The 2019 NFL Draft is in the books and the bulk of free agency has been conducted. As is the case every year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' roster looks significantly different in May than it did at the end of the previous season. In this particular year, the Buccaneers have a new coaching staff, led by Bruce Arians, and that obviously has had a big impact on the team's personnel moves.
Once the team has announced its expected group of undrafted rookie signings, the offseason roster will likely hit the 90-man limit. That's the same number of players that the Bucs will take into training camp in late July, and while there will surely be a few tweaks between now and then, the camp roster is mostly set. This is the group from which Arians and company must whittle a 53-man roster by the start of the regular season.
Coming off a season in which the offense set a long list of franchise records while the defense ranked near the bottom of the league in many categories, the Buccaneers unsurprisingly focused the majority of their roster re-shaping on that latter side of the ball. Still, every position had players come and go, and now that the draft is over it's time to look at each corner of the depth chart and reexamine where the Buccaneers stand.
We'll start at the most important of those positions: Quarterbacks.
Addition(s): Blaine Gabbert (free agent)
Subtraction(s): Ryan Fitzpatrick (departed via unrestricted free agency)
Returning Players: Jameis Winston, Ryan Griffin
Again, this particular position examination comes before the team has announced any undrafted rookie signings, so there's a good chance the team will actually have four passers on the roster when the OTAs begin later this month. Otherwise, the Buccaneers made one significant change to the QB depth chart: Ryan Fitzpatrick is out and Blaine Gabbert is in.
While Gabbert doesn't have quite the experience that Fitzpatrick boasts – he'll head into his 15th NFL season with the Miami Dolphins, his eighth team – he does have nearly 50 regular-season starts. Five of those came with Arians in Arizona in 2017, so Gabbert also arrived in Tampa with some familiarity with the new offense being installed. That's important if he is pressed into service in the season, but it's also an asset for Jameis Winston right now.
"Blaine's a great help," said Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich. "Those two guys are hitting it off great and Blaine's done it before. Blaine's been in the system. I've been with Blaine in situations like this, so he's able to help out and that's why it's good to have veterans like Blaine. To get a guy with that sort of talent inside the room is a beautiful thing for us as a staff and a beautiful thing for Jameis, because he's done some of these things. Jameis may not have done some of these things [that] we ask him to do, [so] It's always great to have another player to lean on for information."
Winston spent his first four seasons in a Dirk Koetter offense, so he's absorbing a new playbook for the first time in a while. As it turns out, he's finding that process invigorating rather than stressful. And it's going well so far, according to Leftwich. Of course, until the team moves on to Phase 3 of the offseason program, Winston and his pass-catchers are only going up against "air." Still, reports that his deep-ball accuracy appears to be improving are encouraging.
And, of course, there was never any doubt that Winston would put in all the necessary work – and then some – to give the new coaching staff what it wants.
"Well, the best thing is we have to run the kid out of the building," said Leftwich. "Jameis is here all the time working on his craft. So, as a coach you appreciate players that go about it the way he goes about it. So, it's excellent from that standpoint. Now, we just have to input the information that he needs to be able to execute this offense the way we would like him to execute the offense, but he's doing a hell of a job. He's picking it up quick. Now, it's just getting through the little new offenses and having an understanding of how we manipulate defenses and how we are able to operate at a high level."
The Bucs picked Gabbert up after he was let go in March by the Titans, who had acquired former Dolphin Ryan Tannehill to be their backup to Marcus Mariota. A former first-round pick by Jacksonville, Gabbert started for two seasons for the Jaguars and has since seen time in San Francisco, Arizona and Denver. His career numbers aren't gaudy but his playing experience likely gives him the pole position in the race to be Winston's primary backup.
That said, Griffin is in a familiar situation, as he heads into his fifth season in Tampa after arriving as a waiver claim in early September, 2015. He went into training camp each of the last two years as a competitor with Fitzpatrick for that number-two spot on the depth chart, but a shoulder injury in 2017 and Fitzpatrick's weight of experience last year proved to be the deciding factors. The previous coaching staff believed in Griffin's potential but never found a time to get him into a regular-season game. The new coaching staff has liked what it saw on practice-field footage, too, as evidenced by the new two-year deal Griffin got in March.
If and when the Buccaneers add a rookie quarterback to the roster, he could push Griffin and Gabbert for the third spot, assuming the team keeps three on the 53-man roster. If not, the rookie would be a candidate to land on the practice squad, unlike the two veteran backups.
