Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

When the Buccaneers used the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on Jameis Winston, they were expecting him to develop into a franchise quarterback that could get them back to the post-season. Winston has had stretches of that level of play, but he’s also missed time with injury and suspension and has been very inconsistent, even getting benched for veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick on a couple occasions last season. Overall, Winston has completed 61.6% of his passes for an average of 7.61 YPA, 88 touchdowns, and 58 interceptions in 54 career starts, while fumbling 15 times, most in the NFL by a quarterback over the past 4 seasons combined.

Winston played well in his second stint as the starter last season, completing 64.3% of his passes for an average of 7.88 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in 7 games, but he entered this off-season with a lot of uncertainty. Not only was Winston owed a non-guaranteed 20.922 million in 2019, a steep increase from the first 4 seasons of his career, but the Buccaneers also fired head coach Dirk Koetter at the end of the season, creating additional uncertainty.

The Buccaneers’ head coach hire ended up being about the best that Winston could have hoped for though, with the Buccaneers hiring ex-Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians out of retirement. Not only is Arians a proven NFL head coach, but he’s a big fan of Winston’s talent and runs an offense that can take advantage of his deep passing ability. The Buccaneers let Ryan Fitzpatrick go this off-season and didn’t make a significant addition at quarterback, only signing Blaine Gabbert, who was a backup quarterback with Bruce Arians the Cardinals in 2017. Winston’s contract status is still uncertain in 2020 and beyond, but for 2019 this is his starting job completely.

Still only going into his age 25 season, Winston breakout potential is obvious, but it’s far from certain and, unlike last season, they don’t have a good alternative if Winston struggles, like they did last season with Ryan Fitzpatrick. In fact, the Buccaneers’ offense moved more effectively last season with Fitzpatrick as the starter than with Winston, with a 43.61% first down rate in the 5 games Fitzpatrick started and finished and a 40.15% first down rate in the 8 games Winston started and finished (in the other 3 games one was benched for the other).

Fitzpatrick had a higher interception rate at 4.8% compared to 3.7%, but Winston has been one of the most interception prone quarterbacks in the league over his 4-year career, as his 3.0% interception rate is 2nd worst in the NFL over that stretch. If Winston doesn’t improve on that this season, the Cardinals will only have Blaine Gabbert (71.7 QB rating in 48 career starts) to turn to. This is as close to a boom or bust situation as any team has at quarterback.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The biggest reason why the Buccaneers’ offense was effective last season (41.23% first down rate on the season, 4th in the NFL) was the play of the receiving corps more than the play of the quarterbacks. The Buccaneers legitimately went 4 deep at wide receiver and 2 deep at tight end and had 5 pass catchers top 550 receiving yards. They couldn’t keep everyone together this off-season though, trading wide receiver DeSean Jackson (41/774/4 in 12 games) to the Eagles in what amounted to a salary dump and losing slot receiver Adam Humphries (76/816/5 in 16 games) to the Tennessee Titans on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal.

With Jackson and Humphries gone, it’s a prime opportunity for Chris Godwin to breakout in his 3rd season in the league. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Godwin has 93 catches for 1367 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2 seasons in the league, despite not being an every snap player. He’s averaged 1.93 yards per route run and in his 7 career starts he has a total of 23 catches for 433 yards and 3 touchdowns (53/990/7 extrapolated over 16 games). A freak athlete with a massive upside, Godwin is still only going into his age 23 season and could easily have a breakout 2019 season as an every down player. He’s expected to move to the slot in 3-wide receiver sets, playing the Larry Fitzgerald/Hines Ward role in Arians’ offense.

Mike Evans will likely still remain the team’s leading receiver, after leading the way with a 86/1524/8 slash line in 2018. That’s a new career high in yardage for Evans, but he’s far from a one-year wonder, averaging a 79/1221/8 slash line in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted 7th overall in 2014. Still only in his age 26 season, Evans should continue producing at a high level in 2019. His 17.7 yards per catch average last season was the highest in the NFL among receivers with at least 50 catches, which makes him a great fit for Arians’ downfield offense.

The Buccaneers don’t have much receiver depth behind Evans and Godwin though and lack a clear third receiver. Breshad Perriman is their only veteran option and the most likely candidate to play in 3 wide sets. A former first round pick bust with the Ravens, averaging just 5.70 yards per target with 9 drops on 101 targets in 2 seasons in Baltimore, Perriman flashed down the stretch last season with the Browns, catching 15 passes for 334 yards and 2 touchdowns in the final 8 games of the season. The Buccaneers took a flier on him this off-season in hopes he can continue that. His blazing speed makes him an intriguing fit in this offense and he’s still only in his age 26 season, but he might not be anything more than a situational deep threat. He’ll face competition from 2018 5th round pick Justin Watson, who played just 73 snaps as a rookie, and 6th round rookie Scott Miller, who has earned positive reviews this off-season.

