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$.10 For Labor Day

By Jeff Risdon

As the calendar turns to September, football has returned! The first week of college football is in the books, and the NFL kicks off this Thursday.

From cutdown day to suspensions to preseason surprises, here are a few things rattling around my football brain.

$.01--My hometown of Cleveland once again dominated the summer sports news cycle. This time it had nothing to do with Johnny Manziel or LeBron James, though the Kevin Love trade did make my smile a mile wide.

Star wideout Josh Gordon was suspended for a full year for his most recent failed drug test. His appeal was denied, and now the habitual offender faces a one-year banishment from the NFL.

Gordon, who twice failed drug tests while at Baylor and failed another when he tried to transfer to Utah, has a serious marijuana problem. Of that there is no doubt. Yet many are criticizing the NFL, and more specifically Commissioner Roger Goodell, for the way the Gordon case has been handled.

The appellate process dragged on far longer than necessary. The league failed to rule on it for some three weeks, which means the banishment extends deep into the 2015 preseason. It also completely removes him from any NFL activities, the one bit of structure in his troubled life.

It’s hard to sympathize with Gordon. Even if he was merely guilty of being exposed to secondhand smoke, he’s a complete idiot for being around guys smoking weed. His selfishness and lack of professionalism and good judgment have likely cost him his career, and that’s a shame.

Now the Browns face the season without the NFL’s leading receiver a year ago. His 1646 yards ranks 9th in the Super Bowl era, and Gordon’s blend of size, speed and strength made him one of the most formidable weapons in football.

His absence leaves oft-injured Miles Austin and 5’7” Andrew Hawkins, who caught 12 passes in Cincinnati last year, as the starting receivers for underwhelming starting QB Brian Hoyer. This could be one of the lowest-scoring offenses of the 2000s, folks. Bet the under on everything with the Cleveland Browns.

$.02--Another long-lingering suspension issue came down in San Francisco, where star pass rusher Aldon Smith was suspended for the first nine games for a series of malfeasances. Among his indiscretions:

- A DUI in Sept. 2013

- Guilty plea to six charges, including illegal assault weapons charges, following a party at his home where someone was shot

- A Jan. 2012 DUI

- A fake bomb threat at LAX last April

He missed five games last season after entering rehab, so when he finally returns to the field in November Smith will have missed 14 games because of his propensity for illicit activities.

The Niners will miss Smith dearly. Remember, they’re also without star inside linebacker Navorro Bowman for at least the first six weeks as he recovers from a significant knee injury suffered in the playoffs. He might not be back at all.

Without that dynamic LB duo, and with defensive end Ray McDonald apparently gunning for a suspension of his own, these Niners are not even close to the dominating defense they’ve fielded in recent seasons.

This is among several reasons why I think San Francisco misses the playoffs in 2014 after making three straight NFC Championship games. You can read the full season predictions here this Wednesday.

$.03--Sadly there’s still more suspension news. This is what happens when there aren’t any games to distract us from the negatives, and no the final preseason week does not count as “real” NFL football.

In response to overwhelming criticism from all corners of the media for how the league handled Ray Rice and his domestic violence suspension, Commissioner Goodell announced a new policy.

Effective immediately, any NFL employee guilty of domestic violence is immediately suspended for six games for a first offense and a lifetime ban for the second. Further details are available here at the LA Times.

This is an appropriate response. It’s a shame it took such a public spectacle for the NFL to admit it was wrongly behind the times. The disturbing video of Rice, the Ravens star running back, dragging his unconscious fiancée out of a casino elevator is far more deserving of harsh punishment than a player getting busted with pot for the first time.

To his credit, Rice has handled his humiliation with dignity and proper remorse. I believe him when he says he regrets it and wants to make it right. But in any other profession, knocking a woman out in public and dragging her like a deer carcass would result in far sterner punishment than sparking up a few milligrams of weed.

The NFL did get it right, but only after failing miserably on the issue of domestic violence.

$.04--There was a chance that no rookie quarterbacks will start in Week 1, a feat that has not happened since 2007.

Normally, I would applaud the patience of these obviously needy franchises, but in two cases I believe the best option is to play the rookie over the veteran. Derek Carr should be the starter in Oakland, and Blake Bortles deserves the nod in Jacksonville.

