The Bucs are too talented to fail. Right?
The 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers seem to be one of the annually cast “sleeper teams” of the upcoming NFL season. This is highlighted even more by the fact that they’ve been chosen to star in this year’s season of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series. But of course, being a media darling/dark horse to breakout in the summer months leading up to the season surely means they are going 8-8 right? Despite the pessimist in me that says any team with as much anticipation and expectation as the Bucs will fall short, I believe Jameis and company will take the NFC South.
The 2016 iteration finished 9-7, second in the division, and just missed the playoffs with two narrow losses in their last three games. Though the season ended with Tampa Bay as the #7 seed after losing a tiebreaker to the Detroit Lions for the final playoff spot, the Bucs achieved their first winning season since 2010. The three win improvement from the 2015 campaign was powered by an emergence of playmakers on offense and a young, talented defense.
Mike Evans made the leap into the upper echelon of wide receivers as he caught 96 balls for 1,321 and quadrupled his touchdown total from the previous year with 12 scores. Tight end Cameron Brate became a well-known name across the league as he hauled in 57 passes and a league-leading eight touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, the Bucs fielded a young and speedy group that finished as the top third down defense (34.4% of third down conversions allowed) and third best in takeaways (29).
But the 2017 version of the Bucs will be even better and the breakout squad of this NFL season. Why, you ask? Well, who doesn’t love a list? Here are the three reasons why Tampa Bay will win the division.
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1. They added speed and talent on offense
With a budding star in quarterback Jameis Winston, this offense has plenty of potential, but the young passer can only do so much at this stage in his career. Winston needs help, and that was highlighted in the eight games where the offense failed to score over 20 points. General Manager Jason Licht believes this as well, and that was evidenced by Tampa Bay’s free agency haul in March and draft class in April. The front office clearly spent this offseason looking to supply Winston with plenty of weapons, especially fast ones. And they succeeded.
The Bucs signed speed demon DeSean Jackson in early March and instantly formed a top five wide receiver tandem with Evans. Jackson will turn 31 before season’s end, but he doesn’t seem like he’s slowing down after spending the last three seasons making Kirk Cousins look good in Washington. Jackson averaged 17.9 yards per catch (the highest mark in the NFL) and is one of the best, if not the best, deep threat in the league. This will be a major boost to a passing game that was the only one without a 50-yard pass play all season. Jackson has 21 of those in his career.
Since 2012, only one wide receiver in the NFL has picked up more yards on deep passes than new Buccaneers WR DeSean Jackson. pic.twitter.com/O4VGY7XrJD— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 25, 2017
Speed and talent is a very easy way to describe tight end O.J. Howard, and the Bucs were shocked and ecstatic to find the best tight end in the class fall to them at 19. Seen as one of the best pass catchers in the draft, Howard also runs a 4.5-40 at 251 pounds, adding another freak athlete to this receiving corps. The former Alabama tight end was underused in Tuscaloosa, but he should cause major matchup issues for opposing NFL defenses alongside Brate in a Patriots-esque two tight end formation or as a passing option out of the slot. Both Howard and Brate are also excellent inline blockers, which will be a boon to an offensive line that some think could be a liability.
The Bucs took Chris Godwin in round three, making obvious Tampa Bay’s intention to field the fastest, most deep threat-iest offense in football. The Penn State receiver is a burner with his 4.42 speed, has good size at 6‘1”, 209 pounds, and as a result can reel in passes going over the middle and deep down the field. Godwin has great ball skills and strong hands with his ability to snag both jump balls and passes in traffic, and his 16.6 yards per catch average in college gives Winston yet another guy who can go get the long ball.
PFF) June 2, 2017
A fifth round pick might not garner as much buzz as the Bucs’ other flashier acquisitions, but getting Jeremy McNichols on day three was a sneaky good pick-up, adding another weapon to the backfield and the passing game. The Bucs are happy with incumbent running back Doug Martin, but he’ll miss the season’s first three games due to a PED suspension. McNichols, a Boise State product like Martin, possesses similar size and skill set to the current Bucs ball carrier, and could very well take over the starting job. He’s a versatile back that can take on a full workload (30 or more touches in seven of his 25 games as the starter), has good hands (only two drops out of 107 catchable targets), and is a productive pass catcher (top five in catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns among draft eligible backs). McNichols has even lined up at receiver in college. The Bucs have surrounded their franchise quarterback with a glut of offensive weapons.
