2016 NFL Season Preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Free Agent Additions: 
G J.R. Sweezy, DE Robert Ayers, LB Daryl Smith, CB Brent Grimes, CB Josh Robinson, P Bryan Anger
Early Draft Picks: 
CB Vernon Hargreaves, DE Noah Spence, K Roberto Aguayo, CB Ryan Smith, OT Caleb Benenoch
Free Agent Losses Losses: 
DT Henry Melton, ILB Bruce Carter, CB Sterling Moore

2016 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Offense: 
Two years ago, the Buccaneers were hopeless and had reached rock bottom. Now, they are a team on the rise. They have franchise QB Jameis Winston to thank for that. There was some concern regarding Winston’s off-the-field issues when he came out of Florida State, but he has been both a model citizen and a great team leader thus far. He threw for 4,042 yards, 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, all while rushing in six more scores as a rookie. He’s not finished yet, as he’s on record saying he wants to “improve everything” while reporting to camp in excellent shape.

An even better campaign from Winston obviously means great things for his targets, especially Mike Evans. The third-year wideout struggled last year. Yes, he accumulated 1,206 receiving yards, but he caught just 50 percent of the balls thrown his way, and even got booed one game because he had so many drops. The coaching staff said that Evans’ work ethic was partly to blame, so perhaps Winston’s efforts will rub off on the young receiver.

Evans will need to perform well because the rest of the receiving corps is underwhelming. Vincent Jackson used to be a great player, but that’s not the case anymore. Jackson has regressed the past two years – he caught 33 passes for 543 yards in 10 games last season – and the downward spiral will likely continue, given that Jackson turned 33 in the offseason. Meanwhile, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Seferian-Jenkins is a talented athlete, but he has been on the field for just 16 total games in two pro seasons thus far. Earlier this offseason, he was dismissed from practice because he didn’t know what was going on. There’s a chance he could lose his job to Cameron Brate, a former undrafted free agent out of Harvard who is a good end-zone target.

With dubious play from the receivers and tight ends last year, the Buccaneers were able to mostly move the ball on the ground. Doug Martin rebounded off two very disappointing seasons to finish second in the NFL in rushing, accumulating 1,402 yards on the ground. He also caught 33 passes. Martin was rewarded with a $35.75 million contract this spring, but now that he collected a large amount of guaranteed money, he could once again become fat and lazy, as he appeared to in 2013 and 2014. Good ol’ Charles Sims could be a capable replacement if Martin didn’t work hard this offseason and gets hurt as a consequence, but he is more of a receiving back in the NFL, rather than a between the tackles runner.

Of course, better play from the offensive line could help offset Martin’s potential decline. The tackles were horrible last year, with Donovan Smith struggling on the blind side, and Demar Dotson being out for 10 games because of a sprained MCL. Dotson’s return would be huge, as he’s Tampa Bay’s best offensive lineman when healthy. Smith, meanwhile, can’t possibly be as bad as he was as a rookie. There’s no guarantee he’ll be good, but perhaps he won’t be awful again.

The Buccaneers will have some new players starting on the interior, though that’s not necessarily a good thing. They gave former Seahawk J.R. Sweezy a $32.5 million contract this offseason, which was a mistake because he wasn’t very good in Seattle. He figures to be a poor replacement for the retired Logan Mankins. He’ll start along with guard Ali Marpet, who showed some promise as a second-round rookie last year, and center Joe Hawley, formerly of the Falcons.

 

2016 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defense: 
Three of Tampa Bay’s initial four 2016 draft selections were used on defensive players. This was not a surprise in the slightest, as the Buccaneers’ stop unit struggled in most regards this past season, as they allowed 26.1 points per game last season.

The first pick, was used on Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves after the Buccaneers moved down from No. 9 to 11. Hargreaves was regarded as the consensus second-best cornerback in the 2016 NFL Draft behind Jalen Ramsey, whom Tampa Bay greatly coveted. Hargreaves wasn’t a bad consolation prize though, especially when considering the trade. He fills a huge need, as most of Tampa’s corners were horrific this past season. Sterling Moore was just fine, but he’s gone now. Opening starters Alterraun Verner and Johnathan Banks were torched mercilessly. It would be highly surprising if Hargreaves isn’t an instant upgrade over those two with Moore gone. Brent Grimes will likely be the other starter, but he looked washed up with the Dolphins last year.

Safety is also a big concern as the Bucs didn’t use any pick on a safety. Chris Conte isn’t terrible, but the Buccaneers have little else there. Bradley McDougald is currently penciled into the lineup, so take from that what you will.

The Buccaneers spent their second-round choice on Noah Spence, who potentially fills a huge need at defensive end. He is reportedly having a very good training camp, but it’s unclear if he will start right away, as Robert Ayers was also signed in free agency. Ayers, formerly of the Giants, logged nine sacks in 2015. He and Spence will join William Gholston at the position. Gholston isn’t a great pass-rusher, but he’s very good at clamping down versus the run.

Of course, Tampa Bay’s best defensive lineman will continue to be Gerald McCoy, one of the top defensive tackles in the league. He’s actually coming off a down year, but only because he was playing through a torn rotator cuff the entire season. McCoy is only 28, so he is still in position to dominate this year. He’ll play next to either Clinton McDonald or Akeem Spence. Spence is solid versus the rush, while McDonald is better at rushing the passer.

As for the linebackers, the Buccaneers are lucky to have Lavonte David, who is great in coverage and against the run. ILB Kwon Alexander needs to improve against the run in his second season. Rounding out the unit is Danny Lansanah, a solid defender.

 

2016 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Schedule and Intangibles: 
Prior to the 2009 season, the Buccaneers were 68-36 as hosts. However, they’ve maintained one of the worst homefield advantages in the NFL since. They’re 17-38 at Raymond James stadium dating back to 2009.

Tampa made what one general manager called “the worst draft pick ever” when they traded up into the second round for kicker Roberto Aguyao, but who knows, maybe he will stick with the team for 17 seasons. The pick won’t look so bad then.

Of course, the Jaguars’ decision to take punter Bryan Anger in the third round in 2012 – a few selections prior to Russell Wilson – may have been worse. Coincidentally, Anger is now Tampa’s punter. Anger was 22nd in net yardage in 2015.

The Buccaneers were mixed on special teams. They outgained their opponents by a wide margin on punt returns, but lost the yardage battle when it came to kickoffs.

Outside of the 49ers and maybe the Rams, I don’t see too many easy games on the Bucs schedule. They have to play the AFC/NFC West, Bears, Cowboys, and of course, the Panthers twice. Winning their opening game in Atlanta against the Falcons is very important, because they have the Cardinals, Broncos, and Panthers as 3 of their following 4 opponents (with the Rams sandwiched in), so if they slip up, they could be staring at 1-4 going into their bye.

2016 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Positional Rankings (1-5 stars): 

bucs stars

2016 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Analysis: Tampa Bay is a hard team to judge. On one hand, they have what should be an improved Jameis Winston and Mike Evans, along with what should be a soling running game. On the other hand, they still have an unproven secondary and questions on the offensive line, and there isn’t really anything elite about this team yet. They also have a rookie head coach in Dirk Koetter. Will he be able improve his team’s scoring output from 21 points per game to about 24? That may be too much to ask in his first year. The Bucs just aren’t quite ready to overtake Carolina in the NFC South.

Projection: 8-8 (2nd in NFC South)

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