The Buccaneers could run more two tight end sets to mask their lack of depth at wide receiver. Leading the way at the position is OJ Howard, someone Jameis Winston didn’t have the benefit of having down the stretch last season, as Howard missed the final 6 games with injury. He was one of the better receiving tight ends in the league before getting hurt, with a 48/565/5 slash line in 10 games, which extrapolates to 77/904/8 over a full 16 game season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked tight end overall and finished 3rd among tight ends with 2.26 yards per route run. The 19th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Howard also flashed as a receiver as a rookie in limited action, finishing 6th among tight ends with 1.85 yards per route run. As long as he stays healthy, Howard could also have a breakout third season in the league in 2019.

Cameron Brate is the #2 tight end and he was surprisingly kept this off-season, despite a 7 million dollar salary that didn’t guarantee until the middle of march, which suggests they have a role for him. Brate is coming off of a down year, with a 30/289/6 slash line and just 13 catches for 130 yards and 3 touchdowns in 6 games without OJ Howard, but he had slash lines of 57/660/8 and 48/591/6 in 2016 and 2017 respectively and he’s still only going into his age 28 season. He likely won’t match those numbers behind OJ Howard, but he’s a good #2 tight end to have, especially near the end zone (20 touchdowns in 3 seasons). Even without DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries, the Buccaneers still have a talented receiving corps.

Grade: A

Running Backs

It’s impressive that the Buccaneers’ offense was able to be as productive as it was in 2018 without much of a running game. While their passing game ranked 2nd in the NFL with 8.20 yards per pass play, their running game ranked 2nd worst in the NFL with 3.92 yards per run play. The Buccaneers didn’t add more talent at the position this off-season, but lack of talent wasn’t their problem last season. Lead back Peyton Barber averaged just 3.72 yards per carry, but that was primarily the fault of his blocking, as he broke 43 tackles and averaged 2.68 yards per carry after contact on 234 carries, giving him the 25th best elusive rating in the NFL. For his career, he has 62 broken tackles and averages 2.62 yards per carry after contact on 397 carries in 3 seasons in the league, despite an underwhelming 3.82 YPC average overall.

The Buccaneers also have 2018 38th overall pick Ronald Jones, who is plenty talented, but had a terrible rookie year. Originally seen as a potential rookie year starter, Jones didn’t impress during the off-season and ended up rushing for just 44 yards on 23 carries, but he still doesn’t even turn 22 until this August and he has the talent to make a 2nd year leap in a bigger role. At the very least, he’ll be more involved as a receiver, with passing down back Jacquizz Rodgers no longer with the team and Peyton Barber not doing much in passing situations (20 catches for 92 yards in 2018). The Buccaneers could add a veteran to the mix (retaining Rodgers is one option) if Jones continues struggling this off-season, but for now Jones has every opportunity to earn a role, with no other proven backs on the roster.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Despite the Buccaneers’ issues in run blocking in 2018, they didn’t do anything to improve their offensive line. They weren’t a bad group in pass protection and they return all 5 of their week 1 starters from 2018, but there are still some positions of concern upfront. The biggest one is right guard, where Caleb Benonoch made all 16 starts, but finished as Pro Football Focus’ 85th ranked guard out of 88 qualifying. A 5th round pick in 2016, Benonoch struggled in 6 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league as well and is probably best off as a reserve going forward.

Benonoch will face competition from 2018 3rd round pick Alex Cappa, who struggled in 106 rookie year snaps, and Evan Smith, who was a solid starter in his prime, but has made just 13 starts in the past 4 seasons combined and is now in his age 33 season. Cappa has the most upside of the group and is likely the favorite for the job, after the Division 2 product essentially spent his rookie season as a redshirt. Barring a breakout season from Cappa, this will likely remain a position of weakness in 2019.

Center was also a position of weakness for the Buccaneers last off-season. The Buccaneers thought they’d get a high level of play at the position after signing ex-Ravens center Ryan Jensen to a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal in free agency, but he ended up finishing 30th out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF in his first season in Tampa Bay. Jensen finished 11th among centers in 2018, but he’s a complete one-year wonder, making just 9 starts in his first 4 seasons in the league prior to 2017, after going in the 6th round in 2013. He has some bounce back potential, but he was a massive overpay on a deal that makes him the 3rd highest paid center in the league in average annual salary.

