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.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2017 Week 17 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (11-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11)

The Buccaneers had high hopes coming into this season, with former #1 overall pick Jameis Winston going into his 3rd season in the league and several additions coming in through free agency, but they have had a very disappointing season and sit at 4-11 going into the final week of the season. Injuries have been a big problem for this team, as they’ve had among the most games lost to injury of any team in the league this season, but, despite injuries, they have been better than their record suggests.

Seven of their 11 losses have come by 7 points or fewer, including 4 losses by 3 points or fewer. Their -54 point differential is 21st in the NFL and more indicative of a team that should have about 6 or 7 wins, despite the fact that they’ve struggled to produce big plays this season (5 plays of 40+ yards). Big plays like that tend to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so I don’t hold that against them much. In terms of first down rate differential, they enter this game 12th at +0.94% and they have 15 more first downs than they’ve allowed on the season.

The amount of games they’ve played that have been decided by a touchdown or less is especially relevant, considering they are 7-point home underdogs this week against the Saints. The Buccaneers were blown out in New Orleans earlier this year, losing 30-10 in one of their few losses by more than a touchdown, but this one is in Tampa Bay and the Buccaneers did not have a healthy Jameis Winston in that one. Winston now seems to be over his early season shoulder trouble and has been playing his best football of the season in recent weeks.

In fact, since that loss in New Orleans, the Buccaneers have just one loss by more than a touchdown in 7 games and that came in Atlanta by 14 in a game in which they actually won the first down rate battle, but couldn’t generate any big plays. They’ve come within a field goal of beating both the Falcons and Panthers in the past two weeks and should be able to keep it close with the Saints this week. I have this line calculated at New Orleans -3.5, so we’re getting good line value with the hosts. The Buccaneers are worth a bet this week.

New Orleans Saints 31 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +7

Confidence: Medium

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers: 2017 Week 16 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10) at Carolina Panthers (10-4)

The Buccaneers are just 4-10, in the middle of a disappointing injury riddled season that started with strong playoff hopes, but they’ve competitive in most of their games and they have been better than their record suggests. Just 4 of their 10 losses have come by 7 points or more and they rank 12th in first down rate differential at 0.92%, as they have 15 more first downs than they’ve allowed. Their big issue has been their inability to create big plays (just 4 plays of 40 yards or more, 2nd fewest in the league), but that tends to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so I don’t hold that against them too much.

Last week, the Buccaneers kept it close with the Falcons, losing by 3 in a game they won the first down rate battle by 6.65%. That was despite the fact that the Buccaneers were without outside linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, two of their best defensive players, who could both return from 1-game absences after getting in some limited practices this week. The Buccaneers could easily keep it close this week in another tough divisional matchup against the Panthers, especially if one or both of McCoy and David are out there.

The Panthers have a strong record of 10-4, but they haven’t exactly been blowing teams out, as they have just 3 wins by more than 8 points and are 7-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer. They’re also going to be without linebacker Thomas Davis and right guard Trai Turner this week, a pair of important players. Given that and how many close games these two teams have played this season, I have this line calculated at Carolina -7, even factoring in the uncertainty with David and McCoy.

The Panthers are also in a tough spot, with a huge divisional game on deck in Atlanta, a game that could have implications in both the NFC South and the NFC Wild Card races. Divisional home favorites are just 26-62 ATS since 2002 before being divisional road underdogs, which the Panthers definitely will be next week. On top of that, double digit favorites are just 58-78 ATS since 2002 before being underdogs. The Buccaneers have a tough game next week too, as they host the Saints, a game in which they are 8.5-point underdogs on the early line. Teams are just 25-50 ATS before being home underdogs of 7+, as it’s tough to be fully focused with a tough home game on deck.

I like their spot a little bit better than Carolina’s tough, especially with the Panthers coming off back-to-back tough wins over the Vikings and Packers. They could definitely be a little flat this week. I also like the line value we’re getting with the Buccaneers a lot, as they are 10.5-point underdogs. This is just a small bet because of the uncertainty with McCoy and David, but the Buccaneers should be the smart play this week. If this line stays put and both McCoy and David play, I will consider raising this bet.

Sunday Update: Both McCoy and David are active, but this line dropped to 10, so I will not be raising this bet.

Carolina Panthers 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +10.5

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2017 Week 15 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9) at Atlanta Falcons (8-5)

The Buccaneers have been better than their 4-9 record suggests, as they enter this game 15th in first down rate differential at 0.59%, with 17 more first downs gained than allowed this season. They are just 2-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less and could easily be 6-7 had a couple things gone their way. Their losses to the Patriots, Packers, and Lions (by a combined 14 points) all came in games in which they won the first down battle, but came up just short on the scoreboard.

However, the Buccaneers also enter this game incredibly banged up. Jameis Winston returned at quarterback a few weeks ago, but hasn’t looked quite right with an injury to his throwing shoulder. He is also missing his top-2 offensive linemen, center Ali Marpet and right tackle Demar Dotson, who are out for the season. On defense, the Buccaneers are missing arguably their best two players, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and outside linebacker Lavonte David, as well as defensive end Noah Spence and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who have been out for weeks.

This line has moved from Atlanta -3.5 on the early line to -6 this week, but, with McCoy and David both going down, I think that’s fair. The Falcons have a top-5 roster on paper and are relatively healthy and finally playing more like they did last season. I can’t be confident in the Falcons though. We’ve seen the Steelers and Patriots both have flat games on Monday Night Football in tough situations against divisional opponents in the past two weeks and we could see something similar this week, as this game is sandwiched between a pair of games against the division leading Saints on Atlanta’s schedule. The Falcons are still the pick for pick ‘em purposes as long as this line is less than 7.

