He still finished 14th at his position though, his 3rd season in the top-14 at his position in 4 years in the league, so he’s still an elite receiver.

Only going into his age 25 season, Evans’ best play might still be ahead of him. The Buccaneers gave him a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar extension this off-season ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, which makes him the 2nd highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary, only behind Antonio Brown. It’s a lot of money, but if Evans continues to develop and contracts continue to get bigger year-by-year, this contract will look like a solid value in 2-3 years time.

The Buccaneers signed DeSean Jackson to a 3-year, 33.5 million dollar deal last off-season as a complement to Evans, but he had a disappointing first season with the Buccaneers, posting a 50/668/3 slash line on 610 snaps in 14 games. Jackson still earned positive grades from PFF, the 6th season in a row that he’s done so, and he could have a better year in 2018, with better health, more consistent quarterback play, and another year in the system, but he’s also going into his age 32 season and is very reliant on speed, so his best days could easily be behind him.

Even with Jackson not living up to expectations, the Buccaneers were still good in the receiving corps because of their depth. In fact, when Jackson was dealing with injuries late in the season, 3rd round rookie Chris Godwin arguably played better than Jackson had all season, totalling 16 catches for 295 yards and a touchdown in the Buccaneers’ final 4 games. On the year, Godwin had a 34/525/1 slash line on just 56 targets (9.38 yards per target) and 258 routes run (2.03 yards per route run, 13th in the NFL) and finished as PFF’s 16th ranked wide receiver on just 446 snaps.

Godwin was considered to be a good value in the 3rd round and proved it as a rookie. He’s a great athlete for his size at 6-1 209 and does a good job making contested catches and breaking tackles in the open field (8 broken tackles on 34 catches). He enters the season as the favorite to be the #3 receiver and could have a big breakout year if either Evans or Jackson suffers a major injury.

Godwin’s competition for the #3 receiver job is veteran slot specialist Adam Humphries. Humphries played 681 snaps last season and had a decent 61/631/1 slash line, but earned negative grades from PFF, his 3rd straight season with negative grades to start his career. The 2015 undrafted free agent is a capable slot option, which should earn him some playing time, but Godwin figures to see more snaps in the slot this season too, in addition to rotating with Jackson and Evans outside.

The Buccaneers are deep at tight end too. OJ Howard was the 19th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and made 14 starts as a rookie, but “backup” tight end Cameron Brate was just given a 6-year, 41 million dollar contract this off-season as a restricted free agent. Brate played nearly as many snaps as Howard did (608 vs. 582) and outproduced him, catching 48 passes for 591 yards and 6 touchdowns. Brate was originally undrafted out of Harvard back in 2014, but he put up a 57/660/8 slash line in a mini-breakout year in 2016 and then proved himself again in 2017, even with the Bucs adding Howard in the first round.

Howard had a solid receiving year too. His slash line of 26/432/6 looks underwhelming, but he also saw significantly fewer targets than Brate (77 vs. 39) and was significantly more efficient on a per target basis. Howard was primarily used as a blocker (243 routes run and 365 blocking snaps), while Brate was used close to exclusively as a receiver (421 routes run and 161 blocking snaps). Brate actually held up alright in limited action as a blocker, while Howard was the one who had major struggles, finishing 68th out of 72 eligible tight ends in run block grade. Howard has the frame to be a good blocker at 6-6 250 and could easily get better as he goes into his 2nd year in the league. It’s hardly rare to see a tight end get significantly better as a run blocker once he has a year or two under his belt.

Conventional wisdom suggested the Buccaneers were going to let Brate walk as a free agent next off-season or even trade him as a restricted free agent this off-season, rather than re-signing him long-term, but instead they gave him a market value contract and now have both Brate and Howard under team control long-term. They both likely cap each other’s upside in terms of passing production, especially Howard, who is not the primary pass catching tight end, but they are both useful weapons to have around. This is one of the deepest receiving corps in the league.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

Even with Jameis Winston hurt for half of the season, the Buccaneers still finished 2nd in first downs with 352 and 3rd in first down rate at 37.33%. Why then did they go 5-11? Well they lost at least one easily winnable game because of their kicking game. In all, they lost just 4 games by more than a touchdown last season, with just 1 of those games (week 3 in Minnesota) coming when Winston was healthy.