Left guard Ali Marpet is the Buccaneers’ best offensive lineman. He has played center in the past, but the Buccaneers seem to prefer him at guard long-term. He’s finished in the top-9 among guards on PFF in his last 2 seasons at guard, with a season in which he finished 5th among centers sandwiched in between. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Marpet is still only in his age 26 season and could easily continue being one of the better interior offensive linemen in the league. The Buccaneers wisely locked him up long-term during the middle of his contract year in 2018, re-signing him for 54.125 million over 5 years.

Left tackle Donovan Smith was also set to hit free agency this off-season, but the Buccaneers locked him up long-term too, re-signing him to a 3-year, 41.25 million dollar deal ahead before the start of the new league year. Smith was also a 2nd round pick in that same 2015 draft, but he hasn’t been nearly as good as his classmate, earning middling grades from PFF in 64 career starts. He’s a solid pass protector, but isn’t much of a run blocker and his 40 penalties in the past 4 seasons are tied for the 2nd most by an offensive lineman over that time period. Left tackles don’t grow on trees and Smith could keep getting better, only going into his age 26 season, but, unless he takes a big step forward, this will likely end up being an overpay.

Right tackle DeMar Dotson bookends this offensive line opposite Smith. He had a solid season in 2018 and has earned average or better grades from PFF in 7 straight seasons (89 starts), maxing out at 18th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2013, but he’s going into his age 34 season, which is a major concern. He only finished 47th at his position in 2018 and could easily keep declining. It’s possible the Buccaneers view Alex Cappa, a collegiate tackle currently playing guard, as his long-term replacement at right tackle. Going into the final year of his contract, this could easily be his final season in Tampa Bay. For now, they need him to continue holding up, as this underwhelming offensive line would be in trouble if he started struggling.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

The Buccaneers got good play from their offense in 2018, but struggled mightily on defense, which was the biggest reason why they had trouble winning games, ranking 30th in first down rate allowed at 40.98%. They were marginally better after canning defensive coordinator Mike Smith and making linebackers coach Mark Duffner their play caller, but they still finished with a 38.59% first down rate allowed in their final 11 games of the season after making the coordinator change.

Up against the cap, there wasn’t much the Buccaneers could do to significantly improve their stop unit this off-season, so they are banking that new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles can get the most out of this unit. Bowles coordinated impressive units as Arians’ defensive coordinator from 2013-2014 with the Cardinals and was most recently head coach of the Jets for the past 4 seasons. He’ll transition this team to a base 3-4 defense.

In part because he wasn’t deemed a good scheme fit and in part because his 13 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2019 was a lot for a team with little cap flexibility, the Buccaneers released their longest tenured defensive player, 2010 3rd overall pick Gerald McCoy. McCoy was expensive and seemed to be on the decline ahead of his age 31 season, but he was still Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked interior defender in 2018, earning an above average grade overall, making him one of the few bright spots on this defense.

The Buccaneers did a good job of replacing him though, immediately signing free agent Ndamukong Suh, who is cheaper (9.25 million on a one-year deal) and possibly a better scheme fit, after playing in a similar scheme with the Rams in 2018. Suh was actually the 2nd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and he too is getting up there in age, going into his age 32 season, but he had a slightly better season than McCoy in 2018, finishing 28th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus, and could easily do so again in 2019. Swapping the two could easily prove to be a smart move.

The player who benefits the most from the scheme change could be Vita Vea, a massive 6-4 347 pounder who will play on the nose in base packages. Vea isn’t just a pure nose tackle either, with 3 sacks, 1 hit, and a 10.2% pressure rate on 255 pass rush snaps in 2018. He’ll likely stay on the field for most sub packages as well. The 12th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Vea has a ton of potential and could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, after a solid debut season.

Veteran holdovers Beau Allen and William Gholston will compete for the 3rd base package job. Both are very underwhelming options. Gholston has been a hybrid defensive lineman on Tampa Bay’s 4-3 defense line since being drafted in the 4th round in 2013, but has managed just 11 sacks, 23 hits, and a 7.2% pressure rate in 6 seasons in the league and hasn’t been much better against the run. He played 402 snaps last season and finished as PFF’s lowest ranked interior defender. The 6-6 281 pounder might be a better fit in a 3-4, but could easily have another poor season.

