2014 Preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Everybody’s dark horse at the beginning of the year, the 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers never even made it out of the gates. Weeks 1 and 2 saw heartbreaking losses to the Jets and Saints that foreshadowed the disappointment the rest of the season had in store. It took the Bucs until week 10 to get their first win and by that time their coach had one foot out the door and their once thought to be franchise quarterback had his name on the back of a different uniform.
Many of the same causes for optimism a year ago are still in place though as well as some additional reasons. A new coaching staff is in place, a stable of free agent are donning the new Buc’s uniforms, and the quarterbacks almost have to be Josh Freeman was. Let’s take a deeper look:
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. Free Agent Acquisitions
The preliminary depth chart released by the Bucs last week contained an astounding nine starters that were added through free agency last offseason. While trading Darelle Revis for Alterraun Verner looks unfavorable, Anthony Collins, Josh McCown, Evan Dietrich-Smith, and Michael Johnson all out-graded the Bucs previous starters by a considerable margin. In fact, those four outplayed their Tampa counterparts in 2013 (Donald Penn, Mike Glennon, Jeremy Zuttah, and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim respectively) by a total grade of +101.9 and none should make a bigger difference than Johnson. The former Bengal was PFF’s fourth-highest graded 4-3 end last season and was almost one and half times as likely as Te’o-Nesheim to generate a pressure.
2. Revamped Coaching Staff
While the turnover in free agency is the biggest reason for optimism, the move from Greg Schiano to Lovie Smith is close second. Smith brought in former Vikings’ head coach Leslie Frazier to man the defense and longtime University of California head coach and once renowned quarterback whisperer Jeff Tedford to be offensive coordinator. While their kneel-down defense may not be as stout, the change in leadership will be a welcome upgrade over a staff that had, by multiple accounts, lost control of the team.
3. The Duo
Lavonte David and Gerald McCoy, what more is there to say? We’ve written about their greatness many a time here on the site and look no further than those three articles if you don’t already know why. It bears repeating, last season David was the best linebacker in the NFL while McCoy was the best defensive tackle. McCoy is 26 while David is 24. Those two seem like pretty good reasons to be confident.
4. A Healthy Doug Martin
As a rookie, Doug Martin was a revelation. He compiled a 1,926 yards from scrimmage, averaged 4.6 yards per carry, and gained a ridiculous 1,005 yards after contact. His second year was the complete opposite. He accrued just 522 yards while his yards after contact per attempt dropped by a full yard (3.2-2.2).
The good news about Martin’s decline is that it was looked heavily blocking dependent. The run blocking grades of the Buc’s line declined markedly last season (from +23.8 to -30.5) while Martin averaged over 4 yards per carry in every game except for against the Cardinals and Jets (first- and third-ranked run defenses last season for yards). The bad news is… well, we’ll get to that a little later.
5. Red Zone Matchup Nightmares
Head Coach: How tall is our starting cornerback?
Defensive Coordinator: 5-foot-10
Head Coach: Let’s see, we can match him up with 6-foot-5, 230-pound Vincent Jackson or 6-foot-5, 230-pound Mike Evans.
Defensive Coordinator: Well since Evans vertical is only 37 inches and Jackson’s is 39 inches, I guess he should cover Evans.
Head Coach: We’re so screwed.
The above is an imaginary dialogue that will be all too real for opposing coaching staffs come Week 1. Evans and Jackson make up the most physically imposing wide receiver duo currently in the NFL. Evans, who put up almost the exact same combine numbers as Brandon Marshall, looked every bit the Marshall clone at Texas A&M. Johnny Manziel’s favorite target recorded 2499 yards, 151 catches, and 17 touchdowns in his two seasons as an Aggie. That production, along with his sky high potential, is what made him the seventh overall pick last May.
