Mike Fanelli | January 9th, 2020
Entering the 2019 season the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had hopes of making the playoffs. In reality, they were never playoff contenders. The season was highlighted by three things. One, Jameis Winston because the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 30 plus touchdowns and 30 plus interceptions. Ironically, the Buccaneers’ season ended in overtime against the Atlanta Falcons on a pick-six that gave Winston his 30th interception of the season. Two, Chris Godwin‘s breakout season. Despite missing 2.5 games because of a hamstring injury, Godwin finished third in the league with 1,333 receiving yards. The duo of him and Mike Evans might be the best in the league. Three, Shaquil Barrett had a breakout season, leading the league with 19.5 sacks. Entering the season he had 14 career sacks.
Unfortunately, for the Buccaneers, the season was very much up and down. Winston would look like a pro bowl quarterback on one drive and on the very next, look like he should be playing in the XFL. Barrett had nine sacks in the first month of the season but then totaled 2.5 sacks over the next six games. Both Winston and Barrett are free agents this spring, and the Buccaneers’ roster could look very different come September.
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What Went Right
Depending on what drive you were watching, Winston looked like a franchise quarterback in his first year under Bruce Arians’ offense. Godwin and Evans combined for 2,490 receiving yards despite the duo missing a combined six games to close out the season. Both ranked in the top four in yards per game, both averaging 89 yards or more per game. The defense was ranked first against the run in large part thanks to second-year star Vita Vea and free-agent signee Ndamukong Suh. First-round pick Devin White had a solid year and second-year running back Ronald Jones flashed at times. Despite struggling against the pass at times, the Buccaneers may have found some long term pieces in the secondary.
What Went Wrong
Winston has to cut down on the turnovers. Some interceptions weren’t his fault but others were awful decisions/reads. While Jones flashed at times, the Buccaneers failed to rush for over 100 yards (the league average was 107) in half of their games this season. Whether it’s Jones, Peyton Barber, or a new face, the Buccaneers need to be more consistent on the ground. The Buccaneers struggled to defend the pass. They gave up the third-most passing yards per game at 270.1 per game. Part of that is playing in a pass happy division with the New Orleans Saints and the Falcons, but that isn’t going to change and the Buccaneers need to improve on that next season.
O.J. Howard struggled this season. Coming off a 2018 season with 565 yards and five touchdowns despite missing six games with injuries, Howard regressed, finishing the season with 459 yards and only one touchdown. In fact, Howard had more tackles this season chasing down defenders after they intercepted Winston than he did touchdowns. Meanwhile, despite being a fifth-round pick, Matt Gay struggled at times. He missed eight of 35 field goals, including five from under 50 yards, but more alarming, he missed five extra points. The Buccaneers have had kicker issues for years and Gay may not be the answer.
Outlook for the Offseason
Arians will return as the head coach next season, as expected. However, he didn’t give Winston a vote of confidence to close out the season, saying the team could win games with Winston at quarterback or someone else. As an upcoming free agent, Winston’s future is cloudy at this point. The Buccaneers are projected to have $87.5 million dollars in cap space but have several free agents they would like to bring back. They will get a fourth-round compensatory pick for losing Kwon Alexander in free agency last spring.
With so much cap space, it is unlikely the Buccaneers need to cut anyone but two potential cap casualties are Cameron Brate and William Gholston. Cutting both would open up $10.8 million dollars in cap space. I would expect both back on the roster next season unless the Buccaneers are super active in free agency and need the cap space.
The Team’s Free Agents
The Buccaneers have several upcoming free agents. However, the two most important are Winston and Barrett. Because it is the last year of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams can use both the franchise tag and the transition tag on players. In previous years teams could only use one. With this change, the Buccaneers can control both Winston and Barrett’s free agency if they can’t agree to a long term deal with them. My advice to the Buccaneers would be to franchise tag Winston, this way any team that wants to sign him would have to give up two first-round picks and no team will do that. By putting the transition tag on Barrett, they can match any offer he gets but if they don’t, the Buccaneers won’t receive any compensation.
The bottom line is simple. Whichever player the Buccaneers are more willing to sign to a long term deal should be given the transition tag. Reports are the Buccaneers want to bring back Winston on the franchise tag to see how he plays in year two under Arians’ offense before committing to him long term. By putting the franchise tag on him, it guarantees no other team will offer Winston a contract.
Outside of those two, the Buccaneers have five other starters or key role players who are upcoming free agents. Suh was signed to a one year deal this past summer and was a key part of their run defense. If the price doesn’t get out of hand, I expect him to return. Demar Dotson has been the starting right tackle for years, but at 34 years old, the team may decide it’s time to find a younger replacement. Breshad Perriman had a limited impact this season until the last for weeks of the season when Evans and Godwin suffered injuries.
