The best photos from the Buccaneers' mini-camp practices.
After finishing 9-7 in Dirk Koetter's first season as head coach in 2016, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers set about addressing some of their most pressing needs in the new offseason. A determined effort was made to add speed to the offense, which comes in the form of DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard, Chris Godwin and Jeremy McNichols. The defense needed more power up the middle, which it got with Chris Baker, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, Kendell Beckwith and J.J. Wilcox.
On paper, that might seem like enough to add the one or two wins that would push the Bucs over the hump and into the postseason in 2017. But here's the rub: The NFL's other 31 teams were pursuing the same sort of self-improvement, if not necessarily in the exact same areas. The math isn't quite as simple as (near playoff team) + (draft and free agency) = playing in January.
There's a reason every general manager in the league says his aim is to build through the draft. Free agency can certainly help a team get over the top – see Peyton Manning and the Broncos – but most teams that make the leap from golfing in January to playing in the postseason need to see internal development of the roster. New contributors emerge, steady vets become stars and stars become MVP candidates. Whether you want to call it cause or effect, it's no surprise that the last two NFC champions were led by first-team NFL MVPs.
Take the 2016 Atlanta Falcons. That team made an critical acquisition in March, landing center Alex Mack to solidify a previously-struggling offensive line. Later in the spring, the draft brought such immediate contributors as safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones. Those were important roster-building moves. Still, would the Falcons have made Super Bowl LI if they hadn't gotten better seasons than ever before from the likes of quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Tevin Coleman, linebacker Vic Beasley and cornerback Robert Alford? Not likely.
That's the type of player we're talking about today, in relation to the Buccaneer's 2016 roster. Jackson and Howard may add a whole new dimension to the Bucs' passing attack and Baker could team with McCoy to form a hard-to-stop interior line that frees up one-on-one pass-rushing matchups on the edge. That's the plan. For the Buccaneers to get over that playoff hump, however, they will probably need a step up in production from several players who are already established figures on the depth chart. Some of them, like the Falcons' Ryan, are already among the best players in the league; some, like Atlanta's Beasley, will be looking to join that same group.
Here are five established Buccaneer veterans who may need to produce even more in 2017 than they have in the past in order for the team to make the playoffs.
LB Lavonte David
David has five NFL seasons on his resume already, and every one of them has been good. Some of them have been very good. He is widely considered one of the very best 4-3 outside linebackers in the entire NFL, and he has a Pro Bowl appearance to back that up.
Notably, that Pro Bowl came at the end of the 2015 season, after he had racked up 147 tackles, three interceptions, three sacks, 10 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and 13 passes defensed. Last year, David's tackle total topped out at 87 and he had just one interception, though he did rack up 17 tackles for loss, five sacks and four forced fumbles. You can pick among those numbers to rate one season over the other, but the fact is that David himself was not satisfied in his output in his first year under Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith.
"Last year I didn't have my best year, so I just want to be able to get better and get back to my old self," said David earlier this offseason.
Photos from the Buccaneers' mini-camp practice on Thursday.
Whether it's fair or not to expect it, David can produce more than he did last year. In 2013, he was a first-team Associated Press All-Pro after racking up five interceptions and seven sacks. He also tallied 145 tackles and a safety that year and forced two fumbles. David won't turn 28 until after the 2017 (regular) season, so he's still very much in his prime. And he know has a season in Smith's defense under his belt, so he should be moving more instinctively in 2017.
Smith and the Bucs' defensive coaching staff never got down on David in 2016, even as fans started to notice his game-by-game tackle totals were not the same as they had been in previous years. Smith's system didn't necessarily put David in position to make as many plays, and middle linebacker Kwon Alexander's tackle total notably rose from 93 in 2015 to 145 last year. Whether or not that pendulum swings back in 2017 remains to be seen, but what the Bucs really want from David is big plays. The knifing tackles of running backs behind the line of scrimmage, the interceptions, the well-timed blitzes.
David's pick-six against San Diego in Week 13 last year was one of the team's biggest defensive plays during its second-half surge. A full season of moments like that could make the Bucs' defense difficult for opposing offenses to reckon with.
TE Cameron Brate
Brate's situation could be most analogous to Coleman's rise last year in Atlanta. Like Coleman, Brate had a breakout year last year but will be one piece in a deep group at his position. Coleman shares time with the extremely productive Devonta Freeman; Brate now has a high-powered tight end running mate in rookie O.J. Howard.
Given the Bucs' selection of Howard in the first round of the draft, it might be unfair to ask for more from Brate, who already produced far more than was originally anticipated last year. A former undrafted free agent, Brate finished second on the team with 57 catches for 660 yards and tied for the lead among all NFL tight ends with eight touchdowns. Simply repeating those numbers in an offense that now features several more dynamic weapons would be enough to make him a very useful player.
Still, Brate could do more in 2017 even without it being obvious in his raw numbers. He has had to learn to block in the NFL after rarely being asked to do so at Harvard, and he has steadily improved in that aspect of his game. If Brate can continue that improvement, it will add teeth to the two-TE packages the Buccaneers are envisioning with him and Howard. The harder it is for the defense to predict which of those two tight ends might break from the line into a route and which might stay in to block, the harder it will be to defend the Bucs' offense as a whole.
Meanwhile, with Howard and wide receiver Mike Evans sure to draw plenty of attention around the goal line, Brate could be an even better red zone weapon in 2017. Last year, he got a lot of his scores from the edges of the red zone, running perfect seam routes to the goal line for Jameis Winston. Now imagine a goal-line package that includes him and Howard, ready to stay in and block for a run up the gut or suddenly release into the paint. Brate could possibly top his touchdown total from a year ago.