Notable 2018 Numbers: Winston started the 2018 season on a three-game suspension, regained the starting job in Game Five and then was replaced for a three-game stretch at midseason due to a run of turnover-heavy games. After getting his job back midway through Week 12, Winston finished the season on an impressive run, with a 13-4 TD-INT ratio, a 64.3% completion rate and a 97.7 passer rating.
That's encouraging, of course, and that version of Winston would be close to what the team is hoping to see in 2019. Of course, one can't discount the rest of the season, and overall Winston threw 14 interceptions and lost three fumbles in essentially 10 full games.
As noted above, Winston improved his completion percentage yet again in 2018, up to a career-best 64.3%, and he did it without sacrificing aggressiveness. His 7.9 yards per attempt matched his total from the year before and his 5.0% touchdown rate was a career high. Winston was notably good when plays broke down; his quarterback rating of 119.1 on balls thrown while out of the pocket was second only to San Francisco's Nick Mullens (121.1).
Winston has been good when scrambling but not when he and his team are scrambling to catch up. That's true of most NFL quarterbacks, of course. The 2018 Buccaneers too frequently fell into an early hole on the scoreboard, which put Winston or whoever was at quarterback in a much tougher position. When the Buccaneers were leading or tied in game, Winston threw nine touchdown passes and four interceptions. When they were trailing, he threw 10 of each. Before halftime, Winston had a 97.8 passer rating; after, it was 81.1.
"We're going to try … not to end up in situations that these guys have ended up in the past where it's 28-14, 27-10 in the second quarter – third quarter, where you're just chasing trying to play catch up," said Leftwich. "Because around the league that's where most of the turnovers show up."
Key Question: Will Arians, Leftwich, Quarterbacks Coach Clyde Christensen and a new offense succeed in pushing Winston's play to the next level?
Last year, our question in this section was, 'Can Winston reduce his turnover totals?' In a way, this year's question is asking the same thing. Winston (and Fitzpatrick) were at the helm of the NFL's top-ranked passing attack, in terms of yards, last year and through his first four seasons Winston has put up some rather gaudy numbers. He already has a team-record 88 touchdown passes, he's thrown for more than 260 yards per game in his career and his completion rate has gone up every season. If the Bucs' new staff can help him significantly cut down on the mistakes, Winston's numbers will quickly look like some of the best in the league.
And Christensen is confident that can happen.
"He was extremely well-coached before me," said Christensen. "That's one thing, right? He's thrown the ball for a bunch of yards. They've been successful offensively. It wasn't a re-start. We'll hone in on that thing. It's his fifth year, the young stuff's done, I see him as a veteran player now. I've always believed in technique and we will stress that thing. I do think a lot of the interceptions…we broke down every one of them in his career and an awful lot of them were from accuracy more than decision-making. And that's easier to fix, right? Judgment, throwing balls up for grabs and doing those things – that's harder to fix. But the accuracy we'll put a huge emphasis on."
The 2018 Buccaneers didn't translate their high-powered passing attack into many wins, finishing 5-11. A leaky defense was a big part of the reason, of course, but the offense also too often put the defense into tough situations with turnovers. The Buccaneers need Winston to lead the charge in fixing that latter issue.
"That's the situational-football awareness that I'm talking about," said Leftwich. "Just having an understanding of this as a whole. You can't be offense-defense. You've got to have full awareness of the game in itself, and how it's going, and how it's happening. So, that's another thing I'm on him about, just football and situational-football awareness, because you can think of four or five plays in the game and that really determines if you win the game or not. I don't care how good the team is on paper, I don't care how bad the team is on paper. You look at the game and it's four or five plays on this level that really determines the outcome."
Arians' offensive motto is "no risk it, no biscuit," meaning he's going to err on the side of aggression. That actually won't be completely new to Winston, as Koetter's offenses were fairly aggressive, too. However, Winston's best work under Koetter was in the intermediate range; the Bucs were the best in the league at completions of 15-19 yards, and a deep out is one of the more deceptively difficult passes to hit. Winston has always excelled at that throw, and at putting the ball on the back shoulder of his receivers on the sideline, especially Mike Evans. Arians will likely want to air it out more than that, and Winston will need to improve his deep-ball accuracy to make the most of that.
Christensen and company think that they can get Winston there through technique work and, simply, more work. The Buccaneers will figure out a way to practice the deep ball more often in practice without overstressing the legs of Evans and the other receivers. And whatever Winston proves to excel at the most, that will be emphasized in the offense.
"Yeah, I think one of the best things about this system is they kind of structure it towards your quarterback's strengths, so I know we are going to be put in the best situation possible," said Winston. "It is going to be our jobs to go out there and execute it."