Carr is the more ready and clearly the better option to lead the Raiders to victory than Matt Schaub. The former Texans QB was unimpressive once again in preseason. He’s obviously never recovered from his Lisfranc (foot) injury in 2011. Since that time, Schaub has been unable to drive the ball. He’s now messed up his elbow trying to compensate for the loss of base strength, and he’s not a capable NFL quarterback anymore.

Carr might not be one right away either, but at least he’s got potential. He played reasonably well in preseason, showing poise and awareness as well as a decent arm. The Raiders might as well get him up to speed as fast as possible. With him they might win 6 or 7 games, whereas with Schaub they top out at 4-12.

The Jaguars are strongly resisting the urge to play Bortles instead of underwhelming vet Chad Henne. It’s like a horny teenage boy on a first date with a buxom young lady and he’s trying to be on his best behavior. The gap between Henne and Bortles is closer than the one in Oakland, and Henne can produce some quality moments; the veteran Michigan man had a better QB Rating in the first half of games than Andrew Luck last year.

It’s a delicate balance for the Jaguars, and for the Vikings with Teddy Bridgewater as well. Their rookie QBs clearly need more time to hone their skills, but they also offer the team the better chance to win right now. The Browns are in that boat too, but not even Johnny Unitas, let alone Johnny Football, could get that team to more than 7 wins.

$.05--Saturday was roster cutdown day, as teams had to trim down to 53 players from 75. Several recognizable names wound up on the waiver wire, but none more prominent than Michael Sam.

The Rams' 7th round pick out of Missouri, Sam flashed some pass rushing skills in preseason. He even sacked Johnny Football and mocked him with the infamous money sign, a moment which almost caused the earth to stop spinning. Yet he was beaten out by better men for the job on a ridiculously deep St. Louis defensive line.

He’d be just another marginal NFL talent scrapping his way onto a practice squad (as of 5:24 PM Sunday he was still not signed anywhere), and the larger world would scarcely know his name. But because Sam came out as a homosexual player, the mass media will not let you forget about him.

Sam is, was and always will be a limited athlete with a great motor and good-not-great burst around the edge. He’s a one-dimensional player, strictly a pass rushing specialist. His sexual preference, showering habits (thanks for asking, ESPN!) and gregarious smile all have nothing to do with that.

You probably won’t hear much about other seventh round picks who didn’t make their teams. The Rams themselves have three others who also failed to make the team. Go ahead and try to name one without looking it up…

You’ll never hear ESPN ever mention Mitchell Van Dyk, Christian Bryant or Demetrius Rhaney. But you’ll hear volumes about Michael Sam. That’s not fair to him, or to the Rams. When the people covering the game care more about ancillary crap than the people playing it, it’s time to find new people to cover the game.

$.06--There was a rare trade of actual players last week, as the New England Patriots dealt Logan Mankins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Tim Wright. The Patriots will also receive a fouth-round pick.

Mankins is a Pro Bowl-caliber guard, albeit an aging one (he’s 32) with a fat contract and no desire to restructure said contract. He’s made five All Pro teams while doing an exemplary job of keeping Tom Brady comfortable and healthy.

He immediately becomes the best lineman on what has been a strangely depleted Bucs unit. After Carl Nicks was forced to retire due to MRSA he contracted from team facilities (allegedly) and departures of Donald Penn and Jeremy Zuttah, the Bucs are left with a rebuilt line. Before Mankins’ arrival, the starting guards were Jamon Meredith and Patrick Omameh. That’s easily the worst guard tandem in football.

Now the Bucs add a stud back to the front, and one with much-needed playoff experience. Mankins is a tone setter for a team that is still recovering from tone-deaf coach Greg Schiano, who played every note wrong in his two seasons of ravaging this franchise. Even if he’s just 90% of his peak self, he’s still an incredible asset for a team that could be a pleasant surprise this year.

The Patriots get an underrated talent in Wright, a hybrid tight end/wideout who hauled in 50 catches as a rookie last year. My first exposure to Wright, an undrafted player from Rutgers, was in the Detroit game. He immediately impressed with his ability to get open against a very good cover LB in DeAndre Levy.

