State of the Union: Part 4

Today we cover the Buccaneers tight ends. This should be one of the more stable units on the team next season, with only a few minor changes likely.


Austin Seferian-Jenkins

The Bucs’ 2014 second-round pick is well on his way to an “injury-prone” label. Seferian-Jenkins has yet to play more than nine games in a season since turning pro. Ankle and back problems landed him on injured reserve in 2014, costing him seven games his rookie year. This season he battled a major shoulder injury that robbed him nine games and four more starts.

The drafting of Mike Evans and Seferian-Jenkins in 2014 was meant to form a triumvirate of “Dunkaneers” with Vincent Jackson. That has not come to pass and not just because of injuries.

Seferian-Jenkins was supposed to be a third-down and red zone threat, but his hands haven’t been up to the task. In 2015, he completed 21 of his 39 targets, but he also dropped four of them per Sporting Charts. Completing just over 50 percent of his targets and dropping one out of every ten is not what the Bucs had in mind when they drafted him.

It’s too early to give up on the second-year tight end, but his third year will be critical. The Bucs need to see some dividends on their investment soon before they feel compelled to cut their losses.


Cameron Brate

Oh sure, like he went to Harvard.

Ivy League schools aren’t known for churning out successful NFL prospects, except maybe…

Long live the beard.

Anyways, 2015 was something of a coming-out party for Cameron Brate. After bouncing around the Bucs and Saints practice squads in 2014, the second-year tight end established himself as one of the more sure-handed receivers on Tampa Bay’s roster in 2015.

Per Sporting Charts, Brate came up with 23 of his 30 targets, dropping none. Nearly two-thirds of his receptions and half his targets went for first downs. He also caught four touchdown passes.

There is some consolation that even if Austin Seferian-Jenkins doesn’t pan out, the Bucs found a decent pass-catcher in Brate.


Luke Stocker

The survivor of 2011. The fourth-year tight end defied the odds and was the last member of the Bucs’ 2011 draft class to make the 2015 roster (Would you count Da’Quan Bowers? Me either).

What does Stocker possess that his 2011 draft peers didn’t? He’s pretty good at his job. He can block anywhere he lines up, whether he’s in-line or as a lead blocker. Versatility makes him valuable.

The Bucs have Stocker under contract for the next two years. It’s unlikely he’ll be going anywhere, not while he’s the only blocking tight end the Bucs have.


Brandon Myers

It became apparent down the stretch that seventh-year tight end Brandon Myers would be the odd man out if the Bucs were to trim the tight end ranks. Though he is the Bucs’ most experienced tight end, he may be their least valuable.

While healthy for the entire season, Myers ranked third in snaps played among the Bucs tight ends. According to Sporting Charts, Myers played 316 of the Bucs’ 1095 offensive snaps. Stocker played 485, Brate played 341 and Seferian-Jenkins played 219.

The current regime has more invested in Seferian-Jenkins, Brate was simply more effective in just a few more snaps, and none of the tight ends match Stocker’s utility. The Bucs also have undrafted rookie Tevin Coleman who finished the season on the main roster. While he’s proven nothing yet, his presence is certainly a challenge to Myers.

Myers is under contract next season, but his salary isn’t guaranteed according to Over the Cap. With no cap consequence to cutting him and better options available, Myers is looking at new job prospects next season.


With Seferian-Jenkins, Stocker and Brate locked up next season, there likely won’t be many big changes to the tight end position this offseason. There’s always the chance an undrafted free agent or tryout player could impress, but it’s unlikely anyone will unseat an incumbent.

The Too-Early Depth Chart prediction:

Austin Seferian-Jenkins

Luke Stocker

Cameron Brate

Next time we address the offensive line. It’s gonna be a doozy.

State of the Union: Part 3

Now we’re onto running backs, the strongest unit on offense. The future of the unit hinges on the Bucs’ plans for the league’s second-leading rusher.


Doug Martin

The Bucs have arguably the best running back in football. While Adrian Peterson won the rushing title, he did so with 39 more carries. Doug Martin had more 20+ yard carries (and also led the league) and more yards per carry than AP. Martin also caught more passes for more yards and fumbled less.

For all the rave reviews Jameis Winston receiving this season, it was Doug Martin driving the offense. He exhibited power and violence in his running that was missing from the year prior. If the Bucs couldn’t run the ball with Doug, the offense sputtered.