Atlanta Falcons 31 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -6

Confidence: None

Detroit Lions at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2017 Week 14 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (6-6) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-8)

The Lions went 9-7 and made the playoffs last season and they are 6-6 and in the middle of a playoff race again in the NFC, but they haven’t been as good as their record in either of the last two seasons. In 2016, they won just one game by more than a touchdown, didn’t win any games against playoff teams, and finished with a first down rate differential of -1.90%. This year, they are winning by bigger margins, but their first down rate differential is even lower at -3.83% and they are 1-6 against teams with winning records. Five of their wins have come against the Cardinals, Giants, Packers, Bears, and Browns and they lost the first down rate battle in 3 of those games.

Fortunately for the Lions, their opponents this week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have more in common with the teams that the Lions have beaten this year than the teams they’ve lost to. That’s very relevant, given that the Lions only have to win this game to cover this even spread. After a big off-season, the Buccaneers entered the season with high expectations, but sit at 4-8 in the middle of an injury ruined season. Quarterback Jameis Winston has returned from his shoulder injury, but does not seem 100% yet.

Winston is also missing his top-2 offensive lineman, with center Ali Marpet and right tackle Demar Dotson out for the season, leaving him with one of the weakest offensive lines in the league. On defense, the Buccaneers lost edge rusher Noah Spence for the season early in the year and are also without rotational defensive tackle Clint McDonald, starting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, and starting safety TJ Ward. The Lions are banged up too, with quarterback Matt Stafford playing through a hand injury and talented right tackle Ricky Wagner out of the lineup, but they are still the better of these two teams.

The Lions are also in a better spot, as the Buccaneers are coming off of a road overtime loss in Green Bay and then have to turn around and host the Falcons next week. They could easily look past the Lions a little as a result. Teams cover at just a 43% rate off of a road overtime loss (as long as they aren’t road underdogs in their second of two road games) and teams are just 39-67 ATS since 2014 before being home underdogs of 4.5 or more, which the Buccaneers likely will be next week. The Buccaneers probably aren’t talented enough to win this game if they aren’t focused, so the Lions seem like the smarter side, but we aren’t getting any line value with them and it’s hard to be confident in them since we don’t know the state of Stafford’s hand injury. The Lions are the choice for pick ‘em purposes only.

Detroit Lions 24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23

Pick against the spread: Detroit PK

Confidence: None

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers: 2017 Week 13 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7) at Green Bay Packers (5-6)

The Buccaneers get Jameis Winston back from a 3-game absence with a shoulder injury this week, but that’s about the only good news for them in terms of injuries. Center Ali Marpet and right tackle DeMar Dotson were both placed on injured reserve this week and they are by far their two best offensive linemen. Left guard Evan Smith returns from a one-game absence, but he hardly replaces Marpet and Dotson. Starting running back Doug Martin will be out as well, so, while Winston has a good receiving corps to work with in his return, he doesn’t have a good offensive line or running game, so they may struggle to set up big plays downfield. Winston also might not be at 100% because his injury is to his throwing shoulder. He wasn’t playing that well prior to being shut down.

On defense, they are without starting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (3rd missed game), rotational safety TJ Ward (3rd missed game), rotational defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (1st missed game), and their top-3 defensive ends Robert Ayers (2nd missed game), William Gholston (3rd missed game), and Noah Spence (6th missed game). The Ayers injury is the biggest one, as he is by far their best defensive end. They couldn’t stop anything against the Falcons last week in his first missed game. The Buccaneers allowed the Falcons to pick up first downs at a 42.19% rate last week and now they’re missing McDonald and Ward too. With all of their injury issues, the Buccaneers rank 26th in my roster rankings, even with Winston returning.

The Packers are still missing quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but they rank 21st in my roster rankings and are getting healthier on defense. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews, outside linebacker Nick Perry, defensive tackle Kenny Clark, safety Morgan Burnett, and defensive end Mike Daniels are arguably their 5 best defensive players. They’ve played together in the same game just 4 times this season and just once since week 5. All 5 are healthy this week, so they could easily have their best defensive performance in weeks. I have this line calculated at -4, so we’re getting some line value with the Packers. It’s not enough for me to bet on Brett Hundley confidently, but the Packers should be victorious here at home against a banged up Tampa Bay team.

Green Bay Packers 20 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 16

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -2.5

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons: 2017 Week 12 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-6) at Atlanta Falcons (6-4)

The Falcons have had an up and down season, but they have consistently ranked in the top-5 of my roster rankings all season. They are not as well coached as last season, when they were the best team in the NFC, but they still have essentially the same core as last season and they could be ready to go on a run, following back-to-back quality wins over the Cowboys and Seahawks. This week they have an easy home game against the Buccaneers, which they have a good chance to win by double digits. They have flopped as big home favorites against the Bills and Dolphins earlier this year, but they’ve also won big as small home favorites against the Packers and Cowboys this season, so they should be able to blow out Tampa Bay if they are focused.

The Buccaneers have won back-to-back games, but they have come against the Jets and Dolphins and neither was an easy win. Prior to those 2 games, they lost back-to-back games by double digits to the Panthers and Saints, comparable teams to the Falcons. Their offense took a big hit when Jameis Winston got hurt, but their defense is very banged up as well. They are missing starting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and their top-3 defensive ends, including top edge rusher Robert Ayers, who will miss his first game of the season this week. They should have a very tough time with Atlanta’s passing attack this week. Given all that the Buccaneers are missing, I have this line calculated at -13, so we are getting significant line value with the Falcons at -9.5. As long as you can get lower than 10, the Falcons should be the pick this week.

Atlanta Falcons 34 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -9.5

Confidence: Medium