Beau Allen, meanwhile, is a career rotational player with 16 starts in 5 seasons in the league and a career high of 423 snaps in a season. He’s an adequate run stuffer, but doesn’t get much pass rush either, with 2 sacks, 11 hits, and a 6.4% pressure rate for his career. The big 6-3 327 pounder is probably a better fit for a base package role than Gholston. Whoever does not win the starting job will still be involved in a rotational role. The Buccaneers don’t have much depth behind Suh and Vea, especially lacking interior pass rushers.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

In addition to losing Gerald McCoy this off-season, the Buccaneers could also be without edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul for the entire season, after he suffered a neck injury in an off-season car accident. Unlike McCoy, they did not replace Pierre-Paul, as his injury did not occur until after free agency and the draft. He was given a 5-6 month timeframe, which could have him back by mid-season, but it’s not certain he’ll be able to play at all this season or if he would be 100% upon his return. His 12.5 sacks led the team in 2018 and, even though he’s going into his age 30 season and his peripheral pass rush stats were not as good (8 hits and an 8.6% pressure rate), he’s still obviously a big loss, especially without another good pass rusher on this roster. In 9 seasons in the league, JPP has 71 sacks, 69 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate.

The Buccaneers did make some additions at this position this off-season even before Pierre-Paul got hurt, signing ex-Bronco Shaq Barrett in free agency and using a 4th round pick on Iowa’s Anthony Nelson. They’ll compete for roles with Carl Nassib, their top returning pass rusher, and Noah Spence, a 2016 2nd round pick who could be a better fit in the Buccaneers’ new defensive scheme. Nassib isn’t great, but the former 2016 3rd round pick took a step forward in 2018, with 6.5 sacks, 7 hits, and a 7.8% pressure rate on 346 pass rush snaps, after struggling in his first 2 seasons in the league with the Browns, totaling 5.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 6.6% pressure rate. With Pierre-Paul hurt, Nassib is likely locked into a starting role. They’ll need him to continue developing and not regress to his pre-2018 form.

Shaq Barrett is probably the favorite to start opposite him. Barrett’s sack numbers (14 in 61 career games) don’t jump off the page, but he hasn’t even played half of the snaps in his career, stuck in a deep edge rotation in Denver. Also a strong run defender, Barrett has added 23 quarterback hits and 64 quarterback hurries on 833 career pass rush snaps, giving him an impressive 12.1% pressure rate for his career. Only in his age 27 season, Barrett has breakout potential on a defense where he has a chance to be an every down player and he could prove to be a steal on a one-year, 4 million dollar contract.

Barrett and Nassib starting leaves Spence and Nelson in reserve roles. Spence came into the league with a lot of upside as the 39th overall pick in 2016 and flashed on 569 snaps as a rookie, but he’s played just 291 snaps in 2 seasons since, missing 10 games with injury in 2017 and being buried on the depth chart in 2018. Spence gained significant weight last off-season to hold up better against the run as a 4-3 defensive end, but the Buccaneers’ new defensive scheme prioritizes athleticism for edge defenders over size, so he can go back down to a more natural weight this season. Spence is probably more comfortable playing in the 240-250 pound range than 260+ and he has the opportunity to earn a significant role in a thin position group. Nelson also brings some upside, but both he and Spence come with considerable downside as well. Depending on Pierre-Paul’s recovery, the Buccaneers could have a lot of trouble getting to the quarterback this season.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

With McCoy gone, linebacker Lavonte David becomes their longest tenured defensive player, joining the team as a 2nd round pick back in 2012. He’s made 105 starts in 7 seasons with the team and though he’s been up and down a little bit, he’s still finished in the top-19 among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 4 of 7 seasons, including a 2018 season in which he finished 11th among off ball linebackers. The long-time outside linebacker will move to inside linebacker in the Buccaneers’ new 3-4 defense, but it should make much of a difference and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season. He’ll start inside next to 5th overall pick Devin White, who has a massive upside and the ability to be an every down player even as a rookie. He compares favorably to 2018 8th overall pick Roquan Smith.

The Buccaneers also added some veteran linebackers this off-season, taking flyers on a pair of former starters for Bruce Arians in Arizona, Deone Bucannon and Kevin Minter. Bucannon was a first round pick by the Cardinals in 2014 and finished 25th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2015, but injuries limited him to 38 games in the next 3 seasons combined and seemed to sap his abilities significantly. He fell all the way to 93rd among 100 qualifying off ball linebackers in 2016 and finished 88th out of 96 qualifying on just 389 snaps in 2018, getting benched on one of the worst defenses in the league. Only in his age 27 season, he’s a worthwhile flyer, but he’s no guarantee to bounce back.

