Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Four Post-Draft Questions

The draft neatly divides the NFL's offseason into two halves, and now that it's over it's time to look at some of the issues that will define the rest of the run-up to the regular season.

Check out Jameis Winston in his Buccaneers uniform for the first time.

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Four months of endless speculation followed by 72 hours of time clock-segmented madness and we finally have the 2015 draft in the books. Now it's time for Part Two of the NFL offseason.

The draft chops that offseason pretty neatly in half, in terms of both the calendar and the primary focus of the 32 teams. Before the draft, it's all about ranking the hundreds of players who could join your roster; after the draft, it's all about taking the players you do have and molding them into a successful team.

That's what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will now do after spiking their own roster with, among other things, a potential franchise quarterback and some much-needed help for the offensive line. The Buccaneers obviously addressed some depth chart issues with their 2015 draft class – not to mention the ongoing free agency period – but until the team takes the field those are theoretical improvements. Before the regular season begins in September, we'll be looking for concrete answers to some important questions. Here are four such questions:


1. Who will supply the pass rush?
The Buccaneers do not have a lot of proven outside pass-rushers, and they could have addressed that issue in the draft. Of course, if they wanted a top-notch prospect like Dante Fowler or Leonard Williams, they would have had to give up their chance to take Jameis Winston. And if they wanted to take a lower-percentage shot at a pass-rusher in the second or third rounds, they would have had to forget about upgrading the offensive line. To paraphrase Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht, you can't solve every problem in the draft.

Had Licht and Head Coach Lovie Smith focused on the defensive front on the second day of the draft, they would now be facing questions as to why they didn't find help for the offensive line. Instead, the O-Line has some important new pieces while the D-Line remains a question mark.

Of course, there's a reason why the team took the approach it did on Friday. While both lines might need help, it was the offensive side that really lacked viable answers. As unproven as the team might be along the defensive line, it isn't without answers. It seems clear that Smith and his coaching staff see more potential in their group of edge rushers than outsiders might expect.

Actually, the Bucs did add an important piece to that group in April, trading for Detroit's George Johnson after an abortive attempt to sign the promising defensive end as a restricted free agent. Johnson, who actually started his career in Tampa in 2010, had six sacks in a rotational role for the Lions last year. He joins 2014 breakout pass-rusher Jacquies Smith, who had 6.5 QB takedowns for the Buccaneers last year, as well as Larry English, T.J. Fatinikun, William Gholston and Lawrence Sidbury.

The Buccaneers believe they can get an impactful rotation out of that group, especially after most of them have had a season to get comfortable within the team's defensive system. There's one very good reason to think that a promising but unheralded collection of outside rushers can get the job done for the Buccaneers: a loaded interior line.

No team in the NFL got more sacks from its defensive tackles last year than the Buccaneers, who boast Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy and 2014 free agency addition Clinton McDonald as strong pass-rushers in the middle. Add to that group 2015 pick-up Henry Melton and you have the makings of a dominant rotation in the middle of the defense. If the Bucs' D-tackles can supply a steady amount of pressure up the gut, it should create more one-on-one pass-rushing opportunities for those players coming off the end.


2. What will the starting offensive line look like?
We know from the post-draft comments by Jason Licht and Lovie Smith that the team thinks both of its Day Two rookies could be starters on opening day. Second-rounder Donovan Smith will get a crack at the critical left tackle post while Ali Marpet, a later second-round selection, will compete for a job between the tackles. Given that Logan Mankins is a strong bet to remain the starter at left guard, Marpet's most likely target is right guard. He'll compete with incumbent starter Patrick Omameh.

If that comes to pass, the picture starts to become pretty clear. Slotting the rookie Smith in at left tackle will allow the team to keep Demar Dotson at right tackle, where he has played quite well for the past three seasons. If Marpet book-ends Mankins at the two guard spots, 2014 free agent signee Evan Dietrich-Smith can remain at center and likely have a stronger season flanked by a more promising cast on both sides.

That's a best-case scenario for the Buccaneers, but one can't assume that every aspect of the team's plans will work out perfectly. If Smith isn't ready to start, or if he's a better fit on the right side, then the team might have to take a longer look at Dotson at left tackle, where he started the last three games of 2014. That could bring 2014 fifth-round pick Kevin Pamphile into the picture. And if Marpet needs some time to develop into a starter, then the Bucs might need to see what they have in their other 2014 fifth-round pick, guard Kadeem Edwards.