He’s a sure-handed, big and fleet target who can line up inline or as the motion end or in the slot. For a team still among the very bottom in receiving talent, adding a player of his ability is a big boost. The Patriots were likely to cut Mankins as a salary cap casualty after 2014, and they trust Marcus Cannon to fill Mankins’ spot reasonably well. I do too. 

$.07--One of the common complaints about this preseason was the barrage of flags that dragged the pace of the game down to almost baseball levels. Okay, nothing is slower or more tedious to watch than baseball. But still, when both teams rack up double digits in penalties, the gridiron action often crawled along.

The renewed emphasis on illegal contact by defensive players on receivers was the genesis of much of the yellow laundry, and also the scorn of the fans. Fret not, because the point has been made. While there will still be a definite uptick, the players are now conditioned to understand what will draw a flag and what they can get away with. Defensive coaches now have the ability to make adjustments, some of which include increased jamming right at the line or learning how to sell the offensive player initiating the contact and committing interference.

One trend I did really like in the preseason was the officials more closely calling the head bobs and failure to completely set by offensive linemen. It’s a blatant violation that has been under-policed for years. The most infamous example was in Peyton Manning’s final year in Indianapolis and two of his linemen were still not even to the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped, but no flags.

Keep in mind that preseason was practice for the officials too, and many of them are new. Even casual NFL fans (read: my mom) know who Mike Carey is, but he won’t be working games anymore. Expect penalties to be up, but not as dramatically as they were in the preseason.

$.08--College/Draft quickies

--I was really impressed with Texas A&M as they throttled South Carolina. Kenny Hill looked fantastic running the Aggie offense, a real testament to the coaching prowess of Kevin Sumlin. For my money he’s the best coach in the nation, and as he gets more notoriety the Aggies are only going to get better. Remember the name Ricky Seals-Jones, too.

--Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon looked rocked up but still in possession of lightning acceleration and a top-end gear that few can match. So it’s puzzling why the Badgers barely played him, let alone fed him the rock, in the second half of a bad loss to LSU. Wisconsin was in complete control until coach Gary Andersen inexplicably fell in love with a bad quarterback throwing to worse receivers against one of the best defenses in the nation. The Big Ten sorely needed a marquee win there, but the Badgers gave it away by being outcoached by Les Miles. Ouch.

--Clemson edge rusher Vic Beasley is widely touted as a top-10 pick, but he looked decidedly pedestrian in the Tigers’ bad loss to Georgia. The scoreboard said 45-21 but it wasn’t that close. Beasley struggled against a relatively straightforward blocking scheme, unable to get the edge or bend around it when he did. Instead of Beasley, the player who looked like a top-10 pick was Todd Gurley. Yes, Georgia’s running back. He absolutely can go that high.

--Jameis Winston is a fantastic college quarterback, and he deserved the Heisman Trophy while leading Florida State to the national title last year. As a NFL prospect however…let’s just say he needs a lot of work. A lot of work. The good news is he has a lot of time, too.

--Here’s why casinos make money. The line on the Ohio State-Navy game dropped to OSU -17.5 after the news of Braxton Miller’s injury got out. Ohio State won 34-17 after scoring a touchdown with just over two minutes remaining. Decent first outing for Miller’s replacement J.T. Barrett: 12-of-15, 226 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT in a game I did not watch.

$.09--NFL quickies

--The Chicago Bears are my pick to win the NFC North, but their safeties still scare the hell out of me. They should scare the hell out of Bears fans too. Ryan Mundy and Danny McCray are a little better than Chris Conte and Major Wright, but that’s like saying it’s better to get pooped on by a sea gull than a pigeon.

--I’ve been an avowed Kellen Moore basher for his entire NFL career, but he absolutely earned his roster spot as Detroit’s third quarterback. He outplayed No. 2 QB Dan Orlovsky in the preseason and demonstrated his accuracy and ability to read defenses are definitely NFL caliber. I still believe his inferior arm strength limits him to being nothing more than a never-used backup, but that’s real progress for the Boise State legend.