They also struggled to make big plays on offense, with just 6 plays of 40+ yards all season. Fortunately, both record in close games and big plays tend to be inconsistent from year-to-year and it’s not hard to see how the Buccaneers could get more big plays in 2018, given all of the weapons they have on offense. A few more big plays could turn some of those close losses into wins.

Better play from this defense would also turn some of those close losses into wins and it wouldn’t be hard for them to be improved on that side of the ball. They finished last season 28th in first down rate allowed at 36.20% and their defensive struggles were by far the biggest thing keeping this team from winning games. With few offensive needs and a lot of cap space to work with, the Buccaneers made improving their defense a priority this off-season.

The biggest contract they added this off-season wasn’t added through free agency, but rather trade, as the Buccaneers sent a 3rd round pick to the Giants for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. The Giants re-signed Pierre-Paul to a 4-year, 62 million dollar deal last off-season that made him the 10th highest paid defensive lineman in the league, but the Giants already paid him 22.5 million in the first year, so it’s a bit strange that they’d be willing to part with him for a mere 3rd round pick.

Clearly they didn’t think he’d be a good fit for their new 3-4 defense, after he spent his first 8 seasons in a 4-3, but they made that assessment without ever seeing him play in the new system. With the Giants eschewing a quarterback of the future atop the draft and instead taking Saquon Barkley to compete right away, giving up on JPP so quickly could prove to be a big mistake.

The Bucs now have JPP under contract for 39.5 million over the next 3 seasons, a very reasonable rate for his skill set, and have the ability to cut him at any point if he declines. He also gets to stay in his natural 4-3 scheme with the Buccaneers. The 15th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, JPP has made two Pro-Bowls and has 58 career sacks, while holding up well against the run.

He’s earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 8 seasons, including a 2016 season in which he finished 5th among 4-3 defensive ends. He’s had some injury problems, but he’s also played in all 16 games in 5 of 8 seasons, including last season. Still only going into his age 29 season, JPP should play at a high level for another couple seasons at least and was a big addition for a team with a league low 22 sacks in 2017.

The Buccaneers also added defensive end Vinny Curry this off-season, signing him to a 3-year, 23 million dollar deal after the Eagles cut him for salary cap purposes. Curry played well for the Eagles, but they had to cut someone to get under the cap and Curry’s 9 million dollar non-guaranteed salary became excessive after the Eagles acquired Michael Bennett from the Seahawks.

Curry only managed 22 sacks in the last 5 seasons with the Eagles, but that was largely because he was buried on the depth chart for much of his tenure. The 575 snaps he played in 2017 were a career high and prior to last season he had never played more than 436 snaps in a season. He only had 3 sacks last season, but his 17 quarterback hits were 2nd most at his position and he was PFF’s 10th ranked 4-3 defensive end overall. He earned positive grades in 4 of his last 5 seasons with the Eagles and, still only going into his age 30 season, he should give the Buccaneers another much needed pass rusher.

Curry and JPP are also bigger defensive ends at 6-3 279 and 6-5 275 respectively and have the size to line up as an interior pass rusher in sub packages. Robert Ayers and Ryan Russell, their top-2 defensive ends in terms of snaps played last season, are no longer with the team, but they still have William Gholston and Noah Spence in the mix. Gholston is a pure base package run stuffer at 6-6 281 that has never graded out above average as a pass rusher in 5 seasons in the league.

Gholston has just 10 sacks in those 5 seasons, so it’s a bit strange that the Buccaneers re-signed him to a 5-year, 27.5 million deal last off-season, but at least they did not guarantee any money beyond the first year. With Curry and JPP coming in, Gholston will likely have an even smaller role than last season when he played just 447 snaps in 14 games. It’s possible they are unable to justify keeping him on the roster with a 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and cut ties with him before the season starts.

