Photos of the Buccaneers' complete roster.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won nine games last season and barely missed the playoffs. In the half-year since, they've added some very significant pieces to what they believe is a very promising and young core of talent.
Whether or not the Buccaneers take the next step and return to the playoffs hinges on a number of "X-factors." Will speedy wide receiver DeSean Jackson inject a big-play element into the aerial attack and open up the field for his fellow pass-catchers? Can Noah Spence and/or Jacquies Smith develop into that dominant edge rusher the defense needs? Now that the players have adjusted to his scheme, can Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith unlock more of his playbook? And, of course, the biggest one: Just how much progress will quarterback Jameis Winston make in his third NFL season?
These are rather obvious X-factors for the Buccaneers in 2017. That's not what we're looking for here. We want to identify potential "under-the-radar" X-factors, as Around the NFL writer Marc Sessler did for the league as a whole on NFL.com late last week. Some of Sessler's choices: Jaguars' defensive end Dante Fowler, the former fourth-overall pick who has been limited by injury to four sacks in his first two years; Green Bay's Ty Montgomery, the former receiver who is fully converting to running back this season; and Arizona wide receiver John Brown, a potentially critical piece for Carson Palmer if he can return to his 2015 form after a disappointing 2016 campaign.
Do the Buccaneers have players in these types of situations? Of course they do; every team does. Let's take a look at five Bucs who – due to position, past production or just pure promise – could have a surprisingly important impact on how the 2017 season unfolds.
1. Guard J.R. Sweezy
The Buccaneers' coaching staff is testing out different offensive line combinations during the offseason, with the stated goal of getting their five best blockers on the field, and Sweezy could be the key to how the whole situation unfolds.
In March of 2016, shortly after Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins had announced his retirement, the Buccaneers signed Sweezy as an unrestricted free agent and said Mankins' vacated left guard spot was his to lose. As it turned out, the former Seattle blocker never had a chance to lose it because a back ailment kept him off the field entirely in 2016. That was, obviously, an unexpected development, but it did lead to the discovery that former tackle Kevin Pamphile is a starting-caliber interior lineman in the NFL.
Sweezy is back on the practice field after being cleared for action early in the spring. Instead of playing left guard he's now back at right guard, where he started for five seasons for the Seahawks, while Pamphile continues to get first-team reps at left guard. This alignment will likely only work if third-year man Ali Marpet, the starter at right guard the past two seasons, makes a successful transition to center.
Or, to look at it from the other direction, the Buccaneers' apparent desire to play Marpet at center may hinge on how well Sweezy regains his Seahawks form, where he was a very effective run-blocker. If Sweezy does not grab the right guard spot, the Bucs might believe their best grouping is to keep Marpet at right guard, where he has looked like a potential star, and take the very reasonable approach of starting either Joe Hawley or Evan Smith at center, where both have plenty of front-line experience.
If Sweezy is back to that dominant run-blocking form, the Buccaneers could field an interior-line trio that averages about 6-5 and 305 pounds. Head Coach Dirk Koetter clearly wants to have a power running game at the center of his offense; last year, he called just as many running plays and first-down running plays as in 2015 despite the results not being as good. The Buccaneers did quite well in free agency in 2016 with the additions of Bryan Anger, Robert Ayers, Brent Grimes and Josh Robinson. They didn't immediately get much from their fifth signing, Sweezy, but that move could still pay off big in 2017.
If nothing else, a healthy and effective Sweezy will give the Buccaneers much more versatility, which will help them weather any injuries along the line.
"As we've said all along, trying to get our best five out there," said Koetter. "Once the season starts you've got to be able to move guys around. They've got to be able to go to multiple spots."
2. Wide receiver Chris Godwin
Godwin, a third-round pick in this year's draft, has already distinguished himself in OTA practices, and if he keeps it up it will become harder for him to remain under the radar. Still, the former Penn State standout qualifies for the X-factor label because, of all the intriguing weapons the team has amassed around quarterback Jameis Winston, Godwin is the one whose potential role in the offense is least defined.
Mike Evans, coming off his third 1,000-yard season and his first Pro Bowl, is clearly the #1 target in the Bucs' passing attack, and Jackson is the new big-playmaker who should join him in the starting lineup. Adam Humphries is an effective slot receiver, Cameron Brate is a top-notch red zone threat and rookie tight end O.J. Howard is expected to be a seam-stretcher down the middle of the field.
Godwin produced big numbers at Penn State and showed off very good speed at the NFL Scouting Combine. Tampa Bay coaches think they can help Godwin use that speed even more effectively, and he's already a sharp route-runner with good hands.
So where will the Buccaneers play him? If Evans and Jackson are in the game, do you put Godwin in the slot? Do you let him stretch the defense on the outside and try to create a different sort of mismatch with Evans in the slot? Does Godwin take some snaps away from the two starters or Humphries in his slot role. Will the offense have specific packages for the Penn State rookie? If he's productive enough in the early going, will Koetter look for more ways to work him into the offense?
"Wideout is really the same as the O-line," said the head coach. "You're going to get your best guys out there and you're going to move them around matchup-wise. We haven't had very many days where we've had all of our receivers here on the same day. The most consistent guys since we've been out here have been Godwin and Adam. Those two guys have been making plays every day. [I'm] real happy with what Chris is doing, but he could play in or out, either one."
Winston has already thrown for more than 4,000 yards in each of his first two NFL seasons, and he's done it with a cast of targets that was frequently thinned by injuries. On paper, it looks like the Buccaneers could field a very explosive offense even before the selection of Godwin, but every new weapon helps. And, given those aforementioned injury problems of recent years, having strong depth at the receiver spot could pay off as the season progresses.
