Return from Recess: Buccaneers Season Preview 2017

Expectations – it’s the theme of the Bucs’ 2017 season. Last year’s winning record and marked improvement of the young roster laid the foundation for belief that not only could the Bucs make it to the playoffs but win the NFC South for the first time in a decade.

This is not a new vantage point for the Bucs. Expectations were high following the Bucs surprising 10-6 campaign in 2010, after Schiano’s first season in 2013 and the beginning of Lovie Smith’s tenure in 2015. Each year bore not only disappointment but also pink slips for staff and players.

The difference in 2017 isn’t any fundamental difference in approach by the franchise but instead comes down to one simple fact: the roster and coaching staff are better than they’ve been in years. General manager Jason Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter aren’t reinventing the wheel in Tampa. They simply built a solid football team.

If the preseason is an accurate indicator of what’s to come, the Bucs should have their most potent offense ever. Jameis Winston and Mike Evans were a two-man act for the past two seasons, but the addition of Desean Jackson should forge a mighty triumvirate of big pass plays. With former Alabama tight end O.J. Howard joining the sure-handed Harvard man Cameron Brate, opposing defenses won’t have the luxury of singling out any one Bucs receiver this season.

The Bucs struggled to capitalize on its red zone opportunities during the preseason, which should give the team some pause heading into the regular season. The Bucs were mediocre inside the 20 last year, scoring on just 52 percent of red zone visits according to Football Outsiders. The addition of more offensive weapons should help but ultimately red zone efficiency rests on Winston’s ability to get the ball out accurately.

While the offense will no doubt improve with the new additions, weaknesses remain. The offensive line is still highly suspect. Ali Marpet successfully transitioned to center it seems, making it the most stable spot on the line. Consequently, the move rendered both guard positions the line’s weakest. J.R. Sweezy is coming off a significant back injury and was never the most consistent lineman in the first place. Kevin Pamphile is adequate if inconsistent.

Left tackle Donovan Smith is often identified as one of the worst blind-side defenders in football. It’s not a wholly unearned distinction. He simply does not have the foot speed to consistently block the league’s top edge rushers (see: Myles Garrett in the third preseason game). He’s also a penalty liability, getting 13 calls last season—tied for the most among offensive linemen with Giants T Ereck Flowers, not exactly great company to keep on any NFL list.

The right tackle spot is in a state of flux where Demar Dotson, the most tenured Buccaneer, struggles to stay healthy with each passing year while untested Caleb Benenoch waits in the wings. And no, moving Donovan Smith to right tackle is not an answer to anything.

Overall, the offensive line will hinder everything else happening offensively to varying degrees. They don’t run block particularly well and will rely on Doug Martin’s ability to gain yardage after initial (and second and third) contact to get the run game going. The line is more than the sum of its parts in pass protection, but breakdowns will occur with alarming frequency as they have since Lovie Smith and Jason Licht attempted to remake the line in 2014.

These protection breakdowns bring out the heroics of Jameis Winston to wildly varying results. For all the times he scrambles the pants off an entire (Bears) defense, he will also throw the dumbest pass you’ve ever seen (in Jacksonville—and that’s saying something in proximity to Blake Bortles). As much as his coaches and fans wish it weren’t so, Winston’s mind-boggling alter ego will forever be part of his game. The key to keeping Jameis Hyde off the field is keeping him clean in the pocket and on Dirk Koetter’s script.

The defense should only improve in year two under coordinator Mike Smith. His decision to stay in Tampa after receiving interest in head coaching jobs was a bigger boost to the Bucs’ 2017 prospects than any draft pick. By the end of the season, Smith had the defense playing disruptive, opportunistic football.

The defensive line is as good as its been in years, especially on the interior. Gerald McCoy and Chris Baker could prove to be one of the best interior tandems in football this year. Fewer reps for Clinton McDonald means more quality reps from McDonald.

The Bucs have quality defensive ends but are still a little short on quality edge rushers. Will Gholston and Robert Ayers are two of the best run-defending ends in the league. Neither is an accomplished pass rusher. Noah Spence is on the cusp of greatness, but one guy won’t get it done. The key will be the return of Jacquies Smith and whether he can bounce back from tearing his ACL last year.

Mike Smith’s defenses tend to produce outstanding linebackers. The Bucs are no different. Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander are the most underappreciated linebacker duo in the NFL. Rookie Kendell Beckwith and Devante Bond looked fantastic in the preseason and should make them a formidable group overall.

