Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 6 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-3) vs. Carolina Panthers (3-2) in London

This is the first rematch of the year, as these two division rivals already met back in week 2. The Buccaneers pulled the 20-14 upset in Carolina on Thursday Night Football earlier this year, but the Panthers had a shot to win that game at the end, despite a truly horrible performance from a severely injured Cam Newton on a short week. Not only did Newton complete just 49.0% of his 51 passes in that game, but many of the incompletions were completely his fault, as he was missing open receivers left and right. His expected completion percentage based on the throws he attempted was 60.7% and his completion percentage above expected of -11.7% was the worst of any quarterback who started and finished a game that week. 

After that loss, Newton admitted his foot injury was worse than anyone knew and shut himself down for the good of the team, allowing backup Kyle Allen to take over until Newton is back to 100%. Allen has started all 3 games since and, while he hasn’t been incredible, he has been far more accurate, with a +2.8% completion percentage above expected (11th in the NFL) and, simply by being a serviceable NFL quarterback, he has led this team to victories in all 3 starts. Considering they lost by just 3 points week 1 to a Rams team that covered all 4 fumbles in the game, with Newton at far less than 100%, it’s not hard to make the argument that the Panthers could be 5-0 right now if they had a healthy quarterback under center all season.

Some of the Panthers’ wins have been close and they “only” rank 12th in first down rate differential at +2.32%, but this is a pretty complete football team and, with serviceable quarterback play, they are one of the better teams in the league. The Buccaneers, whose defense has fallen back to earth over the past couple weeks (46.62% first down rate allowed) after a strong statistical start to the season (30.73% first down rate allowed through 3 games), should have a much tougher time stopping the Panthers’ offense this time around. The better team tends to cover in these international matchups as well (favorites are 23-11 ATS all-time), which also favors the Panthers.

As 2-point favorites, the Panthers have to just win to cover this game, so they should be the right side. However, their injury situation concerns me enough to not bet them, as the Panthers will be without a pair of starters on the offensive line (left tackle Greg Little and right guard Trai Turner) and possibly starting cornerback Donte Jackson, who has missed the past two games and was downgraded to a limited practice on Friday after practicing in full earlier in the week. 

The Panthers haven’t lost a game without those three, but their absence caps the team’s upside. Without them, I have this line calculated at just Carolina -3, so we’re not getting enough line value to bet the Panthers. If Jackson ends up playing and the Buccaneers’ top edge rusher Shaq Barrett, who was a late add to the injury report this week, ends up not playing, I will reconsider this pick, but for now it doesn’t seem like Barrett is in much danger of missing this game.

Carolina Panthers 24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20

Pick against the spread: Carolina -2

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 5 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-2) at New Orleans Saints (3-1)

The Saints have won both games started by Teddy Bridgewater, but they can’t get Drew Brees back quickly enough, as their offense has completely sputtered in his absence, even as much talent as they have on offense around the quarterback. In 27 drives since taking over for Brees, Bridgewater has led the Saints to just 46 first downs and 3 touchdowns on 160 plays, a 30.63% first down rate, which would be the 4th worst in the NFL. By comparison, the Saints had a 43.17% first down rate in 2018. 

As a result, the Saints have actually lost the first down battle in both games started by Bridgewater, winning the two games by just a combined 8 points, despite a +2 turnover margin and a +2 return touchdown margin, two things that tend to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. On the season, they rank just 27th in first down rate at -4.24% and that includes 12 drives where Drew Brees was under center. Their defense gets a boost with stud defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins returning from injury, even if he might not be 100% immediately, but their offense should remain a concern until Brees returns. 

Unfortunately, we’ve lost all line value with the Buccaneers, the Saints’ opponent this week, as this line has shifted from New Orleans -6.5 to New Orleans -3, even though the Saints pulled the upset win at home over the Cowboys last week. That’s because the Buccaneers pulled the upset in Los Angeles last week against the Rams, but I’m not as impressed by that as most, for three reasons. 

For one, the Rams were an overrated team that could have been 1-2 instead of 3-0 if their first opponents (Panthers and Saints) had healthy quarterbacks. Two, the Rams were in a tough spot, with a key divisional game against the Seahawks on deck on Thursday Night Football. Three, the Buccaneers actually lost the first down rate battle in that game by 4.18%, despite winning by 15. They won the turnover margin by 3, but that tends to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis.

