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One Buc Mailbag: Optimistic Projections

This week's mailbag runs the gamut from tight end pairings to defensive awards, with another stop by Jameis Winston's potential in the middle.

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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 discuss possible tight end lineups and Jameis Winston's potential in Year One. We also talk a little defense, touching on the chances for individual awards and a team rise through the rankings.

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 **.  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. Tight End Pairings?

I'm glad that everyone's excited about the return of Tim Wright. I am, too. And I think it's a particularly good turn of events for the Buccaneers given that nine other teams – including two NFC South competitors – also put in waiver claims on him. All of that said, I think it's important to point out that the Bucs' tight end situation is vastly different than it was when Wright had his impressive rookie breakout in 2013.

That was one of those silver-lining type of situations. A bunch of injuries at the tight end position forced the Bucs to give Wright, the converted wide receiver, a shot, and it went well, to the tune of 54 catches and five touchdowns. Now, Wright's blocking was, understandably, a work in progress, but who's going to argue with the production of a 50-catch tight end? That was a valuable enough of an asset to turn it plus a fourth-round pick into a starting guard for a very OL-needy team.

How about now? Well, I'm not going to overstate things, since those guys still have a little bit to prove, but there's a lot of potential at the position. I know for a fact there's a huge amount of optimism inside One Buc Place about what Austin Seferian-Jenkins (ASJ, as you called him) can do this year now that he's fully healthy. Don't forget that Brandon Myers is still around, and he has one 79-catch and one 47-catch season already under his NFL belt. And if the Bucs didn't like what Luke Stocker did last year, they wouldn't have re-signed him this offseason.

So the first thing Tim Wright needs to do is demonstrate that he should supplant one of those three in the mix, since most teams carry three tight ends as a time. That could definitely happen, but I don't think we want to write off any of the other three, either. That should be a really fun battle to watch in training camp (with second-year man Cameron Brate also a legitimate part of the equation).

Your scenario paints Wright as the pass-catcher and ASJ as the blocker in a two-TE set-up. That's fine, but I think the Bucs envision ASJ as a productive pass-catcher. That's actually an argument in your favor, Toasty (great handle by the way; Casey and I would get a kick out of that if we used it in a video mailbag). Your two-TE formation is most effective if the opposition doesn't know who's staying in to block and who's going out for a pass. That said, Wright would need to be seen as a competent blocker for that bit of strategy to have maximum effectiveness. Hopefully, he'll be just that.

On the other hand, Stocker might be the best blocker of the four. If you are fine with one guy being the primary blocker (with just a hint of him possibly going out for a pass) and the other guy usually running routes, then what about an ASJ-Stocker pairing? Myers can do both jobs, so you've got ASJ-Myers and Myers-Stocker to consider, too.

I like your idea, Toasty. If Wright can work into the mix and prove himself an adequate blocker, and if ASJ is the force the team hopes he can be, that could be a really potent two-TE attack. Let's just not dismiss the other possible combinations.

2. Jameis Leading the Way?

Sure, either of those things or both could happen, but I think the second one is more likely.

Man, it ain't easy breaking through the ranks to make the Pro Bowl as a quarterback. Last year, when the Pro Bowl became "unconferenced," these were the six choices: Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Tom Brady and Andrew Luck. When Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Manning and Brady didn't play due to various reasons, the four replacements were Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan and Andy Dalton. Those were the REPLACEMENTS.

Two names offer hope there: Luck and Dalton. Luck has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. He was the most-hyped QB prospect to come along in a while, and he has not disappointed. Hype plus big numbers plus the playoffs equaled an instant Pro Bowl breakthrough for the Stanford prospect. I think it's fair to say that Winston is considered the best quarterback prospect since Luck, and he has plenty of hype too, so maybe he can follow the same path if the Bucs make the playoffs. But a lot of things have to fall into place.

Dalton's selection is a reason of hope, too, though not for the same reason. The jury seems to be out on the fifth-year Cincinnati passer, even though he has a 40-23-1 record as a starter, FOUR playoff appearances in four years and two Pro Bowl selections. My point is, whatever you think of Dalton, he's definitely not considered in the same regard (yet, at least) as a Rodgers or Brees. So if a similar thing happens next January, with certain high-profile guys not playing in the Pro Bowl due to injuries or playoffs or whatever, the bar in terms of voter popularity, seems to be Andy Dalton. I guess Winston or Marcus Mariota or Teddy Bridgewater could break through.

That's not a prediction I'm willing to make, however. Here are the last four rookie quarterbacks to play in the Pro Bowl: Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Cam Newton…wait! I'm disproving my own point. Either we had a ridiculous four-year run of rookie QBs (quite possible) or the league is primed for rookie-QB invasion right now. Maybe Jameis will be in the Pro Bowl this coming February!