The secondary remains the weakness of the defense, but the cornerbacks are trending upwards. Vernon Hargreaves looks to improve on a rookie season where he was frequently singled out by opposing passers. Brent Grimes should still be Brent Grimes. The nickel job is Robert McClain’s to lose with Jude Adjeh-Barimah on injured reserve. Ryan Smith is a wild card transitioning from safety. Expect some growing pains from the second-year player.

It appears as though the Bucs addressed the safety position this offseason, but addressing a problem isn’t the same as solving it. Keith Tandy is still the best, most instinctive safety on the roster. Conte doesn’t have Tandy’s nose for the football but his outstanding athleticism compensates to some degree. There isn’t anything terribly special about JJ Wilcox other than he can lay a hit, a skill of diminished value in today’s NFL. The less the rookie Justin Evans gets on the field the better. He’s simply not ready to play a significant number of snaps in the NFL.

The biggest difference between this season and previous years of high expectations is roster depth. The Bucs haven’t boasted this much overall talent since their heyday in the early 2000s. Additions like Jackson and defensive tackle Chris Baker will make the starting lineup far more fearsome while depth additions like Robert McClain and WR Chris Godwin should provide greater schematic flexibility and buffer in case of injury.

A few roster battles are still underway, though some are not as close as some pundits would claim. The running back situation is somewhat fluid as Doug Martin’s suspension looms. Some will point to Martin’s drug issues and year-to-year inconsistency as justification for benching or even cutting him upon his return.

The problem is he is still the Bucs’ best running back. Watching him cut and break tackles in the preseason could not make this more apparent. Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber are fine in the interim, but Martin makes the Bucs offense more dangerous. Given his history and salary it’s hard to predict Martin’s future with the Bucs, but he needs to be their primary ground option in the present.

The only other major concern is, naturally, the kicking situation. HBO broadcast Roberto Aguayo’s uncomfortable if inevitable firing to the world, but that was not to be the end of the Bucs’ kicking woes. Nick Folk has not proven to be much more consistent than Aguayo, reaffirming why he is on his third NFL team. Fortunately, the Bucs don’t have a second round pick invested in him so there’s little deterrent in procuring competition for him down the line.

The Bucs schedule is not wholly unforgiving to its January aspirations. Outside the division, the Bucs have the NFC North and the AFC East. Neither division is stacked. The Patriots, Packers and Lions pose real challenges, but the remaining teams range from spotty to downright terrible.

Miami would be a solid match-up if not for the acquisition of Jay Cutler. Minnesota has a great defense, but the offensive line remains suspect and Sam Bradford is still Mr. Down-and-Distance. Chicago will either start the Bucs’ former backup or a rookie at quarterback. Buffalo and New York are already competing for the first overall pick in the 2018 draft.

Given the level of competition within the NFC, the Bucs’ playoff prospects will likely come down to winning the division. As usual, it’s near impossible what to predict from the NFC South. The Falcons surprised the world by making it to the Super Bowl last year, but the biggest blown lead in Super Bowl history and the loss of Kyle Shanahan could bring them crashing back to earth.

The Panthers added some weapons in the run game but didn’t get much better otherwise. Their season rests on Cam Newton’s ability to make through 16 games. The Saints are probably the most consistent year-to-year team in the division—good for tons of points on both sides of the ball and a 7-9 record.

The nice thing about expectations is that the path to the goal doesn’t have to be pretty. The Bucs are sure to lose a game they should win, like Los Angeles or Oakland last year. It won’t matter if they’re still playing in January.

Best-case scenario has the Bucs winning 12 games and taking the division. Worst-case scenario has Jameis Winston suffering a season-ending injury, simultaneously ending the team’s season. In all likelihood, the Bucs will battle for a playoff spot until the last two weeks of the season and get in by the skin of their teeth.

Aside from winning the division, there is no one key to making the playoffs. There is nothing more the Bucs can do to position themselves for a playoff run except execute. At this point, that’s all they can really expect of themselves.

The 2017 Big Mock Board Draft Thing Part 2

Sick of mock drafts yet? Well you came to the right place! There’s no mock draft here, at least in any traditional sense. More than likely, you don’t care that much what other NFL teams are doing with their drafts. This blog is called BUCS District after all.