There is a clear plan in place for the Bucs' offensive line in 2015. We'll have to wait until August to see if it proves to be a workable plan.


3. Who's going to get the work in the offensive backfield?
A year ago, Buccaneer fans were surprised when the team used a third-round pick on West Virginia running back Charles Sims, given that the team already had Doug Martin, Bobby Rainey and Mike James in their stable of ballcarriers. As it turned out, that apparent abundance of runners wasn't as abundant as it seemed, as both Martin and Sims missed significant time due to injury and neither Rainey nor James were much involved in the rushing attack down the stretch.

All four of those players are still on the roster, and there were no new tailbacks added in the 2015 draft. There is obvious talent in that group, but not necessarily an obvious division of labor.

Martin is the most accomplished of the four tailbacks, and the Bucs would be in great shape if he could rekindle his 2012 rookie-season magic after two seasons hampered by injury. The fact that the team spent a premium pick on Sims a year ago means that they intend to get him heavily involved in the offense as well, especially given his pass-catching talents. Smith has said on many occasions that he believes a team needs a rotation of backs in the current NFL landscape, but he has a new offensive coordinator in 2015 in Dirk Koetter and it remains to be seen how that will affect the rotation of ballcarriers.

Then there's the fullback position, which got an addition in the draft in Hawaii's Joey Iosefa.  Licht said that Iosefa would be given a chance to start as the lead blocker; presumably, his primary competition would come from Jorvorskie Lane, who re-signed this offseason after having some promising moments in his first year with the Buccaneers. Buc fans shouldn't expect Iosefa to be another Mike Alstott – that would be an unfair projection – but the rookie back does have some running and pass-catching skills and could help the offense in a variety of ways.

How will the snaps, handoffs and targets be distributed among the Buccaneers' group of running backs? That's one of the tougher questions to answer heading into this year's training camp, but it also should be one of the most entertaining ones to see resolved.


4. At what positions will the best training camp battles take place?
Even the best teams from one season head into the next campaign with some questions on the depth chart. The New England Patriots, for instance, won the last Super Bowl but have serious question marks in their secondary, an issue they tried to address in the draft.

Training camp may be a grind for the players, but it's a wonderful opportunity for fans to watch depth-chart battles unfold first-hand.  Almost every camp begins with a few spots in the starting lineup up for grabs, as well as some significant non-starting positions. The Buccaneers' 2015 camp will be no different.

We've already discussed the offensive line and the situation at edge rusher, but there are other depth chart issues to be resolved. Will fourth-round pick Kwon Alexander prove to be a threat to Danny Lansanah at strongside linebacker? That should be a fierce competition, given Alexander's obvious Tampa Two traits and Lansanah's blue-collar determination.

The team's kick return situation also got much more interesting with the selections of wide receivers Kenny Bell and Kaelin Clay in the fifth and sixth rounds, respectively, on Saturday. Bell has some intriguing return abilities but Clay is apparently going to get the first crack at that job. It was running back Bobby Rainey who occupied that role at the end of 2014.

And how does the addition of Chris Conte affect the team's lineup at the back of the secondary, especially after the trade of Dashon Goldson? The Bucs are high on third-year player Bradley McDougald, who would seem to be in line for a starting job. Conte could join him, but Major Wright, another former starter under Lovie Smith in Chicago, will fight for that position, as well. The rest of the Bucs' secondary could create some interesting battles as well. Starters Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks return at cornerback, but the team also re-signed veteran Mike Jenkins and added Sterling Moore in free agency. Given the importance of the nickel back position, which could be Moore's to lose, the Buccaneers hope to see strong play from all of those corner candidates.

Oh, and the team just happens to have a rookie quarterback in the fold. If Jameis Winston is to be the Buccaneers' franchise quarterback, let's hope that begins on opening day in 2015. That said, Mike Glennon is sure to compete as fiercely as ever for the starting job. So, yeah, in case it wasn't obvious, watch the Buccaneers' QB position when training camp begins in August.

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