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NFL Offseason Review: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

By Peter Brooks in Sports
| April 13, 2017 12:00 am PDT
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Fans of the NFL are officially stuck in the limbo of the offseason: too far away from preseason football games to really start investing in next year’s team, and still close enough to last season’s football games to remember all of the twists and turns, making highlights a bore.

To fill the void, fans of many NFL teams turn their attention to other sports, fulfilling their professional sports needs using NBA basketball, NHL hockey, or the upcoming MLB baseball season.

And this separation anxiety that occurs every year at the end of the NFL season is different depending on the team. For fans of franchises that have been struggling for generations to put together a winning campaign, it’s not so hard to let go of the season and turn your attention to other things. For fans that are secure in the knowledge that their team will be competitive in the playoffs every year no matter what happens, it’s also easy to take a break for a few months and focus on other things.

But for teams who are just on the cusp of greatness, for teams who are finally starting to see their roster click, for teams who have just recently put together a few pieces of the puzzle, for teams who might just be a single offseason away from a long-awaited playoff run – fans of these teams often have a terribly difficult time tearing themselves away from the NFL despite being in the doldrums of the offseason.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one such team.

After five consecutive fourth-place finishes in the division during the 2010s that ultimately culminated in the team hitting rock bottom, winning only two games, and earning the #1 overall pick in the subsequent draft, the Buccaneers put the future of the franchise in the hands of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, and waited with baited breath to see if he could be “the guy.”

And while the opening two years of Wintson’s career have certainly had their bumps in the road, last season’s exciting campaign gave many Bucs fans the confidence that their team could very well be a contender if they continue moving in the right direction this offseason.

And it’s not just Bucs fans who should be paying attention to the changes happening in Tampa Bay. If the team does rise up to become a force to be reckoned with in the NFC, then the hammer must be

In this edition, we cruise on down to the Gulf of Mexico and turn eastward, to one of the many beautiful bays nestled into the Florida coastline, and take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Last Season: In Review

Before we go into the specifics of the 2016/17 NFL season that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers enjoyed, let’s first review a bit on the franchise itself, in order to provide some context on what the season meant for the fan base.

Along with the Seattle Seahawks, the Bucs were the first two expansion franchises begun after the NFL-AFL merger. Having joined the league in 1976, despite having more than four decades of history, the franchise still ranks among the half-dozen youngest in the league.

Compared to the other expansion franchises, the team got on its feet more quickly than any other, and in 1979 Tampa Bay became the first post-merger expansion team to win its division, only three years after the team’s founding. This period of success would include three playoff trips around 1980, though unfortunately these would turn out to be the only postseason appearances for the team in its first 20 years of existence.

At this point in the Buccaneers’ history, three key figures came on board.

First, billionaire businessman Malcolm Glazer – also the owner of the vaunted Manchester United franchise – purchased the Buccaneers in 1995, after the previous owner died. After decades of mediocrity, the team has enjoyed a resurgence under Glazer’s stewardship, and the Glazer family still runs the Buccaneers’ franchise today.

The first important thing Malcolm Glazer was able to accomplish upon acquiring the team was to gain approval for the construction of Raymond James Stadium, which has served as the Buccaneers’ venue since its completion in 1998. After the new venue opened, Tampa Bay promptly became the only team in the league to make it to the postseason each season from 1999 to 2002.

Next, Glazer was able to convince quality coaches to work for him. Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden – whom contemporary NFL fans now watch on Sunday and Monday Night Football, respectively – each had an era as head coach of the Buccaneers, the first serving from 1996 to 2001 and making it his goal to shore up the defense; the second serving from 2002 to 2008 and making it his goal to shore up the offense.

During these fourteen happy seasons, the team made it to the playoffs seven times, and captured the franchise’s first Super Bowl championship in 2002, the first season under Jon Gruden’s leadership.

But after the Super Bowl victory, the Bucs entered into a sustained period of mediocrity. The team would make it to the playoffs two out of the subsequent six seasons with Jon Gruden as head coach, but in aggregate the Bucs have won only 40% of their regular season games and have won no playoff games since their Super Bowl victory in 2002.

It was in this context that the team steadily began making changes. In 2013, after going 28-52 in five seasons under general manager Mark Dominik (35% win percentage), the team hired current GM Jason Licht, who had spent over a decade in several different NFL personnel departments including the New England Patriots’ before starting out with the Bucs in his first stint as general manager.

Among Licht’s accomplishments in his now 3-year tenure include drafting superstar wide receiver Mike Evans with his first pick in his first draft as GM, completely revamping the offensive line, drafting franchise quarterback Jameis Winston with the first pick overall in 2015, and managing to nab the defense’s unquestioned leader Kwon Alexander in the fourth round of the same draft.

