The Buccaneers' 53-Man roster.
On Monday, Joe Kania, Andrew Norton and I made some bold predictions regarding the possibilities of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense in 2016. Those hopeful prophecies included double-digit touchdowns for Mike Evans, several new records for Jameis Winston, tons of receptions for Buc running backs and even a trip to the end zone for an offensive linemen…which, okay, if all that comes true we can probably start printing playoff tickets.
The truth is, Tampa Bay's impressive young core of talent on offense, which produced a seriously promising campaign, last fall, is pretty ripe for these types of predictions. I don't expect all of them to come true – we were trying to be particularly bold, remember – but no single one of them seems outlandish. It's a little trickier on defense, where the cast has a lot of new faces, a new coordinator and a difficult 2015 season to overcome.
But that's okay, that just gives us a larger canvas on which to paint our broad strokes of prognostication. Our bold strokes, that is. This time, why don't you go first Andrew?
Andrew Norton Prediction #1: We see a new Buccaneers rookie record.
One of my favorite articles on Buccaneers.com so far this offseason came out earlier this month, written by our very own Scott Smith. While I try to not inflate his ego too much, "Could These Rookies Break Records" was a fun read and a pretty educational one, too.
In the article he notes two defensive franchise records for rookies that I want to call out: single-season interceptions and sacks. The Buccaneers rookie INT record is five, a mark shared by Donnie Abraham and David Greenwood. Scott notes the chances of this record breaking as "Medium/Low". The rookie sack record is a very impressive 10, set by Santana Dotson in 1992. Scott Smith's likelihood prognosis: "Low."
I say that one of them does fall.
Why is it bold? Since 2005, only six rookie defenders in the entire NFL have recorded more than five interceptions. (We are going to break this record, not tie it.) As for sacks, since 1983, only 31 rookies have recorded double-digit sacks, and no rusher has done it since 2011.
First-round pick Vernon Hargreaves is the most likely suspect for the interceptions record; while he is still playing with the twos so early in the offseason, the rookie should see plenty of playing time, particularly in the slot. In his own words, "The closer you are to the ball, the more times you can touch the ball, so I'm happy about moving inside, of course."
Words of a man I'm more than happy to put my bold prediction behind.
That 10.5-sack total is certainly a lofty goal, especially considering the popular stat that no Buccaneer has a 10+-sack season since 2005. Through the offseason, Noah Spence has received rave reviews from his peers impressed by his natural ability and eagerness to learn. Combine that with a tremendous pass-rush presence on the inside from Gerald McCoy and the edge rush ability from free agent pickup Robert Ayers and Spence could benefit from a lot of one-on-one looks. Long shot? Yes. But I'm comfortable saying that it is not out of the realm of possibility. Go get it, 57!
Joe Kania Prediction #1: The sack drought comes to an end.
We've heard it time and time again: the Buccaneers haven't had a defender reach double-digit sacks since Simeon Rice did it in 2005. This offseason, the Bucs acquired defensive end Robert Ayers, who had nine sacks a year ago, in addition to talented pass-rusher Noah Spence. I believe Tampa Bay's streak will come to an end this year, but I don't think that it will be Ayers, Spence or any other edge-rusher achieving the feat.
Since entering the league, Gerald McCoy has been one of the most productive defensive tackles in getting after the quarterback. But he's never had a truly dominant edge-rusher lined up alongside him. I believe the addition of Ayers and Spence will help free up McCoy, who will build off his eight sacks in 2015 and break the double-digit threshold.
Scott Smith Prediction #1: Three Buc defenders make the Pro Bowl.
You don't think this is bold? The last time Tampa Bay put three defensive players into the all-star game, two-thirds of that group was still working on their Hall of Fame careers. In 2003, linebacker Derrick Brooks, defensive end Simeon Rice and defensive tackle Warren Sapp were all chosen to represent the Bucs in Hawaii. (Ah, Pro Bowl in Hawaii, how we'll miss you!)
I'm counting on that exact same blueprint to break the three-defender drought in 2016. We're already two-thirds of the way there, as Lavonte David (playing Brooks' old position) breaking through last year and Gerald McCoy (in Sapp's spot) making his fourth straight trip. And while cornerback Brent Grimes is bringing a streak of three straight Pro Bowl selections to Tampa, I think the Bucs' best chance lies with Robert Ayers.
