Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Buc Mailbag: Divisional Strength

This week, Buc fans have questions about Super Bowl rooting interests, potential first-round draft picks and the futures of last year's early selections.

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Each week during the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from  Buccaneer fans. This week, we look at Sunday's Super Bowl and whether or not it's okay to root for the division-rival Falcons. We also dive into draft possibilities for the first of what will surely be many times, and finish with a look at last year's first two picks.*

Fans can submit questions for upcoming mailbags via Twitter to @ScottSBucs (#BucsMailbag), through a message on the Buccaneers Official Facebook Page or via email at *tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.  The One Buc Mailbag runs every Thursday and is not necessarily meant to reflect the opinions of the team's management or coaching staff.

*1. Root for the Falcons?

This Super Bowl. Ugh. I feel like a six-year-old with a cold. I know Mom says I have to drink this medicine to feel better, but I know how bad it is going to taste. I hope I can keep it down.

There are lots of Patriots fans and lots of Falcons fans out there, and their rooting interest this weekend is pretty obvious. There are probably some folks who always root for the AFC or the NFC, though I think that's a bigger thing in baseball. And there will surely be some people who root for one team based on pure distaste for the other one. (Now I'm having November flashbacks.)

For many of us, though, this one's a little tougher. You can certainly admire the Patriots for their incredible sustained success in the modern NFL parity era, and at the same time be a little uninspired by the thought of them winning another Super Bowl. And when you spend fall after fall nursing a certain level of enmity for a division rival, it can be hard to flip the switch and suddenly root for them in the big game. That's how I feel and I assume it's true for a lot of Bucs fans.

What I often do when I'm not sure who I'm rooting for in a big game is just wait for it to start and then see how I naturally react to what happens. Julio Jones caught a touchdown pass and I'm happy about it? I guess I was rooting for the Falcons all along. I suspect that will be the case for me on Sunday. When it comes down to it, an Atlanta win reinforces the belief that the NFC South has been the NFL's most competitive division since the 2002 realignment, and that reflects well on all four teams. Atlanta's win last Sunday already made the NFC South the first division to have all four of its teams make it to the Super Bowl (since 2002), and a Falcon win would make the South the first division to have three different teams hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Plus, the season started with the Buccaneers winning in Atlanta. Granted, the Falcons were clearly playing better football in the season's second half than at the beginning, and they won the rematch in Tampa in November. Still, there's some pride in being able to say you beat the eventual Super Bowl winners. The Buccaneers have only been able to say that once before, and that was in 2009 when they pulled off a major upset in New Orleans in Week 16.

This one would be a little different than that, and I think that's where Eyasu is going with his "set the bar" idea. In 2009, the Buccaneers were 2-12 when they rolled into the Superdome on December 27. They had never been in contention in the division race that year (though that win and another one in December over Seattle did portend a much better season in 2010, as it turned out).

This time around, the Buccaneers were fighting the Falcons for the division title well into December. In fact, with two games to go, Tampa Bay still had a very realistic shot at winning the South. Now, the Falcons finished out the season impressively and never gave the Bucs a chance to overtake them for the title. Meanwhile, a Week 16 loss at New Orleans (coincidentally) essentially knocked Tampa Bay out of a Wild Card spot.

Still, the Buccaneers finished second in the division at 9-7 and will be trying to continue on their upward trend and overtake the Falcons next year. Seeing how strong of a team it was that gradually evolved in Atlanta, particularly on offense, certainly gives the Buccaneers a target to shoot for during the 2017 offseason. One can't assume Atlanta will be just as good in 2017 – look at the 2015 and 2016 Panthers for proof of that – but it's probably a good bet. They appear to be a team on the rise, not one that has already peaked.

And yes, Eyasu, I think you're right on the money: That's a good thing. I guess it would be nice to have a weaker division to run through every now and then, but overall I think the higher level of competition helps all four teams get better. And, obviously, when a team wins the NFC South, it tends to do pretty well in the playoffs!

