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.