The long wait for the playoffs continues for the Bucs, who haven’t been relevant in January since defeat to the Giants on their way to the Super Bowl back in 2007. New head coach Lovie Smith’s first season back with the team didn’t suggest a quick return was on the horizon, finishing an NFL-worst 2-14. It did however earn the rights to the first overall pick in the draft; enter new franchise quarterback Jameis Winston. With Dirk Koetter joining from Atlanta as the new offensive coordinator and Smith taking over play calling duties for the defence, the Bucs entered the 2015 season with a certain amount of optimism for at least some progress in the right direction. Record: 6-10, 4th in NFC South, 9th overall draft pick. The Winston era in Tampa got off to rather a disastrous start. Facing Mariota and the Titans in a battle of the top rookie QBs saw the first overall pick throw multiple interceptions as the Bucs were thumped 42-14 at home, in a result made to look even worse as the rest of the season progressed revealing Tennessee to be the poorest team in the country. After a 1-3 start, the pirate ship steadied as the many new pieces, in particularly on offense, started to gel, and by mid-season had worked their way to a 6-6 record and an outside shot at a wildcard spot in the playoffs should they finish strong. The opposite occurred unfortunately, as four straight defeats, including losing to each of their division rivals, meant the season finished on a low point. After just his second season, Lovie Smith was removed from his position, considered one of the more surprising casualties of the off-season coaching upheaval. In truth though, the fact that the defence got worse under Smith as play caller than before, and a second straight year of awful discipline that saw a ridiculous number of unnecessary pre- and post-snap penalties reflected poorly on the head coach, and Koetter was promoted in his place. That continuity at least will be good for Winston entering his second season, and hopefully will lead to a team that isn’t constantly shooting themselves in the foot. There’s a lot of good young talent on both sides of the ball; that long wait for the playoffs could finally be at an end soon. Offense: The Buccaneers featured one of the league’s poorest offenses in 2014, but made huge strides this past season, finishing 5th best in the NFL in total yards, albeit the fact that the team was subsequently just 20th in scoring reflecting the failure to convert in the red zone that cost them at times over the year. While the progress of Winston as the season went on, and the re-emergence to form of Doug Martin were huge parts of that, neither of those could play the way they did without the massive progress made by the offensive line. The unit was a disaster the previous year and didn’t even give Josh McCown a chance in his failed single season leading the team. Rookies Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet stepped in immediately, with late addition Gosder Cherilus proving a solid stand-in for Demar Dotson who went down early in pre-season. Along with Logan Mankins’ continued presence, the group were much more competent for the task of letting a young QB learn his trade at this level. Martin was the star of the offense though without question. Whether it was finally being fully healthy after a number of injuries, or the inspiration of a potential new contract (more likely a combination of both), Martin surprised by finishing as the league’s second-leading rusher behind only Adrian Peterson. Unfortunately, he now becomes tougher and more costly to hang on to, but has to be a priority. While Martin was rejuvenated, Mike Evans regressed. Slowed early by injury, then plagued later with countless drops, he seemed to let the issue get in his head. With fellow receiver Vincent Jackson and tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins also missing much time with injury, Winston’s production was all the more impressive with the thinned-out receiving core he had left to work with. The primary pass catching trio are among the biggest in the league when all healthy and available. This is a group that should see even further progress heading into the 2016 season, provided Evans can get his mind right again. Defense: The Bucs defense certainly has a few stars in Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander, but is strongly lacking in two key areas that continues to hold them back. Every year the lack of a consistent pass rush hurts their ability to keep the opposition in check, with Jacquies Smith a surprising leader off the edge with 7 sacks. A talented edge rusher has to be among the top priorities for the next draft. Secondly, the secondary. The back end of the defense struggled, with expensive under-performer Alterraun Verner dropped and former high pick Johnthan Banks finding himself third-string. It’s a strong class of cornerbacks in this year’s draft, and it could be where they choose to invest the ninth overall selection. In two years under Jason Licht as general manager, the Bucs have only used one draft pick on a defensive player in that time. Expect a complete 180 this year, to improve a group that allowed the 7th most points in the NFL in 2015. On a plus, McCoy continues to be a superstar as one of the league’s best interior disruptors, and Lavonte David continues to be one of the most under-appreciated players in the NFL. At least he finally made the Pro Bowl as an alternate, but should have been there every season of his career so far. Rookie Class: Tampa Bay’s rookie class arguably were one of the best in the league in terms of their immediate contributions. First overall selection Jameis Winston was the star of the show of course, and his 4,042 yards plus 22 touchdowns might have earned him rookie of the year honours, had he cut down on the 15 interceptions that he threw. It was a big issue for him in college, and continues to need work, but the signs look good that the Bucs have a quarterback to compete in a division that also features Newton, Ryan and Brees. The next two selections were invested in the offensive line, and 2nd rounder Donovan Smith from Penn State, after a shaky pre-season, settled in to a steady rhythm at left tackle, where he should continue for years to come. The real stand out, though doing so quietly, was right guard Ali Marpet, the highest player to ever be selected from the division 3 level of college football. Marpet is a fantastic athlete with strength and technique that ought to see him become a pro-bowler very soon. As mentioned earlier, the one and only defensive draft pick came in round 4 with Kwon Alexander, an undersized but speedy linebacker who was an immediate hit. In pre-season Alexander quickly beat out veteran Bruce Carter, and was given the responsibility to receive and relate play calls to the rest of the team; a big responsibility for a rookie. 5th round receiver Kenny Bell will come good eventually, but was unable to contribute, with a pre-season injury ending his rookie year before it got starter. The final two selections in kick returner Kaelin Clay and full back Joey Iosefa didn’t last long on the roster, but the team did find an undrafted gem in Clemson wide receiver Adam Humphries, who made himself impossible to cut in the fall and became one of Winston’s favourite targets late in the year while others were out injured. Overall: The season may have ended on a low, but if the Bucs can continue to add pieces to this young, talented roster, in particular at critical spots on the defense, the playoffs could be in sight for the first time in nearly a decade. Winston should continue to develop under the tutelage of Dirk Koetter, but the newly appointed head coach has to instil some discipline and cut down on the self-inflicted errors. The division is a tough one to battle through, but there’s a lot to be optimistic about heading into 2016 for Bucs fans.
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