Minter, meanwhile, made all 32 starts for the Cardinals from 2015-2016 and played every down, but was underwhelming and has played just 218 snaps in 2 seasons since. He’s also a former high draft pick, going 45th overall in 2013, and he’s still relatively young in his age 29 season, but he’s never played well in coverage and shouldn’t be anything more than a situational run stuffer. With Devin White coming in, Bucannon and Minter will purely be reserves. This is a more talented and deeper linebacking corps than last season.

Grade: B+

Secondary

As bad as this defense was overall in 2018, the secondary was by far the Buccaneers’ worst defense unit in 2018. A lack of pass rush didn’t help, but the Buccaneers allowed quarterbacks to have a 110.9 QB rating against them last season. For comparison’s sake, that would have ranked 3rd in the NFL by a quarterback and is most similar to Russell Wilson’s QB rating. Essentially, the Buccaneers made the average quarterback they faced look like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Injuries were part of the problem, but none of the players who got hurt were high level players and better health alone won’t improve this group significantly.

This is a young group though, so the Buccaneers are hoping multiple players can take steps forward in 2019. They also added cornerbacks in the 2nd round (Sean Bunting) and 3rd round (Jamel Dean) and a safety in the 3rd round (Mike Edwards). Adding more young players to an already young group might not be all that effective, but the Buccaneers didn’t have the financial flexibility to add veteran defensive backs in free agency and clearly wanted to add more talent to the group. The Buccaneers also didn’t retain veteran cornerback Brent Grimes. He led this secondary with 791 snaps played in 13 starts last season, but he is now going into his age 36 season and the Buccaneers seem to be fully embracing the youth movement in the secondary.

Rookie cornerbacks Sean Bunting and Jamel Dean will compete for roles with 2016 4th round pick Ryan Smith, 2016 1st round pick Vernon Hargreaves, and 2018 2nd round picks Carlton Davis and MJ Stewart. These positional battles will play out during training camp and the pre-season. Because they are recent high picks, Bunting, Dean, Davis and Stewart are all likely roster locks, meaning Smith and Hargreaves are likely competing for one cornerback spot, unless they plan on carrying 6 cornerbacks, which would be unusual.

Hargreaves missed almost all of 2018 with injury, playing just 53 snaps in 1 game, but his return isn’t exactly a boost for this secondary. Hargreaves was the 11th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, but he was underwhelming in his first 2 seasons in the league (23 starts) before last year’s injury plagued season. Only going into his age 24 season, Hargreaves still has upside, but he’s entering a make or break 4th season in the league. The Buccaneers exercised his 5th year option for 2020, showing they haven’t given up on him yet, but that 9.954 million is only guaranteed for injury, so this could easily be his final season in Tampa Bay if he doesn’t show signs of being a long-term starter. Hargreaves should be considered the favorite for a roster spot ahead of Smith, who has been underwhelming in 16 starts over the past 2 seasons, and Hargreaves could easily earn a starting role in an unsettled position group.

Davis and Stewart seem likely to earn roles as well. Stewart played just 301 snaps as a rookie, but that’s because he was limited to 8 games by injury, while Davis started 12 of the 13 games he played as a rookie. Both earned below average coverage grades from Pro Football Focus, but they have the talent to take a step forward in their 2nd season in the league. The two rookie cornerbacks could push them for their jobs, but both rookies are raw, so Davis and Stewart should at least play in 3 cornerback sets. Stewart is at his best on the slot, while Davis is a pure outside cornerback.

The Buccaneers are young at safety as well, where 2017 2nd round pick Justin Evans and 2018 4th round pick Jordan Whitehead led the way in terms of snaps and starts last season. Evans played well enough to keep his job and has the ability to take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league if he can stay healthy (8 games missed in 2 seasons in the league), while Whitehead will likely face competition from rookie Mike Edwards and the lone veteran of the group, free agent acquisition Kentrell Brice.

