For a team that lost their season opener at home to the Titans 42-14 you could say this team came a long way. From that debacle, they went 6-5, including 3-1 against their division in a fight to get into playoff consideration. The team fell apart from there finishing 0-4 with home losses to the lowly Bears and Saints. Nevertheless, they finished with three more wins than the Titans and that includes the one Tampa Bay handed them. Unfortunately that is on a list of potential worst losses, including blowing a 24-7 halftime lead in Washington and those are big reasons as to why they have a new coach this year. They do have high of sweeping their rival Falcons this season, and a 45-17 win in Philadelphia that featured a 5 touchdown 0 interception performance that gives some hope for a big 2016 in Tampa Bay.
Lovie Smith really did struggle in his second job. Despite taking over a poor roster and going from 2-14 to 6-10 you could tell the belief from the team wasn’t there for Lovie. The question now is did they make the right coaching hide in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. The offense, like the team as a whole improved in year two of the Smith era, and it will be hard to decipher who exactly is responsible in the uptick in offensive efficiency, Koetter or rookie Jameis Winston. In the end, Koetter deserves a lot of the credit, and his ability to run the ball is what turned what happened in week one into a rare occurrence throughout the year. While Koetter assumes much more responsibility, he will still run the offense with Winston, and he brought in a former NFL head coach in Mike Smith to run the defense. Smith made a name as a coordinator, but failed to meet expectation in his six year stint as the coach in Atlanta. Koetter of course, was the offensive coordinator under Smith in Atlanta. With time off, it will be interesting to see if he can improve a defense that Lovie had no success fixing, as well as help Koetter with the overall coaching duties.
Opening his career with a pick six brought a lot of skeptics, but it is safe to say Jameis Winston had a successful rookie season. He went on to have a 22-15 TD:INT ratio and that includes two picks in his season opener, and five in the Bucs four game skid to end the year. Winston is a gunslinger, no doubt but what Koetter learned early is that if the run game can buy him time, Winston can put the ball where many cannot. He has big time arm talent, and looks the part moving forward. Year two will be a crucial year to take a step forward and show that he can exist long term with Koetter. Behind him the Bucs shouldn’t have a problem with Mike Glennon. He may eventually see a contract offer to be a starter, but that won’t need to be addressed until next year.
Running back play
As mentioned, the running game really opened up the pass, and Doug Martin had his best year since his rookie year, and had a better yards per carry rate this year. It just so happened to be the year that he will test free agency. You have to imagine the Bucs would want to hang on to him, but the question will be at what price in a league so set on running backs being exposable. Behind him is Charles Sims who is about as good as a receiver as a back. He is a taller Shane Vereen type of back, and it would be unlikely the Bucs would want to move on with him as a center piece. If Martin is to walk, the draft would be crucial to picking up a cheap, but talented back.
Wide Receiver and Tight end play
One way to save money and sign Doug Martin is to part ways with Vincent Jackson. The 33 year old missed six games, and only notched 33 catches, and it would save the Bucs roughly 10 million dollars to move on. It would shift the need from running back to wide out, but with Mike Evans it becomes less of a concern. Evans was targeted 148 times last year making him the 10th most targeted in the league. Unfortunately drops prevented him from having a big time year, but he did set career highs in yards and catches. His touchdowns dropped from 12 to 3 which just seems like a crazy anomaly, but again the drops have to be considered this off season. If Jackson is cut, Louis Murphy and rookie Kenny Bell are still on the roster, but both tend to be more of a slot option, and more than likely the Bucs would want to go for a mid round rookie, or a cheaper veteran than Jackson.
As for the tight end play, it is tough to see what they have. Cameron Brate looked fine in place of projected starter Austin Seferian-Jenkins who left him inactive for nine games, and as a starter for only four. Both will be back, and both will get their shot to prove they are worth an extension this year in what should be a straight up competition.
Offensive line play
When three rookies are starting on the line by seasons end, and generally all three earned their time you have to imagine where this unit was most of the year. Donovan Smith played pretty well in his rookie year and will go into year two as the consensus blind side started for Winston. Ali Marpet is another guy who more than likely will be starting entering year two. The other three positions should be in open competition. Evan Smith missed 11 weeks and saw rookie undrafted free agent replace him but he will most likely be back as a starter. That leaves Logan Mankins and Gosder Cherilius. Both are veterans in the last year of their contract and I would assume if both start the year in Tampa it will be the last year making offensive line as a whole a big need in the draft.
Defensive line play
The defensive line is centered around Gerald McCoy and with that is one heck of a building block. McCoy deserved all pro consideration with 8.5 sacks and that is without mention of his run stopping ability. The entire line played well in that regard and the Bucs did rank second in the league in yards per carry. The Bucs mix and matched around him and with Tony McDaniel and Henry Melton set to hit free agency, and Akeem Spence and Clinton McDonald back, you can sign one of them to a heap deal and be set on the interior next year.
On the ends,their highest quality performer, Jacquies Smith is a free agent this year, and while you would imagine the Bucs will be forced to sign him and potentially overpay him, but the question is how much do you pay a guy who has played for three teams in four years, and while he recorded 13.5 sacks in the last two years he only started 18 games. William Gholston, George Johnson, and Howard Jones are signed on so depth isn’t much of a problem. They should be able to afford Smith, but drafting an end may come up in the near future.
The Bucs got a big boost when the only defensive player Lovie Smith drafted in two years, Kwon Alexander seemed to fit into the defense and Lavonte David is a known entity and played at an All-Pro level, and to have two pieces in a 4-3 is a good situation to be in. Despite the Bucs ranking 26th in efficiency against the pass, they ranked 18th and 10th against running backs and tight ends, David’s work against the run helps some of the rotating ends on the line. On the weak side, however there is a hole. Bruce Carter is a depth guy who can play snaps in coverage, but is another player better against the run. It makes the need to fill a linebacker lower on the totem pole, but adding a potentially veteran via free agency could be a good idea here.
The secondary needs completely reconstructed. Alterraun Verner hasn’t worked out the way the Bucs had thought, and while he is cuttable the question is how do they replace him? They only save 6 million cutting him and may not find better out there. Jonathan Banks may also be back starting beside him unless they decide to hold onto Banks, who may have performed better than Verner last year and see what they can do with Verners money. Aside from them, they got play from guys such as Mike Jenkins, and Sterling Moore and holding onto them just would show that they couldn’t do better.
Unfortunately due to the fact that they have experienced corners signed, the safety position is an even worse place. Smith spent only one draft pick in two years on defense, and it shows in a rotation of average in the pass rush and nothing in the secondary behind it. Chris Conte really isn’t worth coming back, but unless they make a move for a guy like Tashaun Gipson he will have to hold it down. It makes the secondary as a whole a need to draft ASAP, strong and free safety.
Where do they go?
A lot of people pointed to Smith not having a roster to work with and that he got fired too soon. However, when looking over the roster where was he going? The corpses of Chris Conte and Major Wright and guys who have been cut before their rookie deal and undrafted free agents rushing the passer. The line has major holes, they have a potential hole at running back, and aside from Winston it seems as though he hasn’t drafted very well. The Bucs need to go with the best player available, save for a quarterback, and more than likely not a defensive tackle. Other than that there is work to do.