Mock drafts can be fun but prone to tedium by April (ironic considering the more “plugged-in” mock drafters tend to become more accurate the closer the draft is). Consider this the Survivorman, the Mediterranean diet, or Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” of mock drafts – emphasis on the essentials to keep you alive for the Bucs 2017 draft outlook. (Was he kidding about Katy Perry? Does it matter?)

All in all, the nineteenth overall pick is not a great spot for value. The Bucs will miss the top talent at position where trading up will still cost a Day 2 pick if not more. Trading down would be ideal but if NFL Twitter is any indication, every team should be trading down this year.

Assuming the Bucs stand at 19, they still have options to add talent to either side of the ball. Bear in mind these rankings do not judge the likelihood of Tampa Bay’s decision but rather Bucs District’s proprietary formula for assessing prospects (i.e. because I said so):

  1. S Budda Baker, Washington
  2. RB Dalvin Cook, Florida St.
  3. RB Leonard Fournette, LSU
  4. RB Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
  5. CB Kevin King, Washington
  6. CB Marlon Humphrey, Alabama
  7. DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee
  8. CB Adoree Jackson, USC
  9. TE David Njoku, Miami
  10. DT Malik McDowell, Michigan St.
  11. DE Taco Charlton, Michigan

Bucs District is Bakersville. If Budda Baker were an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier, folks would call him Earl Thomas 2.0. He is the most instinctual defensive back in the draft behind Jamal Adams. With his speed, Baker has the potential to be a NFL single-high safety, a true center-fielder.

The Bucs could do with any of the three running backs. Their ranks here are the result of WordPress making it too onerous to list “2a,” “2b” and “2c.” They each could fit the Bucs in different ways, but they’re each more talented the guys already on the roster.

Kevin King is the kind of cornerback the Bucs need to complement Vernon Hargreaves: tall, rangy and smart. His size and speed could even make him a candidate to switch to free safety, an actual position of need. King also comes from the Washington pedigree of defensive backs that produced Marcus Peters and Desmond Trufant, the NFL’s best corners in 2016.

Barnett is an infuriating prospect. At times he looks like the best pass rusher in the class, practically teleporting around the edge. At others he looks like a Day 2 prospect, slow and ineffective. It’s entirely possible he’s gone by the 19th pick or available afterwards.

Just got around to Adoree Jackson’s film study today, and the appeal is apparent. His blend of ball skills and aggressiveness could make for an exciting NFL defensive back. His size might be less of a concern for a Bucs team that already starts two sub-6′ corners. What should give Jason Licht pause is Jackson’s lapses in discipline and judgment. There were times he appeared out of position defending wide receivers too deep on comebacks and digs.

The belief that the Bucs should draft a tight end in the first round must come from a “best player available” mindset, but selecting David Njoku may take that approach beyond its next logical step. Cam Brate is a great receiving weapon but not much of an inline player. Some might think Njoku would complement that by playing the ever-popular Y-position to Brate’s F tight end. The film simply does not agree. Njoku is not great blocker and appears more enthusiastic when he can do his best Jimmy Graham impression (Quick note: saw Graham in Miami once. His calves are as ridiculous as his hair.)

The day will soon come when ignorant, spoiled Bucs fans will realize how good they had it with Gerald McCoy, which is why the Bucs should start looking at his inevitable replacement if not someone to help extend his career a bit. Malik McDowell is steak tartare compared to Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, but his explosiveness is Michael Bay-like. Opposing offensive linemen often look stunned by the degree of violence McDowell brings. His technique is nonexistent and balance is a question, but he has time to marinate and slow-roast before the Bucs would throw him on the grill.

Taco Charlton is stereotypically raw, that defensive end prospect that appears every year to trick teams into drafting him too high. The Bucs might fall for it, but Jay Hayes has a good track record of molding big, long defensive ends with questionable pass rush technique into productive starters.

So here’s the rub: there’s no one worth trading up for from the 19th pick. Jason Licht would have to surrender entirely too much to reach those too-rich-for-my-blood guys listed in Part 1. This draft is too deep to spend picks to get one guy.

