Earlier this week, Casey Phillips and Carmen Vitali joined me in a quick roundtable discussion regarding the Tampa Bay Buccaneer players we think might "make the leap" this coming season. Perhaps we were getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
Before those breakout candidates suit up on a fall Sunday, before training camp in August or even the more advanced stages of OTA practices in May and June, the Buccaneers have a significant amount of team-building to take care of. NFL rosters generally swap out about a third of their spots from season to season, and this year will be no different in Tampa. There will be additions and there will be subtractions and the team will have a new look by the time the games count in September.
And that will impact our breakout candidates from the last roundtable. For instance, I chose second-year tight end O.J. Howard, expecting a full offseason of work to improve his blocking skills and get him more fully integrated into the passing attack. With Howard, Brate and promising second-year man Antony Auclair on board, the tight end position is one of the least likely on the depth chart to see significant change before the season. However, the Bucs could make some moves on the offensive line and will certainly try to improve upon their 27th-ranked rushing attack. If they succeed in that quest, that will only help Howard. A more balanced offense will improve the Bucs' play-action game and open up more opportunities for all of the team's pass-catchers.
So let's rewind a bit and look at the two main avenues for affecting the roster in the offseason: unrestricted free agency and the draft. Free agency comes first, so that's where we'll start with this particular roundtable discussion. Since players with expiring contracts don't technically become free agents until March 14, and since this is the official Buccaneer website, we can't yet speculate about specific names from other teams. We can, however, discuss free agency goals in a broader sense.
That is, what positions should the Buccaneers address on the free agent market. In a sense, this is more of a wish list than a prediction of what the team will do. The reality is that the market won't necessarily present the Buccaneers – or other teams – with the specific signing opportunities they need. For instance, if the Bucs were looking to add a tight end (again, not likely), are there any attractive potential free agents out there. And, more to the point, will they even hit free agency in the long run. Many of the more prominent names being discussed as possible free agents in February will have re-signed or been tagged by their current teams by March.
That won't stop us from dreaming…and speculate. So, Casey, Carmen – let's speculate. Today's roundtable topic is: What positions should the Buccaneers target in unrestricted free agency in 2018? Just one pick each this time, and since you went first in the last discussion, Casey, you drop back to the third for this go-round. Carmen, take it away.
Carmen Vitali:** Defensive Line
I'm going to be honest – I was definitely all about taking the 'obvious' choice this go-around… until I realized there wasn't one. Sure, my first instinct would maybe be a defensive lineman given that the Bucs ranked last in sacks at the conclusion of the 2017 season and will look to bolster their pass rush – but they're presumably getting Noah Spence back from injury next season, and he will almost certainly contribute to getting pressure on the quarterback. However, there are quite a few interesting prospects that are due to hit free agency on the defensive line next month, some right here in the NFC South. But then I thought, what about a running back to make the fourth-ranked passing offense in the league even more of a threat? Well, running backs are tricky – and I think more often than not you want to grab them in the draft to develop them within your offense as soon as possible if you can. So okay, what about an offensive lineman to block *for *said-running back and aid in giving quarterback Jameis Winston more time within the pocket in pass protection? But then I think the offensive line can be addressed in the draft as well, like in the second or third rounds where it seems a lot of the guys coming out of college will fall. My head is now spinning – thanks, Scott.
So after all that, I think first instinct is always best: I'm going defensive lineman, more specifically, a bona fide pass rusher.
Here's the thing: Getting a veteran pass-rusher can only help Noah Spence, who had a promising rookie campaign but missed almost all of his second season due to injury. He's still young and will have to continue to develop and hone his skills. You work with him, but bring in a well-known edge-rusher to occupy the other side that opposing defenses already know to look out for. That way, the focus is shifted to the vet and it frees up Spence to wreak havoc. And if he's as good as he can be now that he's healthy, that should be quite a bit.
Also, let's not forget about the guy in the middle – Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy – who still managed six sacks last year while having to account for two offensive linemen most of the time. Take some pressure off McCoy and see how much more pressure he's able to bring (see what I did there?).
Scott Smith: Cornerback
I think defensive line, and edge rusher in particular, is the most obvious need for the Buccaneers heading into the 2018 offseason, and yes, I did call this exercise a "wish list." Nothing wrong with wishing for another backfield invader.
The thing is, I want my wishes to be realistic. I don't ask Santa for world peace, I ask him for a new grill. And I'm of the opinion that there isn't going to be much of an opportunity for teams to add established, dangerous pass-rushers in free agency this year. There rarely is. I know we're all hearing some pretty exciting names right now, in mid-February – ones we can't currently discuss here because they are still under contract – but I don't expect them to actually make it to free agency.
On the other hand, I look at the list of potential free agents at cornerback – again, can't name names just yet – and I see some actually opportunity. Some of them may end up re-signing with their current teams before free agency, but I believe a handful will hit the market. And while my defensive end wish would be for a top-of-the-line, 10-sack guy, I think even a middle-tier option at cornerback would be very valuable for the Buccaneers.
There is one potential unrestricted free agent cornerback we can talk about, and that's Brent Grimes. No word yet on if he will return – Dirk Koetter told him on the very first day of the 2018 offseason that the Bucs want him back. If Grimes does choose to re-sign, I would file that under "help found in free agency" and say I won this little roundtable. If he does not, then that just increases the need at the position, which makes it the best choice here, which means I will have won this little roundtable. It's a foolproof plan!
Casey is next and I'm going to say it before she calls me out on it: I'm a the most broken of broken records when it comes to this topic. I am shattered vinyl. I have said it so often that it's probably annoying: You can never have enough proven cornerback depth. As soon as you think you're set, a month or two later and you're on the lookout for it again.
Casey Phillips: OL
Scott picked cornerback?! I'm shocked! I actually was hoping the order for this roundtable would let me go before him to pick corner, but since defensive line and cornerback are already gone, I'll go to the other side of the trenches and say an offensive lineman. The same way Scott believes you can't have too much depth at corner, I also believe that about the offensive line. There are several decisions coming up for the front office with guys like Kevin Pamphile and Evan Smith being unrestricted free agents this year and the knowledge that Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith could be free agents next year.
The Bucs front office and coaching staff talked last season about putting the best five on the field, which motivated moving Marpet to center. By adding another piece to the offensive line, you can only increase the competition and options for who that best five could be. Or maybe you specifically pick up an interior linemen that either allows Marpet to go back to guard or provides consistency at the guard position next to him without the need to rotate multiple players there. No matter who makes up the Bucs running back position group, they could benefit from more consistent run blocking than last season. And you can never protect your franchise quarterback enough, which is why I will never question putting offensive line on my free agency wish list.