This Sunday when Super Bowl 51 concludes, it will mark the official end of the 2016-17 NFL season. The first day of the 2017-18 NFL season isn’t until March 9th at 4pm when all 2016 contracts end and the 2017 free agency period officially begins. That is when the fun starts! The Buccaneers will have one of the highest amounts of cap space available in the league, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be on a spending spree for a bunch of high priced free agents. Now don’t get me wrong, I do think they’ll sign a few key components during this period. However, Jason Licht will be smart and conservative with his free agent choices. He’s not going to overpay and he’s not going to go nuts.
That being said, Part 2 of my three part offseason series will consist of a list of “needs” or “holes” to fill on this team and some possible candidates to fill those roles. Keep in mind that this is all a matter of my opinion and in no way reflects the opinions or the plans of any member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization. This is purely speculative and for entertainment purposes ONLY! Now that my “disclaimer” is out of the way, let’s begin.
As I said in Part 1 of this series, the Bucs are on the verge and a really good offseason could potentially put this team into the “contender” category. That really good offseason would consist of hitting on their free agent signings and having another strong draft. This team is close. The pieces that I think they need to improve on this offseason are adding some weapons for Jameis Winston, solidifying the offensive and defensive lines, gaining some linebacker and safety depth, and adding a legitimate kick/punt returner.
I know what some of you are thinking…”What about the running back position?”, right? Well, I’m not so concerned with that right now. There are bigger needs than running back on this team. Doug Martin could still return and from what I’ve heard, Jacquizz Rodgers is interested in re-signing. They still have Chuck Sims and Peyton Barber too. Should they decide to sign a free agent RB as an insurance policy in the case that Doug Martin doesn’t return, my suggestion would be the Cleveland Browns Isaiah Crowell (24). He’s been a durable back in his first 4 seasons in the NFL playing in all 16 games in each. Last season, he ran for 952 yards and 7 touchdowns despite playing for a terrible offense. He’s about the same size as Martin at 5’11″/225lbs and he’s only 24 years old. He could be an affordable answer to their running back issue, should it arise.
This could be the biggest “need” on the Bucs offense, if not the entire team. Mike Evans (23) is a stud and I love the attitude, tenacity and dependability of Adam Humphries (24). But beyond them, the Buccaneers wide receiver corps is a bit spotty. As much as I hate to say it, I think Vincent Jackson (34) has played his last down in a Bucs uniform. The 34 year old veteran is coming off of a knee injury that ended his season after Week 6 and he’s only played in 15 games over the past two years. Tampa may extend a contract offer (if he’s still interested in playing football that is) but he may not like it because it won’t be anything even remotely close to his $11 million salary of 2016. Most Bucs fans are saying to use their #19 pick in the draft on a WR, but I think they should address the need in free agency. My suggestion is to sign two free agents, the first being the Cleveland Browns Terrelle Pryor (27). The quarterback turned wide receiver broke out in 2016 with 77 catches for 1,007 yards and 4 touchdowns. That’s as the Browns #1 receiver and without an actual QB…imagine what he could do as the #2 wideout alongside Mike Evans with Jameis Winston throwing him the football. At 6’4″/225lbs, he has the size and speed to be a legitimate receiving threat and he finally proved that this past season.
The second WR on my wish list, believe it or not, would be the Minnesota Vikings Cordarrelle Patterson (25). I know he’s not exactly a “premiere NFL receiver”, but he could be the deep ball threat needed by this offense and he adds a legitimate kick returner to special teams. At 6’2″/220, he has blazing speed for his size and has displayed it by returning 6 kickoffs for touchdowns in his first 5 seasons. Signing these two young players adds two more playmakers to Winston’s arsenal and helps solidify the receiving corps and return game.
The Bucs defensive line was playing well in the second half of the 2016 season despite a bunch of injuries. Once they get those injured players back, they should have a pretty good defensive end rotation. However, their defensive tackle situation isn’t so good. Akeem Spence (25) is set to be an unrestricted free agent and may or may not be back in Tampa next year. If that happens, the Bucs will be left with Gerald McCoy (28) and Clinton McDonald (30) as starters with Da’Vante Lambert (22) and Sealver Siliga (26) as backups. Not exactly what I would call a deep rotation. My solution is spending some money on this position and maybe going BIG by signing either Kawann Short (27) from the division rival Panthers or Dontari Poe (26) from the Chiefs.
