By Jeff Risdon
2013: 4-12, last in NFC South
2014 Over/Under: +/- 7 wins
Why the over
One of the things that really stands out is how well this team addressed its weaknesses. They got a lot better at some key positions.
Foremost is head coach, where Lovie Smith takes over for Greg Schiano. It’s a prudent move, one that the players should immediately respond to positively. Smith is everything that Schiano was not: poised, experienced, NFL savvy, adaptable and patient.
Those qualities didn’t always play well in Lovie’s tenure in Chicago, but in the short term it promises to do wonders for Tampa Bay. His professional approach and the way he treats people with respect will go a long way towards erasing the stain on the franchise that was the tempestuous, arrogant Schiano.
Offensively, the biggest upgrade comes at receiver. For too long the Bucs have been just the Vincent Jackson show, with only sporadic contirubtions from the likes of now-departed Tiquan Underwood and Mike Williams. An aggressive approach by new GM Jason Licht should help quite a bit here.
The team drafted three pass-catchers, all of whom should be immediate contributors. The most prominent is first-round pick Mike Evans, who, like Jackson, is a sheer physical nightmare at 6’5” and 230+ pounds. They’re similarly skilled, which means they should be able to be used interchangeably. Both can attack the football in the air along the sidelines and in traffic, though Evans’ ability in that regard was badly overrated in the draft process.
Trotting out two 6’5” perimeter receivers commands a lot of attention, which means the underbelly could prove to be fertile ground for new QB Josh McCown. Tampa Bay got better here too, with 2nd round pick Austin Seferian-Jenkins and 6th rounder Robert Herron. The burly tight end from Washington excels at chipping and releasing into the intermediate range, and his soft hands and wide frame make him a valuable target. Herron is a shifty speedster in the slot who was largely uncoverable during Senior Bowl practices. His hands aren’t the most reliable but he consistently got open quickly in his Wyoming days, and he’s also a big-time threat to run after the catch.
With expected improvement from 2013 undrafted hybrid TE/WR Tim Wright, who was a revelation with 54 catches and 5 TDs, Tampa Bay finally has some legit weaponry beyond just chucking the ball up for Pro Bowler Jackson to work some magic. The team also signed Brandon Myers, who caught 79 passes in 2012, yet he might not make the team. That’s real progress.
Getting star RB Doug Martin back will help a lot, too. Martin can do everything as a back--run inside, bounce outside, catch and block--and does them all pretty well. He’s compactly built and naturally elusive, always dipping a shoulder here or flipping a hip there to keep defenders from getting a clean shot at him. He missed 10 games last year with a torn labrum in his shoulder, and the offense largely grinded to a halt in his absence.
The Bucs added depth here as well, as third-rounder Charles Sims is a better fit for new OC Jeff Tedford’s West Coast system than departed Brain Leonard. Sims has great hands out of the backfield and proved he could assimilate quickly when he transferred from Houston to West Virginia. He’s the explosive home-run hitter they sought, the one thing Martin is not. I like Mike James as a short-yardage guy and Lonnie Pryor at fullback is perfectly fine.
The offense can only get better. The defense added some pieces that should help, too.
I love the addition of pass rusher Michael Johnson, formerly of the Bengals. He got lost in the shuffle of depth a bit in Cincinnati last year, but the angular Johnson is eminently capable of putting up 10+ sacks and 25+ QB hits as he did in 2012. He’s not very good against the run, but the Bucs aren’t paying him $43M to make tackles four yards from the line. Keep in mind that the last Buccaneer to bag more than 10 sacks in a season was Simeon Rice…in2007. The Bucs only have a sprinkling of players on the entire roster who were even playing college ball at that time.
Johnson joins a defense that already has a legit stud at all three levels, an enviable proliferation of top-shelf talent. It starts up front with Gerald McCoy, the fifth-year tackle who is arguably the league’s best at his position. Some might prefer Ndamukong Suh, the player drafted one spot ahead of him, but McCoy is the more consistent pass rusher and play finisher.
Lavonte David is outstanding at outside linebacker, patrolling the weak side better than anyone else. He could be even better in Smith’s defense, which is tailored to a playmaking WLB. David is a legit threat to lead the league in both tackles and turnovers created. He’s one of the most fun players to watch in the entire league, especially if you view the coach’s tape on NFL Game Rewind. Only then can you get a true appreciation for his awesomeness.
In the secondary, the Bucs have two impact talents. One of those is changed from a year ago, as the team swapped out elite corner Darrelle Revis before adding Alterraun Verner. The former Titan is not an island like Revis, but he’s comfortably in the next tier of top corner talents. He’s a solid #1 corner and a good schematic fit for Smith’s press-heavy coverage. Safety Dashon Goldson is a strong all-around talent with great range and playmaking ability. He struggled trying to do too much at times last year, but his attacking style makes life difficult for opposing passers.
The entire secondary should be pretty good. Johnthan Banks had some positive moments as a rookie, and at 6’2” he’s got disruptive length. Mike Jenkins and Leonard Johnson will fill the third and fourth corner spots in some order, and while neither is an ideal nickel there is some legit, proven NFL talent there with both. The other safety is Mark Barron, a menace to society between the tackles in run support. Just don’t ask him to cover…and the Bucs won’t very often. If you are a Bucs fan and have easy access to some wood, go ahead and knock on it, but this secondary could be very, very good.
The special teams are solid, and Lovie’s almost comedic dedication to those units will only make them stronger. Kicker Connor Barth is a good one, as is punter Michael Koenen. Return specialist Eric Page finished in the top 10 in both punt and kick return averages, something Devin Hester has not done in years. Think about that for a minute.
