Before the 2017 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were expected to compete for a playoff spot. However due to poor defensive and running back play coupled with an injury to quarterback Jameis Winston, the Bucs finished 5-11, fourth in the NFC South for the fourth time in five years.
Even with improvements through free agency and draft, there are players that need to have bounce back seasons. These players are vital for the Bucs’ success not only this season, but possibly for the foreseeable future.
Defensive End Noah Spence
In the 2016 draft, Noah Spence was looked at as one of the best pure pass rushers in the class. With the 39th overall pick, the Bucs expected him to be the defensive end they’ve so desperately needed. So far though, that hasn’t quite happened.
As a rookie Spence played in all 16 games, starting three, but was hampered by a shoulder injury. He showed potential though by picking up 5.5 sacks and forced three fumbles. 2017 was supposed to be the break out year for him but again a shoulder injury limited him to only six games.
After a successful surgery in October, Spence is feeling better than ever and is ready to succeed in 2018. But he will see a lot more competition along the defensive line this season. The Bucs traded for veteran Jason Pierre-Paul to improve a pass rush that ranked dead last in the NFL. Spence has the chance to be used at the other defensive end spot and in pass rush situations. If he can succeed then the Bucs may have finally found their long-needed
Offensive Tackle Donovan Smith
General manager Jason Licht used the 2015 draft to set up the building blocks for a successful franchise. In the second round, the team picked up offensive tackle Donovan Smith who they suspected could anchor the left tackle spot for the long haul.
With Smith, there is a disconnect between what the Buccaneers see and what everyone else sees. According to Pro Football Focus, as shown on NFL.com, Smith has failed to be among the top 70 tackles in each season.
That’s drastically different than what coaches have been saying about Smith. In an interview with Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times, offensive line coach Greg Warhop praised Smith.
“I don’t think I’d take anybody in his draft class over him, nobody, in terms of a tackle. Then you start evaluating him with other left tackles in the league. I have to really think about it, but I can count on one hand how many guys I would like to have to replace him.”
Not sure anyone suggested Donovan Smith is “elite.” Pretty convinced though there aren’t any unemployed elite left tackles available. With possible exception of Mike Evans, don’t think any Bucs player is “elite.”
— JoeBucsFan (@JoeBucsFan) June 6, 2018
As long as the coaches continue to fawn over Smith his spot might not be in immediate danger. But watching the film it is hard to see Smith being a key piece for the Bucs at his current skill level. Many eyes will be on Smith, especially during a contract year. It’s time to live up to the expectations his coach put on him.
Quarterback Jameis Winston
Let me start off by saying that Winston isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The team picked up his fifth-year option and are working out a long-term deal. I have Winston on this list because despite setting franchise records in almost every category, it hasn’t translated in to wins.
Since being drafted in 2015, the Bucs have a record of 18-27 with Winston under center.
If he wants to improve his winning percentage he has to cut down on the turnovers.
Part of why the Bucs fell in love with him before the draft was his ability to make plays with his arm. The flip side of that is a high turnover rate, which so far has held back a potentially potent offense. Over his career Winston has thrown 44 interceptions and lost 15 fumbles, many of them halting promising possessions.
While the brunt of the losses should not be put on Winston’s shoulders, many quarterbacks are judged on wins and losses. This is not a fair judgement but that’s part of the business. The Bucs need Winston to be at his best in order to compete.
Head Coach Dirk Koetter
While not a player, head coach Dirk Koetter needs a successful 2018 season almost more than anyone actually playing. After taking over for Lovie Smith in 2016, Koetter hit the ground running and lead the team to their first winning season since 2010.
A successful season just barely missing the playoffs was why the Bucs were such a popular choice to break into out last year. But of course, as I’ve mentioned before, the Bucs could only manage a 5-11 record and Koetter was close to being let go.
Analysts are quick to point out that Koetter’s play calling was a major part of the team’s offensive struggles. Now, Winston did miss three games and was noticeably hurt in two others which contributed to the struggles as well. The injury may have actually bought Koetter another year. He was possibly able to point to the injury as the main culprit for the struggles and not his play calling. But if the team is mostly healthy and continue to lose, look for the front office to be looking for another head coach.