After going 6–10 in Jameis Winston’s rookie season primarily because of the poor play of the defense, the Glazers made the decision to fire head coach Lovie Smith – their third firing since the end of the John Gruden era – partly because the defense-first coach had failed to foster a first-place defense, and partly to ensure that the team’s promising new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter didn’t leave the organization to take a head coaching job elsewhere.

After an successful track record coaching young quarterbacks and a year as Bucs offensive coordinator which saw both record-breaking production and excellent chemistry between Koetter and newly-minted franchise quarterback Jameis Winston, the team gave the keys of the franchise over to Dirk Koetter.

It was in this state of excited anticipation, awash in the newness of a third-year GM, a second-year quarterback, and a first-year head coach that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers embarked on their 2016/17 campaign, hoping to learn whether or not the new leadership regime would stick.

FootballFits and Starts in September

The Bucs came out of the gate hot as a pistol, opening their first game on the road against the division rival Atlanta Falcons. Jameis Winston threw for 281 yards and four touchdowns, and the Bucs jumped out to a 31-18 lead on the team that would eventually end up the Super Bowl runner-up.

Subsequently, however, with the team still struggling to find its identity, the Bucs continued their road trip by heading out to the deserts of Arizona to take on the Cardinals. After a scoreless first quarter, the Cardinals outscored the Bucs 24–0 in the second. The Bucs would end up scoring only seven points in the game, losing by 33 with Winston throwing four interceptions and losing one fumble.

Returning to Florida for the team’s home opener, the Bucs ended up losing a long, protracted battle that ended up being delayed for a full 70 minutes of real time with less than two minutes of game time remaining. With the Rams leading by 5 points, Jameis Winston led the Bucs on a long last-minute drive, coming to within five yards of the goal line, but ultimately failed to bring home the victory.

It was in this second loss of the season when one of the key storylines that would endure throughout the duration of the year came to light: The great struggles of Roberto Aguayo in the kicking game.

Roberto Aguayo was certainly headline news from the very moment he joined the team, being drafted in the second round with the #59 pick overall and almost immediately heralded as one of the worst draft decisions of all time. And it’s important to remember that no other kickers were selected in the draft, in any round. Even the unquestioned best kicker in the league, Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens, went undrafted.

In Week 3 against the Los Angeles Rams – a game that the Buccaneers lost by only 5 points – Roberto Aguayo missed both a 41-yard field goal as well as an extra point, taking a full 4 points off the board for the Bucs.

And over the course of the season, with a total of nine missed field goals and two missed extra points on the season, Roberto Aguayo was singlehandedly responsible for not only points taken off the board but also crushing momentum swings, as well requiring as a host of coaching changes in the delicate calculus of situational football from Dirk Koetter, also in his rookie season.

Tampa Bay had the lowest field goal percentage in the league last year, making only 71% of their field goal tries. Even excluding the Justin Tuckers of the world, who sit at the top of the league with a 97.4% field goal percentage and only one miss on the entire season (including going 10 for 10 on kicks longer than 50 yards), if Aguayo had been just slightly above average – say, 87% – that’s a full 12 points back on the board for the Bucs.

And with four of the team’s seven losses decided by 7 points or less, those 12 points could have potentially meant the difference between being a playoff team and being an almost-playoff team.

Aguayo wouldn’t have a major impact on the team’s Week 4 game against the Denver Broncos, but the team still lost badly at the hands of the incumbent Super Bowl champions in the second consecutive home game to be delayed by weather. The team managed only 7 points on offense against the stout Denver defense for the second time in three weeks (the only two times in the season the team would score less than 14), and put up their lowest number of total yards on offense with a measly 215.

After four games, the Bucs started out the first quarter of the season at 1–3, struggling to find some answers.

FootballWorking Out the Kinks in October

The Bucs went back on the road in Week 5, starting out the second quarter of the season with a Monday Night Football matchup against the division rival Carolina Panthers, with former head coach Jon Gruden watching from the TV commentator’s booth.

Despite having lost to the Panthers in each of their last six contests, the Bucs finally emerged victorious this time around. It’s true that Cam Newton was on the sidelines the entire game due to a concussion, and that the Bucs did only win on a last second Aguayo field goal despite Carolina backup Derek Anderson turning the ball over three times. Nonetheless, after three consecutive losses, the Bucs were willing to take a win wherever they could find one.

With the win in Carolina, the Bucs went on their bye week, and despite the fact that the break came only after five games, the team sorely needed it.

Another major storyline emerging from the early portion of the season for Tampa Bay was the slew of injuries. The biggest hit was taken initially on the defensive line: After placing defensive ends Jacquies Smith and George Johnson on injured reserve and subsequently losing fellow defensive end Robert Ayes to an ankle injury, against Denver the Bucs also lost Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and rookie defensive end Noah Spence to injury in the first half of the game against Denver.

