Wednesday, February 25, 2015

2015 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Offseason Plan - Do It Big Then

The Jason Licht & Lovie Smith era began in rather forgettable fashion, with the Bucs waving the white flag on a two-win season by losing their last six games, besting an earlier in-season five game losing streak.  The new regime quickly turned over a majority of the roster, and their replacements, for the most part, did not pay dividends.  There were exceptions.  First round pick, Mike Evans, looks like a franchise #1 receiver, Clinton McDonald was a welcome addition to the defensive line, and Logan Mankins removed some of the comedy from the offensive line’s play. 

The rest of the acquisitions include a veteran QB who was brought in to take the starting job and was just cut, a left tackle who was benched and is likely to get cut, and a pass rusher who they paid about $2 million per sack.  Aside from Evans, the rest of the draft class disappointed.  Austin Seferian-Jenkins has promise at tight end, and Charles Sims, a pick panned by the consensus, wasn’t overly impressive when he eventually got healthy.  The rest of the picks made no impact at all and haven’t distinguished themselves as keepers.  

Following a two win season, Licht and Smith must show significant improvement in year two.  Their to-do list is lengthy:

  • Find a starting quarterback
  • Decide whether Doug Martin, Mike Glennon, Anthony Collins, Michael Johnson,  Dashon Goldson, and Michael Koenen are worth more on or off the roster
  • Acquire a threat at receiver behind Evans and Vincent Jackson
  • Upgrade at right guard and right tackle and improve overall OL depth
  • Add another pass rusher, even with Johnson on the team
  • Sign a starting MLB
  • Bring in a starting nickel corner and add depth
  • At a minimum, add safety depth and replace Goldson if cut

Fortunately they have over $30 million in cap space and can create more by cutting/trading those decision point players mentioned above.  They also have a healthy supply of draft picks, headlined by the #1 overall selection.  Before getting into what I think the Bucs should do with their draft picks, let’s take a look at their options in free agency. 

Free Agency

Ndamukong Suh and Mike Iupati will likely headline the list of players who make it to the market, and while both would look great in those ugly Buc uniforms, I don’t foresee Tampa Bay being in on either one.  Even though the Bucs again go into the offseason with multiple holes on the depth chart and decisions to make about current personnel, I don’t think we see near the roster turnover as last year. 

If I’m charting the course, I’m wooing a select handful of free agents.  On offense I have two specific targets at positions of need.

Joseph Barksdale (RT, St. Louis Rams)
With Demar Dotson likely to stay at left tackle, the Bucs need to find a starter on the right side either in free agency or in the draft.  Barksdale ranks as an elite run blocker with room to grow as a pass protector.  By locking up Barksdale, the Bucs would have two bookends who will be under 30 when the season starts.  I’m not sure they can head into the draft without addressing the RG or RT spots in free agency.  I sign Barksdale and focus on a starting right guard and at least one (ideally two) other offensive linemen in the draft.

Eddie Royal (WR, Chargers)
I like the idea of a group of targets that include Jackson, Evans, and ASJ, but it’s not a finished group.  It’s still missing is that dimension of an explosive player in space.  I had Randall Cobb mocked to the Bucs back in ’11, and as much as I’d love to see him finally join the crew, the Bucs wisely won’t commit heavily to the position with Jackson and Evans already on the roster.  Royal averaged 55 catches, over 700 yards, and 8 TDs the last two years playing the slot role for Philip Rivers, a QB to whom I’ve drawn some comparisons when discussing the Bucs’ future at the position, and gives the Bucs some validity in the slot at an affordable price. 

Barksdale and Royal represent measurable yet efficient upgrades.  Both can be secured for multiple years and leave plenty of cap space to address needs on the defensive side of the ball.

Brandon Graham (DE, Eagles)
Jabaal Sheard (DE, Browns)
Unless cap space gets dire, I would hold onto Johnson for another year to see if he can meet expectations when fully healthy.  I would still look to add a free agent since there is little depth behind Johnson and last year’s surprise, Jacquies Smith.  Both Graham and Sheard are unlikely to be pursued by their current teams due to player/scheme mismatches not a lack of talent.  Graham wants to play in a 4-3 defense, and he’d give the Bucs a pass rush boost from the left side.  He’s also a plus run stopper.  Sheard has excelled as a run stopping linebacker, but he totaled 15.5 sacks in his first two years as a 4-3 end.  I think Johnson, Smith, and Graham/Sheard would all benefit from being part of a rotation. 

