Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Up today: the Buccaneers, who have a lot of holes to fill around Jameis Winston, starting on defense. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
S Chris Conte, LB Danny Lansanah (RFA), RB Doug Martin, DT Tony McDaniel, S Bradley McDougald (RFA), DT Henry Melton, CB Sterling Moore, RB Bobby Rainey, S Keith Tandy
Players that must be re-signed
Martin, McDougald, Moore. There are no easy calls here, in part because of the coaching change. McDougald and Moore were minor bright spots within the Lovie Smith scheme, but with head coach Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith in taking over for Lovie Smith, last year’s results may not help their cases much.
Still, coughing up young talent is tough to do.
Another team could try to poach the 25-year-old McDougald if Tampa Bay slaps an original-round tender on him (he was an undrafted free agent), but the Buccaneers would have the right to match any offer. The 26-year-old Moore has bounced around from New England to Dallas and then Tampa Bay, actually playing rather well in spurts along the way. He also offers experience as an outside and slot corner, so he has definite value.
Then there is Martin ...
“We’ve got a couple of things going for us here on that one,” GM Jason Licht said at the combine. “I know he wants to be a Buc and I know that we want him to be a Buc. I’m sure there will be some obstacles—there always are in negotiations—but we’ll prepare for either way. I’m optimistic and we’ll continue talking with him.”
How deep into his pockets is Licht willing to dig? The notion that teams can find a running back anywhere ignores how long those searches can last. Martin posted 1,673 yards from scrimmage last season, bouncing back from a pair of injury-plagued years. For Jameis Winston’s comfort level, if for nothing else, Licht has to consider doing what it takes to keep his starting running back.
Charles Sims, a 2014 draft pick coming off a 500-yard year, is in Licht’s back pocket should Martin walk. The Buccaneers would also eyeball a RB in this draft in that case. How about Ezekiel Elliott at No. 9?
Most important position to improve
Defensive end. Cornerback or safety could take this spot just as easily. Tampa Bay actually finished above league average in sacks, with 38. The problem is that the Bucs don’t have a pass rusher who scares opposing offenses—save for DT Gerald McCoy, who accomplishes that on every down.
Exclusive-rights free agent Jacquies Smith finished second on the team, behind McCoy, with 7.0 sacks. No one else topped 5.0. That’s just not going to cut it.
The Buccaneers believed they had made some inroads last off-season when they traded for George Johnson after first trying to sign him away from the Lions. He played 11 games and failed to produce a sack in 2015. So there is almost never an easy answer.
But for Smith’s base 4–3 to work, Tampa Bay has to be more forceful off the edge.
Other positions to improve
Cornerback, guard, linebacker, offensive tackle, safety, wide receiver. Smith’s inability to fix the defense (setting aside the possibility that Licht’s inability to find the right pieces is to blame) was the main factor behind Tampa Bay’s coaching change. The depth chart remains in flux, with multiple starters entering free agency and talent holes among the players who remain.
The secondary has to be a focus, no matter where Moore ends up. As disappointing as the pass rush was, the play from Tampa Bay’s defensive backs was even worse. Moore and Alterraun Verner were the only cornerbacks to pick off a pass last season, and they had just one each. Safeties Chris Conte and McDouglad had two apiece.
Worse yet, there really isn’t much competition in place to challenge for those jobs. Moore, McDougald and Conte all could walk, as could backup CB Mike Jenkins.
Linebacker Danny Lansanah is another of the Bucs’ restricted free agents. He had 55 tackles in 11 starts last season, but that total was down from 82 in 2013. Tampa Bay needs to aim higher at his starting spot, alongside Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander.
The guard situation hinges on Logan Mankins’s retirement decision. If he hangs ’em up, Tampa Bay will have to find a new running mate for Ali Marpet on the interior. Because of Marpet’s cheap contract, free agency might be the way to go there. Tackle could be a draft priority.
Wide receiver is a spot to watch, but it’s hardly a disaster. If the Buccaneers keep Vincent Jackson, they’ll have him, Mike Evans, likely RFA Russell Shepard and intriguing 2015 fifth-rounder Kenny Bell, among others. One more reliable option would be be welcome.
Overall priority this off-season
Build around the defensive stars. David and McCoy are remarkable talents at their respective positions. Alexander made a push to join them last season, fighting through an occasional rough patch to lock himself in as a key cog, at least prior to a late-season suspension.
Where else do the Buccaneers feel set on defense? Probably nowhere.
The lack of pass rushers on the verge of free agency will make the rebuilding task there a lot tougher, especially if Tampa Bay leans another direction in Round 1. While there are rotational options to be had further down the draft, the list of potential game-changing DEs is extremely thin.
The secondary could be a massive problem for Tampa Bay next season without significant upgrades. Bounce-back seasons from Verner and Johnthan Banks cannot be ruled out now that Smith has departed, and getting either back on track would help drastically.
A safety setup featuring McDougald and one of 2015’s holdovers (Conte, Keith Tandy or Major Wright) doesn’t move the needle much. Certainly not when one looks around the league at the multi-dimensional impacts made by safeties. The Buccaneers could hit free agency or the draft for help.
Regardless of how Licht chooses to attack this off-season, it’s clear he has much work left to do on the defensive side of things. Until he can find a way to fix that, the Buccaneers will have a ceiling they can’t break through.