Off-season report card: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A perfect example of a team that looked great on paper, but completely fell apart on the field, is the 2014 Buccaneers. An underachieving franchise under former head coach Greg Schiano, the Bucs hired ex-Bears coach Lovie Smith in 2014 to turn the team around. Then, Smith and general manager Jason Licht went on a free agency spending spree, bringing in Bengals OT Anthony Collins and pass-rusher Michael Johnson, Bears QB Josh McCown and Titans CB Alterraun Verner.
With a draft class led by first-round WR Mike Evans from Texas A&M, the Bucs seemed to further solidify their stake as a team that could go from worst to first in the NFC South—the general sense was that this 4–12 team in 2013 was headed for bigger and better things.
Safe to say, that didn't happen. Collins, Johnson and McCown were all released after the season, and new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford took an indefinite leave of absence after a heart procedure in September. The offensive line fell apart, QBs McCown and Mike Glennon combined for just 21 touchdowns against 20 interceptions while RB Doug Martin couldn't transcend a recent history of injuries, and a defense that was supposed to be in lock-step under Smith finished 18th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics. It was a perfect storm of bad luck and bad decisions that led the Bucs to a 2–14 season, and the first overall pick in the 2015 draft.
With that pick, Tampa Bay took Florida State QB Jameis Winston, a player whose impressive on-field exploits were matched—if not exceeded—by his off-field issues. While Smith and Licht claimed that they did their research on the No. 1 draft pick, there's no escaping the incidents in the past (and some that are still in the present).
On the field, the player who threw for nearly 8,000 yards and 65 touchdowns over two collegiate seasons is trying to bring his game to the NFL in a way that works. Winston has the arm to make any throw and underrated pocket presence, but he seems to understand that it will be an uphill climb.
The bigger uphill climb, of course, is the team's trip out of the divisional basement. Last year was all about excitement and expectations; now, the hope is that a more gradual progression will pay dividends over time.
To that end, there were no splashy free-agent signings in the 2015 offseason; two members of the 2014 Cowboys defense, linebacker Bruce Carter and defensive lineman Henry Melton, were the biggest additions. Along with Winston, the Bucs picked two players in the second round of the draft who should help the offensive line right away—Penn State tackle Donovan Smith and Hobart guard Ali Marpet.
There are still holes to be filled, but the hope is that more players on this roster will stick for more than one season, and progress can truly begin.
Best acquisition: Jameis Winston, QB
Questions about Winston's maturity abound, and won't really be answered until he faces the challenges of the NFL on and off the field, but at least in minicamps, the rookie has impressed.
"Obviously someone who has won a national championship, he can play some ball," WR Vincent Jackson recently said about Winston. "But I didn't know his aptitude and his ability to really pick up this game professionally and the speed of it, make reads and take control of the offense the way a quarterback has to at this level and he's done that. But the good thing about this guy is the fact that he's not repeating the same mistakes. He's making improvement every day."
The idea is for Winston to use his arm, pocket toughness, and physical skill to shoot rockets into the air in the vicinity of Jackson and Evans, one of the NFL's biggest and most imposing receiver duos.
Biggest loss: None.
It's a good sign for the Bucs that they didn't lose anyone important in free agency, but also illustrative of how badly Smith and Licht misjudged the market last year. They gave McCown a two-year deal after an outlier season for the Bears in 2013 as Jay Cutler's backup, forgetting that career backups are career backups for a reason. They projected Collins as a starting left tackle when he had been primarily a reserve before, and since his release, Collins still hasn't found another team. They gave Johnson a five-year, $43.75 million deal despite the fact that he had regressed mightily the year before, and got very little for their investment. Hopefully, it's been a learning experience for Tampa Bay's front office.
Underrated draft pick: Kaelin Clay, WR, Utah
The Bucs don't have a lot of depth at receiver behind Jackson and Evans, but Clay has the potential to change that over time. With just one year at Utah after a junior college stint at Mt. San Antonio College, Clay led the nation in punt return touchdowns with three and the Pac-12 in punt return yards with 346, adding a kick return touchdown for good measure. Tampa Bay didn't get much out of its return game last season, so Clay could make an immediate impact there. He also gained 523 yards and scored four touchdowns on 43 receptions, and with time, he could be an estimable speed slot receiver for a passing game that's still looking for definition.
Looming question for training camp: Who will provide the pass rush?
In 2014, tackle Gerald McCoy led the team with 8.5 sacks, and any time a defensive tackle leads your team in sacks (especially when that defensive tackle is frequently double-teamed), it's a sign that you may have a problem at the end position. Johnson did very little in a four-sack season, and Jacquies Smith led all outside pass-rushers in sacks with 6.5. Those sacks were the first of the jouneyman's career, but he's projected to be one of Tampa Bay's starting ends in 2015, along with George Johnson. Melton will play some end, but outside of that, it looks to be another season in which Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier will have to put outside pressure together the hard way.