It should be a given that the Bucs would bring the Dougernaut back. It’s not that simple. Martin just turned 27, a late age for a running back to reach his second contract. Consistency is another concern. Martin was a top back in 2012 and 2015 but battled injuries and ineffectiveness in 2013 and 2014.

In Martin’s favor? Just watch him run. He almost never went down on first contact and made up for the deficiencies in the Bucs offensive line. Dirk Koetter was the man who fought for Martin to start the season, another ringing endorsement of Koetter’s coaching acumen.

Because the Bucs chose not to exercise Martin’s fifth-year option, they have three choices: offer a new contract, the franchise tag, and letting Martin walk. At this point, it’s highly unlikely the Bucs will let Martin walk. It would be easier to simply franchise him, but that’s not ideal for either party. It would only give Martin a one year deal while likely costing the Bucs more than $11 million.

A new contract is risky given Martin’s history. Based on 2015 alone, Martin should be added to the $10+ million/year club occupied by Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. When considering the entirety of his career, he’s closer to the $8 million/year range. That may be an acceptable to deal to Martin who already expressed a desire to stay in Tampa Bay and even built a house in the area per Roy Cummings.

The Bucs are a better team with Martin. A deal needs to be done and Martin’s good work rewarded.


Charles Sims

Jason Licht’s third-round pick was a puzzle last year. Some wondered if Charles Sims was even worth a third-round pick. Those questions intensified during the season as he looked easy to tackle and slower than advertised.

My, how quickly things changed.

2015 was a very different year for Sims. He looked utterly lethal in the “speed-in-space” role original intended for him under former offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford. For the first time, well, ever, the Bucs had a screen game thanks to Sims. He also took a cue from Martin and started breaking tackles.

Martin and Sims are a potent duo and are each more effective as such. Martin is molded like a true bell-cow back, but Sims brings a rare playmaking ability and explosiveness as a change-of-pace back. Keeping Martin should help sustain Sims’ success in 2016.


Bobby Rainey

It’s the end of the line for Bobby Rainey in Tampa Bay.

After three years with the Bucs, Rainey’s value is spent. After filling in for an injured Martin in 2013 and sharing carries with him and Sims in 2014, Rainey carried the ball only five times in 2015.

Rainey’s main duties were returning punts and kicks, excelling at neither. He averaged 24.7 yards per kick return and 9.9 yards per punt return.

Where Rainey did excel was muffing punts. He led the league, by far, with seven fumbled punts. He recovered most of them, but it’s likely led the Bucs to keep eyes out for new returners.

Rainey is an unrestricted free agent. There’s no way he gets a long-term contract. He might get a tryout look, but don’t be surprised if the Bucs move on from Rainey.


Mike James

The immortal Mike James. It’s been two years since he tore through the Seattle defense for 158 yards before breaking his ankle the next week in Miami. Hopes he would return to the field and light up defenses every week fades each passing year.

The Bucs actually cut James this year and placed him on the practice squad. His value to the Bucs is minimal, but there is still value if they’re keeping him in the building.

Losing Bobby Rainey might be James’ best opportunity to get playing time, at least in training camp. He is still unlikely to be in a Bucs uniform next season.


Jorvorskie Lane

The Bucs are one of the few teams left in the NFL that still use a lead blocker. Jorvorskie Lane continued to clear lanes for Bucs runners and showed no signs of slowing down. That is, until Week 17.

If you watched the Bucs final game in Carolina, I hope you didn’t see Lane’s ankle break under Joe Hawley’s weight. Holy frijoles, it was ghastly.

Lane’s no wimp, that’s for sure. He just posted a video of his rehab on Twitter. Less than a month after the injury, he’s already on his feet and grinding his way back.

One can only hope he makes it back to playing form. The Bucs should want a guy this tough blowing through defenses next year.


The only player guaranteed to be a Buccaneer in 2016 is Charles Sims, but it’s a near-certainty Doug Martin will be back in a Tampa uniform. If Jorvorskie Lane returns at 100 percent he should be back as well.

Like with the wide receivers, the Bucs are unlikely to select a running back in the first two days of the draft. They may take one late or as a undrafted free agent. It’s too early to know whether the Bucs will sign a veteran to reinforce the depth chart.

The Too-Early Depth Chart Predictions:

Doug Martin

Charles Smith

Jorvorskie Lane

Next time we’ll cover the tight end position. Stay tuned!

State of the Union: Part 2

Last week we covered the status of the Buccaneers’ quarterback unit. Now we’re going to cover the wide receivers. There is reason to hope but just as much for concern.

Let’s get started.