What’s more plausible if not more likely is the Bucs trading down. Adam Schefter already reported that the Bucs are looking to get more picks by trading down, possibly out of the first round. While the offer better be good to surrender that many spots, the draft’s second round is stacked with potential starters.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the best of the rest from the (unranked) top 100 picks:

  • DE Carl Lawson, Auburn
  • RB Kareem Hunt, Toledo
  • DT Dalvin Tomlinson, Alabama
  • RB Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
  • S Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut
  • TE Jake Butt, Michigan
  • TE Evan Ingram, Ole Miss
  • DE Tanoh Kpassagnon, Villanova
  • RB Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
  • RB Marlon Mack, South Florida
  • OT Antonio Garcia, Troy
  • OT Taylor Moton, Western Michigan
  • TE Adam Shaheen, Ashland
  • CB Teez Tabor, Florida
  • CB Tre’Davious White, LSU
  • CB Sidney Jones, Washington
  • CB Quincy Wilson, Florida
  • DE Tarell Basham, Ohio
  • FS Marcus Sanders-Williams, Utah
  • SS Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
  • WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC
  • WR Zay Jones, East Carolina
  • WR Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech

Five running backs!? It’s almost as though the Bucs don’t need to draft a running back in the first round. My favorite for the Bucs is Kareem Hunt, a compact runner with impeccable balance and vision. He’s a tackle-breaking machine and could be had for the low low price of a third round pick.

This draft is certainly not lacking for tight end depth. The key for the Bucs is fit. They need a do-it-all, inline tight end to complement Cam Brate. Evan Ingram is a glorified slot receiver who is wasted as a blocker. Jake Butt is the smart Day 2 pick, but don’t sleep on D-II powerhouse Adam Shaheen. He’s big, athletic and blocks like an OT. His underdeveloped skill set makes him a third round prospect at best, but nonetheless deserving of consideration.

Don’t count out offensive linemen entirely. Troy OT Antonio Garcia is raw but packed with potential. He has nimble feet and a mean streak befitting the right tackle spot once the Bucs move on from Demar Dotson.

Typically the defensive tackle prospects thin out after the first round, and this year is no different. Tomlinson is probably the best of the remaining bunch but he’s a poor fit with the Bucs as a 2-gap space eater. Don’t expect the Bucs to waste a pick on the interior defensive line after the first round.

The Bucs might want to go back to Florida for their cornerback needs. Tabor and Wilson aren’t the fastest or most disciplined backs, but they’re both physical and aggressive, key Mike Smith defense traits.

The second round is primed for a Bucs’ defensive end pick. Carl Lawson is a first round talent getting no respect from mock draft circles. He would give the Bucs even more speed off the edge. Call me a fan of smaller school prospects, but I like Kpassagnon and Basham. Kpassagnon is exactly the kind of end Mike Smith and Jay Hayes seem to prefer. Basham needs seasoning but his explosiveness and agility are more than a little intriguing.

With our key prospects identified, we can start examining scenarios. If the Bucs stay at 19, odds are good they take one of the top remaining running backs. Which one I can’t say for certain but if Cook is available I’d say he’s the favorite.

Scenario 1: Bucs Stay at 19

  • Round 1: RB Dalvin Cook
  • Round 2: TE Jake Butt
  • Round 3: DE Tanoh Kpassagnon

In the second scenario, the Bucs take advantage of this year’s bountiful defensive offerings and somehow land DE Derek Barnett. That’s rounded out by the powerful Marlon Mack and some secondary help in Teez Tabor.

  • Round 1: DE Derek Barnett
  • Round 2: RB Marlon Mack
  • Round 3: CB Teez Tabor

In the increasingly likely trade down scenarios, the Bucs pick up another more top 100 pick. Schefter’s tweet about trading out of the first round is a strong indication the Bucs are talking to the Browns, who own two second round picks. In that situation:

  • Round 2: DE Carl Lawson
  • Round 2: S Obi Melifonwu
  • Round 2: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
  • Round 3: RB Kareem Hunt

Quite a haul. The Bucs address four different positions with players who can provide immediate impacts. This is definitely the volume haul, if not the most ideal. Melifonwu best fits as a box safety, of which the Bucs already have two. They do get a steal in Kareem Hunt though.

In scenario four, the Bucs get an additional 3rd round pick from a 2016 playoff team, possibly the Cowboys or the Texans in their hunt for a quarterback.

  • Round 1: S Budda Baker
  • Round 2: DE Tarell Basham
  • Round 3: RB Kareem Hunt
  • Round 3: WR Carlos Henderson

The pattern should be apparent by now that the trade down scenarios give the Bucs maximum flexibility and range to address their roster. All four guys play with a good bit of fire and tenacity. This is my ideal 2017 draft for the Buccaneers.