But the offense was hit pretty badly as well: After Doug Martin was sidelined with a hamstring injury in Week 2, the team struggled to get a rhythm in the run game, with backup running backs Charles Sims and Antone Smith ending up on injured reserve along with wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Cecil Shorts.

And it’s important to note that these difficulties in the run game had come about despite the fact that the Tampa Bay offensive line had been very solid in the first five contests: The unit that had returned four of its five starters from the previous season saw the same five linemen play almost all snaps through the first five games going into the bye week, a level of continuity that goes a long way towards ensuring consistent offensive production.

Following the bye week, the Bucs were able to pull off an exciting 34–17 victory against the San Francisco 49ers on the road, pulling off a string of 27 unanswered points after going down by two touchdowns in the first quarter. But the injuries weren’t done with the team yet.

After returning home the following week – a difficult cross-country trip that undoubtedly interfered with the players’ circadian rhythms – the Buccaneers lost a hard-fought matchup against the Oakland Raiders in overtime. For those who watched the game, it was clear that the Bucs’ long list of injuries were simply thinning out the team, making it difficult for Tampa Bay to put out a full complement of players.

But it’s important to note that the team did have a little bit of good luck with injuries. The irreplaceable Mike Evans, who after the Bucs’ first 8 games led the league in touchdowns, received a concussion in the team’s Week 9 home loss against the Atlanta Falcons.

However, Evans had already caught a career-high 11 passes for 150 yards and two TDs in that Thursday Night Football game, and with the extra couple of days to rest up on the “mini-bye week” to follow, Evans was able to fully progress through the league’s concussion protocol and play without any limitations in the subsequent game against the Chicago Bears.

Managing to win two out of their four games in the second quarter of the season despite difficulties with injury, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers headed into the second half of the season with a record of 3–5, still trying to put all of the pieces together.

FootballStreaking in November, Falling Off the Wagon in December

After the 8-game mark of the season, the Buccaneers went on to rattle off five consecutive wins – the first time they had won five in a row since their Super Bowl season in 2002. This period of the season also saw the team eclipse their 7–9 record from the year before, winning their 8th game in Week 14 with three games still left to play.

Not coincidentally, the team’s win streak began the same week that star running back Doug Baldwin returned from injury, with the workhorse carrying the ball an average of 20 times per game during the month and a half of consecutive Buccaneers victories.

Also notable during the five-game win streak was the dramatic improvement in turnover ratio: After starting out the first eight games of the season giving the ball away 14 times and taking it away only 11 times, during their five-game win streak the Bucs’ defense took the ball away a total of 14 times – with at least two in each matchup – and the offense managed to limit their giveaways to only 5.

With big play production coming from the offense, a positive turnover ratio, and a defense that allowed teams an average of only 12.8 points per game, all of the elements necessary to play winning football in the NFL were present during these five games, and the Bucs consequently rattled off five wins alternating between home and away against the Bears, Chiefs, Seahawks, and Saints.

Not only did Tampa Bay gain a ton of confidence during this stretch, they also put themselves right back in the hunt for the playoffs, both for the division title as well as for a Wild Card spot. Despite the continued success of the Atlanta Falcons, with the Bucs moving up from a record of 3–5 after Week 9 to a record of 8–5 after Week 14, the team simply needed to keep winning to put the pressure on Atlanta, who also happened to be 8–5 after Week 14.

Unfortunately, the Buccaneers headed into a difficult two-game road trip that saw the wheels start to fall off, first with a 6-point loss against the Dallas Cowboys that saw Jameis Winston headbutt an opposing player, and finally with a 7-point loss against the New Orleans Saints that all but eliminated the Bucs from playoff contention.

But even after two consecutive losses, in Week 17, remarkably, the Bucs were still alive. Tampa Bay was the 2016/17 version of “that team that needs a million things to go their way in order to make the playoffs.”

As it turned out, rather than a million, the team needed only 7 different outcomes to fall in their favor in order to take the second Wild Card spot. But as any sorry gambler who has ever laid money on a 7-team teaser has undoubtedly learned the hard way, the odds of this happening are not far from a million to one.

Specifically, the Bucs’ odds in Week 17 were well below 1%, and the required outcomes included a Giants/Redskins tie and a Seahawks loss to the 49ers. Needless to say, there was no last minute magic for Tampa Bay, and despite winning their last game, making it a clean sweep on the season of their division rival Carolina Panthers, the Bucs missed the playoffs for the ninth straight season, making them tied for the fourth-longest active streak in the NFL.

