- The MMQB’s Andy Benoit ranks every NFL team based on roster talent and gives 10 thoughts on each club throughout training camp. The No. 16 Tampa Bay Buccaneers should see quarterback Jameis Winston take a quantum leap this season. That’ll mean fewer interceptions and more big plays in the gunslinger mold of Brett Favre and Eli Manning
1. This may not be the year Jameis Winston becomes a top 10 quarterback, but expect a quantum leap. The Buccaneers understand exactly what Winston is: a smart (potentially brilliant) gunslinger who has a somewhat methodical release. He doesn’t fit the quick-strike passing game that defines so many of today’s offenses; he’s suited for the slower developing plays that stem from deeper five-and seven-step dropbacks. Head coach Dirk Koetter’s shrewd downfield concepts play to this. Something else about Winston: for a more methodical passer, he’s surprisingly mobile. He was one of the NFL’s most proficient out-of-pocket passers last season, and defenses that play man-to-man with two safeties back against the Bucs often rush only three and spy him.
2. Winston needs to cut down on his interceptions, no doubt. He threw 15 as a rookie and 18 last year (second only behind Philip Rivers). But INTs come with the territory of a gunslinger. Winston has the talent to outnumber them with big plays—like an Eli Manning or a Brett Favre. He’s not just “mistake prone,” like a Ryan Fitzpatrick. And Winston’s turnovers should naturally decline soon. Many of them stem from overly aggressive decisions on reads that most young quarterbacks wouldn’t even know to consider at this point in his career.
3. The Bucs have three things you want if you’re a downfield passing offense: a big receiver who can run corner and post patterns, and win when the ball is in the air (Mike Evans); a speedster who can attack safeties, which opens up the intermediate levels for other routes (DeSean Jackson); and a tight end who can work the seams and run the five- to 15-yard routes (first-round rookie O.J. Howard and incumbent starter Cameron Brate, a lanky athlete who, were he in an offense with fewer weapons, could post 1,000 yards receiving).
4. The other part of being a downfield passing offense is having a strong ground game. That’s critical because so many downfield passing concepts come out of running formations. Not coincidentally, Koetter is very deliberate about establishing the run early in games, but he hasn’t had backs who can. The hope is that Doug Martin, once he returns from his PED suspension in Week 4, can recapture the short-area vision and shiftiness that led to 1,454 yards in 2012 and 1,402 yards in 2015. If he can’t, the Bucs will turn to veteran Jacquizz Rodgers and fifth-round rookie Jeremy McNichols as the complement to choppy-but-explosive passing down back Charles Sims.
5. The thinking might be that if you’re a deep dropback offense, it’s important to have quality pass-blockers outside. And yes, it is. But remember: deeper dropbacks mean more time for players to get into routes. Which means that guys who run the shallow routes have time to chip-block defensive ends on their way out. The Bucs relied heavily on this last season whenever tackles Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson struggled.
6. It’s a little surprising that Koetter and O-line coach George Warhop chose to bench center Joe Hawley this past spring, rather than see him compete first in training camp. They’ll move third-year pro Ali Marpet from guard to center and fill Marpet’s old spot with either J.R. Sweezy or Kevin Pamphile. Both are, like everyone else on Tampa’s starting front five, better athletes than Hawley. But Hawley provided veteran leadership and nastiness—traits that can rub off positively on a young offense.
7. In the first half of last season, Tampa Bay’s defense allowed 29 points and 399 yards a game. In the second half, it allowed 17.1 points and 337 yards. What changed? The players’ comfort with coordinator Mike Smith’s zone concepts. The back seven played with much better spacing and awareness down the stretch, and Smith, in turn, became more comfortable dialing up coverage disguises. That will continue in 2017.
8. Most of the Bucs’ coverages disguises begin from a two-deep safety look. Safety was a problematic position in 2016—specifically, Chris Conte, who isn’t rangy in coverage and doesn’t tackle well. Incredibly, Conte has always had a way of emerging off the bench and into a starting role, but this year might be tough. The Bucs brought in Cowboys free agent J.J. Wilcox. He’s better in space than he is matching up, so they also spent a second-round pick on Justin Evans, who will handle Bradley McDougald’s old responsibilities of covering tight ends on the few snaps where the Bucs play man coverage. (McDougald has signed as a backup with Seattle.)
9. Brent Grimes is 34 and still jumps with as much spring and elevation as any corner in the league. His age and lack of size (5’10”, a listed 185, which is his weight when soaking wet) might be an issue in certain man coverages, but in a zone scheme such as Tampa’s, he’s still tremendous. The corner opposite Grimes, the 5’10”, 205-lb Vernon Hargreaves, is also intriguing. He’s coming off an up-and-down rookie season that left onlookers feeling optimistic. Hargreaves has a good feel for angles when the ball’s in the air. The concern is that sometimes the ball is in the air because he gets flat-footed and lets his receiver get open on the break.
10. You can’t prosper as a zone-based D without a strong four-man pass rush. Aside from signing much-improved ex-Redskin Chris Baker, GM Jason Licht did not address this unit over the offseason. Which means Licht is counting on his 2016 second-round pick Noah Spence to build on the edge-quickness and second-effort burst that he flashed as a rookie.
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