Over the last three weeks of the season, Perriman had 17 catches for 349 yards and four touchdowns. Before that, he never topped 90 yards in a game and had just two touchdowns. Again, if the price is right I expect Perriman to return but the Buccaneers do like some of their young wide receivers on the roster and that could push Perriman out of town.
Defensively, edge rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib are both expected to hit the market. Assuming the Buccaneers retain Barrett, at least one of these two will be playing elsewhere next season. Of the two, Pierre-Paul should be the favorite to return. The Buccaneers traded a third-round draft pick for Pierre-Paul two years ago and despite playing in just 10 games, he had 8.5 sacks. Meanwhile, Nassib played in 14 games and had six sacks. Again, the money has to make sense but if it does, expect Pierre-Paul back in Tampa Bay.
Open Market Free Agents
As I mentioned earlier, the Buccaneers need to fix the running game. The team may decide to give Jones another shot at being the main back but if they don’t look for them to spend big in free agency for one. Some potential options include Melvin Gordon and Kareem Hunt. The Chargers are likely to part ways with Gordon while Hunt is a restricted free agent and the Buccaneers might have to work out a trade deal with the Browns if they want Hunt. Another potential option is Arians’ old buddy from Arizona, David Johnson.
According to over the cap, the Cardinals would lose a little over $4 million dollars in cap space by cutting Johnson. However, if they trade him, they open up $8.3 million dollars in cap space. If the Cardinals decide to move on from Johnson, expect Arians to be their first call. Many believe Johnson has lost a step but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him rebound (at least to some degree) with Arians in Tampa Bay.
In addition to fixing the running game, the Buccaneers need to improve the offensive line. I expect them to address this early and often in the draft. However, two bigger names they could look to sign in free agency is Packers’ Bryan Bulaga and Titans’ Jack Conklin. Both guys would be immediate upgrades over Doctson and Donovan Smith. Fixing the offensive line is critical if Winston is going to take a big step forward next season.
If the Buccaneers are unable to keep Barrett, look for them to spend big money on a pass rusher in free agency. Jadeveon Clowney, Yannick Ngakoue, and Bud Dupree are all free agents but could all be given the franchise tag by their current teams. However, if any of the three hit the open market, this is a situation where the Buccaneers should throw a lot of cash at them.
While the team is encouraged by some of their younger cornerbacks, the Buccaneers should look to add a veteran if the price is right. Two older cornerbacks they could target are Logan Ryan and Chris Harris Jr. Both had a good 2019 season and this secondary needs a veteran voice to lead all the young guys. However, both are expected to fetch big offers in free agency and could be out of the Buccaneers’ price point.
Some cheaper options the Buccaneers can target include offensive tackles Marcus Gilbert and Donald Penn. Gilbert was with Arians when he was an assistant coach in Pittsburgh while Penn played well for the Redskins this year but may not be re-signed if they bring back Trent Williams. At edge rusher, Kyler Fackrell is a name to keep an eye on. The Packers duo of Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith was one of the best in the league this season. With 2019 first-round pick Rashan Gary is waiting in the wings, I doubt the Packers offer Fackrell a new contract.
Projecting the NFL Draft
The Buccaneers have a lot of needs to plug this offseason. However, they are spots on the roster where they have great talent. Last year, the Buccaneers hit in the first round, taking White fifth overall. They then used three straight picks on defensive backs (two cornerbacks and a safety). This year I would expect them to focus a little more on the offensive side of the ball.
Round 1, Pick 14: Offensive Line
I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Buccaneers use two of their top three selections on the offensive line. Both tackles spots can easily be upgraded and the depth at every spot on the offensive line is lackluster. There are expected to be several offensive tackles with first-round grades in the draft this year and the Buccaneers need to seriously consider one at pick 14.
Round 2, Pick 45: Edge Rusher
If Barrett and JPP aren’t brought back, this will become the team’s top need in the draft. However, even if both are back, you can never have too many good pass rushers. In a division with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton, your defense needs to be able to put pressure on the quarterback. Depth at his position is critical and extremely undervalued.
Round 3, Pick 76: Quarterback
Winston needs competition in that quarterback room. Last year they had Ryan Fitzpatrick, this year they had Ryan Griffin. Furthermore, if Winston isn’t the franchise guy, the Buccaneers need to find that guy. In the third round, it’s the perfect spot to balance using a pick on a backup while also pushing your starter. If Winston struggles early on during the 2020 season, the team would be much better off turning to a rookie with potential than a career backup in Griffin.
The Buccaneers are the ultimate wild card team next season. With a productive offseason and a major step forward from Winston in 2020, this team would challenge for the NFC South division title. However, if the defense regress (with or without the return of Barrett, JPP, and Suh), and Winston keeps up his horrible turnover rate, the Buccaneers will end up with a top-three pick in the 2021 draft. More the likely the end result is somewhere in between and I expect the Buccaneers to finish around .500 again in 2020, missing the playoffs for the 13th straight season.
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