2016 record: 9-7. 2nd in NFC South

Key figures

Point differential: -15

Turnover ratio: +2

Scoring offense: 18th

Scoring defense: 15th 

Year Three for Jameis Winston holds promise for the Buccaneers, who rose out of the NFC South cellar in rookie coach Dirk Koetter’s first season at the helm. Now expectations are raised with some smart offseason additions and the maturation of the prime young talents like Winston, Gerald McCoy, Mike Evans and Lavonte David.

The pieces are in place for this team to challenge for a playoff berth, a goal they have not attained in a decade. In fact, the last playoff game the Buccaneers won was Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season. The coaching staff returns all the key pieces, and fans are hopeful a favorable early schedule leads to the end of the playoff drought.

Five questions for the Buccaneers

- Who can stop all the passing game weapons?

This looks to be one of the most prolific passing offenses in the NFL thanks to two primary additions to an already decent cast. Joining Mike Evans on the outside is DeSean Jackson, a lethal downfield playmaker who is an ideal complement to the big, physical Evans. They should make a fantastic, versatile 1-2 punch for Jameis Winston, who has shown impressive accuracy on intermediate range throws.

Jackson commands safety help when he goes deep. That opens up more room for Evans, who thrives on those intermediate routes and on passes just outside the hashes. It also makes life a lot easier for the two other prominent additions, both of whom figure to play expansive roles right away.

Tight end O.J. Howard was my No. 2 overall talent in the 2017 NFL Draft. That the Buccaneers landed him at No. 19 is almost criminal. Alabama didn’t use him often as a receiver, but he showed the complete package of skills when they did. He absolutely dominated the Senior Bowl practices, too fast and precise with his feet for linebackers, too big and functionally strong for safeties. Howard is a true dual-threat TE and I expect him to be an instant standout. If teams devote too much coverage to Jackson down the sideline or Evans on one side, Howard can make them pay with his strong hands, elite positional speed and outstanding YAC potential.

Then there’s third-round pick Chris Godwin. Another great draft value, Godwin brings a big, reliable target on the outside which allows Jackson to operate out of the slot. The Penn State product is at his best on 8-12-yard routes and working back to the QB, a needed dimension with those around him here.

Add in underrated Cameron Brate to operate the two TE packages with Howard and the Bucs can mix/match as well as dictate defensive packages nicely. Brate caught 70 percent of his 81 targets last year and found the end zone 8 times. His numbers figure to decline just based on opportunity but that doesn’t mean the 6’5” veteran is declining or less important. Add in Charles Sims out of the backfield as an accomplished receiving back, and there are weapons galore. The depth at wide receiver, where there is a major dropoff after the top three, is the only negative.

- Will the offensive line be good enough for the offense to thrive?

All those passing game weapons wither on the vine if the offensive line doesn’t give Winston enough time to operate. And the Tampa Bay offensive line is one of the league’s lesser ones.

The left tackle/left guard/center play was perhaps the worst in the NFL last year. Donovan Smith at LT should not be a starter. Smith might not even be a capable backup at the spot, but he’s the only real option here. It would help Smith if he had some capable help to his inside shoulder, but Tampa Bay hasn’t found an answer there either. Kevin Pamphile is a below-average left guard in pass protection and perhaps the worst run blocker in the NFC South. He’s been a solid backup who can play for a few drives here and there at guard or right tackle, but he’s not been able to sustain strong play for extended periods.

Offensive line coach George Warhop has an interesting project as the team toys with moving standout right guard Ali Marpet to center. It’s a bold move, but if young Marpet can handle the pivot capably it helps the line. He’s very good in all phases and smart enough to handle the mental aspects of playing center, but he hasn’t done it yet. Last year’s center, Joe Hawley, was serviceable but like Pamphile is better-served as a backup who plays a drive here and there or spot-starts a game or two. Evan Smith fits that bill too, so at least the Bucs have experienced depth inside.

Marpet sliding to center gets street brawler J.R. Sweezy on the field at guard. Sweezy missed 2016 but is back and ready to bring muscle and attitude to the line. He plays guard much the way you would expect of a converted defensive tackle, and he’s not fun for defenders to face. As Seahawks fans can tell you, his tenacity and strength will help the run game but the pass protection is a serious issue against rushers who can win with quickness.

Right tackle Demar Dotson does a great job at turning defender’s shoulders on the edge and making the path to Winston long around the outside. He’s gotten better every year. If Dotson gets hurt it could be catastrophic, as the depth at tackle is practically nonexistent. Undrafted free agent Cole Gardner is the safest bet. Pamphile sliding outside and using the superior interior depth would be the likely course of action.

- Is Jameis Winston ready to enter the MVP conversation?

This question closely ties in with the first two, but it also takes it to another level. Winston has been good-not-great for the most part, showing improvement in some areas but still not quite reliable enough to fully trust as the alpha leader on a playoff team.

I’m a Jameis believer. I believe it’s a matter of when, not if, he becomes a fairly perennial top 5 MVP candidate. He’s not close to that level yet, however. Cutting back on the interceptions (18) and the late-game slumps (Tampa Bay was 26th in fourth-quarter scoring) will help. Winston tends to stare down receivers and doesn’t thrive at anticipatory throws as well as many of his cohorts.

Winston can also take the proverbial next step as a leader. This is not me questioning his leadership skills. This is me wondering if he can do what Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford have done recently, becoming the unquestioned, unflappable face of the franchise. It’s a different plateau than simply being a very good quarterback. It’s handling postgame media obligations, win or lose, with professionalism and savvy. It’s not being afraid to come down on a teammate being a knucklehead. It’s being the coach’s trusted conduit to handle business in the locker room when he’s not there.

