Much like the Tennessee Titans, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are another team everyone is waiting for to make a lot of noise come playoffs this year. Makes sense since both teams drafted their respective quarterbacks with the first and second picks in the 2015 draft and in this rare occurrence so far both quarterbacks have looked very good. I personally like Mariota a hair better than Winston just because Jameis has a tendency to throw bad picks like Eli Manning or Jay Cutler would. However, I also think Tennessee asks Mariota to do less for his team with a better running game and line than the Bucs do for Winston. I am actually extremely impressed not just with how good Winston has looked, but also with how far the young man has come since his crab legs stealing days and immaturity at Florida St. Outside of that gaff at the elementary school where I think he made some poor word choices Winston has a been a model football player who is a real leader being selected as a captain his rookie year and continues to keep his head down and work. The sky is the limit for both of the top picks from the 2015 draft in my opinion.
I love what the Bucs did this off season in terms of surrounding Jameis with some viable pass catchers outside of Mike Evans. On a side note Evans to me will have a better albeit less hyped career than OBJ with his consistent production that actually translates into wins. The drafted O.J. Howard who should turn into a dominant interior pass catcher and solid blocker if he continues to develop after leaving Alabama where his growth was stunted due to how little he was used there. Then they still have Cameron Brate who is a solid all around tight end who should create a solid duo with Howard. They also went out and got a deep threat by bringing in DeSean Jackson who I still like, but I am hesitant to see when he will completely drop off production wise. Since he is a receiver predicated on his speed and most players will tell you first thing to go is your speed. Without it I cannot see him being that much of a difference maker with his injury history as well. For the Bucs sake I hope he is good for another year or two. I also love that they drafted Chris Godwin in the 3rd round where he was a steal and can turn into a nice move around the formation receiver for the Bucs. Hopefully, Doug Martin can get his act together since he is their only true running back who can carry the ball 15 plus a game. Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims are just nice change of pace backs and pass catchers. I did like McNichols coming out of college and maybe he can unseat fellow Boise St alum Martin for the starting gig. My biggest issue for the Bucs is their mediocre line where Donovan Smith is an okay blocker, but would be better served on the right side. Then Ali Marpet who is oft-injured is their only other real consistent blocker at center. If anything their blocking may be their undoing in the playoffs if they can make it out of their incredibly tough division.
On the defensive side of the ball the Bucs sport one of the better all around units in the league. I will be the first to admit that I was wrong on Noah Spence coming out of Western Kentucky where I did not think he dominated as well as he should I expected him to be a bust, but he proved me way wrong and looked very good his rookie year. Along with William Gholston and Robert Ayers they have a solid rotation of outside pass rushers. Meanwhile, in the middle they have perennial All-Pro Gerald McCoy still dominating, but I would love to see them get more production from the guy next to him on the inside. This year they brought in veteran Chris Baker and still have Clinton McDonald, but if I were them I would watch the training camp cuts hoping that maybe a solid tackle is there to get taken. I know I said linebackers make little impact on the overall game, but in this instance when you have three solid backers in Kwon Alexander, Lavonte David, and Davante Bond create a true mismatch in the middle of the field collectively. They also drafted Kendell Beckwith who has some potential starting ability to supplant Bond who is the weakest link among the trio. The biggest weakness of the Bucs defense is the secondary where aging undersized corner Brent Grimes is their only viable cover man. I like Vernon Hargreaves coming out of Florida, but he looked way over matched his rookie year and allowed his size to be a major weakness. If he does not get aggressive and confident like he was in college I can see him busting very quickly as a former high first rounder. The depth behind those two is not that great either with a bunch of journeymen. Their safety unit is also a mess with veterans Keith Tandy and J.J. Wilcox penciled in as starters. I would not be surprised if rookie Justin Evans breaks into the starting line up sooner than later. Overall, thankfully the front seven is the strength of this team to take pressure off their secondary to hopefully make them stay in coverage for as little time as possible.