The 2017 Big Mock Board Draft Thing Part 1

It’s draft season. That means it’s mock draft season. And big board season. The thing is, if you follow your favorite team (and if you’re reading this you probably are), do you want full analysis of every team’s draft prospects? Maybe, but surely you’re sick of wacky mock drafts by now, no?

Here at Bucs District we’re going to try something a little different. Instead of a big board or mock draft, we’re going to break down the conditions and scenarios that might play out on April 27.

Before predicting what players might fall to the Bucs either with the 19th pick or in a trade situation, we need to identify the players they won’t draft. These prospects fall in two categories: redundant players and the too-rich-for-my-blood guys.

Cataloguing the redundant players is easy. What positions would be a first-round pick be wasted? The list is short, including quarterback and middle linebacker. Jameis Winston and Kwon Alexander have their respective positions locked down, positions where depth isn’t a great premium.

The only other position group to possibly include is offensive line. While the need for more line talent is debatable, it seems clear the Bucs front office is fine standing pat with their starting line. The lack of offensive line talent this year makes an offensive line pick that much less likely.

The first-round prospects in the redundant column include:

Quarterback: Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson

This should be obvious. Jameis is the franchise. He’s easily better than Trubisky and Watson. The Bucs might draft a backup QB on Day 3 – they’re definitely not in the market for anything more.

Inside Linebacker: Reuben Foster

Another no-brainer. Kwon Alexander will be counted among the best middle linebackers in the NFL next season. Foster could be too one day. Tampa Bay simply isn’t big enough for the both of them.

Offensive Line: Cam Robinson, Forrest Lamp, Ryan Ramczyk, Garrett Bolles

Are the Bucs set at offensive line? Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter seem to think so. The line’s play last year indicates otherwise, but apparently J.R. Sweezy is next big thing, even if he is returning from a season-long back injury (which is really not a good sign). A guy like Lamp would be a good addition to the Bucs offensive line. The Bucs just won’t add one this early.

The too-rich-for-my-blood column is comprised of players likely to go in the top five or ten selections. While trades are not impossible, the draft capital needed for the Bucs to move up to this level makes such a move prohibitively expensive, especially considering the depth of this year’s draft.

The players in this column include:

Safety: Jamal Adams, Malik Hooker

The Bucs would take either of these guys in a heartbeat. The secondary remains a position of weakness and lacks big playmakers. Somehow the top of the draft features two at safety. Don’t be surprised to see Adams and Hooker go in the first ten picks to Chicago, Cincinnati or Buffalo.

Defensive End: Myles Garrett, Solomon Thomas

Garrett and Thomas are both likely top-five picks. The Bucs have a decent rotation at defensive end, but there’s no such thing as too many pass-rushers. Garrett is projected to go first overall to Cleveland. Thomas would fit on pretty much any of the first five teams.

Defensive Tackle: Jonathan Allen

This draft isn’t especially deep at defensive tackle so Allen will garner a lot of attention from the first ten teams. His athleticism and versatility won’t keep in on the market for long. He won’t get past Arizona, but he should be a trade-up target.

Wide Receiver: Mike Williams, Corey Davis

Williams is another possible top-five pick, though Davis may be the better prospect. Don’t let Davis’ ankle injury and lack of test scores fool you into thinking he’ll slip very far. His tape doesn’t lie. He’s big, fast and can catch pretty much everything thrown at him. The Titans, Panthers and Niners could all vie for their services.

Cornerback: Marshon Lattimore

As I said in the Primer, this draft is loaded with defensive back talent top to bottom. Lattimore reigns at the top of the heap and shouldn’t make it past the first ten picks. Tennessee should be interested in him, but he’ll be gone if he reaches the tenth pick with Buffalo.

Tight End: OJ Howard

Okay, when I did the review of the Bucs’ tight end situation I said the Bucs shouldn’t be interested in OJ Howard. I was wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. The Alabama TE may be the most complete tight ends to come out since Gronk. He is a walking, talking mismatch with legitimate blocking ability. I’m predicting he ends up in Jacksonville.

Sixteen prospects off the board. There is still plenty of talent to consider for the Bucs’ first round pick. Stay tuned for Part 2!

Bucs Draft 2017 Primer

It’s NFL draft season so right now everyone is up to their elbows in mock drafts, hot takes, and foolish analysis that values combine results over tape. Lots of information, not always the context to match.

What’s needed is a baseline of Bucs draft intel – the general draft situation, needs, fits, etc.

The Buccaneers find themselves on the cusp of legitimacy. Some solid free agent moves set the stage for GM Jason Licht to address the long-term future of a few roster positions.

