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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Dozen Debates: Playoff Bound?

Eleven previous debates all culminate in this overarching one as training camp begins: Are the 2017 Buccaneers good enough to end the team's playoff drought?

Photos of the Buccaneers' complete roster.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished the 2016 season with a 9-7 record, won six of their last eight games affected a stunning midseason turnaround on defense and only missed the postseason on a third-level tiebreaker. It should be expected that optimism would abound for the team's playoff chances in 2017, particularly after Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith chose to return and the team added a cadre of offensive weapons to help out rising-star quarterback Jameis Winston.

So is it going to happen?

The Buccaneers haven't been to the playoffs since 2007, and even if this looks like their most talented team since that one, they are not taking for granted that the drought will end in 2017. There's very little hyperbole in that opening paragraph, and it would all seem to add up to a very competitive club, but Tampa Bay players know they still have a lot to prove.

"When was the last time we went to the playoffs, 2007?" said Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans. "All right, so 10 years. So hopefully we can break that. So yeah, we have a lot to prove. We're good on paper, but we've got to do it.

"We haven't won anything yet. We haven't been to the playoffs in my three years here, going on year four. But, that's the goal every year, to make the playoffs. I see why there's a lot of excitement, we have a really good team and a really good roster. So hopefully we all stay healthy and put in the work and we can reach our goal which is the playoffs. In the tournament, anything can happen."

Of course, the Buccaneers play in the NFC South, which has produced the last two conference Super Bowl participants. No other division can boast a quarterbacking foursome equal to Matt Ryan (the 2016 MVP), Cam Newton (the 2015 MVP), Drew Brees (the 66,000-yard man) and Winston. Tampa Bay's 2016 schedule also features games against the defending-champion Patriots, the perennially-contending Packers and the team that aced it out of the last playoff spot last year, the Lions. The Buccaneers won't be backing into a playoff spot in 2017; they will most definitely have to earn it.

Over the last 12 days we've examined a range of topics that will help define this year's training camp, from Winston's continued development to a very public kicker competition. All of them, though, have really led up to this one big question: Are the 2017 Buccaneers good enough?

As with our first 11 debates, we're not claiming we have all the answers. We're just simply laying the groundwork for discussion. And, as with the rest, you can chime in with your opinion on the topic in the poll down below. Training Camp 2017 starts on Friday morning, so we've saved the most important debate for lost. You can review any of the previous discussions with the list of links below.

*Debate #12: Is Tampa Bay going back to the playoffs in 2017? *

Evans is right that the Buccaneers still have to prove themselves as real contenders. While they are the subject of more national attention than usual this summer (the presence of Hard Knocks plays into that, of course), they are not every analyst's darling. (To be fair, there were a lot more positive predictions to which I could have linked.)* *

So Evans' approach is probably the wise one. However, that doesn't mean there's any lack of confidence inside team headquarters. Third-year linebacker Kwon Alexander, who is developing into one of the team's emotional leaders, let a little of that confidence show on Thursday when the team's veterans reported for training camp.

"Last year was in the past; this year it's going to happen," said Alexander. "I know it's going to happen. Like I said, we are just going to go out here and work hard, you know, come together and just play for each other and we can do it."* *

If it does, it will require the defense playing like it did in the second half of the last year; the offense building on its young core to produce better results on the ground and more explosive plays; and the kicking game becoming significantly more efficient. Again, none of that is guaranteed, but the Buccaneers' brain trust has certainly done what it believes was necessary to address those issues.* *

Let's start with the first one since Alexander is the one predicting good things. Tampa Bay's defense, as we discussed earlier in these debates, went from one of the league's worst after eight games by the most basic barometer – points allowed – to one of the league's best during the last eight games. After allowing 29.0 points per game through the season's first half (fourth-worst), the Bucs allowed 17.1 in the second half (fourth-best). The coaches and players credited a big improvement in onfield communication; statistically, the driving factor was a league-leading turnover rate.* *

Turnovers may be somewhat fickle, but the Bucs believe they have a handful of playmakers who can duplicate last year's second-half run. That includes second-year cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who is a good bet to improve on his one interception from last season after a fantastic offseason. He and Brent Grimes could provide eight to 10 interceptions between them. Alexander himself is a big play waiting to happen, and both he and fellow linebacker Lavonte David can make plays in coverage and rush the passer.* *

