Bucs prepare to play without QB Winston
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers entire season will only be viewed through one prism: what did the three-game suspension to Jameis Winston cost them?
The Bucs ignored the off-field problems that dogged Winston at Florida State when they took him No. 1 overall in 2015.
An eight-month investigation by the NFL revealed he violated the league's personal conduct policy when he groped a female Uber driver in Arizona two months after his rookie season.
So while Winston works out on his own in Tampa, unable to rejoin the team until Sept. 25, the Bucs have to navigate a gauntlet of three division champions to start the season: at New Orleans this Sunday, then home against the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the last game coming on Monday Night Football.
At the helm for the Bucs will be Ryan Fitzpatrick, the 35-year-old vagabond quarterback playing for his seventh NFL team in 13 seasons. Fitzpatrick went 2-1 as a starter last season when Winston was out with a shoulder injury, but those wins came against the Jets and Dolphins, a much lower level of competition.
At least Fitzpatrick has no shortage of offensive weapons around him. The Bucs are loaded with pass catchers, from receivers Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries to tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.
The running game should be better behind Peyton Barber, who averaged 5.8 yards per carry this preseason, and rookie Ronald Jones II. The USC star had a miserable preseason, but the Bucs believe he will bring some explosive runs they were missing when Doug Martin carried the rock for them.
Defensively is where the Bucs have made the biggest improvement. General manager Jason Licht largely ignored the defensive line for four years and it cost the Bucs. They finished last in total defense a year ago and last in sacks with only 22.
So the Bucs went out and signed Eagles free agents Beau Allen and Vinny Curry. They traded for Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. In the first round of the draft, they selected Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea. Although he strained his calf muscle the first day in pads, the 347-pound Vea should be ready for the regular season.
The Bucs helped themselves in the draft in the secondary with the additions of cornerbacks Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart. They also added safety Jordan Whitehead. But they need a bounce-back year from Vernon Hargreaves, who has only one interception in two seasons.
The offensive line will be a problem, particularly in this game. Left tackle Donovan Smith, who has made 48 straight starts, has a knee sprain and could miss Sunday's game. The Bucs were hit hard on the offensive line with injuries in the preseason and don't really have a suitable replacement.
They could move Caleb Benenoch from right guard to left tackle or give Michael Liedtke his first start. The problem is that right tackle Demar Dotson is coming off two knee surgeries and has struggled blocking Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan.
Both Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter are on the hot seat. The Bucs have finished last in the NFC South three of the past four seasons and haven't been to the playoffs in 10 years. Winston put this organization in a terrible place. If they can survive the first three games with a 2-1 or even 1-2 record, they have a chance. But it begins with not falling too far behind in the NFC South, starting with the season opener at New Orleans.
SERIES HISTORY: 53rd regular-season meeting. Saints lead series 32-20. Wide receiver Chris Godwin caught the game-winning pass from Jameis Winston with nine seconds left to give the Bucs a 31-24 win over the playoff-bound Saints in Week 17 last season. The Bucs' earlier meeting in New Orleans in Week 9 last year was marred with controversy. Winston had to leave the game injured, but then got into a spat with Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore that resulted in Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans getting a one game suspension. In the regular-season finale, head coach Dirk Koetter and Saints head coach Sean Payton had words, so there's no love lost between these teams.