What exactly does the draft look like this year? Buzz surrounding this year’s talent is electric, with some saying it’s “the best defensive draft […] in 20 years” according to ESPN’s Dianne Russini.

The big ticket items this year include defensive backs, edge rushers and running backs. Each position is stacked with high-end talent at the top and solid value through the first three or four rounds.

There are also solid stocks of wide receivers, tight ends and linebackers. Top players aren’t quite as plentiful but the depth is.

For teams looking for a quarterback, interior defensive lineman or any kind of offensive lineman, good luck. Converse to the defensive player boon of this draft, the offensive line crop has been described by one NFL coach as the “worst in 15 years” according to NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah.

Based on some of the roster moves the Bucs made already, Jason Licht has the team well prepared for the draft. Signing DT Chris Baker and restructuring J.R. Sweezy’s contract provided Licht with the flexibility needed to exploit the draft’s strengths and avoiding its weaknesses.

The Bucs’ needs are where the draft is deepest. Safety is the weakest position on the team, and none of the Bucs safeties are signed past 2018. Doug Martin’s drug suspension and poor showing in 2016 made running back a very sudden need. The Bucs could use additional depth at wide receiver, tight end and edge rusher.

The Bucs own the following selections:

Pick #19 (Round 1, 19/32)

Pick #50 (Round 2, 18/32)

Pick #84 (Round 3, 20/43)

Pick #125 (Round 4, 19/38)

Pick #162 (Round 5, 18/41)

Pick #204 (Round 6, 20/35)

Pick #237 (Round 7, 19/35)

They sit right smack in the middle of each round. With just their allotted seven picks, the Bucs won’t have any additional draft capital unless they trade down.

Before the draft, I will break down some of the possible scenarios for the Bucs in the first few rounds, run through a few of my favorite sleeper picks and generally avoid doing yet another mock draft. Stay tuned!

State of the Union 2017 – Defensive Backs

There was no Bucs unit that experienced more of a contrast from 2015 to 2016 than their defensive backs. A few key additions and a scheme change worked wonders on a unit that was perpetually torched under Lovie Smith.

The highest profile defensive back addition also happened to be the most impactful. Cornerback Brent Grimes led the league with 28 pass breakups and continued his four-season streak with at least four interceptions. According to NFL.com’s Matt Harmon, Grimes allowed just 47.9 percent of his targets to be completed and a 62.6 opposing passer rating.

Grimes was the perfect addition to the Bucs defense. In addition to being the secondary’s best and most consistent player, he was a leader for the young, untested group, especially for rookie CB Vernon Hargreaves III. The Bucs tested the former first-round pick in fire, starting him immediately and not always to the best results.

Hargreaves was statistically unimpressive, recording just nine pass breakups and one interception. ESPN’s Mike Clay paints an unflattering picture of his first NFL season: he was targeted, (127) allowed more receptions (86) and surrendered more yardage (1271) than any other cornerback in 2016.

Contextually, these numbers aren’t that bad or that surprising. Rookie corners typically struggle to adjust to NFL passers early. Teams were bound to target Hargreaves with Grimes making life miserable for receivers on the other side of the field. He only became more confident down the stretch and should be better to start the 2017 season.

Depth at cornerback is questionable. Second-year CB Jude Adjei-Barimah saw significant action before his four-game PED suspension and trip to injured reserve. Given how he ended last season, there’s no guaranteed roster spot for Adjei-Barimah.

The Bucs already released CB Alterraun Verner, a high-priced free agent signing from 2014.While he was a victim of Lovie Smith’s archaic defensive schemes, Verner was not the playmaker he signed to be and certainly not worth the $6.5 million he would be paid this year.

The only other corner left on the roster is Javien Elliott. The rookie from Florida State played the last six games of the season in mostly a reserve role. He will have a leg up come training camp but little more.

The Bucs re-signed special teams standout Josh Robinson to a two-year deal, but he’s not likely to be a cornerback moving forward. He transitioned to safety in the final month of the 2016 season and is unlikely to switch back.

The state of the Bucs’ cornerback depth chart indicates GM Jason Licht isn’t done adding cornerbacks. Fortunately the draft is well stocked with defensive backs.

Hargreaves’ former Florida teammate Teez Tabor is a quick cover corner who could benefit from a reunion with the Bucs’ 2016 first-rounder. His deep speed, or lack thereof, is a concern but he tracks well and isn’t afraid to make a play on the ball.

Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie is another smooth athlete with superior coverage skills. He is raw as a tackler but he doesn’t shy away from contact. While the Bucs would have some work to do to make Awuzie a major contributor on defense, his upside is huge for a potential second-round pick.

There is an opportunity for the Bucs to kill two birds with one stone, drafting a player who could play not just corner, but also safety. Washington defensive back Budda Baker spent the last three years in a hybrid role, playing nickel corner and single high safety. His 4.45 speed and impeccable ball instincts would give the Bucs flexibility with scheming and masking – a hallmark of Mike Smith defenses.

The Bucs already primed their safety group for change with their offseason moves. They re-signed Chris Conte and signed former Dallas S JJ Wilcox to two-year deals, with all guaranteed cash coming in 2017. Breakout star Keith Tandy enters a contract year as the Bucs’ best safety in pass coverage.

Of the three veterans, Tandy is the most likely to thrive as a playmaker. The question remains whether he can handle a season’s worth of full-time work. Conte is among Tampa’s most athletic players but he’s also one of the least consistent. JJ Wilcox will fill the big-hitter vacancy left by Bradley McDougald. He’s a viable starter if not much of a game-changer.

It’s entirely possible none of the Bucs’ current safeties will be on the roster in 2018, but that’s the point. All the veterans are on “prove it” deals with a draft loaded with quality safeties around the corner. Motivation for everyone to perform is there.

Of the top safeties in the draft, Baker is the best one to likely still be available when the Bucs are up at the 19th pick. While, he doesn’t have the physical profile of some of his contemporaries, few match his experience and ball skills. Baker would be the safe pick at 19.

Further up the risk-reward scale at safety is Michigan S Jabrill Peppers and Connecticut S Obi Melifonwu. Both are near-unparalleled athletes. What they aren’t are sure-fire safeties.

Peppers made his bones as an electrifying kick-returner and gadget player on offense. However, his one career interception doesn’t paint the picture of an playmaking safety. Peppers is fast but not powerful so he won’t bring the big hits. At this point, he’s a project with a ridiculous ceiling – a luxury the Bucs can’t really afford.

Similarly, the 6″4′, 224-pound Melifonwu is a physical specimen (4.40 40 time, 44″ vertical, 141″ broad jump) and has good tackling technique. In a way, he’s not unlike Chris Conte – exceptional athlete, limited football player.

Melifonwu doesn’t exhibit much instinct on tape. With his speed, he should be quicker getting to the ball in run and pass support. While Melifonwu’s speed and fluidity will make him great in pursuit, his slow play diagnosis will leave him a step behind on every play.

Though he has the athleticism and technique to start in the NFL, Melifonwu is not a game-changer worth spending a first-round pick. If he happens to be there at the Bucs’ second-round pick however, he brings decent value.

State of the Union 2017 – Linebackers

What seemed promising at the end of the 2015 season came to fruition in 2016 – the Bucs linebacking corps is a force to behold. MLB Kwon Alexander and OLB Lavonte David lead one of the best linebacking units in the league. They should only improve the longer they work together.

You would be hard pressed to find a more productive linebacker duo than Alexander and David. They combined for 175 tackles, eight sacks, two interceptions, five fumbles, 10 pass defenses and 15 stuffs according to Sporting Charts.

Alexander continued his progression from an athletic rookie standout to a more consistent field general for the defense. In Mike Smith’s defense, the second-year standout bears significantly more responsibility than he did under Lovie Smith. The shift to more gap-oriented responsibilities from a Tampa-2 deep zone system seems to agree with Alexander.

That same shift took some of Lavonte David’s responsibility to be everywhere all at once. He had the fewest tackles of his career in 2016, but that’s by no means indicative of a downslide in effectiveness.

In fact, Mike Smith rectified one of Lovie’s missteps in scheming David: blitzes. Though he’s a smaller linebacker, David’s speed makes him a dangerous pass-rusher. His five sacks in 2016 is the most he’s had since 2013 when he collect seven sacks under Greg Schiano.

Following a league-wide trend, the Bucs utilized their third linebacker less than half the time. Veteran Daryl Smith only played 44.9 percent of the Bucs’ defensive snaps in 2016. While this is an increase from Danny Lansanah’s 34.1 percent of snaps in 2015, the Bucs frequently utilize a nickel formation that leaves Alexander and David the only linebackers on the field.