Brice made 10 starts last season for the Packers, but he has just 14 career starts and has struggled in all 3 seasons in which he’s played, including a 2018 season in which he finished 95th out of 101 qualifying safeties on a career high 648 snaps, leading to him being non-tendered by the Packers this off-season. With Brice being an underwhelming option and Edwards likely too raw to make a huge impact as a rookie, Whitehead could easily remain the starter and could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. The Buccaneers are banking on multiple breakout years from young defensive backs in 2019. If they don’t get that, they could have major issues against the pass again, especially with their top edge rusher out for the first half of the season at the least.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Buccaneers were better than their record suggested in 2018 in terms of first down rate differential at +0.25% (16th in the NFL), going 5-11 primarily because of a -18 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, but the Buccaneers lost the more effective of the two quarterbacks who started last season and are still starting one of the most turnover prone quarterbacks in the league in Jameis Winston, so they’ll likely have a negative turnover margin again and I don’t expect them to quite as effective at picking up first downs. They also don’t have quite the same receiving corps as last season and could struggle to run the ball again. If Jameis Winston can have the best season of his career in his 5th season in the league, this offense has plenty of upside, but the defense figures to struggle unless multiple young players break out.

They should have better health in 2019, after leading the league in adjusted games lost in 2018, but they only have a few key players returning from serious injury and are already without top edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul possibly for the season due to a neck injury, which might be a more consequential absence than any they had last season. I like their head coach and defensive coordinator hire and it’s possible they play better than they look on paper with a strong coaching staff, but on paper this definitely looks like the worst team in the NFC South. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

Team Score: 72.30

Offensive Score: 73.38

Defensive Score: 71.21

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (6-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-10)

The Falcons have had a disappointing season and will be watching the post-season from home, but they’ve played better in recent weeks thanks to the return of dominant every down linebacker Deion Jones. Key defensive players suffering significant injuries early in the season is the primary reason for their disappointing year, as they ranked dead last in first down rate allowed at 43.02% through 11 games, but they’ve allowed a first down rate of 35.54% in 4 games since Jones returned.

Their offense has been strong throughout, ranking 9th in first down rate at 39.40%, as their strong passing offense has made up for an inconsistent running game, so if Jones had stayed healthy all year there’s a good chance the Falcons would at least still be in the playoff hunt right now. Over the past 4 weeks, they rank 8th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +3.40%. Despite that, they are 1.5-point road underdogs in Tampa Bay against a mediocre Buccaneers team, as casual bettors may not realize how important Jones is to this defense.

The Buccaneers rank 18th in the NFL in first down rate differential on the season at -0.16%, which is decent, but they start one of the most turnover prone quarterbacks in the league, they rank 31st in first down rate allowed at 41.00%, and they are missing two key offensive playmakers in wide receiver DeSean Jackson and tight end OJ Howard. Over the past 4 weeks, they are just 24th in first down rate differential, as injuries have started to pile up.

It’s not just a talent gap between these teams either, as the Buccaneers probably won’t be at their best with head coach Dirk Koetter expected to be let go after the game. Koetter seems to know he’ll be gone and has even said he’s going to try to get 3rd string quarterback Ryan Griffin in the game because he hasn’t gotten a chance to play yet, so it doesn’t sound like they’re treating this as a normal game. Even if Jameis Winston can keep this game close, the Falcons would likely pull ahead when Griffin comes in. I like the Falcons a lot this week.

Atlanta Falcons 26 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +1.5

Confidence: High

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-9) at Dallas Cowboys (8-6)

The Cowboys were shut out in Indianapolis last week, ending their 5-game winning streak. That was a tough spot for them though, on the road against a strong Indianapolis team, without their top offensive lineman Zack Martin, after back-to-back tough wins over the Saints and Eagles. This week, they are at home with an easier matchup against the Buccaneers, they probably are getting Martin back, and they should be more focused after last week’s loss humbled them.

That being said, I’m still leaning towards the Buccaneers as 7-point underdogs. The Cowboys have had offensive issues all season and that has kept them from blowing out their opponents, with 7 of their 8 wins coming by 8 points or fewer. Even if Martin is back, he likely won’t be at 100%, which could be a major problem for this offense. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, have also played a lot of close games in recent years, with 12 of their 20 losses over the past 2 seasons coming by 8 points or fewer.

The Buccaneers have defensive issues (6th in first down rate allowed at 41.02%) and they start one of the more turnover prone quarterbacks in the league in Jameis Winston, but their offense moves the ball well (30th in first down rate at 41.28%) and is more than capable of getting a backdoor cover if needed. There’s not enough here to take the Buccaneers with any confidence and we’re not really getting any line value with the Buccaneers, but this could easily be another close game for these teams, so I like the Buccaneers for pick ‘em purposes.

