Drilling in: Bucs unit by unit analysis
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Jameis Winston. Backups -- Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Griffin.
Winston was suspended for the first three games for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy stemming from his alleged sexual assault on an Uber driver in March 2016. That means Fitzpatrick, who re-signed in March, will likely start the first three games: at New Orleans and home vs. the Eagles and Steelers (on Monday Night Football). Griffin is in his third year with the team, but never has taken a snap in a regular-season game. How the Bucs rotate reps in training camp and the preseason remains to be seen. But Winston won't be available until the Bucs play at Chicago Sept. 30. Fitzpatrick went 2-1 as a starter last season, beating the Jets and Miami but losing to Atlanta. If he can keep the Bucs afloat until Winston returns, and if Winston isn't too rusty, the Bucs will have a chance. Or they could fall too far behind in September.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Ronald Jones II. Backups -- Peyton Barber, Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims.
The Bucs had virtually no explosive runs in 2017, averaging 3.7 yards per carry as a team. Jones could change all that since he is a home-run hitter. He still has work to do to become a three-down back. Barber did well down the stretch last season and is a tough, inside runner. The Bucs hope to develop the 1-2 punch that the Saints had with Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara. Sims and Rodgers will serve early as third-down backs.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- O.J. Howard. Backups -- Cameron Brate, Antony Auclair, Alan Cross, Donnie Emsberger.
Howard and Brate each had six touchdown receptions last season. As a rookie, Howard struggled at times with his blocking technique. He should be much more productive overall in the passing game, improving on his 26 catches for 432 yards as a rookie. Auclair will be in a roster battle with the rookie Emsberger.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson. Backups -- Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries, Freddie Martino, Bobo Wilson.
The Bucs never got the production they wanted from Jackson, who had 50 catches for 668 yards and three touchdowns. He won a lot of routes, but Winston was not very good at throwing the deep ball. More familiarity in year two may help. But Jackson could eventually lose his starting job to Godwin. As a rookie from Penn State, he had 209 yards receiving and two touchdowns in the final two games in place of the injured Jackson. Humphries was the team's second-leading receiver in 2017 and works out of the slot.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Donovan Smith, LG Ali Marpet, C Ryan Jensen, RG Caleb Benenoch, RT Demar Dotson. Backups -- G/C Evan Smith, G/T Alex Cappa, T Leonard Wester, T Cole Gardner.
The Bucs believe they have added a big upgrade in Jensen, the Ravens free agent who brings more physicality to the offensive line. The addition moves Marpet from center to left guard. Benenoch takes over at right guard, but could play right tackle depending on how well Dotson recovers from offseason knee surgery. Cappa is a promising physical force as a rookie from Humboldt State.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Vinny Curry, DT Vita Vea, DT Gerald McCoy, RDE Jason Pierre-Paul. Backups -- RDE Noah Spence, DT Beau Allen, DT Mitch Unrein, DE William Gholston, DE Will Clarke, DT Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, DE Ryan Russell.
The Bucs went big overall on their defensive line after finishing last in the NFL in sacks and total defense under Mike Smith. They added some size inside with Vea, the first-round pick from Washington, and Allen, who comes over from the Super Bowl champion Eagles along with Curry. But the player who might have the biggest impact is Pierre-Paul, who at 29, still has enough in the tank to give the Bucs their first legitimate outside rusher since Simeon Rice. JPP should make life easier on McCoy. Meanwhile, Spence is coming off his second shoulder injury, but should fare well as a designated pass rusher. Of course, the biggest addition could be defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, who played 12 seasons in the NFL and comes over from the Cardinals with a highly motivational coaching style.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- MLB Kwon Alexander, WSLB Lavonte David, SSLB Kendell Beckwith. Backups -- Adarius Taylor, Devante Bond, Riley Bullough, Jack Cichy.
Alexander was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2017, but it was David who had the monster season with 101 tackles and five forced fumbles. Over the past few years, the linebacker unit has been the strength of the defense. Beckwith was forced into multiple roles due to injuries, but should settle in on the strong side when he returns from a broken leg. Taylor, the former Darius Glanton, can play any position. Expect more blitzing from David and Beckwith this season.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- RCB Brent Grimes, LCB Vernon Hargreaves, SS Chris Conte, FS Justin Evans. Backups -- CB Carlton Davis, CB M.J. Stewart, CB Ryan Smith, CB Javien Elliott, S Keith Tandy, S Jordan Whitehead, S Josh Robinson, CB David Rivers.
At 35, Grimes still is the Bucs' best cover corner. They are hoping for a bounce-back year from Hargreaves, who has the starting job at left cornerback, but will move inside to the nickel slot position when teams go three wide. That will put a rookie, either Davis or Stewart, on the field about 60 percent of the snaps. Both are talented, but Davis gives the Bucs much-needed length. The Bucs expect more from Evans, who showed great range as a rookie. But the safety position still is without real star power.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Chandler Catanzaro, P Bryan Anger, KOR Jacquizz Rodgers, PR Adam Humphries.
The Bucs had a real problem with the kicking position. First, they had to cut Roberto Aguayo, who was taken in the second round from Florida State in 2016. Nick Folk won the job, then went bad and had to be released and replaced by Pat Murray. While Murray was effective, he missed two enormous field-goal attempts from 50-plus yards and also struggled kicking off. Enter Catanzaro, the former Jets and Cards kicker who has a stronger leg for kickoffs and field goals. The Bucs' cover teams are led by Robinson, but their return game still is searching for help.