Smith isn’t under contract at the moment, but he could be re-signed at any point likely for another one-year deal. The Bucs also have 2015 sixth-round pick Devante Bond returning from injured reserve. He will no doubt compete for the starting strongside linebacker position this summer.

It’s become a yearly ritual for the Bucs to completely shuffle their linebacker depth. It’s anyone’s guess what the linebacker roster will look like by the end of training camp. What’s important is the list is topped by Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander, as it should be for the foreseeable future.

State of the Union 2017 – Defensive Line

2017 marked what could be the beginning of a defensive revolution in Tampa Bay. What sparked it? The six year culmination of searching for the right pieces surrounding defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.

McCoy is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. You know it, I know it, the American people know it. He’s consistently a sack leader among interior linemen and on a regular basis makes offensive linemen look like foosball figures. This season he notched seven sacks and 19 hurries – top ten ranks for both.

The additions of Robert Ayers and Noah Spence helped juice up the Bucs front four beyond McCoy’s pass rush prowess. While injuries and Spence’s inexperience stalled the line’s progress out the gate, they came on strong down the stretch and were big reasons for the Bucs defensive dominance from Week 10 to Week 14.

The key now is consistency over an entire season. With consideration for the entire season, the line was pretty average. While the defense ended season in the top ten in sacks, the run defense got worse down the stretch. Football Outsiders ranked the Bucs 26th in run defense. Most notably, the line allowed a lot of runs into the second level, ranking 27th in the league in yardage five yards past the line of scrimmage.

Conversely the Bucs made stops when they counted, ranking fifth in success in short yardage, late down situations (“power success” in Outsiders parlance). Basically, the line returned to its “bend don’t break” paradigm.

Progress is good, but the Bucs work is not complete to make the defensive line truly formidable. The first order of business is making a decision on Will Gholston. A de facto starter, Gholston is one of the best run-defending 4-3 defensive ends in the league.

The Bucs just signed Gholston to a five year, $27.5 million contract with another $9 million in incentives per NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo. This is a great deal for the Bucs. They get a starting-caliber lineman for a fair $5.5 million per year that escalates if Gholston earns it. This prevents the Bucs from having yet another roster hole to fill this offseason.

It’s now unlikely the Bucs will add major additional pieces at defensive end. The Bucs will likely let Jacquies Smith, Howard Jones and Davonte Lambert battle for playing time. That won’t preclude the Bucs from drafting another end, but it likely won’t be until day three barring the

Fellow 2014-draftee Akeem Spence is also a free agent. His fate should cause the Bucs far less consternation. Per Sporting Charts, Spence played 34.8 percent of the Bucs’ defensive snaps in 2016, following a downward trend in his usage from 65.5 percent in 2013 to 44.4 percent in 2014 and 26.3 percent in 2015.

Spence is an adequate rotational player but by no means is he irreplaceable. The Bucs are unlikely to offer him a big extension. At best he’ll get a deal like TE Luke Stocker’s: a two or three-year deal with little to no guaranteed money.

With just an aging Clinton McDonald and a gaggle of undrafted free agents under contract, the Bucs should be in the market for a defensive tackle, both in free agency and the draft. The most popular name connected to the Bucs at defensive tackle is Calais Campbell per CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora.

The 30-year-old Campbell is one of the most consistently productive 4-3 defensive tackles in the league. Since his rookie year, he recorded no fewer than five sacks per season. He would be the best player to line up next to Gerald McCoy since Michael Bennett.

Signing Campbell should not disqualify the Bucs from drafting a tackle either. Since 2010 the Bucs have drafted just three interior defensive linemen. Both McDonald and Campbell are on the wrong side of 30 and McCoy is rapidly approaching that point with quite a bit of mileage behind him.

The top two defensive prospects in this year’s draft are Alabama’s Jonathan Allen and Michigan State’s Malik McDowell. Draftniks have Allen going anywhere from the top five picks to falling out of the first round altogether due to concerns over his arthritic shoulders.

McDowell is one of those “tweeners” at 6’6″ and 295 pounds, but he’s a freakishly athletic and disruptive. However, his technique can be spotty and his rumored emotional volatility could scare away a lot of teams. Still, his ability to play across the entire line would make him a huge pick for the Bucs.

The Buccaneers are finally in a position where the defensive line is a consideration rather than a dire need. With a formidable line in place, whatever moves the Bucs do make will go that much further to pushing them to the playoffs.