OL Ali Marpet
The Buccaneers want to run the ball far better than they did a year ago. The NFL's fifth-best rushing attack in 2015 cratered in 2016, in large part due to injuries to Doug Martin and Charles Sims. Both backs are healthy again and they've been joined by McNichols, the rookie out of Boise State. Jacquizz Rodgers, who filled in so well for stretches last fall, is also still on hand. The backfield appears to be loaded.
The key to returning to that 2015 form, however, may actually start up front, where the Buccaneers could field their beefiest O-Line in years. It appears that line will be anchored in the middle by Marpet, who is converting to center after two very promising years at right guard. That would allow the Bucs to keep Kevin Pamphile at left guard and put mauling run-blocker J.R. Sweezy at right guard.
It's looking more and more like this is going to be the actual Week One starting alignment, rather than just an offseason trial run.
"I know I said at one point that it was an experiment," said Koetter of the Marpet move. "I mean, it's an experiment that we fully expect to work or we wouldn't be messing around with it. Like everything else, we're going to try to get our best five O-linemen [on the field]."
Again, Marpet has been as good as or better than expected at guard since the Buccaneers drafted him out of Hobart in the second round in 2015. He has already made a successful transition from Division III college ball to the NFL and from tackle to interior lineman. Now he's learning how to snap the ball and how to make adjustments at the line for his entire group.
If Marpet is successful in that latest transition, he could have the same effect on the Bucs' line that Mack did in Atlanta last year, pulling the whole group together into a dominant and cohesive unit. The move helps tangentially in making it possible to get both Pamphile and Sweezy on the field, giving the Bucs a line that averages about 6-6 and 315 pounds. Marpet was a good blocker at guard the last two years; his impact at center could be quite a bit more important for the Buccaneers in 2017.
DE William Gholston
When Gholston chose to re-sign with Tampa Bay in March, days before becoming an unrestricted free agent, he said the situation he had been put in with the Bucs had made him "a stronger and more flexible player." He felt comfortable in Tampa, believing the team was going to find an even bigger and better role for him.
By Gholston's own estimation, that could involve more rushing the passer. One of the Buccaneers' best run-stoppers, Gholston has had between 2.0 and 3.5 sacks in each of his four NFL seasons, some of that the product of his non-stop effort on any given play. The Bucs want him to continue to set the edge as well as he has against the run, but Gholston plans to make more of a two-way impact.
"My whole goal is to become an elite pass-rusher, to be honest with you," he said. "I wouldn't label myself as a run defender. I feel like with the opportunity that I've had to rush the passer, I've progressed and progressed and progressed. Hopefully, within these next few seasons I become an elite pass-rusher, because that's the goal to be honest with you. It's a forward-passing league. It's good to stop the run because you have to stop the run for them to pass, but I want to be out there on third down rushing too. It's really up to me to get out there and do the best I can."
With the return of Jacquies Smith from injury and an anticipated breakout from second-year man Noah Spence, the Bucs could have a pretty deep rotation of edge rushers. They likely expect to get the bulk of their backfield pressure from those two, Robert Ayers and the McCoy-Baker combination. However, if Gholston does indeed force his way into more third-down action and ups his sack total by any noticeable degree, Tampa Bay could have one of the best pass-rushing fronts in the NFL.
That would almost certainly represent a big step forward for the Buccaneers in their playoff quest. There's little doubt that an elite pass rush is one of the few things that could take a fringe contender and turn it into a feared team. In fact, there's probably only one spot in which a big improvement would do more for Tampa Bay's postseason hopes, and that would be…
QB Jameis Winston
It's obvious, but that makes it no less true. As with Cam Newton's Panthers in 2015 and Matt Ryan's Falcons last year, the Buccaneers will likely only go so far as their quarterback will take them.
After two very promising seasons, it looks like Winston is capable of taking the Buccaneers very far. He is the first player in NFL history to start his career with consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons and he has already recorded 50 touchdown passes. Last year he showed a new side to his game, ranking as one of the NFL's best passers when outside of the pocket. He is already one of the team's unquestioned leaders and he works tirelessly at his game. He's not afraid to acknowledge his shortcomings and attack them head-on.
In other words, Winston is poised to take his game to another level, and that means maintaining his high rate of yardage and touchdown production while significantly reducing his turnovers. Winston had 28 touchdowns and 18 interceptions last year. Ryan, the league MVP, had 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions. In 2015, Newton took home the MVP award with 35 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Winston has been one of the NFL's best quarterbacks at the intermediate throw, frequently hitting favorite target Mike Evans 15-25 yards downfield. It's the reason that Evans remarkably created a first down on every one of his third-down receptions last year, the only qualifying player in the NFL who could say that. Winston also improved his completion percentage from 58.3% as a rookie to 60.8% last year, but the NFL average was 63.0%. There's room for improvement there, and in the deep ball. Last year, the Bucs' passing attack struggled to hit big plays downfield, but Winston will have quite a bit of help in that department this year with the arrivals of Jackson and Howard.
The Buccaneers believe their offseason acquisitions will give a boost to a team that just missed the playoffs last year, and a rising tide lifts all boats. Hopefully a deeper roster will create an environment that allows some of the team's most established players to hit new career high points. If Lavonte David, Cam Brate, Ali Marpet, William Gholston and Jameis Winston – to name a few – all produce more than they did a season ago, the Bucs will likely make their return to the playoffs.