The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gotten a lot of hype this offseason after signing wide receiver DeSean Jackson and drafting tight end O.J. Howard. The two provide a strong complement to Mike Evans in the passing game. And with Jameis Winston in his third season, many are ready to declare the Bucs a playoff contender.
It’s easy to see why that argument is catching on. Winston threw for over 4,000 yards last season and looked, at times, like a player who could be a franchise quarterback for Tampa Bay. A lot of the issues Winston had coming out of Florida State, most importantly turnovers, still remain. He threw 18 picks last season on 32 interceptable passes, per Cian Fahey’s charting. Unless he starts figuring things out, that problem will plague him for the rest of his career.
When looking at only Winston and his receivers, however, it’s hard not to feel good about the passing game.
After putting up 1,321 yards on 96 receptions last season, Evans qualifies as one of the best receivers in football. He ranked sixth among receivers in DYAR, and his 6-foot, 5-inch, 231-pound frame makes him a perpetual red zone threat.
Jackson went for over 1,000 yards last season as well, and he led the league with 17.9 yards per reception. That’s no one-off for the 30-year old either. It’s the third time he’s led the league in that category. Even as he ages, Jackson is still a legitimate deep threat.
Adam Humphries isn’t anything special, but he qualifies as a solid third wideout after putting up a 66 percent catch rate last season.
As for Howard, the Alabama product’s physical traits make him a potential star. Of all the Rob Gronkowski-lite tight ends — guys that are impossible to cover one-on-one — that now define the position, Howard was the best to come out of this draft. Though his production at Alabama didn’t match his physical ability, that was largely because of how Nick Saban used him within the offense. If Tampa head coach Dirk Koetter decides to unleash Howard downfield, it’s going to get ugly for opposing defenses.
Tampa’s problem is that the argument for them as a playoff contender more or less ends there. The other elements of the offense — the running game and offensive line — don’t look good, and the defense is peppered with questions.
Doug Martin figures to be the primary back, but often struggles to play a full season. We’ve seen what he can do — Martin was an All-Pro with 1,402 rushing yards in 2015 — but for most of his career, the Boise State product has been something else. Last season, he played just eight games and struggled badly, averaging less than three yards per carry with an abysmal 42 percent success rate. On top of that, Martin is already suspended three games for using PEDs.
Jacquizz Rodgers worked well enough as a backup plan last season, but the rest of his career tells us that won’t last. Prior to 2016, Rodgers averaged just 3.6 yards per carry for his entire career. Even in 2016, that only went up to 4.3.
Moreover, the offensive line won’t do Martin, Rodgers or Winston any favors.
Left tackle Donovan Smith is unreliable, at best. He blew 26 blocks last season, per Football Outsiders’ Almanac, and had a 47.5 PFF grade. Left guard J.R. Sweezy missed all of last season with an injury and struggled in 2015 with a 49.2 PFF grade. Things get a little better the further right you go along the line, but only marginally. Center Joe Hawley and right guard Ali Marpet are solid, but inconsistent. Hawley blew 18 blocks last season and Marpet 21, per FOA. Right tackle Demar Dotson is 32 years old and coughed up 5.5 sacks last season, per FOA.
As exciting as the passing game is, it won’t be that effective if the receivers can’t get down the field before Winston is pressured. Tampa ranked 26th with a 29.9-percent pressure rate in 2016, per FOA. And it’s tough to see that getting better in 2017. Moreover, if Martin is injured or ineffective, defenses can sit on the pass knowing that the line isn’t good enough to clear a hole.
It’s one thing to expect Winston to take the next step, but he would have to become a superstar overnight to keep the Bucs above water in that scenario.
Tampa’s defense won’t save it either. They benefited from injury and turnover luck last season, ranking sixth in defensive adjusted games lost, per FOA, and recovering 12 fumbles. Expect both to regress.
The Bucs may still end up with an average defense thanks to their front seven.
Gerald McCoy is an absolute beast in the middle of the defensive line. He had an 87.0 PFF grade last season, putting up an 83 percent run stop rate along with 6.5 sacks, five hits and 28 hurries last season, per FOA. The acquisition of Chris Baker to play alongside McCoy on the interior was a good one. He’ll help improve a run defense that ranked 26th in adjusted line yards last season. Robert Ayers provides a solid pass rushing presence along the edge, though it’s hard not to see his production declining at age 32. William Gholston is the outlier among that group after ranking 64th among edge rushers in run stop rate last season, per FOA, and putting up a 48.5 PFF grade last season.
At linebacker, Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander are both solid every-down players. Both struggle when it comes to tackling, allowing 14 and 19 broken tackles respectively, per FOA. Given their production, however, that’s a trade-off the Bucs will take in the grand scheme of things. David is the better run defender of the two, posting a 68 percent stop rate last season and ranking seventh among linebackers with 2.5 average rushing yards per tackle, according to FOA. Alexander is stronger in coverage, with a solid 51 percent success rate, per FOA.
Third-round pick Kendell Beckwith figures to start at the Sam position and could struggle. The LSU product is coming off a torn ACL and speed is already an issue. In coverage, Beckwith ranked 96th in yards per coverage snap last season, according to PFF. And while his run defense was solid as a whole, cut blocks were a continual issue for him.
Unless there are injuries, the front seven should hold up. However, if injury regression comes for Tampa, it could be a disaster. There’s next to no depth at linebacker and the defensive line thins out fast, with Noah Spence — a guy who has come on very strong this summer — being the only dependable bench player.
The secondary is a mixed bag. After one of the best years of his career, Tampa should feel good about its No. 1 cornerback, Brent Grimes. However, he is 34 years old, making it hard to believe Grimes will put up another season in which he ranks top-five among corners in PFF grading. If Grimes’ production slips, the Bucs don’t have anyone to depend on at corner.
Vernon Hargreaves’ rookie year was less than encouraging, as the Florida product had a mere 45 percent success rate and allowed 8.8 adjusted yards per target, according to FOA. If there’s a capable nickel back between Javien Elliott, Robert McClain and Jude Adej-Barimah, nobody’s found him yet.
Safeties Keith Tandy and J.J. Wilcox will make up for some of the leakage at cornerback. Both ranked in the top 10 at the position in success rate last season, per FOA, and the top-25 in PFF grading. For all the attention given to the players Tampa Bay brought in on offense, Wilcox could end up being the best offseason acquisition. He led all safeties in adjusted yards per target last season, according to FOA, in addition to a 59 percent success rate.
If Tampa hits its ceiling, it can be a playoff team. But that’s a huge laundry list of things that have to go right: staying healthy, overcoming offensive line troubles, Winston cutting down on turnovers, a lack of decline from Grimes and Ayers, development from Hargreaves and Beckwith. The NFC South is a tough division, featuring last year’s conference champion Atlanta Falcons and a Carolina Panthers team that figures to get back to relevance this season.
With so much that needs to go their way, the Bucs are likely bound for a disappointing season.