Grimes deserved his three Pro Bowl trips, but there's little doubt that his good interception totals each year – four, five and four, with a pair of TD returns mixed in – were the main reasons he got the call. Big INT seasons are the best way for a cornerback to get the voters' attention, and that stat is just too unpredictable to bank on it. Grimes may play just as well in 2016 as he did the last three years, but if he doesn't happen to rack up the picks, he might be skipped over.
The same is true for Ayers and sacks, but I think that particular statistic is a safer bet if the player has the talent to get it. Ayers got nine sacks last year for the Giants and has at least five in each of his last three years. My boy Joe up there thinks it's McCoy who's going to get to 10, and he might be right. But if Ayers matches his nine sacks from last year and the Bucs' defense has a good season, I think he'll get Pro Bowl consideration as well. Remember, in its current configuration, the Pro Bowl tends to have bloated rosters, so that only helps my prediction.
Andrew Norton Prediction #2: Lavonte David finally gets the credit he deserves.
We covered all the pass rushers. I already addressed the secondary. I knew that I wanted to make some prediction about Lavonte David. The problem was just finding a bold prediction that David already hasn't lived up to.
Thought number one, something along the lines of combining LBs Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. Before looking at the stats, I wrote down, "300 combined tackles, 10 combined turnovers, 6 combined sacks." Pretty dang good numbers for an LB duo. Then I went to the stats from last year (keep in mind that Alexander missed four games): 240 tackles, 5 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 6 sacks. I told you making a bold prediction was difficult.
So rather than make some outlandish claims of Lavonte David's stats to skyrocket from an already NFL-leading pace (since entering the league in 2012, no NFL player has more solo tackles than David's 404), I'm going to say that the nation starts to notice.
Lavonte David was named an All-Pro in 2013, but failed to make the Pro Bowl that year. Last season was the first and only time he has made the NFL's All-Star game in his young career despite the aforementioned gaudy numbers. This season, Lavonte David makes both lists, and thanks to his steady numbers, increased sack total (the presence of Alexander will give David more opportunities to get to the quarterback), and the Buccaneers gaining steam and national attention, Lavonte David is finally seen as a premier NFL linebacker.
Joe Kania Prediction #2: Alterraun Verner begins, and ends, the season as a starter.
The Buccaneers had high hopes when they signed Verner as a free agent in the spring of 2014; Verner had just earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl and had five interceptions for the Titans in 2013. After starting 14 games during his first season in Tampa, though, he started just six games this past season, with the majority of his snaps coming in the slot.
How could the Buccaneers get Verner back to the level he was at in 2013 with the Titans? Signing his former coach is a good start.
Tampa Bay brought in a new defensive coordinator this spring when they hired Mike Smith, and Smith
brought in Brett Maxie to work with the team's defensive backs. Maxie spent two seasons working with Verner in Tennessee, including in 2013 when he made the Pro Bowl.
Throughout spring workouts, Verner has worked with the starters at corner alongside Brent Grimes, with Jude-Adjei Barimah working as the nickel back. These workouts don't tell us much, but the fact that Verner has been working with the ones throughout the spring lets us know that the new defensive coaching staff believes in Verner's skill set.
Scott Smith Prediction #2: Vernon Hargreaves gets his first NFL interception off a fellow 2016 first-rounder.
That is indeed a bold prediction, Joe, because it would likely mean that rookie first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves is not a starter this year, other than in games in which the team starts in the nickel. Brent Grimes seems like a near lock to be one of the two outside starters, leaving only one other starting spot. I feel good about Verner this year, too, but I wonder if he might get a lot of playing time without actually being a 16-game starter.
Because this much we know: Hargreaves is going to play a lot. Dirk Koetter said that nearly verbatim several times during last week's mini-camp, in which the rookie corner was one of the obvious standouts. Hargreaves could end up playing both on the outside and in the slot in order to get him on the field as much as possible. And if he's playing a lot, he might get a chance to victimize one of his fellow members of the NFL Class of 2016.
Three quarterbacks were drafted in the first round this year: Jared Goff first overall to the Rams, Carson Wentz second to the Eagles and Paxton Lynch 26th to the Broncos. If you count the preseason, Hargreaves and the Buccaneers will face all three of those teams. Personally, I think Goff is the Rams starter on Day One, which means he'll play against the Buccaneers in Week Three, Tampa Bay's regular-season home opener. Lynch seems less likely to be in the lineup when the Broncos visit Raymond James Stadium the very next week, but it's certainly possible. And, barring injury, Wentz should definitely play at some point during the preseason opener on August 11.
I'm saying one of those three rookie passers is Hargreaves' first INT victim. Hopefully, there will be many more to follow.