Walter Thurmond III (CB, Giants)
Patrick Robinson (CB, Saints)
The cornerback position may be the deepest of an overall disappointing free agent class, and the Bucs will be in the market for a starting nickel corner as well as depth behind starters Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks.  Thurmond is the ideal slot corner, but he’s coming a missed season due to injury.  He shouldn’t cost a fortune, but I expect he’ll still have plenty of suitors.  Robinson shined once moved into the nickel role for the Saints, but I assume he’ll look for a boundary role should he leave New Orleans

Adding a RT, WR, DE, and CB will shorten their must-do list and allow the Bucs to widen their focus in the draft.  It’s not a lengthy list, but I’d like to see an emphasis on quality over quantity in free agency this year.  And I’m not expecting them to shop top shelf either.  I’d love to see the Bucs go after Shane Vereen, Cobb, Bryan Bulaga, Iupati, Suh, Byron Maxwell, and Devin McCourty, but it’s not happening.

The Draft

If free agency goes as planned above, QB, MLB, and OL are the highest remaining priorities.  As it currently stands, the Bucs have eight draft picks with at least one in each round, and their first one will kick off draft weekend. 

Debates rage regarding what the Bucs should do with the #1 pick, arguably the most critical pick in franchise history.  Assuming they don’t trade the pick (something I see as having little to no chance of happening), the choice will come down to Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota.  The best the Bucs have ever done when it comes to a franchise QB is Doug Williams, Vinny Testaverde, and Trent Dilfer.  The bar is set low for whoever the Bucs decide on, but expectations will be high.  Who should it be?

One QB comes from a pro style offense where he was forced to call plays in the huddle, adjust plays at the line of scrimmage, read defenses, and exploit defenses.  The other comes from an offense, that while successful and efficient, doesn’t share a playbook with an NFL franchise outside of Philadelphia.  As Bruce Arians commented, looking at the sidelines at a guy holding a card, lifting your leg, and throwing the ball isn’t playing quarterback.  Winston is the more ‘pro ready’ of the two, a fact that cannot be understated when you consider that the Licht & Lovie regime will need to make big gains in year two.  Winston also requires zero roster turnover at the other skilled positions in order to maximize his strengths.  Jackson, Evans, and ASJ are big guys who get vertical; receivers who would excel with Winston under center.  They’re not exactly the quick-cutting, high/low combination route runners that Oregon and Philadelphia have had success with.  Any suggestions that Mariota has the higher ceiling assumes that he learns how to do the things he hasn’t done and that he does them better than Winston.  That’s a bet I don’t see the Bucs taking.    

Of course I’m biased, but I’m not blind.  Mariota might be a fine professional QB some day, but Winston is the QB the Bucs need.  He’s everything they want on the field, has already proven to teams that his game preparation and play/situation recognition skills are elite, and embraces the idea of being the face of a franchise.  He’s a winner and has his sights set on greatness.  When was the last time the Bucs had someone with that energy?

With the 1st pick in the 2015 NFL draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers select…

Jameis Winston (QB, FSU)

Here’s how I see the rest of the first round playing out.

2) TEN – Leonard Williams (DL, USC)
Far from sold on this pick; could be Fowler, Gregory, Mariota, or a trade
3) CLE – Marcus Mariota (QB, Oregon)
Cleveland trades their two 1st round picks for the 3rd overall pick.  New OC has a impressive history with young QBs, and their new QB coach tutored Mariota this offseason.

4) OAK – Kevin White (WR, W Virginia)
If not a pass rusher, it’s a #1 receiver for their franchise QB.

5) WAS – Dante Fowler (DE/OLB, Florida)
Impressive pass rusher replaces Orakpo opposite Kerrigan; could be the best defensive player in this draft.

