The Bucs took major strides on offense with rookie QB Jameis Winston, a resurgent Doug Martin and a dominant duo of wide receivers. Dirk Koetter was rewarded for developing an outstanding group of playmakers with a promotion to head coach, at the expense of Lovie Smith. Smith’s demise was in large part down to an underperforming defense, which featured only three starters with positive grades in 2015. Koetter opted to repay the favour Mike Smith paid him in Atlanta, hiring his former boss to run the stop unit. Going into the offseason, GM Jason Licht needed to find help in the trenches on both sides of the ball, as well as support for the secondary.
Offseason grade: C+
Free agency and trades
New arrivals: G JR Sweezy, DE Robert Ayers, CB Brent Grimes, LB Daryl Smith, CB Josh Robinson, P Bryan AngerD
Re-signings: HB Doug Martin, S Chris Conte, S Keith Tandy, S Bradley McDougald, FB Jovorskie Lane, WR Russell Shepard
Departures: CB Sterling Moore, HB Bobby Rainey, LB Bruce Carter, G Logan Mankins (ret), DT Da’Quan Bowers, LB Danny Lansanah, DT Henry Melton, DE Larry English, DT Tony McDaniel, CB Mike Jenkins, K Connor Barth, S Kimario McFadden
The Bucs’ prioritized replacing Logan Mankins in free agency, signing JR Sweezy to a five-year $32.5 million contract. Sweezy is a receiving a significant chunk of change up front, counting $9.5 million against the cap in the first year. The following four years are much more reasonable, dropping to an average of $5.75 million per season, but the Bucs are banking on a dramatic improvement in Sweezy’s play to make the investment worthwhile. Sweezy ranked 66th amongst guards in 2016. As much as his power enables him to make highlight reel blocks, Sweezy’s negative plays outweigh the occasional pancake. He gave up 32 combined pressures (eight knockdowns), finishing with a poor 47.7 pass protection grade. Considering Donovan Smith’s struggles on the perimeter of the line as a rookie (32.5 grade), it might have been more prudent to kick him inside and target a tackle.
In the defensive trenches, the Bucs have suffered from missing on pass rushers in the draft. Both defensive ends drafted back-to-back in the first two rounds in 2011 are now off the roster after Da’Quan Bowers’ contract expired. Tampa Bay turned to free agency to address the position, signing Robert Ayers to a contract worth only $19 million over three years, with $11.5 million guaranteed. At that price, Ayers is a bargain. He’s developed into a productive pass rusher, recording an 87.4 grade in that facet of play. Ayers posted 48 combined pressures (23 knockdowns), ranking eighth overall amongst defensive ends.
The Bucs’ secondary also needed an infusion of talent. Considering Brent Grimes put in an average 2015 — in which he gave up six touchdowns and a 103.2 QB rating when targeted — he might not be the solution. The Bucs are relying on a return to the form he showed from 2010-2013. Similarly, while Daryl Smith has had an impressive 12 year-career, he appears on the decline after a poor 2015 (46.9 overall grade, 71st).
In terms of retentions, keeping star running back Doug Martin (87.8 overall grade) was the priority. He received a significant amount of guaranteed money ($15 million), but is inexpensive at $8 million per year for five years. Martin ranked first amongst running backs in pure rushing grade, while teammate Charles Sims ranked first when also considering passing game contributions. Also-retained Chris Conte is a serviceable safety, but misses too many tackles and has graded negatively three years on the bounce.
2016 NFL draft
Round 1 (pick No.11) Vernon Hargeaves, CB, Florida
Round 2 (pick No. 39) Noah Spence, DE, Eastern Kentucky
Round 2 (from KC, No. 59) Roberto Aguayo, K, FSU
Round 4 (pick No. 108) Ryan Smith, CB, NC Central
Round 5 (pick No. 148) Caleb Benenoch, OT, UCLA
Round 6 (pick No. 183) Devante Bond, OLB, Oklahoma
Round 6 (pick No. 197) Dan Vitale, FB, Northwestern
Modest additions in free agency to the defensive line and secondary were followed up with the top two picks in the 2016 NFL draft. Vernon Hargeaves regressed a little as a junior, but has impressive ball skills and versatility to line up in any scheme. The only major concern is a propensity to be overly aggressive at times. Second-round pick Noah Spence proved his talent at the senior bowl, almost doubling his nearest competitor with seven combined pressures. Hargeaves and Spence were good value at positions of need, and both could start year one.
The five remaining picks were significantly less impressive. Trading up for a kicker in the second round is crazy. There is risk with every draft pick, including kickers. Roberto Aguayo may have bettered Alex Henery’s NCAA accuracy record, but the former third-round pick of the Eagles offers a stark reminder that accuracy in college does not always translate. Aguayo’s leg is also far from outstanding, missing five of ten attempted from 40+ yards. Even if he is a success, how valuable is the league’s top kicker?
Devante Bond is the most intriguing late-round pick. He was productive in 2015, ranking 20th amongst OLBs, and might be more suited to a standup role in the 4-3.
Hargreaves and Grimes join Alterraun Verner and Jonathan Banks in providing the Bucs with a number of options at corner in 2016. Verner is a solid candidate for a comeback, after struggling in the Bucs’ Tampa-2, along with Jonathan Banks’ who might also be better suited to a new scheme. The linebacker position will likely remain an issue, but the defensive line will likely be much improved with the additions of Ayers and Spence. The continuity with Koetter at the helm should ensure the offense hits the ground running. The Bucs’ skill position players are incredibly exciting considering their youth, especially the trio of Jameis Winston, Mike Evans and Doug Martin. Keep an eye on Austin Seferian-Jenkins too, he finished the year with four straight positively graded games. In contrast, the offensive line is a concern, especially in pass protection. Replacing Logan Mankins with JR Sweezy is a downgrade, and Donovan Smith will likely continue to be a problem at left tackle. The Bucs' mixed offseason earned them a C+ grade.