Lovie Smith went down with the ship this offseason after failing to improve the stop unit for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Glazers undoubtedly expected him, as a defensive coach, to choreograph that side of the ball more effectively. Ultimately, the responsibility for the failure rested with Smith. However, is it somewhat contradictory that ownership decided to elevate offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in his stead. It was Smith, after all, who brought him into the organisation. That side of the ball is only functioning so effectively because the former head coach brought the right assistants on board. The addition of Mike Smith might prove a masterstroke, but he has a tough task improving a defense largely devoid of talent.
[More: Be sure to check out PFF’s ranking of all 32 NFL QB situations, offensive lines, running back units, receiving corps, secondaries, and defensive front-sevens. Catch up on all the team previews here.]
Early signs suggest Winston is a key building block
Quarterbacks: 15th in PFF’s season preview rankings
Balancing the obvious gamebreaking ability with avoiding crippling mistakes has been an issue throughout Winston’s development. Despite his status as a rookie, Winston managed to temper his aggression into an excellent season. He ranked as our 13th overall quarterback. Winston’s big arm helped him to a 42.2 adjusted completion percentage down field. Five of his 23 completions went for touchdowns, and he threw only a single interception on passes of 20-plus yards a season ago. In general, Winston could improve his consistency, but he has the potential of an elite NFL starter.
One-two punch might be the best in the business
Running Backs: Second
Doug Martin and Charles Sims finished with a combined +32.1 grade in 2015. They finished first and second overall in our running back rankings. Martin topped our grades as a pure runner, averaging 3.1 yards after contact per attempt (third). Sims, meanwhile, was the ideal third-down back, earning positive grades as a receiver, runner and in pass protection. His finished in the top 10 in both facets of the passing game, recording an 87.2 grade out of the backfield, and an 81.7 grade as a blocker. The Bucs pair of backs are amongst the best as they come, and complement each other perfectly.
(PFF Fantasy Insight: Sims doesn't even need a Martin injury to offer real fantasy value on his own. In fact, considering what it would cost to acquire each guy, Pat Thorman prefers him to Martin as a draft pick. Martin's not without value, though, forcing more missed tackles than any other running back last year.)
Freakish size makes wideouts a perfect fit
Receiving corps: Ninth
The lack of depth in Tampa’s receiving corps is a major concern, but their top two wideouts can be impossible to defend. The sheer height of Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson make them one of the more difficult starting pairs to defend in the league. Winston is not always consistent with his location, but that issue is minimized with the catch radius of standout Evans. Jackson has plenty of ability plucking the ball away from his body also. The former recorded the 16th-best receiving grade a season ago, making a number of circus catches to boost his grade. Aside from the starting receivers, however, the Bucs lack talent. Only tight ends Cameron Brate and Austin Seferian-Jenkins graded positively in the passing game among the other receiving options.
Pass-protection could undermine offensive production
Offensive line: 27th
Quite how the Bucs have been convinced Donovan Smith is an NFL left tackle is hard to comprehend. He could probably be a solid guard, but he looks awfully exposed on the edge. Smith is unlikely to be helped in that regard by the arrival of JR Sweezy, who is notoriously poor moving backward. The left side of the Bucs line (including center Joe Hawley) averaged a 42.5 overall grade last season. That trio combined to give up nine sacks, 28 hits and 73 pressures a season ago. Otherwise, the Bucs have a couple of solid right-sided players in Ali Marpet and Demar Dotson. Marpet had his fair share of struggles in pass protection, but is the quality of road-grading lineman Tampa are hoping Sweezy becomes. Dotson can be an excellent right tackle, but needs to prove his health after a year plagued by injury.
Talent in front-seven yet to produce
Gerald McCoy is obviously capable of performing at an elite level. Assuming he plays with the discipline and intensity he lacked last season, the Bucs could have a good interior. Too often McCoy sold out as a pass-rusher, opening huge chasms of running lanes (46.6 grade against the run). Besides him, however, Tampa lack talent. Clinton McDonald is decent, but would be better suited as part of a rotation. Starter Akeem Spence, meanwhile, has struggled throughout his career (66.3 grade in 2015). Robert Ayers (88.5 grade) will immediately upgrade the pass-rush department, and the Bucs will hope rookie Noah Spence makes an instant impact, but depth remains a concern. William Gholston has just 20 combined knockdowns (eight sacks, 12 hits) in 823 career rushes. The remaining defensive ends all graded negatively a season ago.
At the second level, Lavonte David took major strides in the later-part of 2015. He managed positive grades in all but one of his final eight games. The numbers are not so kind to Kwon Alexander, who managed only two positively graded games all season. Finally, free-agent import Daryl Smith has been one of the more underrated linebackers of the last decade. However, he appears on the decline after posting a career-low (46.9) grade.
Newcomers must make immediate impact in secondary
The Bucs’ defensive concerns do not end up front. Vernon Hargreaves was a much-needed injection of talent at corner, but the Florida standout might not be enough to drag the unit to an even dependable level. Brent Grimes is another veteran free-agent addition whose best games appear in the rearview mirror. To be fair, it seems they are merely fading, rather than totally disappeared, but the numbers suggest he’s on the decline. Overall, he’s allowed 13 touchdowns over the past two seasons, as well as QB ratings of 84.8 (2014) and 103.2 (2015). The situation at safety also raises a number of questions. Projected starter Bradley McDougald graded negatively overall last season, and next to him, Chris Conte is merely dependable. The Bucs are heavily reliant on a resurgence from Grimes (or former Titan Alterraun Verner), as well as major improvement from their young starters.