State of the Union 2017 – Offensive Line

The foundation of a successful offense lies with the offensive line. A good quarterback can flounder under constant pressure (see: Andrew Luck) and a good running back won’t find running lanes without solid blocking (see: Todd Gurley). The Bucs offense finished the season ranked 18th in yards per game (346.4), right smack in the middle due in large part to the ups and downs of the offensive line.

Aside from total yards, the offense was also down yards per play (5.2) and first downs per game (21.2) but allowed more sacks (35) and QB hits (109) from 2015. While some of these figures can be attributed to the nature of Dirk Koetter’s offense and Jameis Winston’s insistence on holding the ball until a play materializes, the line still bears responsibility for a lot of the punishment he takes.

Many of the run game’s problems can also be attributed to the line. While injuries and Doug Martin’s personal problems played a role, it takes a pretty bad offensive line play to allow 11.9 percent of rushes to be stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage (per Sporting Charts).

The offensive line did make a little progress with its penalty problem, cutting it from 45 to 42. Left tackle Donovan Smith led the league’s offensive linemen with 13 penalties and with right tackle Demar Dotson accounted for over half of the Bucs offensive line fouls.

Smith’s penalty problems from 2015 may have persisted but he otherwise played well down the stretch. Tampa Bay Times film and stats guru (and Twitter must-follow) Thomas Bassinger (via Pro Football Focus) noted Smith allowed no more than three hurries in any of the Bucs last eight games. There have been questions whether Smith is cut out to be a starting left tackle, but it’s important to remember he only has two years of pro experience.

Fellow 2015 draftee Ali Marpet is faring far better and is on track to being a Pro Bowler if not an All Pro. He is the Bucs’ most consistent pass protector and is the guy you’re most likely to see at the second level making blocks.

Marpet must be the line’s anchor moving forward, largely because the rest of the line could be upgraded. Both the left guard and center positions are in flux.

JR Sweezy was just cleared to resume playing, but he was not a promising addition even before his back injury. If there’s one thing offensive linemen don’t want, it’s a back injury. They tend to linger and hinder effectiveness past the point of being able to play through them. With most of his guaranteed money washed along with his first year with Tampa Bay, Sweezy should be a candidate for preseason cuts if he doesn’t stand out against players who filled in for him in 2016.

Kevin Pamphile was an adequate fill in for Sweezy. He will challenge for the start again and at worst will return to his utility backup position. He’s not going anywhere.

Center Joe Hawley is a free agent and was good for at least one injury timeout in every game he played. Backup center/guard Evan Smith is the Bucs most overpaid offensive player if only by virtue of being a backup. Due $4.5 million in 2017, he’s likely to be cut or have his contract restructured.

It’s entirely possible the Bucs will start a center in 2017 who isn’t even on the roster. Moving Ali Marpet over from a position where he’s excelling would be foolish. The Bucs would be better served by re-signing Hawley and drafting a center to develop behind him.

RT Demar Dotson is an adequate lineman at a fair cost. While he is too prone to holding pass rushers, he’s generally reliable in pass protection. His backup, Gosder Cherilus, on the other hand was a liability whenever he filled in for Dotson. The Bucs can do better at backup tackle.

Rookie Caleb Benenoch saw limited action but looked promising in his sole start against Chicago. He projects as a guard moving forward and could be the Bucs’ next utility lineman. Backup C Ben Gottschalk should be in consideration to start next season, provided a solid training camp. T Leonard Wester will have to fight to keep a backup role.

The Bucs are unlikely to make another big free agent move, not with so much money invested in the line already and considering Jason Licht’s preference for drafting linemen. If the Bucs were to pursue an expensive free agent, it has to be Bengals G Kevin Zeitler. While Cincinnati’s offensive line wasn’t very good last year, Zeitler is still one of the best guards in the league. The Bucs could cut JR Sweezy with only a $2.5 million cap hit and more adequately fill the void left when Logan Mankins retired.

While this year’s draft isn’t well stocked with quality offensive linemen, the Bucs do have options. At center, Ohio State’s Pat Elflein would be the Bucs’ best option to fill the center position. He’s not huge but he is nasty, qualities shared by current C Hawley. If he’s available in the third round, the Bucs have to pull the trigger.