Even still, Tampa Bay has nothing to be ashamed of. Despite having a sophomore quarterback and a rookie head coach, as well as a host of other challenges that were described above, the Buccaneers nonetheless managed to pull off its first winning season since 2010 and its highest placement in the division since 2007.

Tampa Bay’s Strengths and Weaknesses

In reviewing the entire story arc of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 2016/17 season, several trends came to light. First, we noted consistently strong play from the offensive line, which was not always taken advantage of by a rotating cast of injury-prone running backs.

Second, we saw generally that the team’s depth was sorely tested at multiple position groups, including most notably the defensive line and the wide receiver position.

Finally, the biggest and most obvious weakness that was illuminated simply from our casual glance at the team’s season was the rookie kicker, Roberto Aguayo, who missed nine kicks on the season and two extra points, and was responsible for the Buccaneers having the worst field goal percentage in the entire league last season.

However, while these three trends were among the most apparent, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these are the most important (or even the most accurate) when trying to get a full understanding of what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers need to address this offseason to finally make that long-awaited leap into the postseason in 2017/18.

In order to really see what needs the team must address this offseason, let’s walk through the Bucs’ roster unit by unit, on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.

FootballOffense

The Tampa Bay offense was ranked 18th in the league last season in scoring, ending up with a total of 354 points on the year (22.1 per game). The team’s production in terms of yards tracked with this exactly, as their 5542 yards gained on the season (346.4 per game) was also ranked 18th in the league.

It’s important to note that this correspondence between yards and points occurred despite the fact that the Buccaneers turned the ball over the 9th-most in the league, primarily because of Jameis Winston’s 18 interceptions.

It’s not surprising that as a sophomore player Winston would still rank among the top 5 in interceptions, but it’s intriguing to think of just how many more points the team could have scored relative to the amount of yards it gained if so many drives hadn’t ended in turnovers.

The Bucs got the majority of their offensive production – both yards and points – through the passing game, despite the fact that they demonstrated a disproportionate commitment to the run game than the pass. The team was ranked 7th in rushing attempts vs. 16th in passing attempts; at the same time, though, the Bucs were ranked 16th in passing yards vs. 24th in rushing yards, and 8th in passing touchdowns (with 29 on the season) to 29th in rushing touchdowns (with only 8).

Part of the reason why the team was so much more productive in the passing game than the running game was the style of play that featured franchise quarterback Jameis Winston as heavily as possible, with Winston twice throwing the ball more than fifty times in a game last season, and only twice throwing the ball less than 30 times in a game, for an average of 35 attempts per game.

Compared to his draft doppelganger Marcus Mariota, who averaged only 28 throws per game in his sophomore campaign, Winston was relied on much more.

And the second-year player undoubtedly showed flashes of his potential to carry a team and win a game through sheer talent and force of personality last season, but like any young player, he was also remarkably inconsistent. Too many times, Winston threw the ball up for grabs, and too few times did he get lucky with Mike Evans waiting underneath to clean things up.

And this inconsistency was especially apparent whenever Winston was throwing to anyone other than Mike Evans, as the superstar wide receiver had really no one else come anywhere close to his production last season. Though Evans received the most targets in the entire league, the fact that his production in terms of receptions and yards dipped below this illustrates the fact that Evans lacked help from the rest of the receiving corps to keep from drawing double teams.

That having been said, it’s an even more remarkable feat that the third-year Pro Bowl wide receiver ended up sixth in the league in receptions, fourth in the league in receiving yards, and tied for second in the league in touchdowns.

And the receiving corps for the Bucs got little help out of the backfield, as Tampa Bay lacked any real scat back or pass-catching running back presence last season, and also didn’t see the run game help very much to set up the pass game, despite the strong commitment mentioned above.

The biggest reason for this was likely the injury to Doug Martin, who ended up appearing in only half of the team’s games last season. While undoubtedly one of the league’s top rushers when healthy, Martin couldn’t seem to stay on the field last year.

And while Jacquizz Rodgers certainly showed flashes in his absence, averaging 4.3 yards per carry on 129 attempts in his 10 games, the simple fact that the Bucs fell from 2nd in the league in yards per rushing attempt in 2015/16 to 29th in 2016/17 illustrates just how big of a step back Tampa Bay took in the run game last season.

And it’s important to note that this dramatic decrease in production out of the run game occurred despite the fact that the Bucs’ offensive line was adequate last season. While not spectacular, and increasingly hampered by injuries as the season progressed, the Bucs were good enough on the O-line last year, particularly on the right side of the line with second-year guard Ali Marpet taking a big leap.

In sum, the Bucs could use an influx of talent at really all positions on the offense.