Spence, on the other hand, should have a role, especially as a sub package edge rusher. A 2016 2nd round pick, Spence was considered arguably the best pass rusher in his class, but fell to the 2nd round because of concerns about his size (6-2 251) and off-the-field issues. He was solid as a pass rusher on 569 snaps as a rookie, totalling 6 sacks and 6 quarterback hits, and was seen as a popular breakout candidate going into the season, but managed just 1 sack on 246 snaps in 6 games before going down for the season with injury. Spence is expected to be healthy for his 3rd season in the league in 2018 and could have an impact in sub packages, though he’s squarely behind both JPP and Curry for snaps and should remain a liability on run snaps. If Spence proves himself early on, the Buccaneers may try to get all three defensive ends on the field often in pass rush situations.

The Buccaneers really only have one good interior pass rushing defensive tackle, Pro-Bowl caliber Gerald McCoy, so their depth at defensive end helps. The Buccaneers did add Vita Vea in the first round of the draft and veteran Beau Allen in free agency, but neither of those two are much of a pass rusher. Allen played a rotational role in Philadelphia, maxing out at 422 snaps in 2017, and will likely remain in that role with the Buccaneers, given his limited skill set. Vea has much more upside as a pass rusher, but was drafted primarily for his run stuffing ability at 6-4 344.

Vea is athletic enough to develop as a pass rusher, but he’s unrefined at this stage of his career. He had some success rushing the passer in college, but most of that success came from his bull rush. He’ll find it harder to win on pure strength as a pass rusher in the NFL and will have to develop some finesse moves to stay on the field for all 3 downs. The Buccaneers clearly believe he can develop into that every down player, otherwise they would not have used the 12th overall pick on him, especially with top safety prospect Derwin James still on the board.

Gerald McCoy is also a former first round pick, going 3rd overall in 2010, and he’s more than lived up to it. He’s been a top-7 defensive tackle in 5 of the past 6 seasons, with his only down season coming when he played through injury in 2015. Injuries have been a concern for him throughout his career, as he’s only twice played all 16 games, but, when healthy, he’s one of the best defensive tackles in the league. He’s going into his age 30 season, so he may start declining soon, but, with more talent around him on this defensive line, he could still have a big statistical season.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

While the Buccaneers spent major resources revamping their defensive line and secondary this off-season, they didn’t need to do anything significant at linebacker. Injuries limited every down linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander to 13 and 12 games respectively last season, but, when they are healthy, those two are more than capable in every down roles and neither has a significant injury history.

David is the better of the two, finishing last season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. That’s nothing new for him, as he’s finished in the top-5 at his position in 4 of 6 seasons in the league, though his performance in both 2015 and 2016 left something to be desired. Still, he’s only going into his age 28 season and should have another strong season in 2018. The Buccaneers are a different defense when he’s out there, so simply having him healthy for 16 games could give easily this defense a boost.

Alexander, on the other hand, has never played as well as David has, but he’s still earned a positive grade for his coverage ability in each of the past 2 seasons. Undersized at 6-1 227, Alexander has some issues against the run, but he fits what the modern NFL is looking for out of a linebacker because of his ability to cover one-on-one and play all 3 downs. A 2015 4th round pick, Alexander took his rookie lumps in 12 starts in 2015, but has been better over the past 2 seasons. Still only going into his age 24 season, it’s possible his best play is still ahead of him. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’s a candidate to get an extension before the start of the season.

Kendell Beckwith is the Buccaneers’ 3rd linebacker, but he actually played more snaps than both David and Alexander in 2017, totalling 846 in 16 games. When both David and Alexander are healthy, he’s only a base package run stuffer who comes off the field in sub packages for a 5th defensive back, but with David and Alexander both missing starts, Beckwith had to play some every down linebacker early in the season and they also lined him up as an edge rusher in sub packages down the stretch when they were dealing with injuries at defensive end.