2. Playmakers, budding stars at every level of the defense
By no means can this defense be described as great, but it is a good one with a ton of potential to be one of the best. This group is helmed by an experienced coach and coordinator in Mike Smith, but the nascent star power on this side of the ball comes from its abundance of young, talented, and speedy playmakers.
Along the defensive line, Noah Spence and William Gholston are two young linemen that have made an immediate impact in their first few NFL seasons. This season, both are likely to take the next step as the leading producers on a defensive line with quality depth. The Bucs re-signed Gholston to a five year deal this offseason, and he’s expected to start at left end to shore up a run defense that was ninth worst in yards allowed per carry. In 14 games, Gholston racked up 49 tackles, three sacks, nine tackles for loss, and six run stuffs. In fact, since being drafted in 2013, Gholston is ninth among active defensive linemen in run stuffs with 21.5.
On the other side of the line, Spence is emerging as a true edge rushing talent and garnering national attention after a rookie campaign where he notched 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, including two strip-sacks. Both players and the media are expecting big numbers from the second year defensive end.
“Gerald McCoy picked Spence to have a break out year. Robert Ayers picked him to be a fifteen-plus sack guy per year. I watched a little bit of him and he showed some flashes. I think, along with Kwon Alexander, I think there’s a lot of talent on that defense that – down the stretch, overall, the Bucs were not a great unit but they had games where they were really stingy.
I like players that work hard all the time. He’s cut ten pounds, they’re saying he’s in the film room all the time, they can’t get him out of the facility. These things are sometimes the DNA of a good year.” — Marc Sessler, Around the NFL podcast
The second level of this defense may be a bit thin, but is in very good hands at the top of the depth chart with the linebacking duo of Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. Over the last two seasons they have played together, the duo has been a force of nature, patrolling the field from sideline to sideline. Together, David and Alexander have combined for 472 tackles, 14 sacks, 28 run stuffs, nine forced fumbles, 33 passes defended, and seven interceptions. Alexander finished fourth in total tackles last season (and first in solo tackles with 108) while David was third in total tackles in 2015 and is one of the fastest sideline-to-sideline linebackers in pro football.
Per Football Outsiders, both linebackers finished 2016 top five in “defeats,” a stat that tracks the number of times that a defender makes a tackle for loss, a play that results in a turnover, or a play that leads to a third/fourth down stop. With 19 of David’s 29 defeats and 16 of Alexander’s 28 defeats being pass defeats, both are effective in pass coverage. So combined, these two can pretty much cover every inch of the field. And with super productive, sure-tackling third round pick Kendell Beckwith in play to start at strongside linebacker, this group is plenty talented.
Lavonte David didn’t give up much in coverage in 2016. pic.twitter.com/Pjt73W6FL9— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 17, 2017
The last line of defense for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may not have as much eye-popping talent as the defensive line and linebacking crew, but it is still full of solid potential. The group has raw talent in last year’s first round pick Vernon Hargreaves III and this year’s second rounder Justin Evans, as well as playmakers in J.J. Wilcox and Keith Tandy.
But the spotlight is really on Hargreaves. In his rookie year, the former Gator had a so-so 16 game campaign as he tallied 76 tackles, a forced fumble, and a pick. The young corner was picked on a lot last season with veteran Brent Grimes lined up on the other side, but with a year under his belt and a display of aggressive tackling and good positioning, Hargreaves is a guy I expect to breakout this season (as do more knowledgeable NFL analysts).
3. They are the most complete team in the NFC South
Even after a disappointing year from two teams in the division, I imagine it will be a dogfight between all four teams for the top spot. The Falcons are the easy favorite after a prolific, though ultimately disappointing season. The Panthers drafted a few more weapons for Cam Newton. The Saints will continue to light up scoreboards but seem to have prioritized defense this offseason. Though it might sound like blasphemy with Atlanta coming off a Super Bowl appearance, on paper, the Tampa Bay front office seems to have put together the most balanced roster of the four.
The passing attack is loaded with Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson on the outside, OJ Howard and Cameron Brate coming from both off the line and the slot (72% of Brate’s snaps were spent split out wide), and Chris Godwin’s ability to get down the field in a hurry and come down with the football. And lost in the abundance of weapons for this season is Adam Humphries, the receiver who had a breakthrough in 2016 with 55 catches for 622 yards and was a trusty underneath receiver and safety blanket for Winston. According to Football Outsiders, Humphries was the second most efficient yards after catch receiver in the league. Despite all this, Humphries will likely see a significant decrease in playing time, which speaks to Tampa Bay’s depth at pass catcher.
Though the Bucs’ run game struggled last season, they’ve got versatility, depth, and plenty of potential. Martin won’t be back until Week 4, but GM Licht has said that they are “very happy” with their sixth-year running back and that he looks like “the Doug Martin of 2015.” Martin is only two seasons removed from being the NFL’s second leading rusher, and after injuries derailed his 2016 season, he seems to be on track to getting back to his old form, a guy who can make catches and make defenders miss.
Doug Martin has been a rollercoaster throughout his career pic.twitter.com/HZfFGZ4Rta— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 20, 2017
In Martin’s absence, Jacquizz Rodgers played 10 games last year and was an unsung hero in Tampa Bay after showcasing his ability as an every-down back and averaging 4.3 yards per carry on 129 rushes. Charles Sims is also just two years removed from a very productive season when he totaled 1,090 yards from scrimmage. Injuries thwarted his 2016 campaign, but Sims is a great complement in the backfield as an effective pass catcher and third down back. And, of course, there’s McNichols and his versatility as a lead back or third down option with his reliable hands and pass-protection abilities.
Obviously, you cannot discuss the Bucs’ offense without talking about Winston. I can’t think of a division with a better quartet of quarterbacks than the NFC South, and Winston has had many shining moments among two league MVPs and a surefire future Hall of Famer. He’s the first player to throw for 4,000 yards in his first two seasons, and he did it with Evans and not much else. But really, Winston’s appeal stems from his monstrous potential. He is the NFL’s version of a unicorn with size, athleticism, strength, and arm talent fused into one quarterback.
Winston tossed 50 touchdowns in his first two seasons and finished seventh in passing touchdowns in 2016, so it’s clear that the guy can rack up numbers, despite his issues with accuracy and turnovers. However, I believe that having all these weapons around him will alleviate the need for him to do too much and make all the plays himself.
67.8 percent of Jameis Winston’s passing yards came through the air in 2016 (as opposed to yards after catch), most in the NFL. pic.twitter.com/ng2jvDjhXF— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 9, 2017
Defensively, this team has a good mixture of young potential and talented veterans that will push them into the top 10 in 2017. As a group that finished ninth in the league with 38 sacks (with no one player tallying more than seven), the defensive line is filled with depth and skill, led by one of the league’s best interior defensive linemen Gerald McCoy. The six-time Pro Bowler has tallied 15.5 sacks over the last (3rd most among DTs) and is consistently dominant on the inside.
The addition of former Redskin Chris Baker and his ability to penetrate offensive lines and make plays in the opposing backfield will relieve McCoy of numerous double teams. The pass rush also has skilled vets in Robert Ayers (16 sacks the last two seasons) as well as diamonds in the rough in Spence and Jacquies Smith, the fourth year man who missed last season with a knee injury but racked up 13.5 sacks in his first two years.
We’ve already highlighted the dynamic duo in the linebacking corps, but it’s still worth mentioning the absurd amount of tackles the second level of this defense is likely to rack up. The secondary isn’t as much of a sure bet, but there’s still plenty of versatility and playmaking ability. Even at 34, Brent Grimes still looks like he’s at his best, notching four picks and 17 defeats last season. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the season’s fourth best cornerback as he gave up a mere 62.6 passer rating on targets in coverage. The duo of Grimes and Hargreaves is likely to be stifling for opposing receivers.
There’s definitely depth at safety with multiple guys competing for a starting gig. Justin Evans is expected to win one of the starting safety spots, and he has the skills to be an aggressive safety in the box and closer to the line of scrimmage, as well as a playmaker in coverage. Wilcox also excels in the box safety role, and a combination of Wilcox and Tandy would feature a complementary pairing, as Tandy finished his 2016 campaign strong with 45 tackles and 4 picks over the final five games (PFF’s highest graded safety over that span). This secondary could be a problem in 2017.
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I’ve really laid it all out for you here, but the bottom line is: the 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the team best equipped to win the NFC South. This will be the 10th season since their last division championship, so I guess there’s no better year to win it than the 10th anniversary of their last NFC South title. I’ll believe that the Saints’ defense can stop anything more than a nose bleed when I actually get to see it. Cam Newton is coming off of shoulder surgery, and I don’t think the Panthers have put enough help or protection around him yet. And the Falcons—well, I’ll just let my guy Bomani Jones explain it to you.
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