There are no clear answers for what changes the Bucs need to make at offensive line where chemistry is nearly as important as talent. It’s never as simple as adding or moving pieces around. What is clear is that changes have to be made to improve the Bucs offensive production and lay a foundation for future success.

State of the Union 2017 – Tight End

The 2016 season was the culmination of three years of searching for a starting tight end. In the end, not only did Cameron Brate, an undrafted free agent from Harvard, seize the Bucs’ top spot, he established himself as one of the most dangerous tight ends in the league.

Brate joined Tampa Bay in 2014, the same year the Bucs drafted Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the second round of the draft. Seferian-Jenkins was deigned a “Dunkaneer” with the expectation of becoming a big target over the middle and in the red zone.

Instead, two years of mediocrity and a DUI arrest later the Bucs cut Seferian-Jenkins, who is now a New York Jet. Fortunately for the Bucs, the same year they drafted Seferian-Jenkins, they signed Cameron Brate.

Brate ground his way to the top of the tight end depth chart, appearing in five games his rookie season and starting sporadically in 2015. He broke out this season, recording 57 receptions for 660 yards and a league-leading eight touchdowns. He rendered ASJ a mere footnote in Bucs history.

Brate should be a Buccaneer through 2018. He is an exclusive rights free agent this year which makes him a restricted free agent next. This is only part of the reason the Bucs need not consider using their first round pick on a tight end.

Mocking Alabama TE OJ Howard or Miami TE David Njoku to the Bucs has become a popular trend over the past month. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller argues Brate is “a fine player” but no Njoku. Pewter Report’s Scott Reynolds envisions a situation where Brate and Howard share the field, posing a double-sized threat to the middle of the field.

It’s not impossible that Jason Licht will agree with Miller or Reynolds’ assessments. Nevertheless it remains both unlikely and unwise the Bucs will use their first round pick on Howard or Njoku.

Licht has proven himself willing to move on from high profile players but he’s also demonstrated his consideration for team needs with his draft picks. There is no need to spend a first round pick on another tight end when Jameis Winston has an obvious rapport with Brate.

In the case of Howard, it’s entirely possible he will be gone by the time the Bucs pick at 19. He’s insanely athletic and a surprisingly decent pass protector. He’s an instant starter for some NFL teams.

The Bucs won’t pigeonhole their draft analysis of tight ends to just first round prospects. This is a decent draft for the position and quality players could be found on day 2. One name they ought to consider with a mid-round pick is Michigan TE Jake Butt.

The unfortunately named Butt might have been a late first, early second-round pick if not for his devastating ACL tear in the Orange Bowl (he should have skipped the game!).  Butt is not as athletic as Howard or Njoku, but like Brate he just plain catches the ball. His knee injury will no doubt push him down the draft but that will only make him a Day 2 or 3 value.

Playmakers aside, the Bucs do need to address their tight end depth. They still have blocking specialist Luke Stocker under contract and Alan Cross often served as lead blocker last season. However, Stocker has never caught more than 16 catches in a season and Cross is still very raw. When those two are on the field, opposing defenses are going to be watching for them to block, not catch.

What the Bucs really need is a balanced tight end, a player whose presence won’t telegraph the offense’s intentions. Brandon Myers played that role for the past three years, but his impact diminished each season and he is not under contract in 2017.

To address this need, Roy Cummings had a interesting idea for the Bucs to sign free agent TE Jack Doyle. He shared the field with Dwayne Allen but still notched 584 yards and five scores for the Colts last season. He may not be a starter, but with Brate he doesn’t need to be.

State of the Union 2017 – Wide Receiver

Quick, name an NFL wide receiver who played better and had more individual impact than Mike Evans. He led the NFL in targets, tied for second in touchdowns among receivers and finished fourth in total yards.

Evans was also better holding onto the ball, dropping only seven passes versus 11 last season with more targets. He was by far the most clutch receiver when it came to getting a first down – 84.4 percent of his catches moved the chains.