In the end, this team to me is definitely on the upswing and if they continue to develop players well can make a push to the playoffs. However, unlike the Titans who play in an easy division the Bucs play in possibly the best division in the league. They play tough match ups against the Panthers and Falcons to go along with the Saints who play their division very well. I can imagine them maybe sneaking wins by each of those teams, but I would not be surprised if they lose both to the Falcons or Panthers or win them both. For the Bucs to sniff a shot at the playoffs they need to win their match ups with the Vikings, Bears, Dolphins, Lions, Giants, Cardinals, Bills, and the Jets. They do have tough games against the Patriots and Packers where they can definitely prove themselves if they beat either of those top teams. I can see them have a solid 10-6 if all goes well for them, but also I can see them do worst if their secondary plays any worst or if they cannot find a solid running game.
1 (19) - O.J. Howard TE - I really like this pick even though he is more of a pass catcher than a blocking tight end. He has immense upside to be a go to safety blanket and difference maker for Winston. I am still hesitant to make a tight end a first round pick, but since he plays closer to the line and can be a blocking threat I like it a bit more than a pure receiver. He needs to continue to improve his route tree and blocking since Alabama did him a huge disservice by not using him so it may be a year before he becomes a true force. I do worry about the bust rate of tight ends in the first round recently with Eric Ebron, Jermaine Gersham, and Tyler Eifert all have had up and down careers so far. So, this pick is a bit riskier than I usually like, but Howard to me is a special talent.
2 (18) - Justin Evans S - Evans was a greatly overlooked talent from this draft class and should battle right away for a starting spot for the Bucs. He has good all around ability to play near the line and in the open field in coverage. He is a bit over-aggressive and it can cause him to miss tackles or over pursue in coverage trying to make the big play. If he can reel that issue in or find a way to hit on those more than he misses he can turn into one of the better players from this class.
3 (20) - Chris Godwin WR - I think people over hyped Godwin much more than he deserved leading up the draft after having a terrific Rose Bowl game and followed it up with very good pre-draft workouts. Not to say he is a terrible receiver, but I think he was correctly drafted where he was since to me he is a jack of all trades receiver who has no one great trait. He is slippery fast not a down field burner and to me he is a bit too thin to be a consistent middle of the field receiver where he may take big hits. To me he is about the same as Allen Robinson or even a Doug Baldwin where he will be a nice option, but never that stud number one receiver. Pairing him with Mike Evans is a nice way to ease him into the league.
3 (43) - Kendell Beckwith LB - Another potential starter in the middle rounds for the Bucs who already sport one of the league's best linebacking units. Beckwith was a nice roving tackler and an excellent leader while he played in the middle of the LSU defense. He should be a good two down linebacker, but like many linebackers in this league he will probably be subbed out on passing downs. He tore his ACL late last season, but according to sources he is ready to go already and has looked healthy in camp.
5 (18) - Jeremy McNichols RB - I was actually surprised with how low he went and after a few other backs I thought he was better than. Boise St in recent years has been a solid factory for NFL running backs and I expect McNichols is the next good one. He is a bit small at 5'9", but does have a nice thick body to handle some big hits. His best calling card is his pass catching ability and explosiveness around the edge. I can see him pushing for a lot of touches before the season is over. I also have him as a real dark horse candidate to be the Offensive Rookie of the Year.
7 (5) - Stevie Tu'ikolovatu DT - I actually like the Trojan product as the best nose tackle in this draft class. That's not saying too much since it was a bad year for tackles, but he has starting potential next to McCoy as a run stopping space eater. This is one of my favorite 7th rounders who has a real shot to make at least a solid impact on defense.
2018 Off Season:
The best hope for the Bucs this off season is if Drew Brees actually leaves the Saints giving this division one less top quarterback. I do think this team is on a major upswing after a long time of being a bottom feeder. I do think they need to overhaul the line to better protect their franchise quarterback and to help stabilize the running back position by giving them lanes to run. Their defense could use one more pass rusher in my opinion to be a truly dynamic front and of course more secondary pieces will be needed in a pass happy league. Overall, I think this team is just stuck in a tough division that will help give this team a lot of experience and mettle to help them in the playoffs once they make it there.
My 2018 Mock Selections:
1 (24) - Martez Ivey OL Florida
2 (25) - Kevin Tolliver CB LSU