The bold hope that came with the hiring of former Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians has failed to jump-start the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chances of reaching the postseason.
The franchise appears to be heading for a third consecutive season in the NFC South basement and it seems right to question whether the team is anymore improved than last year. What three changes need to be made between now and the start of next season?
Change of general manager
Jason Licht has been in charge of the front office in Tampa since January 2014, during which time the Bucs have finished last in the NFC South in all but one season. During that time the franchise has put together a 27-53 record, with double digit losses in all of those losing seasons.
In addition, Licht is now on to his third head coach, following Lovie Smith and Dirk Koetter, and despite all those high draft picks and throwing bundles of cash at the roster in free agency, Tampa is no better off than it was before Licht’s tenure.
It has to be of serious concern as well that Licht has been unable to solve two issues that have beset this franchise for multiple seasons, namely a porous secondary and an offensive line that can’t protect Jameis Winston.
Since the 2014 draft, Licht has drafted a total of 9 defensive backs, to no avail. None of those players were drafted later than the fourth round either, indicating that these weren’t simply rangy, speedy players drafted with the intention of playing special teams. Indeed in 2018, the Bucs picked up M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis in the second round, then followed that up this year with second rounder Sean Bunting and third round picks Jamel Dean, as well as safety Mike Edwards.
This year Tampa ranks 31st in the league in passing yards allowed per game with 290.9. That isn’t just a one off. In 2018 they ranked 26th in the same category, and in 2017 were a league worst 32nd. In fact, being below average in 2015 and 2016 was the high point for this unit. That speaks to a front office that simply cannot solve an issue that has held this franchise back in recent years, and even the hiring of Todd Bowles, noted for his effective defensive units (and secondary expertise), hasn’t elevated the play of the defensive backfield in Florida this year.
The offensive fireworks in the passing game at Raymond James Stadium seem to distract from the fact that this is a roster with seemingly intractable issues and that is far too top heavy in some positions. Some significant reconstruction work needs to be done on the Buccaneers roster, and it really is time the franchise found someone else to do it.
Bring in competition for Winston
Tampa picked up the fifth-year option on Winston’s contract and brought in noted quarterback whisperer Bruce Arians as head coach this year, hoping he could work his magic on the ex-Florida State signal caller. Statistically though, in many ways, the Bucs quarterback is having his worse year since going pro.
After 10 games, Winston has a completion percentage of 59.6% and a TD to INT ratio of 19:18. Last year he was completing 64.6% of his passes, and hasn’t been sub-60% since his rookie year. In addition, he has matched his career high in interceptions from 2016, and it can be assumed will likely break that undesirable record before the season is out.
Winston’s defenders will point to the lack of protection he has had from his offensive line, and that is definitely true.
This year the line has allowed 78 hits (3rd worst in the league), to go with 36 sacks (4th worst in the league). Just like the franchise’s pass defense, this is an annual trend. Tampa Bay has ranked in the top 5 for the highest number of hits on their quarterback in every year since 2014, with the exception of 10th worst in 2017. That is incredible.
No quarterback could survive that sort of pounding on a weekly basis and it’s testament to Jameis’ toughness that he’s still able to line up behind centre every week.
But both of these things can be true: Tampa Bay has a horrible offensive line, as well as a quarterback who cannot protect the football.
Winston is undoubtedly a gunslinger, and it has been acknowledged by team brass that he will take chances, some of which will work, and some of which will backfire. But after five years with only a modicum of competition provided for Winston, it may be time for the team to look elsewhere, or at least sign up someone who can give their current quarterback a run for his money.
Inevitably, free agency seems unlikely to yield the sort of big armed passers who would fit Arians’ vertical scheme, though that could change if someone like Cam Newton is cut by divisional rivals, the Carolina Panthers. If Newton makes a full recovery from his recent injuries, he could entice the Bucs to use some of the massive amount of cap space they are likely to have next year.
Failing that, Tampa currently sits sixth in the draft. They could stand pat there and see prospects like Oregon’s Justin Herbert, or even Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa given his recent injury, fall to them. The Jets, Giants and Redskins are all slated to pick before the Bucs, yet all have recent first round quarterback picks, making them more amenable to trading down.
Where to go in the first round?
It seems an obvious statement to make, but the Bucs have to come away with an instant impact player in the draft this year. Jeffrey Okudah seems a natural fit given the Bucs problems in the secondary, and I will imagine Bowles will be thumping the table for the Ohio State player. But given their recent investment of significant draft capital in the position, Tampa’s front office could turn its attention to solidifying an overpaid and underperforming offensive line.
I’ve already documented the woeful performance of this unit, but what makes that level of substandard play an even more difficult pill to swallow is the fact that, according to Spotrac, the Bucs are spending the 3rd highest amount of its cap in the league on the team’s offensive line. 21.87% of the team’s cap is spent on that unit, and in return the franchise is getting peanuts. That may result in a player like Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, being the pick when Tampa is on the clock.
Starting over with the O-line may also have the added bonus of improving the team’s rushing attack. We’ve seen what a potent running game can do to take the weight off the shoulders of signal callers who feel they have to carry the load for their teams, and Tampa has had an unbalanced offense for far too long, overemphasising the passing game because of the lack of threat on the ground.
Either way, big changes need to be made in the Sunshine State, and this offseason could be the start of it.