FootballDefense

On the defensive side of the ball, the Buccaneers ended the season ranked almost smack dab in the middle of the league in terms of scoring, with their 369 points allowed on the season (23.1 points per game) earning them the #15 rank.

It is notable that the Bucs ended up giving up more yards than points, with their 5887 yards allowed on the season (367.9 per game) good for 23rd in the league. The reason for this disparity between yards and points is likely due to the fact that the Buccaneers’ defense was ranked 3rd in the league in turnovers last season, with the 6th-most fumbles recovered (12) and the 4th-most interceptions (17).

Additionally, first-year defensive coordinator Mike Smith – former head coach of the division rival Atlanta Falcons – saw his defense perform at roughly the same level against both the run and the pass last season. The Bucs were ranked 22nd in both rush yards allowed and pass yards allowed, and differed little between run and pass in touchdowns allowed. And this was true despite the fact that the Bucs were passed on the 10th-most in the league last season, but only run on the 22nd-most.

And it all started in the trenches, with the Buccaneers’ front seven. On the defensive line, Tampa Bay was hampered by injuries throughout the entire season, forcing the team to put out the likes of Davonte Lambert (who had only one QB pressure on more than 300 snaps last season) alongside former Broncos’ first-round draft pick Robert Ayers (who had 25 combined sacks and hits over the course of the season).

In addition, paralleling the story and situation of Jameis Winston, second-year linebacker Kwon Alexander has undoubtedly solidified his position as the unquestioned leader and signal-caller for the defense, but he still has a long way to go to limit the inconsistencies that accompany being a young player in the league. Combined with fifth-year player Lavonte David, Alexander gave up the third-highest number of missed tackles of any linebacker pair, with 36 on the year.

Luckily, the front seven was bailed out by solid play by the defensive secondary – for half the season. While the Bucs’ coverage ability was pretty atrocious in the opening eight games of the year, the unit came together over the second half of the season, particularly cornerback Brent Grimes, who saw a great revival at 33 years old in his first season with the Bucs.

Another incredibly important component of the improvement in play by the Bucs secondary was the switch from Chris Conte (who had ranked 90th out of 91 safeties) to Keith Tandy (who was the highest-ranked safety in the league during the last five games of the season).

Going forward, if the Bucs can track down another cornerback or two and manage to stay healthy, the defense could be much improved.

Next Season: A Preview

In this way, when we look closely at the Buccaneers’ roster unit by unit, we find the team in roughly the state that you would expect a team to be in after having missed the playoffs for 9 consecutive seasons and winning an average of only 6 games in each of those seasons: There are a lot of holes.

While it’s clear from the Bucs’ exciting 9-win season last year that they are tending in the right direction, and while it’s also clear that the (mostly) excellent drafting and shrewd free agent acquisitions of third-year general manager Jason Licht is primarily responsible, rebuilding a team’s roster from the ground up is not something that can be done overnight.

For this reason, we were a little surprised to see that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Super Bowl odds are so low.

For reference, the New England Patriots are currently getting the lowest odds at +400. The rest of the field opens up at +1000 with the perennial offseason favorites, including the Dallas Cowboys, the Green Bay Packers, and the Seattle Seahawks. The fringe playoff contenders, including the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints, form the back end of the range of competitive odds at +6600.

Inside of this field, the Buccaneers currently sit at +4000, ahead of such teams as the Miami Dolphins, the Washington Redskins, and the Philadelphia Eagles.

While of course the odds-makers’ primary motivation is to set a line that incentivizes an equal number of gamblers to lay money on both possible outcomes, we’re not yet convinced that the Buccaneers have a better shot than the three teams listed above to compete in a Super Bowl next season.

In order to more conclusively determine our predictions for the 2017/18 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, let’s go through the roster moves that the team has made so far this offseason, as well as the roster moves that we expect out of the team for the remainder of the offseason, in order to forecast whether or not we expect to see significant improvement purely based on the players the team puts out on the field.

Then, using a combination of scheduling factors and advanced statistics, we’ll triangulate our final prediction for what we can expect out of Tampa Bay next year.

FootballRoster Moves

Before we dive into the roster moves made by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers so far this offseason, we first want to provide some context on the composition of the Tampa Bay front office, in order to have a better idea of what sorts of moves would be reasonable.

As we mentioned above, when current general manager Jason Licht took over the team in 2013, he was inheriting a situation that had very nearly evolved into a tradition of sustained mediocrity. Former GM Mark Dominik was not only blamed for the teams 35% win percentage during his five-year tenure, but he was also loathed for the way in which he had shackled the team to mediocre quarterback Josh Freeman.

(Fittingly, after starting for the Bucs for four seasons, Freeman’s turbulent release from the team mid-season in 2013 was followed by only two additional NFL starts over the next three seasons, and the 27-year old quarterback ultimately spent all of 2016/17 in free agency.)