3. Linebacker Devante Bond
Thanks to a hamstring injury, Bond didn't get to play at all in his rookie season. Despite that, he heads into Year Two with a very real chance at carving out a significant role on the Buccaneers' defense.
First and foremost, he's definitely one of the main competitors to take over the starting strongside (SAM) linebacker spot from the departed Daryl Smith. The Buccaneers also think third-round rookie Kendell Beckwith could play there, but Beckwith first has to return to the field from his late-2016 knee injury at LSU. Other potential competitors include holdovers Cameron Lynch and Adarius Glanton. As the Buccaneers work through their spring OTAs and head towards an offseason-concluding mini-camp, Bond has been getting a lot of first-team work as the SAM next to Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David.
Koetter recently noted that injuries to other linebackers have helped Bond get more formative work this offseason at several positions, and also that the former Oklahoma Sooner has shown another way he might be able to help out.
"Yeah, [he's been] really good," said Koetter. "Devante has done fine. We're a little banged up at linebacker so he's getting some reps inside as well. The other thing he's done is he's shown a lot as a blitzer. He's a little bit slippery, he's got a nice little burst."
In the Buccaneers' scheme, the SAM linebacker is usually the one who comes off the field when the team goes to a nickel package. That's not written in stone, but with the coverage skills of Alexander and David, those two are almost certain to remain the nickel linebackers. That puts the SAM starter on the field for about 40-50% of the snaps. As General Manager Jason Licht mentioned in the leadup to the 2017 draft, a SAM 'backer can make himself more valuable to the team by also adding in some pass-rush ability, which would occasionally get him in on third downs.
Tampa Bay hasn't had that type of player for some time. At times last year, particularly when the defensive line was ravaged by injuries, the Bucs did use Smith as an edge rusher, but rarely to much effect. Presuming that he's good on special teams – which he notably was in college – Bond is a very good bet to make the 53-man roster. If he wins the SAM job and/or shows some ability as a pass-rusher, it could be a welcome addition to a defense that is looking for more playmakers.
4. Cornerback Robert McClain
Bear with me, as this might seem like a bit of a stretch. After all, McClain was only signed on March 10, and prior to that he'd been a bit of a journeyman the past couple seasons. His last interception came in 2015.
The timing of McClain's signing is actually understandable for two seasons. The Bucs were likely waiting until after the deadline at which the addition of unrestricted free agents counts in the formula for determining next year's compensatory draft picks. Also, this was shortly after the draft, in which Tampa Bay did not come away with a new player at the cornerback position.
Given that McClain's best NFL stretch – 2012-14 in Atlanta – came in Mike Smith's system, there's a good chance the Buccaneers had been considering McClain as an option for a while. He saw a lot of action as the nickel corner under Smith, so his arrival adds to a competition for that job that seems to be wide open in Tampa. Jude Adjei-Barimah held that job for the longest stretch last season and then-rookie Javien Elliott finished the year in that role, so those two have to be considered prime candidates as well.
Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves are the clear starters at cornerback, and the safety position suddenly looks a lot deeper and more impactful with the additions of J.J. Wilcox and Justin Evans. If the Buccaneers could find someone to give them a handful of big plays in the slot, the secondary might be stronger than it has been in quite some time.
McClain had 20 passes defensed over that aforementioned three-year period in Atlanta. He also contributed three interceptions, two sacks, two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in that span. The Buccaneers didn't get any interceptions out of their nickel corners last year, although Adjei-Barimah did contribute two sacks and a forced fumble.
It's hard to tab McClain as the favorite to win the nickel job, given his late arrival and the experience Adjei-Barimah and Elliott already have at the position in Tampa. That's why we're talking *under-the-radar *X-factor candidates here. If McClain shows some of the form from his days with Smith in Atlanta, he could make a difference on the Bucs' defense.
5. Defensive end Ryan Russell
As was alluded to above, the best-case scenario for the Buccaneers in creating more pressure off the edge is Jacquies Smith coming back strong from injury and second-year man Noah Spence blossoming into a star. There are certainly reasons to be optimistic about both of those scenarios, and Spence in particular has been drawing rave reviews from teammates and coaches.
Smith had 13.5 sacks in 27 games in 2014-15 and Spence put up 5.5 in his first year before possibly hitting a rookie wall and being shut out the last five weeks of the season. Either one could flirt with double-digit sacks in 2017, but it might be overly optimistic to expect that from both players. As such, depth at the defensive end position will likely prove critical, especially if the team has to deal with another rash of injuries of the type that thinned out the line last fall.
Robert Ayers and Will Gholston are the incumbent starters at end and are likely to remain in those spots. Smith and Spence will be expected to provide pass-rush juice. The Buccaneers did not pick up another edge lineman in the draft, so the depth behind those four is going to have to come from the likes of Russell, George Johnson, DaVonte Lambert and a host of young and unproven players. While Johnson does have a six-sack NFL season under his belt (with Detroit in 2014), Russell may be the most intriguing prospect in that group.
Russell first came to Tampa to join the practice squad last September, after a season with the Dallas Cowboys. He was elevated to the active roster in early November and immediately received regular playing time in the Bucs' D-Line rotation. He appeared in each of the last eight games and averaged 22 snaps per contest over that span, a relatively high number for a down-the-line rotation piece. Russell recorded just one sack but also had four quarterback pressures during his 174 snaps played. As a comparison, Gholston had seven pressures over 585 snaps and Spence had 12 over 485 snaps.
Smith has always been the type of coordinator to rely on a deep pass-rushing rotation, and the same is true of Defensive Line Coach Jay Hayes. Even if the Bucs' optimism on Smith and Spence proves well-founded, they would prefer to have seven or eight linemen playing regularly on Sundays. Russell could grab one of those spots and give the Bucs' defense a little additional danger off the edge. Given how much impact a sack can have on a game, any contributions in that category from Russell could make a big difference.