Dallas Cowboys 26 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +7

Confidence: None

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Baltimore Ravens: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-8) at Baltimore Ravens (7-6)

Rookie Lamar Jackson will make his 5th start this week and his first start with Joe Flacco healthy, as Flacco is expected to be active as the backup after missing 4 games with a hip injury. Jackson is 3-1 in his 4 starts, with one loss coming in overtime in Kansas City last week, but the offense has statistically been slightly worse with him under center, moving the chains at a 35.64% rate in 4 games started by Jackson, as opposed to 36.46% in 9 games started by Flacco. That’s not a big difference obviously, but Jackson has had a much easier schedule, as the Chiefs, Bengals, Raiders, and Falcons all rank 27th or worst in first down rate allowed.

The schedule doesn’t get any harder for Jackson this week, facing a Tampa Bay defense that ranks 30th in first down rate allowed at 41.85%, so Jackson should be able to keep Flacco on the sidelines at least another week. The Buccaneers’ offense has been explosive this season, but they also start a turnover prone quarterback and are without two key weapons in DeSean Jackson and OJ Howard. That being said, with the line at Baltimore -7.5, I’d rather take the Buccaneers, who play a lot of close games (11 of 19 losses decided by 6 points or fewer over the past 2 seasons), than the Ravens, who are starting a limited quarterback, as big favorites.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +7.5

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (10-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-7)

The Saints shockingly lost in Dallas last week, with their high powered offense held to just 10 points in a 13-10 loss, but I’m not really changing my outlook for them going forward. The Cowboys were a capable team at home that played arguably the best game of their season at the same time the Saints had an off night, much like the Patriots’ loss in Tennessee a few weeks ago. The Saints still rank 3rd in first down rate differential at +5.79% and rank 2nd in my roster rankings. This line shifted from New Orleans -10.5 on the early line to New Orleans -9.5 this week and I’ll gladly take that extra line value, as I still have this line calculated at -12.

The Buccaneers have won two in a row, but they’ve had a +5 turnover margin in those two games (+2.5 per game), after being -23 over their first 10 games (-2.3 per game). Turnover margins are unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, but the Buccaneers start one of the most turnover prone quarterbacks in the league, so I expect the Buccaneers going forward to be closer to their early season turnover margin than their recent turnover margin. They are also banged up on both sides of the ball, missing tight end OJ Howard and wide receiver DeSean Jackson on offense and safety Justin Evans and cornerback Carlton Davis on defense. Despite last week’s loss, I still expect the Saints, who are 46-31 ATS off of a loss in the Drew Brees/Sean Payton era, to take care of business in this one.

New Orleans Saints 34 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -9.5

Confidence: High

Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (6-5) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7)

The Panthers, once 6-2, are losers of 3 straight, but they could have easily won each of their past two games. The Panthers lost by 1 in Detroit two weeks ago, in a game in which they missed a field goal, an extra point, and a 2-point conversation late when they didn’t trust their kicking unit to tie the game. Last week, they lost by a field goal at home to the Seahawks, but outgained the Seahawks by 1.9 yards per play in a game in which the Panthers missed another field goal, threw a red zone interception, failed on a 4th down, and allowed the Seahawks to go 2 for 2 on 4th downs.

The Panthers won the first down rate battle in both games, +5.98% in Detroit and +11.53% against Seattle. On the season, they have a first down rate differential of +2.11%, 12th in the NFL, and that number is significantly better if you ignore their blowout loss in Pittsburgh, in game in which the Panthers were caught off guard by a strong team on the road on a short week. The Panthers are just 2-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less, but still are 6-5, as a result of 4 wins by more than a touchdown. They could easily be 7-4 or 8-3 right now, in which case this line would likely be higher than 3.5 in Tampa Bay.

While the Panthers are a solid team, the Buccaneers are a mediocre bunch. Their offense has moved the ball well, thanks in large part to arguably the best receiving corps in the NFL. They have picked up first downs at a 42.90% rate (4th in the NFL) and they lead the league with 3,914 passing yards (on pace for an NFL record 5,693 on the season). However, they’ve also started two historically turnover prone quarterbacks this season in Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston and have the most giveaways in the league with 29.

Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and the Buccaneers are unlikely to continue losing the turnover battle at the rate they have been (a league worst -21 through 11 games), but the Buccaneers have two gunslinging quarterbacks that take risks downfield, a style of play that lends itself to a lot of turnovers. It’s part of why they’ve gotten so many yards through the air this season, but there are also obvious downsides.

