Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Of all the teams in the NFL during 2017, the Buccaneers may have been the most disappointing.
They contrast well with the New York Jets, who were the focus of yesterday’s Exit Interview. While the Jets were expected to tank to the bottom of the league, the Bucs had enough talent on the roster to be pegged as a darkhorse team heading into the year. In the end, both teams finished with the same record, 5-11.
What happened with the Bucs? Well, they had to rely on a lot of young players, perhaps too soon for some of them. The result was a lot of mental errors on both sides of the ball, especially in clutch situations. That led to a lot of close losses, which took their toll by the end of the season.
Jameis Winston was also expected to take the next step as a quarterback. That was more of a mixed bag. He had his best completion percentage of his career, but turnovers continue to be a problem for him. He threw 11 interceptions and fumbled the ball 15 times, losing 7 of them.
The coaching staff has to be held accountable to a degree. While the Bucs were fourth in the league in passing offense, they ended up as the worst statistical defense in the league. Head coach Dirk Koetter is known more for his offensive talents, but that doesn’t excuse how bad the stop unit was.
Koetter will remain in charge for 2018, and defensive coordinator Mike Smith was shockingly retained as well. They’ll both be on the hot seat for sure, but with the amount of prospective head coaching candidates available, coupled with how quick Koetter’s predecessor Lovie Smith was removed, it’s still a head-scratching decision.
Still, the Bucs do have a number of strong talents, including a deep group of receivers and an underrated linebacker trio. Winston has shown enough improvement to not give up on yet, albeit at a slow pace. General manager Jason Licht has made some nice signings in the past, so a belated breakout season isn’t impossible. When the actual games come around though, the Bucs must take care of the little things.
Current number of draft picks: 7 (#7 in the first round)
Cap space: $64-65 million
Notable free agents
Brent Grimes, CB: Yes, Grimes’ wife can be annoying with her proclamations of her husband’s elite status. But she’s not entirely wrong about his ability. He’s been all-around strong as a shutdown corner during his 11-year career, and he was by far the best cover man for the Bucs in 2017, finishing with 3 interceptions and 11 pass breakups. He’ll be 35 before the beginning of next season, but he can still contribute in a meaningful way.
T.J. Ward, S: Ward was a surprise cut at the end of the preseason by the Denver Broncos, a move that reportedly caused problems in their locker room. The Bucs scooped him up on a one-year deal, but he didn’t really make the most of it.
He started just 5 games, and while he was pretty strong as a run stopper, his pass coverage wasn’t consistent and he picked up just 41 total tackles, his worst since 2011. The Bucs have other options on the roster and in free agency, so they won’t be desperate to bring Ward back.
Charles Sims, RB: Sims has flashed as a dangerous pass catcher out of the backfield, but he’s yet to make his mark as a pure runner. He didn’t do much in either department in 2017, only getting 95 rushing yards and 249 receiving yards. Granted, he was splitting tie with three other backs, but that’s not exactly encouraging for a contract season. Maybe he’ll do better elsewhere.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB: Fitzpatrick had to step in for six games (three starts) to replace an injured Winston, and while his completion percentage of 58.9% was poor, he did throw 7 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions. If Fitz wants to stay in the league as a backup, there will be places that would welcome him, including Tampa.
DE: The Bucs had just 22 sacks as a team, which contributed to the amount of passing yardage they let up this year. Robert Ayers was solid despite notching just 2 sacks, but he’ll turn 33 before the start of next season, the last under his current contract. Will Clarke will hit free agency this season.
That leaves Noah Spence, who’s been up-and-down through two seasons, and William Gholston, who didn’t do well in the first year of his five-year extension. The Bucs need to bolster their pass rush badly, but they’re luckily in a position to take one of the top edge rushers in the draft this year.
RB: The rushing attack was not very good for the Bucs this season, ranking sixth worse in the NFL. Doug Martin got the most touches, but he was benched for fumbling issues and conflicts with the coaching staff. Sims is a free agent. Neither has bright prospects for the future in Tampa.
Of the other backs on the roster, Peyton Barber led the team in rushing yards but has a limited ceiling as a starter, while Jacquizz Rodgers is just a backup. There are a plethora of potential game breakers at running back in the draft, and the Bucs have to pick at least one of them.
CB: Tampa’s secondary is talented in theory, but it didn’t help them in 2017. They ranked dead last defending the pass across the league. Grimes was his usual solid self, but he’s a free agent, as is slot corner Robert McClain. The Bucs need to consider re-signing Grimes and pairing him with another highly touted corner, with Vernon Hargreaves at the nickel.
G: There were injury troubles on the offensive line in 2017 for the Bucs, but that doesn’t excuse the overall shaky performances from the interior blockers. Evan Smith did fine, but he’s a free agent, as is Kevin Pamphile. J.R. Sweezy has been a bust since signing a five-year deal in 2016. Bringing Smith back and finding a competitor for Sweezy should be high on the itinerary.
T: Donovan Smith was largely ineffective at left tackle this year, which was a theme in his first two seasons as well. If the Bucs don’t want to move Demar Dotson over from right tackle, they should think about bringing in another lineman to challenge Smith.
DT: The Bucs are set on the interior defensive line with Gerald McCoy and Chris Baker. However, the two immediate backups, Clinton McDonald and Sealver Siliga are both free agents, so depth may become an issue if they both leave.
S: Ward and Chris Conte were okay as the primary starting safeties at times, but they were also uneven (Ward was great against the run, while Conte did better in pass coverage). However, neither are long-term solutions, especially since Ward is a free agent, as is Keith Tandy. The Bucs drafted Justin Evans before this season, though they mostly played him at corner. Using another draft pick on someone to go with Evans could be the best move.
QB: Fitzpatrick was decent enough during relief appearances this season as Winston’s backup. He’s a 35-year old free agent though, and the only other QB on the roster is Ryan Griffin, who has never appeared in a regular season game during his five-year career.
K and LS: On the special teams front, Nick Folk was sent to injured reserve around the midseason point following general poor play. He’ll hit free agency this offseason. The Bucs signed Patrick Murray as a replacement, and he did a lot better, missing just four field goals and one extra point. They may want to bring in competition for him though. Long snapper Garrison Sanborn is also a free agent.
Best player/building block
Lavonte David, OLB: Many will point to McCoy as the team’s best player, and that assertion isn’t completely off base. But David is one of the best players at his position in the league, something that should be held in higher esteem.
He led the team in total tackles with 101, all the more impressive considering he missed four games due to injury. He was tied for second in the NFL with Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams with 5 forced fumbles as well. Pro Football Focus graded him as the second-best linebacker in their 2017 rankings. David is signed through 2020, so the Bucs will have his services for at least three more seasons.
Demar Dotson, T: There may be no other player in football that’s more underappreciated than Dotson. The Bucs have moved him around the offensive line throughout his nine-year tenure with the team, mostly at left and right tackle. He’s always done what’s been asked of him each time and has performed admirably while doing so.
Dotson finished seventh in PFF’s tackle rankings with a grade of 85 this season, third best among right tackles behind Daryl Williams and Lane Johnson of the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively. This despite the fact he went on injured reserve after week 13. He hasn’t graded below 80 overall since 2013.
Given the team’s issues with finding a reliable left tackle, the Bucs might be better off moving Dotson back to the blindside. Still, his consistency at both positions gives them options, which can’t be said for the majority of the other teams in the league.
AFC East: New York Jets
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
AFC West: Denver Broncos
NFC East: New York Giants