2. Help for the Passing Attack?

Is there a chance? Sure. Given that Head Coach Dirk Koetter made a point of saying, in his last press conference of the season, that the Buccaneers needed to add some explosive playmakers on offense, it seems certain the team will be making an addition or two to the receiving corps and/or backfield. Whether that happens in free agency or the draft, or both, remains to be seen.

I think you're going to see the Buccaneers paired with a wide receiver in a lot of mock drafts between now and May. It's one of the more logical assumptions. That said, I think the Bucs' intentions in the first round this year are a little harder to pinpoint than they have been in recent drafts. Honestly, Mike Evans in 2014, a quarterback at #1 in 2015 and a cornerback/defensive end in 2016 were the common predictions in those years, and they all came to pass. It was just three straight years of the draft's talent lining up with an obvious need for the Buccaneers.

This year, I could see a much wider array of possibilities with that first-round pick, in part because it's a later pick (#19). I do think a receiver makes a lot of sense, but so would a defensive end, a defensive tackle, an offensive lineman or a safety – and some of that will depend upon what happens in free agency. However, I just looked at six different mock drafts and Williams was gone before pick #19 on all of them. I did see the Bucs paired up with Washington wide receiver John Ross.

I have seen that this year's draft class is considered to be deep in edge rushers. The Buccaneers hit on a good one last year with Noah Spence and should be getting Jacquies Smith back after he missed almost all of the 2016 season, but a stud pass-rusher might be too tempting to pass up if he was available at #19. And though it is not necessarily one of the Buccaneers' biggest needs, there are quite a few cornerbacks getting first-round attention in the mock drafts. I know I'm a broken record on this issue, but you can never have enough cornerback talent on the roster.

All that said, I think I'm with you, Mademoiselle Giggles: The first-round idea that excites me the most right now is wide receiver. I'm not sure that would necessarily be Mike Williams, but there will probably be a talented pass-catcher or two still on the board when the Bucs go on the clock.

3. More Important Pick?

An A-Train avatar and the #47 in your handle? I'm thinking I know who your all-time favorite Bucs are, and one of them will hopefully be in the Hall of Fame very soon.

As to your question, Fan47, I'm not sure why I have to choose. What if you had asked me the same question about the first two picks of the 1995 draft (I'll assume you know who they are). It would have been impossible to make a wrong choice. Go back a little farther to 1981: Linebacker Hugh Green in the first round, running back James Wilder high in the second round. Both ended up being one of the best at their position ever to wear a Buccaneer uniform. You'd probably choose Wilder in retrospect, since he is the team's all-time leading rusher while Green has been surpassed at his position by at least Derrick Brooks and probably several others. Still, that doesn't devalue what Green accomplished.

All that said, I did make a point of copying your tweet and putting it in this article, so I guess it would be bad form not to answer it. If I have to choose, I'd say Hargreaves, simply because I think he's going to play more than Spence. That was certainly the case in their shared rookie season, as Hargreaves played 98% of the Bucs' defensive snaps while Spence played 54%. That's a big reason why Hargreaves finished the year with an AV (Approximate Value, a catch-all evaluative stat compiled by Pro Football Reference) of 6, while Spence finished with an AV of 3.

Now, Spence did have 5.5 sacks, which is hugely promising, particularly since he wasn't an every-down starter. He had to play through an early-season shoulder injury that required him to wear a harness, and that ironically may have sped his development into a more complete player. The coaching staff envisioned Spence as a pass-rushing specialist in his rookie season but he made strides as a run-stopper and that earned him more playing time. Actually, a rash of D-Line injuries did the most to earn him more playing time, but he made sure that it counted.

If Hargreaves develops into a shutdown corner and Spence develops into a pass-rusher who can flirt with double-digit sack totals on an annual basis – and obvious those are the Bucs' hopes for those two players – than which one would be more valuable? That's a tough call. Both of those assets are difficult things to find or develop in the NFL, which is why players in those categories get huge deals if they ever hit free agency.

For the sake of the Bucs' future, let's hope we actually have to debate that point five or 10 years from now. It would be a tough call. For now, to answer your question I'll say that Hargreaves is a bit ahead at the moment but I think there's a chance the eventual answer is "both."

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