After drafting Mike Evans with his first pick in his first draft as the Buccaneers’ general manager and subsequently nabbing both Jameis Winston with the first pick overall in the following year’s draft and Kwon Alexander in the fourth round of that same draft, Licht has certainly gone a long way towards earning the trust of the fan base in his ability to manage the team’s draft resources.

However, Jason Licht still hasn’t completely earned the full trust of the fan base, and with good reason.

Of course, the selection of placekicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft hurt his credibility in a major way, as the pick still has the potential to be the biggest draft bust in NFL history. But for this being the 46-year old’s first go-round as a GM in the NFL, he has made comparatively few unforced errors, especially considering the number of home runs he has hit.

And it hasn’t just been in the draft, either. When Dough Martin was injured last year, fans were blessed to have the recently acquired Jacquizz Rodgers on the team, recently acquired from the Chicago Bears and originally a member of the division rival Atlanta Falcons. Additionally, Licht’s acquisition of 6-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins in 2013 to anchor an entirely new offensive line unit has proved to be sage.

But as we mentioned above, it’s important to remember that despite the fact that the Buccaneers had an excellent season last year and were among the teams in the playoff hunt and receiving media buzz down the stretch, they are still less than two calendar years removed from making the #1 overall selection 2015 NFL Draft, a distinction reserved for the worst team in the league.

A team doesn’t win two games and earn the #1 overall pick in the draft by being only one or two pieces away from the playoffs: They earn that pick by being utterly incapable of putting together any sort of consistent production on any unit. They earn that pick from having holes on all levels of the organization, from management to coaches to players.

So while we believe that the last few years have seen the arrival of several important pieces – including GM Jason Licht, offensive coordinator turned head coach Dirk Koetter, defensive coordinator Mike Smith, as well as promising draftees Mike Evans, Jameis Winston, Kwon Alexander, and others – ultimately it’s crucially important to remember that going from the worst team in the league to a playoff contender is not something that happens overnight.

Nonetheless, the Bucs have a real opportunity this offseason to take another step forward, and the track record of Jason Licht over the last three offseasons has certainly given fans confidence that this is exactly what he will try to do.

In this context, the Buccaneers entered into the start of the 2017 league year with the fifth-most cap space in the league, with roughly $58 million to play with. The team also had an even seven draft picks to look forward to – one in each round – seeming putting them in an excellent position to improve the roster dramatically.

Unfortunately, however, one of the biggest reasons why the team had so much cap room was because they also had a full 24 players set to become free agents at the beginning of the league year, one of the largest totals of any team in the league. And many of these players were significant contributors: 14 of the 24 players set to become free agents had played at least 10 snaps per game over the course of the season; 7 of these 14 had played at least 25 snaps per game.

Starting off with this offseason position, as of the time of this writing, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have made the following roster moves, in addition to the customary practice squad maintenance that all teams undergo soon after the season ends.

The Bucs have re-signed the following key players: center Joe Hawley, safety Chris Conte, edge defender William Gholston, running back Jacquizz Rodgers, punter Bryan Anger, and cornerback Josh Robinson.

The team also saw several of its players leave in free agency, including safety Bradley McDougald, who went to join the Legion of Boom in Seattle, wide receiver Russell Shepard, who signed with the division rival Carolina Panthers, defensive lineman Akeem Spence, who was signed by the Detroit Lions, backup quarterback Mike Glennon, who is seeking out a starting opportunity with the Chicago Bears, and finally offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus, who retired from the game at age 33.

As for free agent acquisitions, the team has brought in comparatively few players, signing only four total players from other teams thus far in free agency, two of whom are specialists (long snapper Garrison Sanborn, from the Bills, and placekicker Nick Folk, from the Jets).

But what the Bucs lacked in number of acquisitions they made up for in impact, as the two other players brought in were none other than wide receiver DeSean Jackson, originally of the Philadelphia Eagles but acquired from the Washington Redskins, and defensive lineman Chris Baker, the 29-year old phenome also acquired from the Redskins.

In evaluating the moves made so far this offseason by Jason Licht, we first need to give praise for the two splash moves – DeSean Jackson and Chris Baker. Both fill a direct need, both provide veteran leadership for young units, and both should immediately improve the team.

Paradoxically, one of the most promising moves we have seen from Licht this offseason was the acquisition of veteran kicker Nick Folk – not because of what it means for the team, but instead because of what it means for Licht.

The context here is that in last year’s draft, Licht used a second-round pick on a kicker, Roberto Aguayo, despite the fact that no other kickers were drafted in any round (and so, hypothetically, the team could have acquired Aguayo in a much later round, as no team demonstrated a particularly strong need at the position).