What makes this truly impressive was the lack of a true second receiver. Vincent Jackson spent most of the year on injured reserve. Adam Humphries was more effective as a slot receiver than a threat opposite Evans.

To truly unleash Mike Evans, the Bucs need to find another top end wideout. Vincent Jackson is 34 and his production has steadily declined over the past few years. If the Bucs bring Jackson back, he may be able to provide a veteran presence and nab a few balls next year but he’s simply not a starter anymore.

Adam Humphries proved this year he’s the real deal. He caught 55 passes, accounting for two-thirds of his targets. He’s quick and reliable, the two key attributes of a slot guy. Another quality receiver should only improve his opportunities with the ball if he can stick to the slot and garner less attention from defenses.

The rest of the Tampa receiver corps is solid but lack either the playmaking ability or consistency to be more than depth players. Russell Shepard had his moments as his role with offense expanded, but he never truly broke out despite numerous opportunities.

It’s also possible Shepard won’t be back next season. His value as a special teams player alone could make him a sought-after commodity this offseason. According to Roy Cummings, Bucs GM Jason Licht wants to bring Shepard back but only plan to bring back players “if the contracts make sense[.]”

Freddie Martino came up with some nice catches in more limited playtime and could become a bigger contributor. Cecil Shorts didn’t have near the impact anyone expected and probably won’t be on the roster next year.

It’s clear the Bucs have to look outside for improvement at the receiver position. Free agency is pretty well stocked with talent, though the fit is questionable.

Bears WR Alshon Jeffery is near the top of everyone’s free agent wish list. It’s important to remember that Jeffery has played exactly one full season in his five-year career. Still, playing across Mike Evans might help relieve some of the pressure of being his team’s only real receiving threat.

If the Bucs are looking for upside, Dolphins WR Kenny Stills is next on the list. While not a prolific pass-catcher, Stills had a knack for finding the endzone and picking up big chunks of yardage in Adam Gase’s offense last year. He could provide the speed element the Bucs’ pass game currently lacks.

There are some decent veteran options as well. Kenny Britt appears to have left his self-sabotaging ways behind and was the only respectable piece of the Rams’ offense this season, picking up 1002 yards and five touchdowns on 68 receptions. Of the veteran options, he would be closest thing to replacing Vincent Jackson.

Washington has its two starting receivers Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon potentially hitting the street. Jackson is also oft-injured but can still take the top off a defense. Garcon gets less attention despite being more reliable and catching more balls.

Both are 30, which poses more of a problem for Jackson given his more delicate frame. Garcon is a fearless receiver over the middle, where Jameis Winston does some of his best work. While he lacks an elite skill set, Garcon would be a better option.

Of course the Bucs also have the draft to consider, with a few viable options for addressing the receiver position in the first round. Western Michigan WR Corey Davis is getting a lot of love from the likes of Pewter Report and rightfully so. He set the college football record in receiving yards and caught an absurd 332 passes at Western Michigan.

Another possible target is Washington WR John Ross. He’s on the smaller side at 5’11” and 190 pounds, but he has the speed and quickness to gain separation whether he’s underneath or going deep.

Ross blew up in 2016, catching 80 passes for 1150 yards and 17 touchdowns. There is some risk that Ross was a one hit wonder. His production in the two years prior (33 receptions, 579 yards, five scores) was less than half his 2016 numbers.

The Bucs will be hard-pressed to find a more pure playmaker than Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel. While he was more of a tweener in college, Samuel’s quickness and fluidity could make him a lethal mid-range target for Winston.

If the Bucs wait to address the receiver position, the second round has some great prospects as well. USC’s Juju Smith-Schuster has size and strength like Mike Evans; Isaiah Ford was consistently productive in three years at Virginia Tech (210 receptions, 2967 yards, 24 TDs); Cooper Kupp will no doubt garner copious stereotypes about his “work-ethic” and “scrappiness” but there’s no stereotyping his ridiculous stats at Eastern Washington (428 receptions, 6464 yards, 73 touchdowns).

There’s no way the Bucs ignore the wide receiver position this offseason. To do so would put the 2017 offense in peril.