An NFL roster is in constant transition. There are certain stretches on the calendar that feature more activity, to be sure, such as the draft, the start of free agency and the cut-down to 53 players for the start of the regular season. But a complete list of roster transactions for any team features entries in every month.
The Buccaneers have a full 90-man offseason roster at the moment, near the end of May, and they will take 90 players into training camp two months from now. It is unlikely that those two lists will be exactly identical, as June and July usually bring a roster move or two. That said, with the draft over and the free agent market mostly shopped over, the Bucs basically have the group they will take into camp and eventually whittle down to 53. The annual roster reloading is essentially complete.
Some of the team's offseason priorities when it came to reshaping that roster were obvious. The defensive line got the most attention in an effort to rev up the pass rush. The secondary got a youth infusion in the draft. The offensive line got some new pieces and some new attitudes. Other positions on the depth chart saw more subtle changes, but none of them stayed exactly the same. So, as we near the end of summer practices and the beginning of the players' last break before training camp, we're going to re-evaluate each of those positions on the depth chart and see how they stack up after an offseason of change.
And we'll start in the most obvious place: Quarterbacks.
Addition(s): Austin Allen (undrafted rookie)
Returning Players: Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Griffin
That short list above doesn't mean the quarterback position needed no attention this offseason. Fitzpatrick is back, but that involved re-signing the 14th-year veteran, who had originally agreed to a one-year deal last offseason. The Buccaneers could have moved on and targeted a different veteran reserve in free agency but General Manager Jason Licht made it clear at the NFL Scouting Combine in late April and early March that Fitzpatrick was still highly valued by the team. The Bucs and Fitzpatrick agreed on a new one-year deal a week before the start of free agency.
Essentially, that puts the Buccaneers back into exactly the same situation they had a year ago: Winston is the obvious starter and the two Ryans will battle it out to be his top backup. Last year, that competition fizzled before it could really get started because Griffin suffered an injury in a preseason game and spent the first half of the season on injured reserve. Still, the Buccaneers demonstrated once again that they see potential in the fifth-year player, who has still yet to throw a regular-season pass, as they extended his contract to cover 2018 and give him another shot.
Quarterbacks Coach Mike Bajakian sees it as an advantage to be bringing back essentially the same depth chart at his position for a second year in a row.
"It's a luxury, for sure," said Bajakian. "I have three guys in the meeting room that are not just familiar with the offense but are highly intelligent, across the board, every one of them. They're very engaged, they're all professionals. It makes my job a little more challenging as a coach – how do I keep them engaged and how do I keep challenging them in the meeting room and on the football field? Not that it's hard because they're all professionals and they all want to keep improving."
Adding Arkansas' Allen after the draft was a familiar move as well. The Buccaneers like to take at least four quarterbacks to training camp, in part to make sure none are overworked. Last year it was Colorado's Sefo Liufau. That doesn't mean Allen is just camp fodder. The younger brother of Rams reserve quarterback Brandon Allen, he had an up-and-down and injury-shortened senior year for the Razorbacks but was impressive in 2016. He'll compete to leap ahead of Fitzpatrick and/or Griffin, but he could also show enough to be a practice squad consideration.
That last point may come down to what happens between Fitzpatrick and Griffin. A year ago, Head Coach Dirk Koetter said he would prefer to keep only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster if it worked out that way. It did in a way at the beginning due to Griffin's trip to I.R., but when the young passer returned the team kept three the rest of the way in order not to lose him to the waiver wire.
If the Bucs do end up deciding between Fitzpatrick and Griffin and keeping only one, the other would not be eligible for the practice squad. Teams that carry two passers on their 53-man rosters almost always carry a third on the practice squad for possible promotion if one of the top two gets hurt. Allen could end up with the inside track for that job.
"[He's] highly intelligent," said Bajakian. "They did a great job at Arkansas with their offensive scheme. They prepared him to play in an NFL-style offense, a pro-style offense. But he came in and the transition for him was just a matter of translating terminology from what they did to what they did. So the skillset is there; it's just a matter of learning it and getting the reps that he needs. He's an intelligent young player that I'm happy to have."
Notable 2017 Numbers: Despite a right (throwing) shoulder injury that cost him three games and limited his effectiveness in several others, Winston took a step forward in his third season. The former first-overall pick improved his completion percentage notably, from 60.8% in 2016 to 63.8% last year, and he did so without sacrificing his excellent marks in yards per attempt (7.93) and yards per completion (12.43). Both of those marks ranked fourth in the NFL. In other words; Winston became more accurate without resorting to easier throws.
The shoulder injury kept Winston from hitting the 4,000-yard mark for a third time in three seasons, but his 269.5 yards per game, represented a career high. And while turnovers remain the number-one area in which he needs to improve, his interception rate of 2.5% was actually his lowest yet. It all added up to a 92.2 passer rating, which was not yet good enough to crack the league's top 10 but is definitely a move in the right direction. In 2017, he ranked right between Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan in that category.
The Buccaneers' passer rating as a team ranked 13th in the NFL (90.6) because Fitzpatrick acquitted himself nicely in his three starts in Winston's place. It is the veteran's deep well of experience (119 NFL starts) that the team prizes most, and they were not surprised to see him step in and calmly lead the team to two wins in those three starts.
"Sure, he's got another year under the belt in this offense, which can only help, but at no point last year did I ever think that he had a gap to close or anything," said Bajakian. "He came in, learned the offense quickly and was a great influence in the meeting room, and then when it came time for him to play he executed well."
Still, it is obviously Winston who is the team's future, and the key player in its hopes to return to the playoffs in 2018. Still only 24, he needs to improve for that to happen, and the Bucs expect him to do exactly that. The way Winston finished the 2017 season is certainly encouraging. After returning from his injury absence, he made five more starts and in that span he ranked seventh in the NFL in passer rating (99.2), fourth in completion percentage (67.2), first in passing yards (1,584), tied for third in touchdown passes (nine) and second in yards per attempt (8.66). If the Buccaneers have that passer for 16 games, they will have an excellent shot at extending the season into January.
"If you look at a number of areas, he set career marks in completion percentage and yards per attempt and QB rating," said Bajakian. "He's improved in a lot of ways so, again, the wins will come if we just keep working and keep improving. Then you take the games where he was healthy and you look at those numbers – I haven't because frankly it doesn't matter to me – but I'm sure they're a lot better. He's getting better, no doubt about it. We just have to translate that to victories."
Key Question: Can Winston reduce his turnover totals?
As noted above, the Bucs' young starter did improve his interception rate in his third year, with an INT rate of 2.5%. However, that was still 20th-best in the NFL. The top six passers in that category in 2017, and seven of the top eight, all had their teams in the playoffs. In addition, Winston lost seven fumbles, which tied for the NFL lead.
The Buccaneers neither want nor expect Winston to lose his aggressiveness or competitiveness. They know he is one of the league's best at producing positive plays outside of the pocket, so it makes sense for him to continue to lean on his ability to extend plays. They simply want him to continue to develop in terms of decision-making, to more often know when discretion is the better part of valor.
"There's a fine line there," said Bajakian. "The best thing he does – I think he was number one in the NFL in air yards per attempt, air yards per completion. We're never going to take that aggressiveness away from him because it results in explosives. Again, his interception percentage was down this year; still throwing too many, but it's gone down. So there's a fine line there. You don't want to coach that out of him."