The 2017 season. The Super Bowl. NFL free agency. The 2018 NFL Draft. And now rookie camp. They’re all in the books, which means that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 90-man roster has officially been filled. Even though there will no doubt be some tweaking here and there, the nucleus of this team is set and ready to go.
Next up is OTA’s, or organized team activities, and then on into training camp. While a lot can happen over the next three months, the Bucs regular season 53-man and 10-man practice squad rosters will come from most of this current group of players. I wanted to dive into this roster, position group by position group, to figure out the “state of the franchise”. But since there were coaching changes over this off-season, I figured that we’d talk about those first.
Much to the dismay of a few Bucs fans, Jason Licht is still this team’s general manager, Dirk Koetter is still the head coach and Mike Smith is still the defensive coordinator. There were only three significant coaching changes made amongst the Bucs staff this offseason. After a terribly disappointing season by the defense where they finished dead last in the league in almost everything, defensive line coach Jay Hayes was dismissed and former player turned coach Brentson Buckner was hired to replace him. Todd Monken was kind of promoted to “full time” offensive coordinator from his “part time” offensive coordinator/wide receiver coach allowing him to focus on the entire offense. Meanwhile, his former offensive assistant Skyler Fulton was promoted to wide receivers coach.
What do these changes mean? It’s too early to tell but if you’ve seen any of Brentson Buckner’s interviews, you have to be excited about the possibilities of this new d-line. Monken has said that the ability to get his hands on all of the offensive players and to be involved in all of the offensive position group meetings will help the offense stay on the same page and Fulton seems like a feisty, young position coach ready to take the reigns. It helps that he’s already familiar with his group of receivers as well as the offensive playbook after being Monken’s offensive assistant for the last two seasons in Tampa. He also played wide receiver for Koetter at Arizona State.
QB coach Tim Bajakian should be satisfied that his group stayed intact over the offseason. Jameis Winston is coming off of a season where he set new career highs in completion percentage (63.8%), yards per game (269.5), yards per completion (7.9) and 300 yard games (6) despite missing three games due to a shoulder injury. What’s most promising is that after he returned from that injury, he finished the final 5 games with 68.8% completions, 316.8 ypg, 9.0 ypc, 9 td’s and 5 int’s. Veteran backup QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was also re-signed this offseason and 28 year-old backup Ryan Griffin is also returning. They’ve also added one more QB to the mix in rookie Austin Allen from Arkansas.
RB coach Tim Spencer has to be thrilled about his group of backs going into this training camp. Even though they elected to release Doug Martin, Peyton Barber returns for his third season in Tampa. He took over a bigger role over the final 5 games of the season due to injuries and totaled 78 carries for 335 yards, 67 ypg, 4.3 ypc, 1 touchdown, 12 catches for 83 yards for 6.9 ypc. Veteran Jacquizz Rodgers, third down back Charles Sims who was recently re-signed and fullback Austin Johnson who was a member of the practice squad last season are all returning as well. The Bucs added Dalton Crossan in free agency who was signed by the Colts last year as an undrafted free agent but then waived due to an undisclosed injury. They also added two rookies during and after the draft. Ronald Jones was drafted with the 38th pick in the second round of the draft and Shaun Wilson is an undrafted rookie out of Duke. Jones is a homerun hitter with speed and power. Wilson is a quick scatback who has third down and kick return ability and could challenge Sims or Rodgers for a roster spot as one of the four running backs.
Newly appointed WR coach Skyler Fulton might have the easiest job of the entire Bucs staff. Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries, Bobo Wilson and Freddie Martino are all returning. That’s already six pretty good receivers which is likely the number that they will keep on the active roster. So rookies such as Bucs fifth round pick Justin Watson and undrafted rookies Sergio Bailey and Erv Philips will have an uphill battle in camp. Jake Lampman rounds out the group after signing a futures contract with the team in January. The hope for this season is that Evans and Hump continue to do what they do best, Jackson has a better year after spending this offseason working with Winston, and Godwin continues improving every week as he did last year. I think the final two spots will be filled by Wilson and Watson, but it’s still a bit early for that assumption. Those other six wideouts should make for an interesting competition throughout training camp though so keep an eye on that battle.
TE coach Ben Steele has it made as well. The team re-signed Cameron Brate to a big contract and OJ Howard, Antony Auclair and Alan Cross are all returning, giving them the same group as last year. However, the Bucs did add three undrafted rookies to the mix in Donnie Ernsberger, Tanner Hudson and Jason Reese. Even though Ernsberger was heavily pursued following the draft and the Bucs were lucky to sign him, I see the TE group staying the same but at least one of these rookies will end up on the practice squad.
This is where the roster starts to get interesting, at least on offense. OL coach George Warhop has four of his five starters returning with left guard Kevin Pamphile being the only one not coming back. He was “lost” to the Tennessee Titans in free agency so he’s their problem now. Meanwhile, left tackle Donovan Smith, right tackle Demar Dotson, right guard JR Sweezy and now left guard Ali Marpet are all back. Sweezy’s status is still up in the air with his injury and it’s unknown when or even if he’ll be healthy enough for camp. The Bucs signed former Ravens center Ryan Jensen to be their new starter in the middle and they drafted nasty tackle Alex Cappa in the third round of the draft. In addition to the starters are returning tackles Leonard Wester, Brad Seaton and Cole Gardner, guards Adam Gettis and Caleb Benenoch, offensive linemen Mike Liedtke and reserve guard/center Evan Smith. They’ve also added undrafted rookies Ruben Holcomb and Cole Boozer, as well as free agent tackle Givens Price. Most teams keep nine offensive linemen on their active roster. The Bucs currently have 15 offensive linemen among their 90 players. My bold prediction is that the team will soon be parting ways with Sweezy and the rookie Cappa will end up starting at right guard. That means the remaining nine players will be battling it out in camp for the final four spots on the active roster. A couple of them will surely end up on the practice squad but there will be a few good players getting released from this group.