Given the fact that the 21-year old Aguayo missed nine kicks on the year, both taking points off the board directly as well as putting first-year head coach Dirk Koetter into unnecessarily difficult game management situations, the selection has the potential to go down in history as one of the worst draft busts in NFL history.

But it’s also important to note that the opposite could still be true. Placekicking is a mental thing, much like a golf swing, and the young Aguayo could certainly develop into an excellent player as he accumulates NFL experience and masters his craft. While this still wouldn’t justify selecting him in the 2nd round, as there isn’t really an appreciable difference between an excellent kicker and an average kicker in today’s NFL, the point we are trying to make is that Roberto Aguayo could quite conceivably win the starting spot on the Buccaneers’ roster in training camp.

This is why we say that the acquisition of 32-year old Nick Folk could mean nothing for the team, practically speaking. Competition in training camp amongst specialists is very common, and many teams in the league will bring in other kickers or punters simply to improve the performance of their own guy.

But more importantly for us, bringing in Folk means that Jason Licht has owned just how terrible a mistake it was to draft Roberto Aguayo in the first place, and we believe that this indicates a great deal of maturity from the 46-year old general manager.

If Licht had gone the opposite direction, stubbornly holding to the idea that he was justified in drafting Aguayo, that he knows best, and that no one has the right to challenge his authority as the team’s player acquisition manager, that degree of prideful stupidity would certainly be a cause for concern. This approach is poisonous in a front office, and can lead to terrible contracts that sink franchises for years.

But as Bucs fans continue to evaluate their young GM, we believe that the Nick Folk acquisition is a very promising sign.

And after all of these transactions, as of the time of this writing, the Buccaneers still retain the 8th-most cap space in the league, with nearly $30 million remaining, despite being in the top half of the league in terms of number of players under contract, with 71.

We believe that it’s entirely possible that the Bucs could be quiet for the remainder of free agency, as general manager Jason Licht is probably more worried about the draft and about his own players than about free agency.

Roster depth is often built from the bottom up, so while Bucs fans no doubt would like to see more splash free agent signings that directly address some specific position of need, in the long run the team will be better off if instead the front office slowly and steadily finds those key role players, fishes for those small-mouth contributors that no one has ever heard of, and that you rarely notice, and places them under contract.

In sum, while the Buccaneers may still be more than a few pieces away, they are undoubtedly headed in the right direction.

FootballPredictions for 2017/18

When looking at the roster that we can expect to see out of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the beginning of next season, we found that the Super Bowl odds for the team could indeed be just a little bit too high at this point, as the team still has roughly a dozen free agents left to re-sign and various positions to continue to build through the draft.

This state of flux certainly makes it difficult for us to forecast what the team’s future holds in 2017/18, particularly considering that the NFL Draft has yet to take place.

However, the roster movement a team undergoes in the offseason is only one factor that clues us into the season that we can expect out of them the following season. In addition, we are able – even at this early point in the offseason – to utilize some advanced statistics and scheduling factors in order to make an accurate prediction.

The first important statistical factor to consider in predicting a team’s future performance is called Pythagorean expectation.

Pythagorean expectation is a statistical formula originally developed by sabermetric wizard Bill James for use in baseball; it was later modified for the NFL by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The idea behind Pythagorean expectation is to use advanced statistical modeling to more accurately assess a team’s past performance, in the hopes of better predicting their future performance.

Specifically, Pythagorean expectation is a modified version of the original Pythagorean theorem that we all learned back in algebra class, used to deduce the length of one side of a right triangle based on knowledge of the other two sides.

But the NFL’s Pythagorean theorem doesn’t deal with triangles and lengths: Instead the numbers that are manipulated in the theorem are the amount of points scored and the amount of points allowed by a particular team. By plugging these points totals into the formula, the number that ultimately gets spit out is an expected win percentage based purely on points.

The idea behind this is that in the NFL, not all wins should be valued the same amount. For example, when the 2016/17 Indianapolis Colts lost 7–28 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s a pretty terrible loss. That loss should certainly mean more than when the same Colts lose 23 to 26 in overtime in Houston. And yet, at the end of the season, all we remember is that the Colts were 8–8, with both of these two losses receiving the exact same weight in the loss column.

By the same token, when the 2016/17 Buffalo Bills beat the Cincinnati Bengals 16–12, even though there’s a W on the win column, this shouldn’t impress anyone. However, when those same Bills beat the San Francisco 49ers 45–16, that same lone W should go a whole lot further to tip us off that the Bills could be legitimate contenders. Once again, though, at the end of the season, the Bills are just 7–9.

In this way, utilizing Pythagorean expectation gives us a way to evaluate a team’s performance over the course of a season using statistics that truly capture not just whether a team won or lost games, but how well they won or lost games. We learn more than just how many games a team won; we learn how many games that team should have won.