Why the under
For all the promise with the offense, the Bucs are depending on a career journeyman backup to quarterback them to the promised land. Josh McCown was indeed impressive in Chicago last year, it’s a reach to think he can replicate that performance in a new, more pressured environ. If the purpose here is to use McCown to buy Mike Glennon a much-needed year of development, it’s a great signing. But relying on McCown to elevate the offense with a cast of strangers is extremely optimistic. Remember, this unit finished dead last in passing yards and yards per pass, 31st in total yards per play and third down conversions, and 30th in points scored.
Some of that ineptitude had to deal with the offensive line. While the Bucs have made some changes, it remains to be seen how well the newcomers gel. Anthony Collins has been a swing tackle most of his career, but now he’s suddenly the savior at left tackle. Evan Dietrich-Smith was nothing more than an average center for Green Bay, and now he is expected to lead a line resurgence. Both newcomers do have skill, but expectations seem higher than reality would dictate.
It would be great if stud left guard Carl Nicks could return, but after missing almost all of the last two years with injuries and illness, he simply cannot be relied upon (note: the team reached an injury settlement with Nicks on July 25). The starting guards could very well be Patrick Omameh and either rookie 5th rounder Kevin Pamphile or practice squad refugee Jason Foster. That’s not good enough to handle the rigors of NFL defenses. At least McCown offers more escapability and pocket presence than the lumbering Glennon, who might still be trying to finish his 40 yard dash from the 2013 Combine.
Even though I am a believer in the upgraded receiving corps, there are legit questions there. For all the hubbub over Evans’ size and strength, 40% of his production came in just two games. Evans was visibly invisible in several games. His route running is nothing more than rudimentary and needs a lot of polish. Seferian-Jenkins was much better in 2012 than ’13, and it’s no given he rebounds at the higher level. If those guys don’t immediately contribute, Jackson will once again be burdened with carrying the load with marginal talents like Louis Murphy and Skye Dawson. A lot is riding on the rookies.
There are no rookies, or rather rookie draft picks, to help the defense. The Bucs did not use a single pick on a defensive player. If you consider the Revis/Verner swap as a wash, the only real reinforcements are Johnson at end and Clint McDonald as the fourth defensive tackle, along with Jenkins as the fourth corner. That’s putting a great deal of faith in a unit that finished in the bottom third.
Defensively, there still isn’t much functional depth. The reserve safeties are Keith Tandy and Major Wright, neither of whom belong on an active roster. Wright just might have been the worst NFL regular in the league last year with Chicago, an absolute train wreck. One tweaked knee to Goldson or concussion to head-hunting Barron and he’s the last line of defense.
At corner, Johnson and Danny Gorer are the options at slot. That’s not Johnson’s strong suit, as he lacks lateral quickness and the wide vision needed to play inside. Gorer will have his moments but he’s a reserve through and through. One to keep an eye on: Quinton Poynter, though he’s proven nothing yet.
Smith must also figure out what to do with his linebackers that aren’t named Lavonte David. Mason Foster is a quick, twitchy and instinctive backer, but he is ideally a Will just like David. They’ve tried him in the middle, but he’s not rangy enough and lacks the speed to chase the deeper middle in coverage in the manner that Lovie’s defenses have had in Brian Urlacher in Chicago and London Fletcher in St. Louis. He’s not stout enough to play on the strong side, but neither is Jonathan Casillas, who currently sits atop the depth chart there. Former Patriot Dane Fletcher factors in the mix, but when is the last time an ex-Patriot defender came close to living up to the expectations?
Then there is Lovie himself. His Chicago teams became predictable on defense, surviving almost exclusively on forcing turnovers and winning field position battles with outstanding special teams. He went through offensive coordinators like Derek Jeter does hotties, with considerably less payoff. He’s never worked with Jeff Tedford before, so how they blend together is a big unknown. Lovie’s in-game management and strategic adjustments were often puzzling, to be kind; Bears fans were stunned at how much that team improved in that regard in transitioning from Lovie to Marc Trestman, a rookie NFL coach.
Tampa Bay is a team on the rise in a division with a notorious history for extreme volatility. It’s not unusual for the NFC South dregs one year to rule the roost the next. They were close to being good a year ago, but held back by inept coaching, losing Doug Martin and spotty QB play from a rookie who shouldn’t have been playing.
Though I am no Lovie Smith fan, he’s a huge upgrade over Greg Schiano and the players will absolutely respond to his user-friendly, respectful style. In Josh McCown, they have a professional QB who proved a year ago he can carry a team for a year. McCown won’t make the rookie mistakes that Mike Glennon did. With upgraded weaponry and a healthy return by Martin, the offense should finally be able to outscore some opponents.
The schedule is very favorable for a quick turnaround. They open with two winnable home games against Carolina and St. Louis. If they survive a three-game roadie (ATL, PIT and NO), they have a chance to go a big run afterwards; Tampa should be favored in every game from weeks 6-12, a trip to Chicago. The final four games are not easy--at Detroit, at Carolina, then home for Green Bay and New Orleans. Two wins there likely puts them in the playoffs.
Barring major injury, Tampa Bay should be a strong “over” bet at seven wins. I like them to finish at 10-6, with the winner of the Week 16 tilt against Green Bay getting the 6th seed in the NFC playoffs.
Special thanks to Sander Philipse of Bucs Nation for helping to color in the grey areas in some spots here.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers