Yes I’ll admit it, the 2017 Bucs made my pre-season predictions look absolutely pathetic. On the plus side, I wasn’t the only one to be fooled by this bunch of underachievers. However, once bitten and twice shy, I won’t be repeating that mistake this year.
One advantage of being out of play-off contention by the November was that the Bucs have had longer than most teams to assess their squad an identify the positions in need of strengthening during the offseason. When discussing Tampa’s needs, there are two glaring positions requiring an instant upgrade; Running Back and Defensive End. Let’s start with the Running Back.
After years of the NFL undervaluing Running Backs, it’s no coincidence that the successful teams of 2017 had at least one, if not two, top performers. From Blount and Ajayi at the Eagles, to Freeman and Coleman at Atlanta, to Kamara and Ingram at the Saints, to McCaffrey and Stewart in Carolina. Fournette in Jacksonville, Hunt in Kansas, Bell in Pittsburgh the list goes on. Sure today’s NFL is a passing league but to be successful in the NFL, you need an elite Running Back.
The Bucs stable of Doug Martin, Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims and Payton Barber are hardly strikes fear into the opposition defensive coordinators. Martin was sensational in 2012 and 2015 and disappointing in 2013 and 2014. After being handed a lucrative long term contract at the beginning of 2016, Martin’s career has been woeful. Banned until week 4 of the 2017 season for substance abuse during a pitiful and injury plagued 2016, the Bucs pinned their hopes on a rejuvenated Martin returning to the backfield to give the Bucs the running game which gives Quarterback James Winston the play-action game he excels upon. Martin bombed but bizarrely kept getting the nod from the Bucs to be the starting Running Back until he was banned for one game for violating team rules. Make no mistake about it, the Muscle Hamster is finished in Tampa. Joining him on the way out of Raymond James locker room will be Charles Sims who, after an impressive 2015, has been as poor on the field of play as Martin. Sims will never be a three down Running Back and his presence in the backfield on 3rd downs is almost a guarantee that the Bucs will be throwing the ball. So much easier for the Defence when they know that they don’t have to worry about the run on third downs. This leaves Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber fighting over the final Running Back position. Rodgers was an able bodied replacement for Martin in 2016 but scarcely used in 2017. Barber is younger than Rodgers and got more playing time during the season past and was the only Buc to have a 100 yard rushing game in 2017. Whoever remains between Rodgers and Barber will have to be content with remaining as third string Running Back as the Bucs have to pick up at least two new workhorses for the backfield with one of these being selected within the first three rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft.
The other position of huge concern for the Bucs is Defensive End. Tampa finished dead last in the NFL in the sack department. Robert Ayers Jr had a big drop off from his 2016 season, Noah Spence’s shoulder required further surgery. Ayers is 32 and possibly at the end of his time in Tampa. Spence has speed and youth on his side but if his troublesome shoulder injury does not clear up then he may never become the speed rusher which the Bucs crave. As for the remaining Defensive Ends in Tampa, Will Clarke topped the sack charts with 2.5 sacks.
Not being able to rush the passer means that you better have shutdown Cornerbacks on the field of play. Unfortunately for the Bucs, they only have one; Brent Grimes, and with Grimes making noises about retirement this close season then as well as two Running Backs and two Defensive Ends, Tampa may well have to look for two additional Cornerbacks before they even begin to look at other areas of the team which require strengthening.
Free Agent Defensive Tackle Chris Baker should be on his way out of Tampa and won’t be missed. Super Bowl winning, Pro-Bowl Safety TJ Ward should also be on his way out of the Sunshine State as his off the field exploits have surpassed his mediocre performances on the field. And Kicker Pat Murray, who steadied the ship after the kicking debacle of Roberto Aguayo and then Nick Folk, unfortunately doesn’t quite have the leg strength to be the man for the Bucs. Obviously these positions will have to be filled. Also, don’t be surprised if Ali Marpet moves back to Guard and ex-Seahawk J.R.Sweezy is cut after a disappointing two year stay in Tampa. This would leave the Bucs requiring a Centre to account for Marpet’s move.
On the plus side, Jameis Winston will be another year wiser, rookie Wide Receiver Chris Godwin appears to be a steal from the 3rd round in the 2017 Draft and improves further an impressive Wide Receiver core, the pairing of Cameron Brate and OJ Howard at Tight End is sensational and the Linebacker trio of Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander and Kendall Beckwith demonstrates that their are a bunch of talented individuals at the Bucs, the trick will be not only adding players with the correct skills set, these players have to bring the right attitude as the losing mentality which has been prevalent for way too long in Tampa has to be eradicated, and if the current General Manager and Head Coach are to remain in their jobs beyond 2018, then it has to be eradicated now.
Image courtesy Buccaneers.com