Jackson on the other hand has already realized the potential that made him a second-round pick back in 2005. The veteran has been top tier receiver throughout the PFF era with three seasons grading inside the Top 10 at the position (fifth in 2008, first in 2009, sixth in 2012). At 31 years of age, Jackson doesn’t look like he’s lost a step.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. Missing Revis in the Secondary
Alterraun Verner is a solid No. 1 corner, don’t get me wrong, but he is no Darelle Revis. Revis can, when used correctly, patch up a ton of holes on the back end of a defense. Even playing a lot of zone last season he was still our top-graded cornerback at +18.6 overall. While Verner was no slouch himself at +9.8, it’s just hard to envision their pass defense getting better than their 18th-graded spot last season. It would take giant leaps forward in production from youngsters Johnthan Banks (-11.9 coverage grade last season) and Mark Barron (-2.0 coverage grade last season) to propel them into a Top-10 pass defense. While I believe both will improve, there hasn’t been much evidence of elite coverage potential from either in their brief careers.
2. The Guard Situation
In 2012, Doug Martin’s rookie season, the Bucs’ guards combined for an overall run blocking grade -1.0. As a team they averaged 114.8 rushing yards a game and 4.4 ypc. Last season the guards combined for a -33.4 run blocking grade and they averaged 100.8 yards per game and 3.8 ypc. While Martin being injured impacted those stats, in the six games he played in the Buc’s only averaged 101.1 yards per game and 3.8 ypc.
Guards are the life blood of most running games and the Buc’s just flat out don’t have good ones. After the Buc’s parted ways with Carl Nicks, it left Oniel Cousins and Jamon Meredith as the projected week 1 starters. They’ve both been around long enough to know that they are not the players you want starting at guard week 1. Last season Meredith had a -11.5 grade in 488 snaps while Cousins managed a -16.1 grade in 322 snaps. Having Martin healthy will be a big addition, but if they don’t upgrade the guard position before week 1 (Alex Boone?), the running backs still won’t have holes to run through.
3. Unknown at Quarterback
While having two quarterbacks compete and push each other to win the starting job is a good thing, it’s quite possible that neither will prove apt enough to lead a consistent passing attack. With all the question marks already highlighted in the run game, there are almost as many with the passing game.
Second year quarterback Mike Glennon has taken just 864 snaps, and while he was the best of the rookie crop last year, he came away with a -6.1 overall grade. That production puts him in line with how Andy Dalton and Sam Bradford performed in their first seasons. While those two are adequate starters, the higher tier of quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, and Matt Ryan all faired significantly better their rookie seasons.
Named the starter at the moment, though, is the wildcard quarterback, Josh McCown. With the Bears last season, McCown lit the world on fire in 427 snaps last season, finishing with a +17.9 overall grade. He came into an almost perfect situation with two fantastic receivers, a quarterback friendly head coach, and multiple weak secondaries on the schedule. It’s also worrisome that he was unable to even come close to that production at any point in his career. McCown played in 15 games between 2007-2012 taking 646 snaps and came away with just two positively graded games and an overall grade of –24.4. McCown is 35 years old and his performance this season may be the most intriguing to me of any quarterback in the NFL.
4. Depth Questions
Every team worries about depth, but the 2014 Buc’s could be in big trouble if the injury bug strikes. Tampa lacks proven backups at almost every position except quarterback and running back. The lack of depth is especially a concern on the offensive line. All of the projected backups are within their first two years in the league, with zero combined snaps, and none were taken before the fifth round. Of all of the five concerns listed here, this one may be the most worrisome. Injuries happen to every team and I have serious doubts as to whether the Buc’s can take them in stride.
5. Loaded NFC
The biggest thing standing in the way of the Buccaneers making the playoffs this season may not only be the talent in Tampa. When PFF ranked the NFL’s starting rosters in terms of quality of starters, four out of the top five teams came from the NFC. The Bucs came out 17th overall and eighth-best in the NFC. Admirable after a 4-12 year, but only six teams make the playoffs. Even in Tampa’s own division the Panthers, Saints, and Falcons have had high win totals over the past two years of 12, 11, and 13 respectively and all three have far more established quarterbacks. There’s no doubt Tampa should be improved from last season, but they’ll have to fight through a crowded pack to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @PFF_MikeRenner