- The Bucs will have to rely on their overhauled pass rush to greatly boost the defense. Will that be enough to compete with Tampa residing in the daunting NFC South?
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Buccaneers 2018 win total: 6.5 (+130 over, -150 under)
Buccaneers 2017 record: 5-11
Key offseason acquisitions: DE Vinny Curry, DT Beau Allen, DT Mitch Unrein, DE Jason-Pierre Paul, C Ryan Jensen, K Chandler Catanzaro
Key offseason losses: DT Chris Baker, DE Robert Ayers, RB Doug Martin, OG Kevin Pamphile, DT Clinton McDonald, CB Robert McClain
Five things to keep in mind before betting the Buccaneers’ win total
1. Jameis Winston was suspended for the first three games of this upcoming season for groping an Uber driver in Scottsdale, Ariz. This is a crucial fourth year for Winston, as Tampa needs to decide if the former No. 1 pick is the right guy to be its franchise cornerstone. Now, the Bucs will likely have Ryan Fitzpatrick under center to start the season on the road against the Saints, then in home affairs vs. the Eagles and Steelers. With a potential 0-3 start staring the team in the face and the fourth game coming on short rest at Chicago, Winston certainly will have put himself and Tampa in a major hole early.
Two things going against Winston’s reputation as a QB are that he is still prone to make a boneheaded decision a couple times per game because of how much he trusts his arm and he hasn’t led the Bucs to the playoffs in his first three seasons. He also finished with a mere 19 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions in 13 games in 2017, whereas the expectations for his TD-to-INT ratio were much higher heading into his third NFL campaign.
Yet he also wound up with career-highs in completion percentage (63.8%), yards per attempt (7.93) and QB rating (92.2). He ended the season playing his best football—in his final five games, which included an upset win over the Saints, Winston completed 67.2% of his passes and had an 8.8 YPA. Overall on the season, he led the league in percentage of throws that went for a first down (40.7%, Tom Brady was second with 39.6%) and was third in percentage of third-down throws that moved the chains (48.5%, behind Jimmy Garoppolo’s 52.8% and Carson Wentz’s 49.2%).
Tampa’s passing efficiency rated ninth last season, ahead of teams such as the Falcons and Lions. Simply put, it’s hard to put Tampa’s aerial game at fault for the team’s abysmal 5-11 record in 2017.
2. On the other hand, the rest of the team was an unmitigated disaster. The rushing attack was 25th in the league in efficiency, and the tailbacks averaged 3.5 YPC, which ranked 29th. The other side of the ball fared even worse, as the unit finished dead last in defensive efficiency. The pass defense was especially poor, and it was a mix of a non-existent pass rush—the Bucs were last in both sacks (22) and pressure rate (26.0%, the NFL average was 31.6% per Football Outsiders). With opposing quarterbacks facing more clean pockets, that left a subpar secondary handling their assignments for way too long.
The Bucs attempted to address their issues with their pass rush and rushing woes this offseason. They signed edge rusher Vinny Curry and interior linemen Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein, traded for Jason-Pierre Paul and drafted athletic marvel Vita Vea with the No. 12 pick. Unrein and Vea have suffered injuries in training camp, but Tampa is hoping its new pieces along the defensive line will be ready to wreck havoc when the regular season rolls around.
With its second-round pick this past draft, the team took USC tailback Ronald Jones II. The Bucs were intrigued by his big-play ability with the Trojans, a trait that Tampa’s running backs lacked in 2017. Jones II, however, is off to a slow start, as the Bucs have been saying that Peyton Barber—who turned 108 carries into 423 yards and four TDs last season—is the starter. Jones II hasn’t helped his case in the passing game either. He struggled in that department in college, and has dropped quite a few balls in practice and doesn’t have a catch in the preseason thus far. Tampa also signed center Ryan Jensen in free agency, which moves Ali Marpet back to guard and will help open up running lanes.
3. The Bucs will have to rely on their overhauled pass rush to greatly boost the overall pass defense, because they didn’t attempt to improve the secondary nearly as much as they should have. With their two other second-round picks this draft, Tampa took cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis, who will both have the chance for early playing time. Other than adding the rookies, the Bucs opted to keep the majority of a secondary intact that allowed a league-high 260.6 passing yards per game. This is a major prove-it year for 2016 first-round corner Vernon Hargreaves III, who has looked a lot more comfortable in the slot compared to the outside. Pro Football Focus ranked starters Chris Conte and Justin Evans as the No. 56 and No. 68 safeties respectively in 2017. Brent Grimes was the most effective member of the secondary last season, though how much longer can he be relied upon as a top cover man after turning 35 in July?
4. The Buccaneers have converted 72.4% of their field goals (76-105) over the past three seasons, playing a disastrous game of kicker musical chairs with Roberto Aguayo, Nick Folk, Connor Barth, Patrick Murray and Kyle Brindza. In 2017, Tampa went 3-7 in one-possession games—including a five-point loss vs. the Patriots where Folk missed three FGs—and 1-4 in games decided by three points or fewer. The Bucs brought in Chandler Catanzaro this offseason, who missed an extra point and a 53-yard FG in the team’s first preseason game. He did bounce back by converting all six of his kicks, including three FGs, the following contest. This special teams group was also the only one last season to allow two kickoff return touchdowns.
5. Dirk Koetter enters the 2018 firmly on the hot seat, and the schedule the Bucs face is likely to keep the temperature high. The aforementioned three games without Winston, followed by a road game on short rest against the Bears and another road game after a bye week in Atlanta are a rather tough first five contests. If Tampa starts off slow, the wheels could fall off quickly for a head coach currently facing an uphill battle. If he survives the opening stretch with a respectable record intact, good luck finishing the season with one—these are the Bucs’ final seven games: at Giants, vs. 49ers, vs. Saints, at Ravens, at Cowboys, vs. Falcons. This team has talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball, but competing in the NFC South with this many questions is a tricky situation.
Pick: UNDER 6.5 Wins