When Winston makes that jump, these Buccaneers will be incredibly dangerous. It’s now his third year and he’s taken some baby steps. If he makes the leap this year and is a legitimate MVP candidate after Thanksgiving, expect this Buccaneers team to contend for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.

- Can the defense keep up the takeaways?

Only three teams picked off more passes than Tampa Bay last year. Only five recorded more fumble recoveries, and the team’s 29 total takeaways ranked third in the league. That’s very impressive.

It’s also very difficult to sustain from year to year. Even with a talented secondary, one which played markedly better once Keith Tandy took over in a fulltime starting role at safety late in the year, producing so many takeaways is tough to do.

Look back a year. Carolina led the NFL in takeaways in 2015 with 39. The New York Jets were third at 30.

The Panthers fell back to earth, relatively speaking. They wound up with 28, still an impressive number and good for a top 10 finish in the category. The Jets fell off the planet, recording just 14 in 2016. Only Jacksonville notched fewer INTs.

Those sorts of major fluctuations occur every year. If the Buccaneers are like the Chiefs and Cardinals, the two teams who finished in the top 7 both seasons, everything is going to be fine. If they regress to being the league average, which they were with 23 takeaways in 2015, it’s hard to see the Bucs defense making much positive progress, but also not really tailing off. If they flop way off like the Jets, or last year’s Bengals, there will be a lot more problems than anticipated with Mike Smith’s read-and-react 4-3 defense.

Their defense was so dependent upon turnovers a year ago that it makes this an even more critical issue. Tampa Bay only won one game all season where they didn’t force at least two turnovers, the somewhat retrospectively amazing win over the Falcons in the opener being the exception.

The good news is they do have playmakers, notably in the secondary. The CB duo of Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves is a good one. Both are better with the ball in the air than before the throw, and both have great ball skills. Grimes broke up 24 passes and picked off four others, while Hargreaves’ confidence grew as his rookie season progressed. They lost running mate Alterraun Verner and that’s a hit on the depth chart when the team goes to nickel or dime, but they’re in good hands with the starters.

If Keith Tandy can keep up his strong play, the safeties look better. Tandy was a revelation once he was inserted into the starting lineup. Not only did he pick off 4 passes, he solidified the positional coverage. With Lavonte David still outstanding at pretty much everything at LB, the back seven has potential to once again produce a high volume of takeaways…if everyone stays healthy. Their depth all over the secondary is questionable at best, though second-round pick Justin Evans is a potential playmaker in the passing game at safety (just don’t ask him to tackle). Jude Adjei-Barimah will start as the nickel CB, and after third-round pick Kendell Beckwith the reserves at LB are undrafted free agents and castoffs, though I do like rookie UDFA Richie Brown’s potential.

- Will the pass rush be effective?

One of the easiest ways to help a back end create turnovers and make life generally easier is for the pass rush to pressure the opposing offense. The Bucs are leaning on Gerald McCoy to once again dominate the action as the 3-technique in Smith’s 4-3 package. He’s earned five straight Pro Bowl berths and is consistently one of the best all-around DTs in the game. McCoy is good for 6.5-8.5 sacks and reliable disruption up the A or B gaps.

The problem for Tampa Bay is that McCoy’s 6.5 sacks last year tied for the team lead. Veteran end Robert Ayers also chipped in that many in 12 games in his first year in Tampa Bay, but expecting the 31-year-old journeyman to top that is unrealistic. Unlike McCoy, Ayers doesn’t offer much in run defense other than setting a hard edge, either.

Much will be expected of Noah Spence in his second season. The second-round pick scratched the surface with 5.5 sacks in his rookie season, showing legit speed around the edge and flashes of countermoves that will help him hit double digits sooner than later. He should lead the defense with at least 10 sacks. The flip side is, Tampa desperately needs him to be that dynamic right now.

Chris Baker helps bolster the tackle spots, but he’s more of a clean-up rusher than a generator. He had 4.5 sacks in Washington playing 5T last year. William Gholston is an asset in run defense at strongside end, but he’s got 10 sacks in 4 years. Lavonte David is a very effective blitzer but that must be used judiciously; David can do everything but outside of Kwon Alexander there is very little else at LB and the Bucs need David elsewhere more often. These are all quality players, but they lack proven pass rush sizzle. Outside of Spence and McCoy, nobody moves the needle. This team sorely needs an unheralded rusher, perhaps Gholston or Devante Bond, who might win the starting SLB gig after spending his rookie season on the practice squad, to come up with a career year and double their expected sack output.

- Forecast

Last season’s nine wins were no aberration. Tampa Bay is a team on the rise and they improved this offseason by adding the likes of O.J. Howard, Desean Jackson and Chris Baker. I like the coaching staff and the general feel of the franchise. With continued improvement from Winston and a rejuvenated running game with a healthy Doug Martin, this team should finish in the top-5 in scoring.

Alas, there are legit concerns. The offensive line is a crapshoot, and the running offense is unreliable with so many injury-prone players. The depth is an issue in several areas, notably behind Winston at QB and in the defensive back 7. I don’t trust kicker Roberto Aguayo, not yet anyway.

The schedule sets up nicely for the first half of the season. These Bucs stand a real chance of winning four, or even all five, road games before the bye in Week 11. The home slate is actually tougher in the first half of the season, save the gimmie against the Jets in Week 10. I believe Tampa Bay will need to win at least 7 of those first 10 to have any shot at the playoffs, because the post-bye schedule conspires against them. They need to not have to win more than 3 of the final 6, because I just don’t see this team winning more than that unless they get quite fortunate with both health and offensive line play.

Even though I believe this team is improved and belongs in the playoffs, the schedule and the remaining holes make it a tough slog in a middle-heavy NFC. Tampa Bay sneaks to 10 wins, but they’ll need to go at least 4-2 in the NFC South to break the playoff drought.