With the Bucs depth chart is mostly set, we can see how deep the rabbit hole really goes. The starting line-up remains mostly unchanged from last season. The big changes lie beneath the surface.
Quarterbacks: Jameis Winston, Mike Glennon and Ryan Griffin
This group remains unchanged from last year yet is better all the same. With his rookie year and his first real offseason behind him, Jameis Winston needs to be and should be better.
The Bucs’ 2015 draft class is this year’s X-factor. It is absolutely vital for Winston and his draft classmates to build on their rookie years.
Running backs: Doug Martin, Charles Sims and Peyton Barber
Another mostly unchanged unit. Martin will get most of the carries while Sims gets third downs and change of pace carries. Mike James’ release is truly disappointing as he appeared poised to contribute in a big way. It does give Peyton Barber a big opportunity to prove his worth, but it won’t take much for the Bucs to replace him with Russell Hansbrough or even bring back Mike James.
Wide receivers: Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson, Adam Humphries, Russell Shepard and Cecil Shorts
The receiving corps is largely unchanged, which carries positives and negatives. Mike Evans is obviously one of the league’s top wideouts and Vincent Jackson is the wily veteran with velcro hands. Humphries and new addition Cecil Shorts bring the slot game.
The addition of Shorts was significant as the Bucs sorely lacked legitimate depth. While the Bucs should be fine this season, they’ll definitely need to address the position next offseason.
Tight end: Cameron Brate, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Luke Stocker, Brandon Myers and Alan Cross
Five tight ends is enough to make a girl blush. It’s a good bet they’ll see a good bit of action. Brate and Stocker, two of the offense’s most reliable players, should see the most action.
This is Austin Seferian-Jenkins’ make-or-break season. He’s yet to play more than 10 games in a single season, averaging a paltry 2.6 catches and 34.9 yards per game in his career so far. If he can’t exploit his tremendous latent talent, he will solidify his status as a bust.
Tackle: Donovan Smith, Demar Dotson, Gosder Cherilus, Caleb Benenoch, Leonard Wester
Guard: Ali Marpet, Kevin Pamphile and Evan Smith
Center: Joe Hawley
The offensive line gets a lot of heat from popular football evaluators, but you’d never guess they were that bad from last year’s results: top five in rushing and top 10 in sacks allowed. Sure, these numbers don’t tell the whole story, but the line is far from a disaster and is in position to improve with four starters returning.
Again, the key is the development of Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet. Smith needs to clean up his penalties – six holding calls and four false starts is not going to cut it. Marpet was a beast in the run game but must improve as a pass protector.
Depth may be an issue here with JR Sweezy already out. It would not be surprising if, upon Sweezy’s return from the PUP, he failed to outperform Kevin Pamphile. Sweezy was yet another in a long line of ill-advised free agent acquisitions by Jason Licht.
Defensive tackle: Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald, Akeem Spence and DaVonte Lambert
Little change here, as the group still revolves around Gerald McCoy, who should bounce back after playing though a rotator cuff injury last year. The group should benefit from the addition of Robert Ayers who can slide inside in nickel situations.
Defensive end: Robert Ayers, Will Gholston, Noah Spence, Jacquies Smith and Howard Jones
Of all the position groups, the defensive ends improved the most. Robert Ayers is the first legit every-down end the Bucs have had since Michael Bennett. He also brings a much-needed nastiness to the front.
The edge rush rotation could be downright relentless this season. With Ayers in the fold, Jacquies Smith won’t need to play as many early downs and can focus his energy on getting to the quarterback. Spence is a star in the making and will make third downs a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Linebacker: Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander, Daryl Smith, Devante Bond and Adarius Glanton
The Bucs linebackers can become of the most fearsome units in the league with two words: finishing tackles. Tampa Bay was one of the worst tackling defenses last year, thanks in large part to Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander.
Thing is, David was a pretty solid tackler under Greg Schiano. Was it something Lovie Smith was teaching?
Kwon is another player football analysts love to lambaste. He can easily quiet them with just a little consistency. He came so close to so many big plays but gave up plenty as well. Mike Smith may be just what the doctor ordered to get Alexander on track to be recognized as the playmaker he could be.
Cornerback: Brent Grimes, Vernon Hargreaves, Alterraun Verner, Jude Adjei-Barimah, Johnthan Banks and Josh Robinson
When Lovie Smith’s lazy Susan approach to his cornerbacks proved catastrophic last season, it became clear the Bucs still lacked sufficient talent in the unit. Brent Grimes is a patch for a job requiring an overhaul.
Fortunately the Bucs also drafted Vernon Hargreaves, and if the preseason is any indication, they’re off to a good start. He was a veritable shutdown corner in the preseason. Continuing down this track would make him a cornerstone of the Bucs defense for years to come.
Safety: Chris Conte, Bradley McDougald, Ryan Smith and Keith Tandy
The defense’s least talented unit, the safeties are adequate if by no means game-changing. McDougald and Conte produced only 10 pass breakups, four interceptions and two fumbles last season. They didn’t give up many big plays, but they didn’t make any either.
Keith Tandy remains the trusty nickel safety. He’s always good for a third down stop or a saved touchdown. The X-factor here is Ryan Smith, the rookie from North Carolina Central. In addition to competing for return duties, he will play for time in a safety rotation that lacks a clear playmaker.
Kicker: Roberto Aguayo
Aguayo will be fine. Just like Pat Murray and Connor Barth will be fine in Cleveland and Chicago. The Bucs spent a top 100 pick (and the 106th pick) to be fine.
Punter: Bryan Anger
The most furious punter of all time! Anger is a top 10 punter. The Bucs made a good move to sign the former Jacksonville punter.
Long snapper: Andrew DePaola
We continue to hold out for the league’s first Hall of Fame long snapper. Is Andrew DePaola the answer to our prayers? Time will tell.