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!

The Filibuster: Week 7

Slow Starts

Say it once, say it a thousand times: the Bucs live and die with Jameis Winston. For yet another game, he started on the wrong foot. His first pass attempt should have been a completion to a wide-open Mike Evans, but for whatever reason, he was too spooked to pull the trigger and held the ball long enough for Ahmad Brooks and Arik Armstead to get the sack.

The second sack came when Winston leaves the pocket prematurely when DeForest Buckner stunted himself right into the ground with Donovan Smith on top of him. His protection was otherwise solid, but Winston scrambled into a open lane for Aaron Lynch.

The interception was an unholy concoction of a protection breakdown by Demar Dotson and a poor decision by Jameis Winston, who misses a wide open Cecil Shorts along the sideline.

By the second quarter, Winston was firing on all cylinders, but the Bucs can’t afford to wait that long. Winston’s emotional volatility cost the Bucs a possible touchdown and might be part of the reason he can’t settle in until several drives into the game.

The other factor is Dirk Koetter’s coaching. Some of his play-calling this year has been… puzzling. The all run call first drive? Persistent seven-step drops? Even Koetter doesn’t seem to find a groove until well into the game.

Defensive Evolution

The Bucs’ first defensive series hearkened back to a vintage Lovie Smith defense: no pass rush, miscues in the secondary and a very fast score by the Niners. Fortunately, by the end of the quarter, the defensive line settled in and began harassing Kaepernick relentlessly.

There’s definitely progress in the secondary – tighter coverage and fewer blown assignments. It helps that there’s more consistent pass rush. Jay Hayes is working his magic on Will Gholston, Gerald McCoy and apparently Noah Spence.

If you ever want to see a textbook corner turn, watch Noah Spence work Joe Staley on third down in the fourth quarter to force the Niners to kick the field goal. He’s on the verge of being unstoppable.

The one lingering concern is the missed tackles, especially by Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David. Kwon is ridiculously fast, almost to a fault. He overran sacks on Kaepernick several times, allowing him an open field to run.

Law and Order

Quite simply, the refs were terrible. The first quarter holding call on Donovan Smith was questionable at best. They missed a hold on Akeem Spence on Kaepernick’s touchdown pass and some obvious pass interference on Russell Shepard in the endzone. On the flipside, the refs missed a hold by Brandon Myers on the first play of the third quarter.

The NFL product is suffering in large part due to the uneven regulation of both on-field product. Bad calls are such a common occurrence in the NFL that it wouldn’t be out of the question for the league to consider making referees full-time employees to help improve game-day calls.

Jumbo Slice

One of the secrets to the Bucs’ success in the run game is their jumbo package and sixth offensive lineman Gosder Cherilus. The Bucs utilized the package ten times against the Niners. Excepting holding penalties on Donovan Smith and Kevin Pamphile, the package netted 96 rush yards (12 yard average) including Peyton Barber’s 44-yard touchdown run.

Yes, San Francisco’s defense can’t stop the run, but the jumbo package is a key driver to the success of the Bucs run game. While the base line (with Luke Stocker) is good on its own, this package should remain an integral piece of the offensive gameplan.

The Filibuster: Week 2

What a joy it was not to watch the game live. The Bucs were putrid in every facet. The offense led the way with five turnovers, all by Jameis Winston. The defense stopped putting up a fight halfway through the second quarter, and special teams did nothing to stem the tide.

The Bucs started the game in fine fashion, forcing a punt on Arizona’s first drive. Even the beginning of the first offensive drive looked good with some nice completions and Doug Martin runs.

Obviously the wheels started to come off with Winston’s first interception. While he had Evans in a one-on-one matchup with no safety over the top, Winston was throwing at Patrick Peterson, a cornerback who makes passers pay for inaccurate throws.

Winston was already taking a risk with the throw, opting for the big play over a wide open Doug Martin in the flat. Mike Evans did him no favors by opening his hips too early allowing Peterson to take position over top at less than top speed. Winston’s tendency to slightly  overthrow his deep balls left Peterson in perfect position to pick him off.

The defense picked up the slack and forced another punt, but the shine was off the offense. Blocking was lethargic. Doug Martin’s two-yard loss was doomed by Donovan Smith’s slow get-off and Austin Seferian-Jenkins’ complete lack thereof. Vincent Jackson became a shadow of himself.

Injuries certainly didn’t help. Doug Martin’s hamstring injury again proved he is the grease the keeps the gears of the offense turning. Robert Ayers’ loss further depleted the Bucs thinning defensive end ranks. While not a playmaker, Luke Stocker is an instrumental role player particularly to the run game.

The offense’s ineptitude crept over to the defense. Jaron Brown’s 51-yard touchdown exposed every weakness in the Bucs pass defense. The pass rush didn’t sniff Carson Palmer. The zone coverage fell to pieces when Chris Conte came too far down and let Brown run right by him.

If there was one thing the Bucs did consistently, it was bottle up the run game. The Cards gained only 101 yards in 29 attempts on the ground. Even the coverage was tighter than its been in the past. Alterraun Verner even looked like a $6 million cornerback. The defense looked much worse thanks to the offense’s constant mistakes.

Still, it was Winston’s turnovers that clipped the Bucs’ wings, even if they weren’t all his own. His second interception falls more on Vincent Jackson than Winston, but his fumble was downright shameful, reminiscent of his meme-enshrined Rose Bowl fumble. Winston’s third interception was tipped by DT Josh Mauro. Though not entirely his fault, the pass was still too low with a defender in his face. The fourth was a game-ending hail mary.

The Bucs live and die on Winston’s play. Last week he looked like the franchise quarterback he was drafted to be. In Arizona, he gave an encore of Week 1… 2015. His greatest weakness remains consistency. He can’t be so hot and cold and expect the Bucs to sustain success.

If Week 1 was a taste of what the Bucs could be, Week 2 was a reminder how low they can go. There’s a Bucs team somewhere in between, a team that needs to trend towards it’s Week 1 incarnation. 1-1 isn’t bad, and one loss isn’t the end of the world, no matter the score.

 

Oh, and Robert Aguayo missed another sub-50 yard kick. Two picks for a kicker…