Mike Evans

The second-year receiver had one of the best sophomore slumps ever.

Evans remains one of the league’s best and most promising wideouts. His 1206 receiving yards was the 11th most in the league. He ranked 5th in receptions over 20 yards with 21. He was second only to Allen Robinson in yards per reception among the 1000-yard receivers. Needless to say, he all but carried the Bucs receiving corps while Vincent Jackson was injured.

So why did Evans get so much heat this season? Drops. A receiver’s primary job is to catch the ball. Evans failed to do his job more than any other receiver in the NFL with 11 drops according to Sportingcharts. The problem is not with Evans’ hands. It’s with his head.

This was no more apparent than the game where Evans accrued more than half his drops this season: Week 9 against the Giants. While he caught 8 passes for 150 yards, he dropped a mind-boggling six balls, the most in 10 years according to Pro Football Talk. Yes it was raining, but it rains in lots of games. It wasn’t the gloves. It was the yips.

Evans’ positives far outweigh his negatives, but his poor concentration kept him from being considered one of the NFL’s best. With Vincent Jackson on the decline, the offense demands Evans be better and take command of the pass game.


Vincent Jackson

It’s the beginning of the end for Vincent Jackson.

For the first time as a Buccaneer, Jackson failed to play a full 16 game slate. He missed six games with various knee injuries and finished the season on injured reserve. Even when he was on the field, the perennial 1000-yard receiver was not so perennial. He averaged only 54 receiving yards per game and scored only 3 touchdowns.

The real issue is Jackson’s age. For a younger player, the Bucs could just chalk his bad year up to the injuries. At 33, it might be the other way around. Jackson had been a durable player for the previous 4 seasons and played in all 16 games in eight of his 11 years in the NFL. While it’s not certain that his age was the central contributor to the impact of his injuries, Jackson reached an age where it’s now a valid question.

Entering the final year of his contract, Jackson counts $12.2 million to the Bucs’ salary cap per Over the Cap. That’s way more than a guy with 33 catches in 2015 is worth. There’s no way the Bucs don’t address his contract, either by extending and restructuring or by outright cutting him.

The former option is preferable. The Bucs receivers are pretty shaky behind Jackson. He still has great hands and provides veteran leadership on an otherwise young offense. He could bounce back, especially with Jameis Winston entering his second year. At his age, Jackson is unlikely to


Louis Murphy

The Bucs’ third receiver sat out most of the season after tearing his ACL in Week 7 against Washington. Even before his injury, Murphy was not very effective. He caught only 10 passes for 198 yards in six games.

2015 was the first year of Murphy’s three-year extension with the Bucs. He’s due to make $1.5 million in 2016 and $2 million in 2017, none guaranteed. While he is the only other Bucs receiver besides Vincent Jackson and Russell Shepard with more than two years experience, Murphy’s value is dubious. He is a deep play threat, but he is only good for one to three catches each game.

The Bucs have a lot of young receivers chomping at the bit to prove themselves and establish themselves in the league. Murphy’s knee injury gave guys like Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye a shot to make an impression. Murphy has a lot more competition heading into the 2016 season. He should make it to camp, but he very well may be cut before the start of the season.


Russell Shepard

Every season on HBO’s Hard Knocks, there is a notion that persists for every player on the  bubble: special teams is the way to make the roster. That is what keeps Russell Shepard on Tampa Bay’s roster and what makes him so valuable.

Shepard is one of the Bucs best special teamers and a team captain. He’s even known for providing pregame pump-up speeches, as Pewter Report’s Scott Reynolds reported earlier this month. In fact, it was during Shepard’s pregame speech in Week 2 against New Orleans that Lovie Smith objected to his course language which may have led to the Bucs’ flat performance and loss.

Special teams play is underappreciated. It’s not so easy to find the kind of ace Shepard is. He doesn’t provide much help as a receiver, but as long as the Bucs don’t find a better special teams player, Shepard isn’t going anywhere. As a restricted free agent, the Bucs don’t have to bid much to keep his services. He’ll be around in 2016.


Donteea Dye

The NFL is a long way from D-III Heidelberg. Donteea Dye put in a lot of work to make the trip.

Dye was one of the Bucs’ undrafted free agents last year. They likely were interested in his 4.27 40 time which makes him one of the fastest players on the team. With speed like his, he could be a serious weapon for the Bucs.

A multitude of injuries to the Bucs receiving corps not only pressed Dye onto the main roster but even started five games. Despite playing 10 games, Dye only finished with 11 catches for 198 yards and a touchdown. He also had key drop in Week 14 against the Saints.