Short may be a bit of a stretch since it’s already been rumored that Carolina could place the franchise tag on him. But if they don’t tag him and the Bucs are willing to back up the Brinks truck, they could have a seriously destructive duo in the middle with him and McCoy. Should the Panthers decide to keep him, Poe could be another option. His numbers may not reflect it, but Poe is a disruptive force up the middle and playing alongside McCoy would only help his production. If the Bucs aren’t quite willing to open up their wallet for either one of these two players, they could go for the Ravens Brandon Williams (27). He’s a solid player against the run and as a pass rusher and could be a more cost effective solution to their DT issue.
The Bucs already have a very solid defensive end rotation, but they could elect to improve it through free agency. My #1 DE free agent is the same as it was a year ago, the NY Giants Jason Pierre-Paul (28). He had 7 sacks in just 12 games in 2016 despite missing a couple of fingers. At 6’5″/275, he has the speed and power to wreak havoc off the edge. Combining him with Robert Ayers could give the Bucs the pass rushing bookends that the defensive line has been missing for years. Some other possibilities are the Patriots Jabaal Sheard (27), the Packers Nick Perry (26), the Cardinals Chandler Jones (26), the Dolphins Jelani Jenkins (24), or maybe even the Redskins Lynden Trail (25). Of course the other more likely option is that they simply re-sign Will Gholston and roll with an already productive DE rotation of Robert Ayers (31), Noah Spence (23), George Johnson (29), John Hughes (28), Jacquies Smith (26), Howard Jones (26) and Ryan Russell (25) (assuming they re-sign those last four who are all restricted free agents).
Last season, the Bucs offensive line had issues. Yes, injuries had a small part in it and losing veteran LG Logan Mankins didn’t help at all. But some changes need to be made and if there’s anything to the rumors that I’ve seen and heard they could be some significant ones. This free agent group of offensive tackles is pretty weak and the draft class isn’t much better. However, I do feel like they could find a legitimate left tackle in this draft especially if one of the top 3 are still left when their #19 pick comes up. If that’s the case, I can see them pulling the trigger on that pick and moving current LT Donovan Smith (23) over to RT. Gosder Cherilus (32) is going to be a free agent and I can’t see the Bucs re-signing him at his age. Demar Dotson (31) has played decent at RT but has had issues with penalties and is also getting up there in age. The Bucs could be interested in putting together an o-line that can protect Jameis Winston for years to come which would mean going a younger route. Donovan Smith is a “good enough” LT but I think he could be dominant at RT, which is why the move makes sense.
That being said, let’s talk about the guard positions. Last year’s free agent signing J.R. Sweezy (27) has FINALLY been medically cleared to play after sustaining a back injury that kept him out all of last year. He should be the starter at LG should he remain healthy. That leaves last year’s starting LG Kevin Pamphile (26) without a job. Unless…they move current RG Ali Marpet (23) to center. Bucs GM Jason Licht has mentioned in the past that Marpet has the ability to play that position and he has been seen numerous times in practice in that role. IF they make that move, then it opens up that RG spot for Pamphile. Another option would be to sign a guard in free agency. After some research, I’ve come up with a couple of possibilities in the Bengals Kevin Zeitler (26) and the Panthers Andrew Norwell (25). Both players are young and had strong seasons in 2016 and could fill in as starting RG. That would enable Kevin Pamphile and Caleb Benenoch (22) to be reserves along with either Joe Hawley (28) or Evan Smith (30).
Unless some kind of miracle happens, current backup QB Mike Glennon (27) is gone. It’s hard for me to imagine a world where he prefers the life as a career backup in Tampa to a starting role in New York or San Francisco. But if, or more likely when that happens, the Bucs will have a choice to make third string QB Ryan Griffin (27) the new backup or go through free agency to fill that role. Head Coach Dirk Koetter has stated that Griffin has the talent to be an NFL quarterback so they could simply promote him. This year’s free agent group of quarterbacks is pretty bad so that could be the more cost effective solution to the problem.