6) NYJ – Trae Waynes (CB, Michigan State)
A flawless Combine gives new HC Todd Bowles all the reason he needs to begin building his defense.

7) CHI – Danny Shelton (DT, Washington)
Pretty obvious pick here; Bears moving to a 3-4 defense and don’t have a nose; Ngata 2.0.

8) ATL – Randy Gregory (DE/OLB, Nebraska)
Guessing this is about as low as Gregory goes; Falcons get a much-needed pass rusher.

9) NYG – Brandon Scherff (OL, Iowa)
Another obvious pick; Giants need help at tackle and guard, and the well-rounded Scherff seems like a Couglin guy.

10) STL – Amari Cooper (WR, Alabama)
Back to the well; Mayock has compared Cooper to Torry Holt; Rams fans should hope.

11) MIN – La’el Collins (OL, LSU)
Bit of a surprise here but Vikings have a hole at guard and questions about Kalil.

12) JAX – Shane Ray (DE, Missouri)
Jaguars need pass rushers and impact players all over; Ray meets both of those needs.

13) NOR – Vic Beasley (DE/OLB, Clemson)
After the Combine, Beasley could go a lot higher than this, but if not, the Saints would love to land a pass rusher here.

14) MIA – DeVante Parker (WR, Louisville)
If I’m reading the signs correctly, Mike Wallace won’t be back next year, and neither will Hartline or Gibson.  That leaves 2nd year Jarvis Landry as the senior wideout. 

15) SF – Malcolm Brown (DL, Texas)
This spot screams receiver, especially if Parker is still on the board, but instead I have defensive-minded new HC taking Justin Smith’s replacement.

16) HOU – Andrus Peat (T, Stanford)
They won’t get a QB here, and rather than go with the unoriginal pick of Landon Collins, I take possibly the best player on the board.

17) SD – Cameron Erving (OL, FSU)
Given the Chargers’ dire need for help at center and guard, this is a nice spot for the ascending Erving to go.

18) KC – Landon Collins (S, Alabama)
If he lasts this long, I’ve got to think the Chiefs would take him as Eric Berry’s replacement.

19) JAX – Todd Gurley (RB, Georgia)
With the second pick acquired in the Cleveland trade, the Jaguars take the best back in the draft.  He’s a local-enough kid, and when he gets healthy, he’ll take a huge load off Bortles’ shoulders.

20) PHI – Bud Dupree (DE/OLB, Kentucky)
Corner and safety are higher needs, but I think Chip Kelly is still looking for “his” players on defense; Dupree could team with Mychal Kendricks to give the Eagles a couple of insanely athletic linebackers.

21) CIN – Eddie Goldman (DT, FSU)
Talent meets need.  Bengals have numbers but need more production from the defensive line.  Goldman can play the run and get after the passer.

22) PIT – Marcus Peters (CB, Washington)
Corner and pass rusher are their biggest needs, and I think Peters is their best value at this point.

23) DET – TJ Clemmings (T, Pittsburgh)
I’m having a hard time reading Clemmings’ stock, but he could step in right away at RT for the Lions.

24) ARI – Melvin Gordon (RB, Wisconsin)
You couldn’t blame Zona for addressing one of their many defensive needs, but I’ve got to think Arians could find a ton of ways to use Gordon and Ellington together.  He’ll also make an instant impact for a team with a questionable playoff window.

25) CAR – Dorial Green-Beckham (WR, Oklahoma)
Love the value and risk here.  Carolina struck gold at receiver last year with Kelvin Benjamin, and pairing the 6-5, 240 former Nole with a 6-5, 235 DGB, is a scary thought.  Carolina could impress next year with those two, the underrated Olsen, and a healthy Stewart.

26) BAL – Jalen Collins (CB, LSU)
Ton of talent; could end up being the best corner from this draft; really nice fit opposite Jimmy Smith.

27) DAL – PJ Williams (CB, FSU)
This pick has to be a defensive player, and if they don’t find a pass rusher to their liking, I think they go corner given the lack of talent at the position.

28) DEN – Ereck Flowers (T, Miami)
Seems to be exactly what Kubiak needs – a big tackle who excels in the run game.