Dye’s rookie season was unremarkable, but that shouldn’t be surprising. Most NFL receivers struggle their first season. Dye has a greater learning curve than most coming from D-III ball.

Still, the NFL is a business. If Jason Licht can find receivers he likes better, Dye doesn’t have much of resume to tout. He’ll have to keep fighting through training camp and preseason.


Adam Humphries

Another undrafted free agent, Adam Humphries was forced into service early and exhibited real promise. He caught 27 passes for 260 yards and a touchdown in 13 games. His numbers seem relatively pedestrian until you see that 18 of his receptions went for first downs. Two-thirds of his catches moved the sticks, often on third down.

Anyone who tuned into the Bucs Brief podcast this season heard him rave about Humphries’ hands, for good reason. The rookie out of Clemson made clutch catches all season for the Bucs and is among the best on the team at getting open.

Humphries may end up competing with Dye for a roster spot. If so, he has the upper hand. The Bucs have greater need of a sure-handed receiver than another deep threat like Dye.


Kenny Bell

The Bucs’ fifth-round pick effectively redshirted his rookie season. He was placed on injured reserve following the preseason. While he didn’t play a single down, he was a constant fixture on the sidelines during the regular season.

It’s unclear what the Bucs have in Bell. His 4.42 40 speed is exciting but untested in the NFL. He will be in the same boat as Humphries and Dye, competing for a roster spot. Jason Licht demonstrated no compunction for cutting draft picks within a year so draft status won’t protect Bell. This preseason is equally crucial for Bell as the other young receivers.


*I chose not to include Evan Spencer as he played a very limited role in the offense in 2015.

The Bucs are unlikely to spend any high or even mid-draft picks on wide receivers. That doesn’t preclude the Bucs from signing a free agent or falling in love with an undrafted rookie. More than likely though, the Bucs already have their 2016 receivers on the roster.

The T00-Early Depth Chart Predictions:

Mike Evans

Vincent Jackson

Russell Shepard

Adam Humphries

Kenny Bell

Next I’ll be doing running backs. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

State of the Union: Part 1

January is a time for Americans assess what in their lives needs change. There’s even a constitutional mandate for the president to tell us what’s in store for the rest of the year called the State of the Union. It sure makes that ambition to actually hit the gym (for a month at least) a little less commendable.

This month is also potentially important for many NFL teams. Some are playing for their postseason lives. Others never made it that far and in some cases fired coaches and executives.

The Buccaneers fall into this latter category. While Lovie Smith’s release was sudden, it was not unexpected or unwarranted. His defense got worse and the only reasons he won four more games than 2014 were Jason Licht, Dirk Koetter and Jameis Winston. Is it really any surprise that

For the fourth time in seven years the Bucs stand at the crossroads. Yet another tumultuous offseason lies ahead. What the Bucs need is a state of the union.

I’m not a presidential speechwriter or a front office executive, but I think I’ll give it a shot. Over the next few weeks, before I get into the meat of draft coverage, I’ll be going over the state of the franchise, player by player, culminating in an examination of the coaching staff (assuming Dirk Koetter is finished assembling his staff).

But where to begin? Where else but the quarterbacks?


 

  • Jameis Winston

There is no question; Winston is Tampa Bay’s most important player going forward. His play in 2015 indicates he is leading the Bucs down the right path.

It’s hard to argue with Winston’s 2015 stat line. 4042 pass yards, 22 pass touchdowns to 15 interceptions, six rushing touchdowns, and a 7.6 yards per attempt average. Good luck finding many rookie quarterbacks with better numbers.

Numbers can be deceiving. After all, the Bucs defense was top ten in yards allowed. Winston still has a ways to go before he can be called a true franchise quarterback.

Winston is still prone to the boneheaded throws that marred his second year with Florida State. His 58.3 pass completion percentage, fourth-worst in the league, is an accurate reflection of Winston’s spotty ball placement. Yes, Bucs receivers dropped 4.8 percent of their targets, but all of the teams with worse drop ratios had better completion percentages.

The good news is Winston is getting Dirk Koetter back. There is a foundation in place for Winston to improve and be what the Bucs drafted him to be.


 

  • Mike Glennon

We can’t talk about Mike Glennon without talking about Ryan Griffin.

Between 2012 and 2015 the Bucs only carried two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. Griffin’s addition this season was a move in the opposite direction.