The Buccaneers have also been hurt significantly by the injury bug. Their receiving corps is one of the best in the NFL at full strength, but they’re missing both tight end OJ Howard and wide receiver DeSean Jackson with injury, so they’re far from at full strength. They are also expected to be without starting right tackle Demar Dotson. Defensively they’re getting healthier, with safety Justin Evans and linebacker Lavonte David due back this week, after defensive end Vinny Curry returned last week, but they’re still without linebacker Kwon Alexander and they could be down their top-3 cornerbacks with injury. Carlton Davis and MJ Stewart have already been ruled out, while Brent Grimes is highly questionable after sitting out Friday’s practice.

Their defense has been horrible all season, ranking 31st in first down rate allowed at 42.18%, but they’re even worse when they’re missing starters. Even at full strength, their offense just isn’t quite good enough to keep up with what their defense is allowing most weeks, especially if the offense commits several turnovers. The Buccaneers rank 17th in first down rate differential on the year at +0.72%, but they’re not nearly as good as that suggests right now.

The Buccaneers are also in a tough spot, with the Saints coming to town next week. Teams are 22-44 ATS since 2014 before being home favorites of 7 or more (Tampa Bay is +11 on the early line), as big upcoming home games tend to be a distraction. With back-to-back tough home games, the Buccaneers might not be as focused this week as they need to be to pull an upset over a significantly more talented opponent. There’s not quite enough here for the Panthers to be worth betting, but I’d change my mind if this line dropped down to 3 before gametime.

Update: Carolina -3 has popped up in some places, so, as I said I would, I’m making this is a medium confidence pick.

Carolina Panthers 30 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24

Pick against the spread: Carolina -3

Confidence: Medium

San Francisco 49ers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2018 Week 12 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (2-8) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-7)

These two teams have had similar seasons statistically. Both have poor records, but rank significantly better than their record suggests in first down rate differential. The 49ers rank 12th at +1.26%, while the Buccaneers rank 16th at +0.95%. Both teams have been crushed by the turnover margin, with turnover margins of -15 and -23 respectively, but turnover margins tend to completely unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. For example, the Buccaneers were -4 in turnover margin last week in New York in 3-point loss to the Giants and, on average, teams with a turnover margin of -4 in a game have a turnover margin of +0.0 the following week.

The 49ers’ offense obviously hasn’t been as good since Jimmy Garoppolo went down, but they haven’t been terrible either, moving the chains at a 36.30% rate in 7 games without Garoppolo, as opposed to 41.30% in the 3 games Garoppolo started. CJ Beathard took over the starting job after Garoppolo got hurt, but he missed a start with a hand injury and lost his job to 3rd string quarterback Nick Mullens, who has been an upgrade in 2 starts.

After Beathard turned the ball over 10 times in 5 starts, the 49ers are just -2 in turnover margin in Mullens’ two starts, with both turnovers bouncing off receivers’ hands. Turnover margins tend to stabilize in the long run anyway, but Mullens has definitely been an upgrade over Beathard. They’ve also been decent defensively, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 36.49% rate, 17th in the NFL, and should force more turnovers going forward.

The Buccaneers have also switched quarterbacks several times this season, but under different circumstances. Ryan Fitzpatrick began the season as the starter, but the Buccaneers have switched quarterbacks mid-game three times this season and are now back to Jameis Winston for his second stint as their starting quarterback this season. Both quarterbacks have committed numerous turnovers, 13 for Fitzpatrick and 12 for Winston, but they’ve also averaged a combined 9.11 yards per attempt (3rd best in the NFL), taking numerous shots downfield to one of the better receiving corps in the NFL. As a result, they have moved the chains at a 43.34% rate, 4th best in the NFL. Regardless of which quarterback they start, they should continue moving the chains at a high rate and their turnover margin should be better, even if only by default, going forward.

The biggest problem for the Buccaneers is that they have the worst defense in the NFL. They rank 31st in first down rate allowed at 42.39% and have been even worse in recent weeks due to numerous injuries, including linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David, safety Justin Evans, and cornerback MJ Stewart. The injury bug has also spread to their offense, with tight end OJ Howard going down for the season, which is a big hit to their receiving corps. The 49ers, meanwhile, are getting healthier coming out of the bye, with both linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Jaquiski Tartt both expected back this week. For that reason, I’ll give them the edge in this one, but this could easily end up being a push.

Final Update: Foster will not play for the 49ers after being arrested for domestic violence last night. Despite that, sharp action on San Francisco has pushed this line down to 2. Given that, I’m changing my pick, but this is still a no confidence pick.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30 San Francisco 49ers 27

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -2

Confidence: None