New DL coach Brentson Buckner must feel like a kid on Christmas morning. This might be the most competitive position battle in camp this year. There are 15 defensive linemen on this roster and they’ll only be keeping maybe nine of them. Out are last year’s starters defensive end Robert Ayers and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald as well as free agency disappointment defensive tackle Chris Baker. Of course perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is back as well as defensive ends Will Gholston and Noah Spence. Also returning are reserves like Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, Channing Ward, Will Clarke and DaVonte Lambert. But the real story of this offseason are the new additions to this line. They signed free agent defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry and defensive tackles Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein. They used their first round pick on dominant defensive tackle Vita Vea. They also signed undrafted free agent rookie defensive ends Demone Harris and Evan Perrizo and free agent Patrick O’Connor who was a seventh round pick of the Lions in the 2017 NFL Draft. He was released during preseason and eventually signed to the Bucs practice squad towards the end of the 2017 season. There will be some pretty good players from this group who don’t make the team. The real competition during camp will likely be for a spot on the practice squad.
LB coach Mark Duffner might have the biggest and strongest group he’s ever had going into training camp. Besides the obvious players like Kwon Alexander, Lavonte David and Kendell Beckwith, the Bucs also have reserves Devante Bond, Riley Bullough, Cameron Lynch and Adarius Taylor (formerly known as Glanton) returning as well. Nigel Harris and Eric Nzeocha, who were members of the 2017 practice squad, are also coming back. The only rookie added to the mix is their sixth round pick Jack Cichy from Wisconsin. He’s coming off of a fairly serious knee injury which made him drop from a projected second or third round pick into the sixth round. If he truly is healthy and back to form, he could be a real steal from this draft. For those with doubts just remember, they also took a chance on Beckwith in the third round of last year’s draft when he was coming off a knee injury and that has turned out pretty good so far. Teams typically keep seven linebackers on their 53-man roster so once again, this could end up being a fun battle to keep an eye on in camp.
DB coaches Jon Hoke and Brett Maxie have a much stronger and deeper group than they had last year thanks to the Bucs 2018 NFL Draft. The team re-signed starter Brent Grimes and also have Vernon Hargreaves, Ryan Smith, Javien Elliott and Josh Robinson returning. David Rivers and Maurice Fleming, who were members of the Bucs 2017 practice squad are also coming back. This offseason they added two second round picks to the group in Carlton Davis and MJ Stewart as well as undrafted free agent rookie Mark Myers. NFL teams usually keep ten defensive backs, which includes corners and safeties. They’ll likely keep six of these guys. That means four of these players won’t make the active roster and another three probably won’t even make the practice squad. This should be a competitive group to watch this summer.
There are six safeties currently on the roster. Some fans will be disappointed to know that Chris Conte is returning for his fourth season in Tampa. Keith Tandy is returning for his seventh season in Tampa. Justin Evans is back for his sophomore season. Isaiah Johnson was on the practice squad for most of last season and he’s also coming back. TJ Ward underperformed last year and was not re-signed to the team. New additions to the group include fourth round pick Jordan Whitehead and undrafted free agent rookie Godwin Igwebuike who was highly sought after following the draft. With only four spots to fill, it will be interesting to see if the Bucs stick with veteran experience like Conte and/or Tandy OR go with young talent like Whitehead and/or Igwebuike.
ST coach Nate Kazcor has some shiny new toys this season. New longsnapper Drew Ferris from Florida and veteran kicker Chandler Catanzaro are now with the team along with the always reliable punter/holder Bryan Anger. They also added an undrafted rookie kicker in Trevor Moore from North Texas for some kicking competition in camp. Catanzaro brings some proven consistency and a bigger leg than his predecessor Patrick Murray. Hopefully, he can add stability to a Buccaneers kicking game that’s struggled since 2009 when they got rid of Matt Bryant.
If we learned anything from last year’s disastrous 5-11 season, it’s that we should temper our expectations. We entered last season with very high hopes and maybe a little too much confidence. That being said, this team is really stacked.
I MEAN STACKED!
From top to bottom it’s even more talented than last year’s extremely talented roster. If they can stay healthy, then they might be able to shock the world this season. Again, we should know better than to crown them before the first kickoff of Week 1 but come on man…they’re re stacked.
They’ve improved at every level on both sides of the ball. They’ve seemingly shored up their trenches on both sides of the ball. Jameis Winston is healthy and entering his fourth year in the league and his fourth season in this offense at just 24 years old. He has an improved offensive line in front of him, an improved backfield behind him and a receiving corps with another year of experience together.
The defensive line arguably has more talent than ever which should free their linebackers up to do what they do best, which is blitz the QB and tackle everything that moves. It should also make the job of the secondary much easier since opposing quarterbacks won’t be able to kick back in a recliner and survey through their first, second, third, fourth and fifth progressions any more.
This defense has a chance to be really dominant. This offense has a chance to be really potent. This team has a chance to be really special. As hard as it it’s going to be for now, we’ll have to keep our hopes and expectations toned down until they can back up their “Paper Champ” status on the football field.
And until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!