Griffin’s addition was somewhat puzzling. Winston proved to be a very durable quarterback and has been since FSU. So why was Griffin on the roster all 16 games?

The answer is trade value, and Mike Glennon still has plenty. Good quarterbacks are at a premium in the NFL, even for playoff teams (just as the Houston Texans). Glennon isn’t spectacular, but he’s careful with the football and knows how to manage a game.

While Glennon’s purpose could change now that Lovie Smith is gone, you can bet Jason Licht will pull the trigger if a decent trade offer presents itself.

The Bucs do have time constraints, however. Glennon is entering the final year of his rookie contract. If he’s not traded before the season starts, it would take a desperate, injury-riddled team to make a deal for him.


 

  • Ryan Griffin

There isn’t much that we know about the third-year quarterback out of Tulane. He has yet to take a regular season snap in the NFL. What we do know is that the Bucs paid him 16 game checks to show in sweats on game day.

His value in Tampa Bay depends on how long the Bucs plan on keeping Glennon. While he has a familiarity with Dirk Koetter’s offense, third-string quarterbacks are increasingly expendable these days.

The Bucs could bring in another quarterback to push Griffin for the third spot or remain consistent with Lovie Smith’s philosophy of keeping the best 53 players on the roster.


 

Coming next time are the offensive skill positions: wide receiver, running backs and tight ends. Stay tuned!

Black Wednesday

I would not have fired Lovie Smith on Wednesday. I would have been wrong.

I believed Lovie Smith deserved one more year to pull the Bucs from the underbelly of the NFL. He inherited a team with bare cupboards. Yes, he had Gerald McCoy, Vincent Jackson, Lavonte David and Darrelle Revis, but baseline talent was about as bad it got in the NFL.

This problem can be traced back to Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen. Nearly a decade of awful drafting left the once mighty Bucs defense old and without proper successors. Gruden’s penchant for recruiting veteran quarterbacks while paying lip service to the draft ensured little hope for the future upon his dismissal.

Like Lovie Smith, former Bucs GM Mark Dominik was dealt a futile hand. He had a underqualified coach in Raheem Morris and no young talent to speak of. He was going to have to rebuild the franchise from scratch.

Like Smith, Dominik’s shortcomings kept the Bucs mired in mediocrity. Though both of the head coaches he worked with tanked, it was the implosion of Josh Freeman and the poor draft picks in the second and third rounds that sunk Dominik.

Lovie Smith’s arrival in Tampa Bay was meant to restore the franchise’s tarnished prestige. It was a tall order. Aside from a handful of superstars, the roster resembled old Swiss cheese. Smith would have to make do with no franchise quarterback, no viable edge rushers, two safeties that can’t cover, a hollow offensive line and next to no offensive playmakers.

There’s no question Lovie Smith had his work cut out for him, but that’s why he was so well compensated and given such latitude to pick his players. He had years of success in Chicago, a team he turned around in less than two years. With a decade of experience, he should have been able to turn the franchise around much faster than he was.

Circumstances paid Smith few favors once he was in Tampa Bay.  Offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford fell ill before the 2014 season even started, leaving the Bucs with Marcus Arroyo to call its offensive plays though he had no pro experience.

As rough as Lovie had it coming into Tampa Bay, he only made it worse for himself. Smith and general manager Jason Licht’s 2014 free agent bonanza is well documented and deeply lamented. Smith needed players that would fit his scheme, but apart from Clinton McDonald, every signing failed to live up to expectations.

Good coaches adjust to the talent available (see: Belichick, Bill and Harbaugh, Jim). Lovie Smith refused. He jettisoned Darrelle Revis for Alterraun Verner and Mike Jenkins. Verner was a Pro Bowl player in Tennessee. In Tampa Bay he became a question mark.

What truly damned Lovie Smith was the regression of his defense in 2015. The Bucs went from allowing 25.6 points per game in 2014 to 26.1 points per game this year. They went from 25 turnovers in 2014 to 23 this year. Third down percentage declined from 44 percent to 46 percent.

Make no mistake; this was Lovie Smith’s defense. He picked the free agents to fill the gaps, he dogmatically adhered to his scheme, and if Scott Reynold’s Fab 5 column today is any indication, his conservative demeanor may have contributed to some of the Bucs weak starts in games.

Every head coach and executive is dealt some bad cards, and it takes time to shuffle the deck before the right hand comes around. Lovie Smith may have been able to win in 2016, but he proved this year that he was unlikely to make the Bucs better than cards in his hand.