In the case of the 2016/17 Buccaneers, the news is not so good. According to Pythagorean Expectation, Tampa Bay should have won exactly 7.6 games, which we will generously round up to 8 on account of Roberto Aguayo’s missed field goals, meaning that the team over-performed by a whole game.

And it’s crucially important to put this over-performance in the context of the second piece of information that clues us in to how well the Buccaneers will play next season, and that is the schedule that Tampa Bay played over the course of the 2016/17 regular season.

According to the meticulously calculated “DVOA” value, assembled by the stat gurus at Football Outsiders and accounting for every single play of every game individually, the Buccaneers played the 7th-most difficult schedule in the entire league in 2016/17, putting their one game over-performance in a slightly softer light.

And helpfully, despite the fact that the week-by-week NFL schedule won’t be released until mid-April, the fact that we already know the Buccaneers’ opponents for next season gives us an opportunity to compare the schedule they had last season to the schedule they will have next season, in order to determine whether or not we would expect them to win more or fewer games based on strength of schedule.

The reason we can know this is because every year, the 16-game schedule for each NFL team is composed of the following games: 6 games against division opponents (3 at home, 3 away); four games against teams from a single division within the same conference; four games against teams from a single division within the opposite conference; and finally two games against opponents within the same conference that finished in the same position in their division.

For the Buccaneers, this means the following:

  • 3 home games against the Panthers, the Saints, and the Falcons
  • 3 road games against the Panthers, the Saints, and the Falcons
  • 4 games against the NFC North: the Bears (home), the Lions (home), the Packers (away), and the Vikings (away)
  • 4 games against the AFC East: the Patriots (home), the Jets (home), the Bills (away), and the Dolphins (away)
  • 2 games against other second-place finishers in the NFC: the Giants (home), and the Cardinals (away)

In order to determine how difficult this slate of opponents really is, we can consider each team’s performance in 2016/17 in order to get a proxy of how well we think they will do in 2017/18, and how this aggregated performance compares to the opponents of other teams.

Based on the number of games that the Buccaneers’ 2017/18 opponents won in 2016/17, Tampa Bay will have the 17th-easiest schedule in the league next year. When we look at combined point differential, which as we saw about with Pythagorean Expectation is a more accurate representation of a team’s performance, the Bucs have the 12th-easiest schedule in the league next season.

So, in summary, we now have enough information to make an accurate prediction of what we can expect to see out of Tampa Bay next season:

  • Due to the fact that the team should have won 8 games last season despite the fact that in reality it won 9 games, we start them out at 8 wins next season.
  • Because the Bucs faced the 7th-most difficult schedule in the league last season, and next year their schedule is of an average difficulty, we’re inclined to give them

    another win.

  • Considering the fact that the team had a first-year head coach and defensive coordinator, as well as a rookie kicker and sophomore quarterback, we’re inclined to believe that the

    entire operation gets more efficient next year, pushing the Bucs towards an even higher record.

  • Finally, given the fact that the Bucs’ offseason acquisitions have been positive, but their roster is still very incomplete and in a state of flux, we’re inclined to shy away a bit

    from this optimism.

Predicted regular season record for the 2017/18 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 9–7.

Conclusion: The Story of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Since joining the league along with the Seattle Seahawks in the first crop of expansion teams post-NFL-AFL merger, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ franchise has endured two sustained periods of mediocrity. The first was broken when the team was acquired by the Glazer family, which was followed by a new stadium, two future-Hall of Fame coaches, seven postseason appearances, and a Super Bowl, all in the span of a decade.

Subsequently, however, the Super Bowl win in 2002 was followed by a second period of mediocrity, which the Buccaneers are only recently breaking out of. The steady hand of 3-year general manager Jason Licht has steadily improved the team, the drafting of young superstar players Mike Evans, Jameis Winston, and Kwon Alexander has given the team an identity, and Dirk Koetter appears to be the leader of the future after a very positive season as offensive coordinator and another as head coach.

In this rush of newness, last season the team had both very high highs, like an exciting 5-game win streak late in the year, as well as very low lows, including losing five out of seven games early on. The Bucs’ lack of depth was exposed across various different units, which is understandable for a team that won two games only three seasons ago, earning them the first overall pick in the draft.

But with strong acquisitions already this offseason like wide receiver DeSean Jackson and defensive lineman Chris Baker, and the prospect of another good draft from Licht, the Buccaneers should be poised to take another step forward next season. And they’ll be helped with an easier schedule, too.

Ultimately, though, rebuilding a franchise is a slow process, and we think it might take another year or two before Tampa Bay is ready for postseason football.

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