--This week highlights the all-or-nothing career of Ryan Grigson as Colts GM. Indy’s personnel manager saw the team cut two of his five draft picks this year. Just one, left guard Jack Mewhort, will see significant action. He dealt the first-round pick for Trent Richardson and his 2.8 yards per carry projection. They also cut linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, for whom Grigson traded away quality pass rusher Jerry Hughes.

--Don’t forget that fantasy football also starts this Thursday night. If you’re a casual fantasy footballer like me, you might need the reminder to set your lineup after your league’s draft.

$.10--It’s a holiday, so I’ll keep this one brief. Enjoy your time with loved ones. Put down the tablet and go throw a ball with your kids, or take a walk on a nature trail. Play a board game. Go fishing with an older relative. Buy an actual newspaper and share it with your cohabitants, and even talk about the stories inside. Introduce your kids to classic movies like Ghostbusters or National Lampoon’s Vacation. Take the time to appreciate and take advantage of your day off. 


Initial 2015 NFL Mock Draft

By Jeff Risdon

I know, college football season hasn’t even started yet. So why put out a mock draft now?

There are a couple of reasons. First, consider this a sort of “watch list” for players who I believe could wind up as first-round picks next May. I haven’t really perused other mock drafts to this point, so the players populating this list are talents I believe are either already highly regarded or will emerge to that level in the ’14 season.

Second, it’s always fun to look ahead and try to project where NFL teams will be nine months from now. What might they be looking for in the ’15 draft? Obviously that’s quite difficult to predict, as several teams will have coaching and front office changes.

The order here is based on current (as of 8/18/14) season win total over/under lines in ascending order. In cases of ties, I broke those ties with my own forecast for which team will win more games. The draft order here is technically impossible, as it does not account for division winners and playoff seeding. Get past that, folks…

1. Oakland Raiders: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. Sure they just drafted Derek Carr in the second round. They cannot afford to look past a superior overall prospect and dual-threat weapon like Mariota. He needs some passing polish, but the physical tools are all there for Mariota to be Colin Kaepernick’s equal, if not superior. He’s just a junior, so it’s far from a given that he declares.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon. Ducks go 1-2 in this premature edition. IEO, as he’s known in scouting shorthand, enters the season as my personal No. 1 overall player. He’s got size, speed, vision, instincts and playmaking flair. He has a chance to be the best CB in the NFL at some point, something that cannot be said of any first-rounders in the last 2-3 drafts.

3. Cleveland Browns: Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn. He’s a downfield demon with legit 4.3 speed, impressive for a rocked-up 6’2”, 200+ pounder. Coates is dripping with potential. If he shows he can improve his footwork on routes and concentration over the middle, he’s going to be the first wideout taken. The Browns need every weapon they can get for Johnny Football, and character concerns are going to matter. Coates

4. Cleveland (from Buffalo Bills): Vic Beasley, Edge, Clemson. The booty for dealing the pick that became Sammy Watkins to Buffalo is the top pass-rushing prospect heading into the season. Beasley has a lightning first step and great closing burst to the ball. He fits better as a 3-4 OLB as he appears fairly maxed out at about 245 pounds.

5. Minnesota Vikings: Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford. The Vikings already have a solid pair of tackles in Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, but Peat could be too skilled to pass on here. He’s got outstanding length and quick feet, a natural left tackle. The Vikings do like to trade picks, too…

6. Tennessee Titans: Leonard Williams, DT, USC. He’s the closest thing I’ve seen to Ndamukong Suh since the Lions stud was dominating at Nebraska. A violently strong interior presence with the athleticism to play anywhere along the line, the rising junior has everything NFL teams want. The Titans have a sturdy young line with Jurrell Casey, Mike Martin and Sammie Lee Hill, but Williams gives them real star potential up front. Have to think that if they’re picking this high they’ll look strongly at a QB, however.

7. Houston Texans: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State. It might seem inconceivable for the reigning Heisman winner and field general of the national champs is not a top 5 pick, let alone No. 1 overall. I think he’s a victim of hyper-scrutiny about his character, but also his surprisingly spotty mechanics and accuracy. He can--and I suspect he will--iron the on-field issues out, and that should be enough to convince the Texans to trust him with the keys to the franchise.