29) IND – Eric Kendricks (LB, UCLA)
Indy has to get a lot better on defense, and I think this is a perfect situation for Kendricks.  They need help at ILB, and this guy makes a ton of plays.

30) GB – Denzel Perryman (LB, Miami)
The Packers are terribly lacking at ILB, and getting a force like Perryman frees Matthews up to move back outside.

31) SEA – Quinten Rollins (CB, Miami OH)
Seattle is dangerously thin at corner, and the big, physical Rollins fits perfectly.

32) NE – Shaq Thompson (ATH, Washington)
Belichick loves toys, and this guy may be the more exciting of this year’s bunch. 

Round 2 & Remaining Picks

I’ve got the Titans drafting Nate Orchard (DE/OLB, Utah) with the first pick of day two.  Since I’m always one for acquiring more draft picks, I’m going to propose a trade here.  I’m not sure the Bucs will be in a better position to move down than the Titans, but should the opportunity present itself, I expect them to be inclined to do so.  I’ve got the Bucs trading the 34th overall pick to the Bills for their 2nd and 3rd round picks in order for Rex Ryan to take a QB, Brett Hundley.  Here’s what I have Tampa doing with those and their other draft picks.

R2 (BUF trade) – Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (CB, Oregon)
An ideal solution to the slot corner dilemma; easy comparison to Ronde; ACL injury could have him available in this range.

R3 – Stephone Anthony (LB, Clemson)
Lacks explosiveness of higher-rated linebackers but a strong showing of athleticism at Combine combined with an ability to cover the deep middle has to be appealing to the Bucs.  Anthony, Kendricks, and Paul Dawson would be my top MLB choices in the draft. 

R3 (BUF trade) – Donovan Smith (T, Penn State)
Worth the risk at this point; high upside as a left tackle with a ton of physical tools; just needs coaching and reps; could play RT or possibly G which increases his value to the Bucs.

R4 – Jeremiah Poutasi (OL, Utah)
Another offensive lineman long on potential; projects as a RG/RT; similar to Smith in that he has all the physical traits, just needs coaching and reps; would love to see him at RG.

I think the odds are better than 50/50 that the Bucs trade Doug Martin at some point.  I’ve got him going to the Steelers for a 4th round pick.  With that pick the Bucs take…

R4 (PIT trade) – Kurtis Drummond (FS, Michigan State)
Whether or not Goldson is retained, the Bucs need bodies at safety.  I like his ability to track and seize the football.  Senquez Golson (CB, Ole Miss) is another guy I like in this range should they not address corner sooner.

R5 – Stefon Diggs (WR, Maryland)
More explosive than fast, Diggs does his damage in the slot; fills a huge need as someone who can make plays in space and get those extra years in the middle of the field.

R5 – Jarvis Harrison (G, Texas A&M)
Huge dude with starting guard potential; interested in seeing him play to his strengths in a power scheme.

R6 – Tyeler Davison (DT, Fresno State)
Love his projection as a NT next to McCoy; huge and strong; has a bit of position versatility and potential as a pass rusher.  Bobby McCain (CB, Memphis) would get my vote if they haven’t drafted a corner by now.

R7 – John Crockett (RB, North Dakota State)
If the Bucs trade Martin, they’ll need another back to go with Sims, James, and Rainey.  Reminds me of James Starks; does everything well, not great.  (I see PR took him in their latest mock; great minds think alike)


In total the Bucs add:
QB – Jameis Winston
RB – John Crockett
WR – Eddie Royal, Stefon Diggs
OL – Joseph Barksdale, Donovan Smith, Jeremiah Poutasi, Jarvis Harrison
DL – Brandon Graham / Jabaal Sheard, Tyeler Davison
LB – Stephone Anthony
CB – Walter Thurmond, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
FS – Kurtis Drummond

Acquiring talent is just one half of the staff’s charge.  They must do a much better job of coaching up the talent and putting players in the best position to succeed.  I believe this sufficiently and realistically addresses the first half of the equation.  The rest is up to Lovie. 

Go Bucs!