The Bucs have to add some LB depth behind starters Lavonte David (27) and Kwon Alexander (22). As of right now, the starting linebackers would be David, Alexander and Devante Bond (23) because I really don’t see the Bucs bringing back last year’s starting SLB Daryl Smith (34) for another season. Behind those three on the roster right now is OLB Adarius Glanton (26) and LB Cameron Lynch (23). I do think they’ll utilize at least one draft pick on an OLB but there are a few ILB’s that they could sign out of free agency to add depth and help on special teams. The Titans Sean Spence (26) could be an option. He would be a nice addition at ILB and a boost on kick coverage. The 49ers Gerald Hodges (26) is another on my list. He totaled 83 tackles and 3 sacks for San Francisco last season. The Cardinals Jon Bostic (25) and the Lions Kevin Minter (26) are two more players that I feel could come in and be productive in Mike Smith’s system.
There has been plenty of criticism with this position over the last couple of years, namely with Chris Conte (28). I’m not necessarily on that bandwagon because I feel like he’s a decent safety and he’s strong in run support. With that said, he may have played his last game as a Buc. The impending free agent could re-sign with Tampa but in my opinion it would need to be for less money than his 2016 salary of $3 million. He’s more than likely lost his starting position to Keith Tandy (27) who filled in the role of strong safety while Conte was injured last season. The Bucs also seem to be satisfied with the play of free safety Bradley McDougald (26) as well. However, there are some enticing free agents this year that the Bucs could sign to either compete for a starting role or simply add depth.
I’ve seen a lot of fans clamoring for the Chiefs free safety Eric Berry (28) which is understandable. The guy is one of the best, if not the best in the league even after defeating cancer…but he’ll be EXPENSIVE! And when I say “expensive” I mean like between $12-15 million a year expensive. I’m not so sure that the Bucs are willing to spend that kind of money on the back end of that defense when they could utilize it up front and get more out of it. So, I found some younger and more economical options at safety like the Cardinals Tony Jefferson (24), the Jaguars John Cyprien (26) or the Packers Micah Hyde (26). All three players had solid seasons in 2016 and could contribute to the continued rise of this Buccaneers secondary.
The Bucs are sitting pretty good at CB with who they currently have on the roster. Although their #1 CB Brent Grimes (33) is getting up there in age, he’s still playing at a high level leading all defensive backs in passes defensed last season. The rest of the group is relatively young. Last year’s first round draft pick Vernon Hargreaves (21) played well as a rookie and should only get better. The other young players like Jude Adjei-Barimah (24), Javien Elliott (23), Ryan Smith (23) and Josh Robinson (26) all played well in their respective roles whether it was at corner or special teams. The question mark in the Bucs secondary could be with veteran Alterraun Verner (28). He’s due to make about $6.5 million in 2017 so the Bucs could elect to go with a less expensive alternative to replace him.
I personally think that the Bucs are satisfied with the group they have now and they won’t pursue any CB’s in free agency. However, if they do I’ve came up with a few names that I wouldn’t mind seeing in a Buccaneers uniform. A less likely and more expensive option at cornerback would be to bring in the Rams Trumaine Johnson (27) but I just can’t see the Bucs paying $16 million for him. Some more likely choices could be the Texans A.J. Bouye (25) or the Patriots Malcolm Butler (26) who both had strong years in 2016 and could be nice additions.
The Bucs tight end situation isn’t a big priority but it could be addressed this offseason. Their new breakout star Cameron Brate (25) is an exclusive rights free agent this year which means he will almost certainly remain with the team. Veteran Brandon Myers (31) is an unrestricted free agent and may not be re-signed to a new contract. That leaves Brate as the lone pass catching tight end with Luke Stocker (28) and Alan Cross (23) as the main blocking tight ends. The Bucs could look to free agency to fill that fourth TE role but the free agent tight end market looks pretty bleak. My solution for them would be to wait until the draft and choose the Alabama standout O.J. Howard (22) to be their other pass catching tight end. At 6’6″/250lbs, he’s the best dual threat tight end coming out of college this year and would be a serious weapon for Jameis Winston.
That concludes Part 2 of this three part series. Part 3 will consist of breaking down the needs left after free agency, the draft prospects that could possibly fill those needs and maybe a couple of mock draft scenarios for the Bucs. Stay tuned and as always…..GO BUCS!!!