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa. The Bucs offensive line is in the process of a major turnover, and Scherff has the potential to be the centerpiece of a rebuilt front. Physical and relentless, he’s likely a right tackle at the next level, but could be an awesome one. When I graded him for the ’14 draft he came out ahead of No. 11 overall pick Taylor Lewan, a similar style of player. Scherff isn’t as athletic, however.

9. New York Jets: Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State. If you liked Mike Evans in the ’14 draft, Strong is your kind of receiver. Big and strong (no pun intended) with a huge catch radius, the 6’4” junior is a better route runner than Evans already. He’s a viable potential No. 1 receiver, something the Jets could pair nicely with a talented No. 2 in Eric Decker. 

10. St. Louis Rams: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA. If the Rams miss out on the playoffs once again, it’s likely Sam Bradford’s fault. That means it’s time for a change, and that change is the rangy Bruins junior. He’s a divisive prospect already, as some (I raise my hand high) worry about his accuracy as much as they are tantalized by his huge arm and great size.

11. Washington Ethnic Slurs: Landon Collins, S, Alabama. Washington drafted a pair of safeties in 2013, but Philip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo have yet to emerge past decidedly average journeymen Ryan Clark and Brandon Meriweather. Collins is a do-it-all safety with strong tackling skills and solid instincts vs. the pass, giving them a long-term solution at a position of growing importance. Collins is just a junior.

12. Arizona Cardinals: Dante Fowler, DE/OLB, Florida. Fowler is a rising junior with freak closing speed and lateral quickness for a 275ish-pound edge player. He’s not afraid to get physical. If he can clean up his positional discipline and continue to wreak havoc in backfields, he could go a lot higher than 12th. I think the Cardinals are better than this slot, so for them to add another impact piece to their solid defense would be quite fortunate. Fowler and Calais Campbell would be a devastating DE/OLB duo to try and block.

13. New York Giants: Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M. Ogbuehi continues the strong line of premium tackles in College Station. He’s not quite as high-end as Luke Joeckel or Jake Matthews, but he’s a high-floor talent who is ready to start right out of the box at either tackle spot. The rebuild of the Giants offense continues by building up the front and adding skill position weapons in the next few rounds.

14. Miami Dolphins: Devante Parker, WR, Louisville. Long and strong, Parker proved he could make the tough catch from Teddy Bridgewater. Now he gets to break in a new QB at Louisville. His projected 4.55 speed waters down his draft stock a bit, but there might not be a better catcher of the football in the next draft. He’d make a great complement for Mike Wallace to help Ryan Tannehill’s progression in Miami.

15. Kansas City Chiefs: Ty Montgomery, WR, Stanford. A blazing speedster with reliable hands, Montgomery would immediately upgrade a Kansas City receiving corps that scares Chiefs fans more than it does opponents. In his junior season, he can elevate his stock by improving his footwork and selling his moves better.

16. Carolina Panthers: P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State. A fluid athlete with a very high football IQ, Williams will get a lot of exposure playing for the Seminoles. He can elevate himself higher than this if he makes more impact plays as a junior. He would immediately step into Carolina and be their No. 1 corner.

17. San Diego Chargers: Shilique Calhoun, Edge, Michigan State. He’s a fierce pass rusher with explosive athletic metrics, a perfect fit along a Chargers front that needs more sizzle off the edge. His ability to play both end and 3-4 outside backer gives the defense more options. The junior reminds me of Mario Williams.

18. Dallas Cowboys: Randy Gregory, Edge, Nebraska. Another player who is going to divide the draft community, Gregory has potential to be a dynamic edge rusher with a great first step. If he can even out some truly ugly ’13 game tape (Michigan, among others), the rising junior would bring speed and length to what appears to be a brutal Dallas defense.

19. Pittsburgh Steelers: Devin Funchess, TE/WR, Michigan. He’s a hybrid receiver along the lines of Eric Ebron or Tyler Eifert, a wideout in a tight end frame. The junior offers great potential as a seam-stretcher and giant slot presence. He could blossom with more consistent QB play, something he would get in Pittsburgh with Big Ben.

20. Atlanta Falcons: Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia. The two-year drought of first round running backs ends with the eminently talented Bulldogs junior. He will remind some of Steven Jackson, others of Marshawn Lynch. With Jackson nearing the end, the Falcons could add the local product to bolster and balance the Matt Ryan-centric offense.

21. Detroit Lions: La’el Collins, OT, LSU. A massive and punishing line presence, Collins offers the Lions options up front. LaAdrian Waddle and Riley Reiff are both versatile, which would allow Detroit to find the best combination to help fuel their high-powered offense. Yes, once again the Lions do not take a first-round corner…that’s what free agency is for.

22. Baltimore Ravens: Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State. With Darqueze Dennard now a Bengal, the Ravens tap his Spartans mate to be their own shutdown corner. The rising junior has size and attitude, two attributes in high demand in the NFL today. Of all the picks I’ve made here, this is the one that is the most likely to actually come to fruition.

23. Chicago Bears: Derron Smith, S, Fresno State. Smith is a playmaking cover safety, something the Bears desperately need. He lacks size but doesn’t lack punch when he’s flying all over the field. He’d make a great fit for Chicago in the pass-happy NFC North, a division I think they win in 2014 despite a still-leaky defense.

24. Philadelphia Eagles: Noah Spence, Edge, Ohio State. The rising junior performed at his best against top competition, and he’s an impact player against both the run and pass. His game is similar to Kyle Van Noy from the ’14 draft, and Spence has the similar lack of power and strength that he can build up to improve his stock.

25. Cincinnati Bengals: Corey Robinson, OT, South Carolina. Bengals fans are used to a former SEC behemoth anchoring the offensive line. As Andrew Whitworth approaches his mid-30s, Cincinnati reloads with the 6’7”, 330ish Robinson. He’s still fairly raw with his technique, but you can’t coach his length and brute power.

26. Indianapolis Colts: Ellis McCarthy, DT, UCLA. The junior’s upside is similar to the good Nick Fairley, a disruptive gap penetrator with both power and quickness. McCarthy has to be reminded he’s big at times, but guys his size (6’4”, 325) with his movement skills from a major program typically don’t last long on draft boards.

27. New Orleans Saints: Ramik Wilson, ILB, Georgia. A tightly-wound tackling machine with decent range, Wilson would make a great fit in Rob Ryan’s aggressive, oft-unconventional defense. He could lead the nation in tackles in 2014, but his best NFL attribute might be his cover skills in the short and intermediate range.

28. San Francisco 49ers: Deontay Greenberry, WR, Houston. Every year there are a couple of surprise first round picks, and it’s often the 49ers who make one. Greenberry is a long, speedy monster along the lines of Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas. He needs to show his strength more frequently, and then the junior can take the NFL draft process by storm.

29. Green Bay Packers: Alvin Dupree, Edge, Kentucky. Dupree is a player I think will blossom going forward as he gets stronger and learns how to better use his hands. He’s already physical and has nifty feet for a 260-something pound edge rusher, and he’s also shown he is fluid in space. Great fit for a zone blitzing team like Dom Capers’ Packers, who can use him opposite Clay Matthews.

30. New England Patriots: Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama. This is probably lower than you’ll see the talented Cooper in most mock drafts, but his lack of any elite trait will water down his stock. That doesn’t mean the Patriots won’t be getting a potentially great receiver, as his sticky hands, route savvy and professional polish are all already evident.

31. Seattle Seahawks: Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State. The player Greene most reminds me of is former Seahawk Golden Tate, who took the money and ran to Detroit. He’s comfortable lining up in the slot or outside, has superb hands and body control and he can make tacklers miss. He’s not as fast at Tate, but the reigning Super Bowl champs can use his NFL-ready game.

32. Denver Broncos: Josh Shaw, CB, USC. The onetime Florida star recruit has the traits of a hybrid corner/safety a la Kenny Vaccaro or Calvin Pryor, two recent first round picks. His high football IQ and great burst out of breaks should translate well to the NFL. Denver needs to keep reloading secondary talent. 

Next 10 players picked: Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor; Marcus Peters, CB, Washington; Cameron Erving, OT, Florida State; Denzel Perryman, LB, Miami; Ty Smabrailo, OT, Colorado State; Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland; Jordan Jenkins, Edge, Georgia; Reese Dismukes, C, Auburn; Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington; Christian Covington, DT, Rice


Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2014 Season Preview

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.

Forecast

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.



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