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.

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.

State of the Union 2017 – Running Back

Where oh where to start? How about with Doug Martin’s drug suspension? It’s speculative to assume the degree his drug use had on his performance, but needless to say his production in 2016 wasn’t up to snuff.

Martin’s 2.9 yards per carry was the worst of his career. Was it laziness after securing a big contract? Was it injuries like the lingering effect of his Week 2 hamstring? Was it the drugs? Was it the offensive line?

By indications from people in the know, the first is unlikely. The second and third are certainly possible but unlikely to be proven. The fourth helped to hinder not just Martin, but the other running backs and the offense in general.

The Bucs got most of their ground production from free agent pickup Jacquizz Rodgers, but even then, it wasn’t much. Rodgers averaged a respectable 4.2 yards per carry, but he had to battle for every yard.

According to Sporting Charts, Rodgers was stopped at or before the line of scrimmage on 13.2 percent of his rush attempts. Martin was stuffed for a league-high 16 percent of his rushes. Running backs don’t get hit in the backfield that much if they have solid blocks in front of them.

There’s a strong possibility Doug Martin won’t be a Buccaneer next season. His PED suspension will likely void the guaranteed money in his contract so the Bucs can cut him at any time without penalty. To stay in Tampa Bay, he may have to agree to a significant pay cut, thanks not just to his suspension but his year-to-year inconsistency.

If Martin is cut, the Bucs will need to look for options beyond Rodgers and Charles Sims. Sims is dynamic in space and as a receiver, but he lacks the vision and strength to be the between-the-tackles runner Tampa’s offense needs. Rodgers is solid but not irreplaceable. Peyton Barber is unlikely to rise above the 3RB spot.

Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson floated the possibility of landing in Tampa Bay this offseason. Five years ago (or 10 if you ask Jon Gruden), this would have been a dream for the Bucs. Now, they would get a 32-year-old with nearly 2500 carries and three major knee injuries under his belt. He’s a very short-term option.

The only free agent option who would actually elevate the position would be Le’Veon Bell. Unfortunately for Tampa and the rest of the league, he’s not likely to get out of Pittsburgh. The rest of the free agent market wouldn’t be any better than what the Bucs already have.

The draft is where the Bucs will need to upgrade their tailback stock. Half the state of Florida prays the Bucs take FSU RB Dalvin Cook. Appropriately, it would take a miracle for Cook to make it to Tampa. There’s a strong chance he’s gone within the top 10 picks to teams like the Jets or the Panthers.

Even if Cook is gone, this year’s draft is brimming with quality ball carriers. LSU’s Leonard Fournette could also be gone before the Bucs pick at 19, but he’s comparable to Cook, talent-wise. Tennesse’s Alvin Kamara, Texas’ D’Onta Foreman or even Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon could give the Bucs’ run game an injection of youth and power it sorely needs on day 2 or maybe even day 3 of the draft.

The running back position is the Bucs’ least certain. There may not be any clear resolution until deep into training camp. If the past month proved anything, Tampa’s ground game is anything but predictable.

State of the Union 2017 – Quarterback

Jameis Winston’s second year was a dichotomy of stability and consistency. He set a league record by being the first passer to record 4000 passing yards in his first two seasons in the NFL. He made incremental improvements to his touchdown total, completion percentage and yards per completion.

He also threw more interceptions and took more sacks, either of which can be attributed to poor play by the offensive line and his lack of pass-catching options. While the rest of the offense does appear to hold Winston back to a degree, so does his spotty ball placement, questionable decision-making and tendency to lose control of his emotions.

Nevertheless, Winston remains the driving force behind the offense. Given he’s only 21, Winston has plenty of time to grow into the Bucs’ franchise leader and become one the league’s top quarterbacks.

Mike Glennon, on the other hand, appears destined for, well, not-as-green pastures. Name a team that needs a quarterback and there’s Glennon name right next to it. Jets? Bears? Bills? Take your pick.

Glennon is this year’s free agent quarterback heir apparent, like Brock Osweiler last year. Good thing for Glennon the NFL generally doesn’t learn its lesson about unproven free agent quarterbacks. Adam Schefter even suggested he may snag up to $15 million a year.

For the Bucs, Glennon’s future contract is significant for one reason: he might provide Tampa with their first compensatory pick in years. While much of this depends on what else the Bucs do in free agency, his contract numbers could net the Bucs another mid-round pick in a few years.

There’s always the chance he stays in Tampa Bay. Still, money talks and the Bucs already have a firm investment in a pretty durable Winston. Jason Licht is unlikely to give Glennon top backup quarterback money.

Ryan Griffin appears to be the heir apparent to the backup role, but that could change this offseason. The Bucs just signed former Falcons QB Sean Renfree to a futures contract per the Tampa Bay Times’ Greg Auman. Renfree was with the Falcons when Dirk Koetter was offensive coordinator so he will be familiar with the offense.

If anything, the Bucs will keep both Griffin and Renfree to let them compete for the QB2 spot. It’s academic anyways: if Winston goes down for any length of time, the offense will be neutered regardless of who the backup is.

State of the Union 2017

For only the second time since they fired Jon Gruden, the Bucs finished the season with a winning record (9-7). Unlike their now flukey 10-6 season in 2010, Tampa Bay is poised to rejoin the NFL’s contenders for years to come.

2016 was the story of two Bucs teams: the mediocre squad stubbornly clinging to nearly a decade of losing and the upstarts with a near-elite defense and a truly elite wide receiver. The latter gave way to the former in just enough games to keep Tampa Bay out of the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.

What the Bucs displayed in their nine wins, particular from Week 10 to Week 14, should tantalize the fan base. Collecting 14 turnovers and averaging 12.8 points during this stretch, the defense under Mike Smith recalled some of the best years under Monte Kiffin.

Jameis Winston buoyed the offense but inconsistency plagued the unit, thanks largely to the struggles of the running game. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Doug Martin obviously had his personal problems, but the offensive line wasn’t as strong run blocking as last season.

It’s important to remember that the offense is a young unit. Over half of the offensive starters have less than four years experience in the NFL. Dirk Koetter was a rookie at the head coach position. Room for growth is certainly available.

Tampa Bay got a good start to the offseason by extending Mike Smith’s contract. Smith was pursued by several teams for their vacant head coaching positions. His decision to stay in Tampa solidifies the foundation the defense built this season.

Entering the offseason with $78 million in cap space according to Spotrac.com, the Bucs have plenty of room to sign and re-sign free agents. Tampa’s 9-7 finish earned them the 19th overall pick in the draft which is likely not good enough to pick up Dalvin Cook, as I’m sure many Bucs fans will be sorry to hear.

On offense, the State of the Union will cover the quarterback, running back, wide receiver, offensive line and tight end positions. On defense, we’ll examine the defensive line, linebackers, and secondary. Updates should appear a few times a week. Stay tuned!