In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the NFC South, starting with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today.
Recap of 2015: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered the 2015 season with real franchise wide optimism for the first time since their Super Bowl days with Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. Their painful 2-14 campaign in 2014 landed them the number one overall pick in the 2015 draft, quarterback Jameis Winston. The Bucs are hoping they have a real franchise quarterback (sorry Testaverde, Dilfer and Freeman) for the first time in team history. After year one, despite a last place finish in the NFC South with a 6-10 record, it appears they do. In 2015, Winston joined Jim Kelly, Peyton Manning, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck as the only signal callers since the AFL/NFL merger to throw for over 3,500 yards in their rookie season. Along with Winston’s impressive rookie season, running back Doug Martin finished second in the league in rushing yards and Mike Evans established himself as one of the best young pass catchers in the league. The biggest problem for the Bucs in 2015 was not their offense, it was their defense. Led by defensive minded head coach Lovie Smith and young cornerstone players Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David, the defense was supposed to be the stronger unit heading into the season. In just two seasons under head coach Lovie Smith, the defense has been anything but strong as the Bucs gave up almost 26 points per game and were tied with the Buffalo Bills for the most penalized team in the league last season. Smith was fired after the season and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was promoted to head coach.
Significant Additions: DE Robert Ayers, CB Brent Grimes, LB Daryl Smith, OG J.R. Sweezy
Significant Subtractions: OG Logan Mankins, LB Bruce Carter
Potential Impact Rookies: CB Vernon Hargreaves III, DE Noah Spence, K Roberto Aguayo
Team Strengths: Entering the 2016 season, Tampa Bay appears to be pretty solid in most areas with a couple different units that you could make the case for being the best on this team. In 2015, Tampa’s young offense finished 17th in offensive DVOA which bodes well for a potential rise in 2016, but I believe the true strength of this team will end up being their ability to stop the run. Assuming the health of pro bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, along with all world outside linebacker Lavonte David and second year middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, the blueprint of a top 10 run defense for years to come is in place.
Team Weaknesses: You do not have to go much further than the safety position. The group of Chris Conte, Bradley McDougald, Major Wright and Keith Tandy will battle throughout training camp for the two starting safety spots. I personally have more interest in watching two people battle it out in Pokemon Go than following this position battle. The lack of talent at this position group could bring down what has a chance to be a pretty good defense overall. The addition of Robert Ayers and rookie Noah Spence should enhance their pass rush enough, but if Spence experiences some rookie struggles, this unit could also become an issue quickly.
Fantasy Players to Watch: Third year pass catcher Mike Evans has all the makings of a number one fantasy wide receiver, assuming he can hold on to the football. Evans drop total last season (15) is the same amount of receiving touchdowns he has had through the first two years of his career. I am willing to bet that a player with his natural talent and athleticism will correct his drop issues. If you miss out on the top tier of receivers (Brown, Hopkins, Julio, Beckham, Dez) I would recommend targeting Evans. He has as good of a chance as anyone to join the elite receivers group at a slightly lower draft day price. Which Doug Martin will show up this year? It is anyone’s guess and if he falls to you, I would take him. However, I do not recommend overpaying for Martin even in what appears to be a thin running back pool. Vincent Jackson is not the quite the player he once was, but still puts up solid production and could be a value on draft day. Quarterback Jameis Winston is definitely someone worth keeping an eye on and grabbing late in drafts. He has all the makings of one day becoming a starting fantasy quarterback and that day could come as soon as this year. Austin Seferian-Jenkins has a lot of raw natural talent at the tight end position, he also has a lot of raw natural talent at being a knucklehead. Keep him on your radar as the season goes along, but do not get too attached as his next blow up is just as likely as his next spectacular catch.
2016 Outlook: As the season approaches, I can see the Bucs becoming a trendy sleeper pick. Similar to Minnesota last year, the combination of what should be a good defense with a young quarterback coming off a good rookie season usually bodes well for a big improvement in a team’s win total. The difference between the 2016 Bucs and the 2015 Vikings is the Bucs have a chance for their offense to actually be what carries them. Jameis Winston will have much more freedom within the offense compared to Teddy Bridgewater, along with much better pass catchers on the outside. Assuming Winston continues to progress the way many people feel he will, the Bucs success will come down to former Falcons head coach and new defensive coordinator Mike Smith’s ability to stabilize the defense. The Bucs defense had some great performances against New Orleans, Atlanta, and Philadelphia (all three were top 12 offenses in 2015), but also struggled in games against Tennessee, Chicago and St. Louis (all 3 were bottom 12 offenses in 2015). The Bucs defense was also responsible for the birth of Kirk Cousins and the “You Like That?!” movement in D.C. after allowing Cousins to throw three second half touchdowns in a 31-30 Washington victory. I would say the Bucs should have been contracted from the league after allowing such a thing to happen, but in the spirit of a new NFL season, I will let them slide this time.
Record Prediction: Tampa Bay’s 2016 schedule starts off with two tough road games against division rival Atlanta and a very good Arizona team. If the Bucs can survive those two games, their schedule is very favorable as the season goes on. With home games against Los Angeles, Denver, Oakland and Chicago as well road games against San Diego and San Francisco throughout the season, Tampa has a chance to really put a string of wins together. I am predicting a rise in number of wins as well as number of times the cannon will be fired at Raymond James stadium this season. I have Tampa Bay going 9-7 and pushing for an NFC wild card spot. There is a real possibility of developing a fun, intense rivalry with Cam Newton and defending NFC champion Carolina.
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