Still, I think the playoffs are a more likely outcome, given that he probably needs that to happen first before the Pro Bowl-as-a rookie thing follows. I'm sure that expressing optimism over the Bucs going from 2-14 to the playoffs in one year will sound like homerism, but let's not forget that a 7-9 record won the NFC South last year. The Bucs had a number of things to fix from 2014 to 2015, but wasn't the biggest difference between them and their three division competitors the situation at quarterback? Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton…sure seems like I just saw all their names (repeatedly) while looking back through the last handful of Pro Bowls. Closing the gap on that position could also quickly close the gap on the difference between the 7-8-1 Panthers, 7-9 Falcons, 6-10 Saints and the (hopefully) up-and-coming Buccaneers.

Here's the other part of me saying yes to "…take us to our first playoff since 2007:" He's presumably going to have a lot of help. As for making the Pro Bowl, that's largely on him, though Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and ASJ could help quite a bit. If the Bucs make the playoffs, there's a VERY good chance that the defense will have as much to do with it as Jameis Winston. Oh, and that happens to take us nicely into the next question.

3. Defensive Awards?

Jeromiaha obviously is focused on the Bucs' defense, which is refreshing. You can see from the above that there is a lot of optimism about guys like Jameis and ASJ, but let's not forget that the Buccaneers' greatest tradition is on the other side of the ball. If a McCoy/David-led defense ascended to the ranks of the NFL elite, it would just be building on that tradition.

(By the way, that's the best way I've ever seen "Jeremiah" spelled. Seriously, I mean that. Not kidding.)

So, can the Bucs get (back) into the Top 10 this year? Uh, YEAH. You're talking about yardage rankings, I assume, and I know Tampa Bay ranked 25th in the league last year in that category, which doesn't sound too good. But it was really bad early and quite a bit better in the season's second half. After Week Eight, the Bucs ranked 14th in both yards allowed per game and points allowed per game. I'm no mathematician, but 14th seems pretty close to the top 10 to me.

In other words, it only takes a modest improvement to get there. I think the Buccaneers will make at least a modest improvement on defense in 2015. The key to me being right about that is the pass rush. It wasn't great last year, but it wasn't terrible. The Bucs got more sacks out of their defensive tackles than any other team in the league and then they added Henry Melton. Boom. It's hard to imagine the interior pass-rush being anything less than superb; let's get something out of the edges and it will be fantastic.

Sure, every team is feeling optimistic right now. Didn't some Buffalo Bills just recently say they thought they could be the best defense ever? (They are really good.) You're either going to get better or get worse. The 2015 Buccaneers are either the 1999 Buccaneers, who went from good to great, or the 2009 Buccaneers, who went from top 10 to 27th on defense. The former seems more likely, in that the 2015 Bucs (like the 1999 squad) have a number of young performers just coming into their own.

Over that aforementioned second half of the season, the Buccaneers were only four yards per game worse than the team (St. Louis) that ranked 10th in yards allowed. Give McCoy, David and the rest of that crew another full offseason to learn the defense imported by Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier – the factor widely credited with the team's second-half surge on that side of the ball last year – and it shouldn't be a great leap to shave another five to 10 yards off the opponents' output in 2015.

Of course, the individual fates of McCoy and David was the first thing Jeromiaha brought up above. Could either one end up with NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors by January? Well, in terms of Buc history, that's the one award the team has been able to reel in, with Lee Roy Selmon breaking the ice in 1979, Warren Sapp following in 1999 and Derrick Brooks completing the trifecta in 2002. In terms of their impact, McCoy and David are most often compared to Sapp and Brooks. To follow their predecessors into the award record books, the current Bucs will probably need to generate the overall team improvement we discussed above. The 1999 Bucs ranked third in the NFL in yards allowed but might have been the league's best overall defense that year. The 2002 Bucs were not only the NFL's best on defense but one of the best ever.

It's asking a lot of the 2015 squad to match either of those two outcomes, but if it were to occur then you have to believe either McCoy and/or David would be at the heart of the surge. And given their rather sterling reputations – both were first-team all-pros in 2013 for a team that finished 4-12 – they would almost certainly get award consideration. It would definitely take stats; Sapp had 12.5 sacks in '99 and Brooks had four defensive touchdowns in '13. Can you see Gerald McCoy getting 12.5 sacks and/or Lavonte David getting four TDs in 2015? Yeah, me too.

So, sure, it's possible. It isn't likely. Apart from J.J. Watt, I don't think I would say that Defensive Player of the Year is likely for any NFL player. But it isn't a ridiculous expectation, either. The team as a whole has to improve by a significant margin, and if that happens, the individual accolades may very well follow.

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