Off-season report card: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2016: 9–7, 2nd in NFC South.
Significant Additions: WR DeSean Jackson (FA) TE OJ Howard (R1), S Justin Evans (R2), WR Chris Godwin (R3), RB Jeremy McNichols (R5).
Significant Losses: QB Mike Glennon
GM Jason Licht had a clear off-season directive: give Jameis Winston as many weapons as possible. Winston is only 23, with two 4,000-yard seasons. However the Bucs are wary of the quarterback’s turnover problem. Winston threw 18 interceptions in 2016, with 10 fumbles (six lost). Many times, it feels like Winston tries to do too much himself. To remedy that, Licht surrounded Winston with playmakers who can relieve some of that pressure.
It began in free agency with wideout DeSean Jackson (three years, $35 million). The 30-year-old speedster has built a reputation over nine seasons as the best friend to a quarterback. Paired with budding superstar Mike Evans (three straight 1,000 yard seasons) and the Bucs may have the best 1-2 receiver punch in the league. Actually make that 1-2-3, as Tampa Bay found a gem in the third round by drafting Penn State’s Chris Godwin. Most evaluators pegged Godwin as a second-round talent. The 6-foot-1, 209-pound Godwin is deceptively fast, averaged 16.6 yards per catch last year while possessing many of the same traits (separation on routes, ability to win contested catches) that made his Nittany Lion predecessor, Allen Robinson, successful in Jacksonville.
And all of this doesn’t factor in perhaps the Buccaneers’ biggest coup: snagging Alabama tight end O.J. Howard in the first round. In a historically rich year for tight ends, it says something that Howard was unanimously atop of the class. At 6-foot-6, 251 pounds, scouts rave about Howard’s long arms and athleticism. Evaluators say his so-so production at Alabama was a byproduct of being underutilized as a pass catcher. Cameron Brate emerged as a revelation for the Buccaneers in 2016; the Harvard alum had eight touchdowns, and was especially dangerous in the red zone. Add Howard to the mix and Winston is covered with two tight ends who can in-line block and stretch the field. The question now is: can Winston keep all of his targets happy? Of the quarterback’s franchise-record 28 touchdowns in 2016, he threw nearly half (12) to Evans and another eight to Brate. He has a few more mouths to feed in 2017.
The running game figures to be interesting, as well. Incumbent Doug Martin struggled last season (2.9 yards per carry) and left the team with one game remaining to serve a four-game PED suspension and check into a drug treatment facility. That suspension will spill into 2017, but one of the reasons the Buccaneers didn’t draft a running back in the first round—Winston’s former Florida State teammate, Dalvin Cook, was a potential match—was that the front office apparently feels comfortable with the strides Martin has made this offseason. Martin, of course, had an outstanding rookie season in 2012 with 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s only matched that production once, in 2015. If Martin can’t find his groove, Tampa Bay found a worthy replacement in fifth-rounder Jeremy McNichols from Boise State. It seems important to note that McNichols and Martin have nearly identical statures (5-foot-9 and stocky) and skill sets. Licht has praised McNichols as the best pass-protecting running back in the draft, and like Martin, he adds value as a pass-catcher. In fact, McNichols was a wideout in high school. Perhaps Tampa Bay will find a role for both of its running backs, two more weapons to add to Winston’s arsenal.