The defensive line hopes to get a bigger season out of promising 2016 second-rounder Noah Spence, and any contributions from Jacquies Smith, who missed almost all of last year with a knee injury, would help quite a bit. The Bucs also added Chris Baker to the interior line, which will hopefully take double teams away from Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy. The Buccaneers ranked ninth in sacks in 2016 and could move into the top five if that unit stays healthy and Spence takes a big step forward.* *

The biggest question is at safety, where four players are fighting for two open jobs, essentially. Can Keith Tandy repeat his big-play flourish to end the 2016 season? There are two new additions here in second-round pick Justin Evans and free agent J.J. Wilcox, so the team will have options in its search for the best playmakers.* *

You heard Mike Evans say it: These all appear to be positive developments on paper. They must translate to the field. Still, the Bucs' defense appears to be young, fast and hungry, and it should be able to start much faster in 2017 thanks to the return of Mike Smith.* *

Pictures from the Bucs' training camp practice on Friday.

"Yeah we are going to be able to hit the ground running," said Alexander. "We have been in this system already. It took us a little minute last year to get it all together, but then we put it together and then we made our run. Now we're [all comfortable] with the system. Everybody just has to get back into the playbook and get it all down pat with no mistakes. We just need no mistakes, no big plays and then we are going to do a good job."* *

Baker and Evans may play prominent roles on defense, but the bigger makeover for the Buccaneers came on offense, where Winston can now throw the ball to Grade-A deep threat DeSean Jackson and seam-stretching tight end O.J. Howard. The Bucs were stretched a little thin on the receiving corps last year, which put a heavy workload on Mike Evans, who responded with a magnificent season. The Bucs knew Evans needed help, though, and a way to draw hovering safeties away from him, so they moved aggressively to get Jackson. Howard was a surprising option in the first round of the draft, a potential top-10 pick lasting to #19, and the third round also brought wide receiver Chris Godwin, who had an impressive offseason. It all has to come together, but with those options plus Cameron Brate and Adam Humphries it's pretty obvious that Winston has his best array of weapons yet.* *

"Our defense played great, I think they're going to be even better," said Evans. "But our offense is going to have more explosive plays with the key additions we got in D-Jack, O.J. [Howard], and Chris Godwin. All those guys are great players and they'll help us a lot. So I think in the explosive category, we'll be better."* *

The offensive line has been shuffled a bit, with Ali Marpet moving to center and J.R. Sweezy returning from a lost 2016 to take over at right guard. It's fair to say that this is the offense's biggest question mark, but after an improved second half last year and good reviews on Marpet's move, there is plenty of optimism inside One Buccaneer Place. The running game cratered last year, in large part due to injuries, and will be without Doug Martin for the first three games, but there is good depth of talent in the backfield and hopefully a bigger push up the middle with the new line.* *

In the end, though, it all comes down to Winston. After two 4,000-yard seasons and a total of 50 touchdowns to start his career, the former first-overall draft pick could be poised to take his game to the next level. If he does, particularly in terms of limiting turnovers, it's almost certain the Buccaneers will be a better team in 2017 than they were a year ago.* *

As for the kicking game, there's no need to belabor the point. The Bucs had the worst field goal percentage in the league last year with rookie Roberto Aguayo handling the kicking duties. Aguayo, obviously talented and with a strong college track record, may still have an outstanding NFL career, but he has competition for the Bucs' job this year. Tampa Bay brought in veteran Nick Folk and vowed that the best performer would win the job, period. Otherwise, Tampa Bay's special teams were strong last year in terms of punting (Bryan Anger was re-signed late in 2016) and coverage. The return game could be more dynamic, but that probably won't be the pivot on which the season turns.* *

Spirits are running high at One Buccaneer Place as training camp begins out in the backyard on Friday. There are plenty of reasons to believe that the team will take one more step in 2017 and return to the playoffs for the first time in a decade. The next three weeks of training camp will provide the first solid evidence as to whether that optimism is warranted.

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