A 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Beckwith seemed overwhelmed with his rookie year role, finishing dead last out of 39 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on PFF, but that was primarily because of his awful pass rush grade, as he managed just 1 sack and 7 hurries on 177 pass rush snaps. He was decent as a run stuffer and could easily be better in his 2nd season in the league, especially if he’s allowed to just focus on that role. Barring injuries, this is a solid linebacking corps.

Grade: B

Secondary

Much like on the defensive line, the Buccaneers had major issues in the secondary last year. Given that, it’s not a surprise that the Buccaneers used a pair of 2nd round picks on the position, after picking up an extra pair of 2nd rounders in their trade down with the Bills from 7 to 12. North Carolina’s MJ Stewart and Auburn’s Carlton Davis were drafted 53rd and 63th overall respectively and will compete for rookie year roles.

The Buccaneers also re-signed top cornerback Brent Grimes to a one-year, 7 million dollar deal. Grimes is going into his age 35 season in 2018, but still played pretty well last season, earning a positive grade from Pro Football Focus. Grimes has been a productive starter for a long-time, with his best seasons coming in 2010 (10th among cornerbacks on PFF), 2011 (3rd), 2013 (4th), and 2016 (1st), but he’s year-to-year at this point in his career. He could easily have a major drop-off in his play in 2018 and, even if he doesn’t, he could easily retire next off-season.

Given Grimes’ age, the Buccaneers also obviously hoping that fellow starter Vernon Hargreaves can develop into the #1 cornerback they expected he’d become when they drafted him 11th overall in 2016. So far, he’s been a major disappointment. As a rookie, he was thrown on more than any cornerback in the league (113 times) and allowed 70% completion and a league high 80 completions. He finished the season 111th out of 120 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in terms of coverage grade.

His 2nd year in the league was not better, as he struggled in 7 starts to begin the season and then got demoted to the 3rd cornerback role, before missing the final 7 games of the season with a hamstring injury. With two rookies coming in and replacement starter Ryan Smith still in the mix, Hargreaves will likely have to compete to earn his starting job back this off-season. The Buccaneers have openly discussed playing him on the slot more this season, in hopes of finding a more natural home for him at the NFL level.

Smith wasn’t great in Hargreaves absence either, as the 2016 4th round pick finished 108th out of 121 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in terms of coverage grade. Because of that, either Davis or Stewart could have an immediate role. Davis is a natural outside cornerback who could play opposite Grimes in 3 cornerback sets with Hargreaves lined up on the slot. Stewart, on the other hand, is a better fit on the slot.

Stewart could also see time at safety, which was another problem position for the Buccaneers last season. Veteran Chris Conte and 2nd round rookie Justin Evans led the position in snaps played with 773 and 715 respectively and both were underwhelming at best. Conte has made 90 starts in 7 seasons in the league, but has never gotten a positive grade for a season from PFF. Evans, on the other hand, has some upside and could still develop into a capable starter. The Buccaneers also had run stuffer TJ Ward in the mix as a rotational safety last season, but he’s no longer with the team. It’s an improved secondary, but one that still has major problems.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Buccaneers went 5-11 last season, but were a lot better than their record suggested and could have a big leap in win total this season. They should have better luck in close games, more explosive plays on offense, an improved defense, and hopefully a healthy Jameis Winston for the full season. Considering they finished last season 12th in first down rate differential despite Winston being banged up for half of the season, they could easily be a top-10 team in 2018 and, on paper at least, they have the talent to back that up. The biggest barrier to them making the playoffs might be simply that the NFC is too good and not every deserving team is going to make the playoffs. Last year, the Buccaneers had one of the toughest schedules in the league and, in the loaded NFC South, they will likely have one of the toughest schedules in the league again this season. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Buccaneers’ sleeper chances took a big hit when Jameis Winston was suspended for the first 3 games of the season. This team still has upside if Winston returns and plays like he did when healthy in 2018, but off-season reports have not been good, so I am not that confident in that happening.

Prediction: 5-11 4th in NFC South

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