Ranking 16th on the season in first down rate at +0.77%, the Buccaneers seem to be improved on both sides of the ball with new head coach Bruce Arians and his staff, but they might be a little overrated after last week’s win. The Saints may be overrated too because winning has diverted attention from how much their offense has slowed, but I still have this line calculated at New Orleans -3.5, as they still have a lot of talent around the quarterback, especially on defense. There’s not nearly enough here to bet the Saints with confidence, but they seem like the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

New Orleans Saints 20 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 16

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3.5

Confidence: None

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Los Angeles Rams: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-2) at Los Angeles Rams (3-0)

Probably the most surprising stat from this early season is the Buccaneers ranking 4th in first down rate allowed at 30.73%, after finishing 30th at 40.98% last season. The Buccaneers made changes on defense this off-season, but didn’t add any marquee players. They made a lateral move at the defensive tackle position, cutting Gerald McCoy to sign Ndamukong Suh in a cost saving measure. They signed underrated ex-Bronco Shaq Barrett to help their edge rush, but also lost their top pass rusher from a year ago Jason Pierre-Paul to an off-season injury. They used the 5th overall pick on middle linebacker Devin White, but he’s barely played due to injury. Barrett has exceeded expectations, but mostly it’s been young holdovers exceeding expectations so far, in large part due to the addition of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Last year’s first round pick Vita Vea has especially broken out, but their young secondary has been better than expected as well. 

Despite that, they are still just 1-2 and it’s fair to question whether their defense can keep it up and definitely fair to question their competition thus far. In week 1, they faced the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo was rusty in his first back, having the 6th worst completion percentage above expected of the week, at -5.4%. In week 2, they faced a severely injured Cam Newton, who had the 4th worst completion percentage above expected the week, at -11.7%. Last week, they faced a Giants team that was starting a rookie quarterback and that was without Saquon Barkley and surrendered over 30 points. The Rams are an obvious step up in talent. 

That being said, the Rams haven’t been quite as impressive on offense this year as they have been the past two years, in large part due to their offensive line. They will get right guard Austin Blythe back after he missed last week with injury, but they lost left guard Rodger Saffold and center John Sullivan in the off-season and second year replacements Joe Noteboom and Brian Allen have not been impressive. 

Their defense has been better this season, but their offense ranks just 17th in first down rate and they are lucky to be 3-0, recovering all 4 fumbles in a 3-point win over an injured Cam Newton and the Panthers week 1, then facing a Saints team week 2 that lost Drew Brees in the first quarter, and then last week they narrowly escaped against a Browns team that was missing eight week 1 starters due to injury, including four in the secondary. They have relatively easy competition this week, but they are in a tough spot with a much bigger game in Seattle on deck in 4 days. Favorites are 56-77 ATS since 2012 before Thursday Night Football and the Buccaneers could definitely cover this 9-point spread if the Rams don’t play their best game.  There’s not enough here to bet on the Buccaneers, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Los Angeles Rams 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +9

Confidence: Low

New York Giants at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2019 Week 3 NFL Pick

New York Giants (0-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-1)

The Buccaneers pulled the upset win in Carolina last week on Thursday Night Football, but that was more about the struggles of Cam Newton and the Panthers’ offense. Clearly playing at less than 100% through a foot injury, Newton was wildly inaccurate last week, constantly missing receivers that would come open against the Buccaneers’ defense. He did not look comfortable planting and throwing on his injured foot and did not take off and run at all either. And despite that, the Panthers still had a chance to win the game at the end, so I think the Buccaneers are a little overrated coming off of that win.

The Buccaneers are also in a bad spot this week, with a much tougher game on deck in Los Angeles against the Rams, a game in which they will almost definitely be big underdogs. Favorites of 6+ are just 33-62 ATS since 2008 before being underdogs of 6+ the following week. On the other side, the Giants are expected to be home favorites next week against the Redskins. Underdogs are 96-56 ATS since 2014 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs. We’re not getting great line value with the Giants (I have this line calculated at Tampa Bay -5) and I’m not sure how Daniel Jones will perform in his first career start, but the Buccaneers are unlikely to give their best effort against an underwhelming opponent with a much tougher game on deck, so I like the Giants chances of covering as 6-point underdogs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 New York Giants 24

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +6

Confidence: Medium

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 2 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-1) at Carolina Panthers (0-1)

Both of these teams lost week 1, but it’s clear there’s a wide talent gap between these two teams. The Panthers loss came against a likely playoff team in the Rams and it was a game that easily could have in a number of different ways. The final margin of victory was just three points and the Rams got the recovery on all four fumbles that occured in the game. The Panthers were the better team in first down rate (37.50% vs. 34.72%) and easily could have been the better team on the scoreboard if the ball had bounced differently. 

The Buccaneers, meanwhile, lost by two touchdowns at home against a so-so 49ers team in a game in which starting quarterback Jameis Winston looked awful. Winston threw three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, against a team that intercepted just two passes all last season. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent tough to predict, but Winston has been the most turnover prone quarterback in the league over the past 5 seasons. 

The Buccaneers’ defense is unlikely to be good this season, so any projections for an improved Buccaneers team this season have to include an improved Jameis Winston under center. If Winston continues to struggle, this is likely a bottom-5 team. The Panthers, who look like a playoff contender on paper, shouldn’t have much trouble with them at home in Carolina. I have this line calculated at Carolina -10, so we’re getting enough value with the Panthers for a small bet on them. 

Carolina Panthers 31 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20

Pick against the spread: Carolina -7

Confidence: Medium

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 34/565/5 slash line in 10 games, which extrapolates to 54/904/8 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. 

Prediction: 4-12, 4th in NFC South

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