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State of the Franchise: Bucs, Jameis Winston face pivotal season

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Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Buccaneers organization, Bucs fans around the world and those of you who just wanted to rock a Kangol hat:

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a historic franchise. One that has seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The Buccaneers were an organization that went winless in their first 26 games in their franchise history, but found a way to fight back and, 25 years later, won the Super Bowl. The highest point you can reach in our great game.

And as we gather here today, the Buccaneers are once again striving to reach the pinnacle that has eluded them since Super Bowl XXXVII. There is a hope on the horizon. While the Bucs have struggled to find their footing in recent years, there is reason to believe they are taking a step in the right direction.

How the Bucs got here

Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018:

The high:

-- Fitzmagic! Ryan Fitzpatrick was clearly the highlight of the season. Fitzpatrick passed for 417 yards and four touchdowns as he carried a near-perfect passer rating in a Week 1 upset at New Orleans, with Jameis Winston serving a suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. The good times continued the following week, when Fitzpatrick threw for 402 yards and four touchdowns in a win over the defending Super Bowl champions. What a time to be alive!

The low:

-- Fitztragic! This ended up like those "secrets of the magician exposed" show. Fitzpatrick threw three interceptions in a loss to the Steelers to drop to 2-1. And you thought, all right. These things will happen. So the Bucs rolled with Fitzpatrick one more time, this time at Chicago. The Bears won, 48-10, and Tampa Bay never recovered.

2019 VIPs

Head coach: Bruce Arians. An absolute favorite around the league. But he's more than Kangol hats and witty quips; the dude is a great football coach. And for the sake of full disclosure, I'll say I'm still a little miffed the Bears passed on him in 2013, after he came off a stint as the NFL Coach of the Year while filling in for Chuck Pagano with the Indianapolis Colts. Guess he didn't have the credentials. Arians went on to coach in Arizona for five years, where he made two playoff appearances, finished below .500 only once (2016) and again, garnered Coach of the Year honors in 2014. He retired after the team's injury-riddled 2017 season, but it didn't seem permanent. Like one of those bands going through a reunion tour, and you're like, "Sure, we'll you next summer." I always thought we'd see him again on the field dialing up plays with that "no risk it, no biscuit" flair.

And sure enough, after one year in the booth, Arians is back on the sidelines. Not that you can blame him. Arians had to wait a coaching eternity before he got his shot in 2012. And that only came about because of Chuck Pagano's illness. So why not take another crack at it? Arians told reporters that the keys to winning in this league are good ownership, general manager and coach. And if you put that together with a good quarterback, that's a great start. Speaking of which ...

Quarterback: Jameis Winston. He's coming off a tough season. His 2018 began with a three-game suspension, and during that time, he watched Fitzpatrick become the toast of the NFL.  Returning as a backup, Winston was thrown into the fire after Fitzmagic fizzed in Chicago. Winston started nine games, throwing for 2,992 and 19 touchdowns, but he did have 14 interceptions. Winston is talented, and he's not afraid to take chances (as evidenced by those picks), but it has to be maddeningly frustrating for Buccaneers fans, because five years into his NFL career, we still don't know what or who Winston is.

But Arians must feel good enough about it if this is who he is hitching his comeback tour to. That has to give you some hope if you're a Bucs fan. So either this is the feel-good story of the year, where Arians finds a way to get the most out of Winston's as-yet-untapped potential, or the Bucs are going to be drafting a quarterback in the first round next season. At least you'll have your answer.

Projected 2019 MVP: Winston. You know me. I won't typically take the easy way out on this. But to me, the entire season comes down to Winston. If he has a stellar season, the Bucs will go to the playoffs. I guess you could say that for a lot of NFL quarterbacks, but it feels weightier with Winston.

2019 breakout star: O.J. Howard, tight end. Coach Arians has said in the past that his tight ends are primarily used to block, and his receivers will catch the ball. Which is great, until you have a tight end like Howard, and then your attitude is certainly going to change. It's like how you think fanny packs look ridiculous. And then you use one, and you're like, "This might be the greatest invention of my generation. Why did I besmirch these things for so long?" And remember, Larry Fitzgerald had his greatest success with Arians when he was kicked into the slot. Howard has a lot of similarities, and if Howard is used in the slot, he could be on the verge of a breakout. So keep an eye on this development as we head into training camp during the summer.

But not at the expense of: Mike Evans. Oh, man, I don't know how a player can be so good but still be one of the most underappreciated players in the NFL. But here we are. He will likely continue to be awesome.

New face to know: Ndamukong Suh, defensive tackle. The Bucs had the third overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and just missed out on Suh. Instead, they drafted Gerald McCoy in that spot. Well, now time is a flat circle (or something), because Suh, a free-agent signee, is replacing McCoy, who was released in May. Some might have seen this as a wash, but Suh did hold a higher Pro Football Focus grade last year playing alongside Aaron Donald. Suh will slide in alongside Vita Vea, who got a mention recently in Marc Sessler's All-Under-25 Team.

Another new face to know: Devin White, linebacker. The Bucs had their pick of potential game-changers during the 2019 NFL Draft and selected White. He brings instant credibility to the middle of the defense and can be the kind of guy who will be a Pro Bowler for the next decade. Early reports have him as a vocal leader already, which is needed, since the Bucs finished 27th in total defense last year. The Bucs also spent draft capital on CBs Sean Bunting and Jamel Dean. The Bucs struggled mightily stopping the pass last year, so doubling down on corners makes sense. They also added safety Mike Edwards, giving them four picks in the top 100.

The 2019 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: MEDIUM. You know, teams don't want to lose. But at the same time, the Bucs are playing in the NFC South, one of the toughest divisions in the NFL (if not the toughest), and what you really want out of this season is to get an answer on your quarterback and to win some games.

Will the Bucs be able to ...

Run the football? Ronald Jones was a huge disappointment as a rookie in 2018. Like biting into what you think is a chocolate chip cookie, only to realize it's raisin disappointment. I thought the guy could be the next Jamaal Charles. Missed on that one so far. But here is my thing. The Bucs didn't draft a running back this year. So perhaps the Bucs are big believers still in Jones and Peyton Barber. I mean, if Arians can turn Jones into Tampa's version of David Johnson, I'm going to go ahead and get Arians a gold Kangol for the Hall of Fame.

Finally solve their kicking woes? Remember when the Bucs drafted a kicker with their second-round pick in 2016? What was his name? Oh yes, Roberto Aguayo. He didn't play last year after being waived by the Chargers. And wait, I'm not selling that hard enough. The Bucs traded their third-round pick to get back into the second round to take Aguayo. I only mention this because the Bucs drafted a kicker this year. But don't worry, it was just via a fifth-round pick. And the man of the hour is former Utah Ute Matt Gay. Arians was quick to put Gay to the test in OTAs. If Gay made a 50-yard kick at the end of OTAs, practice was canceled. The good news for Bucs fans? Practice was canceled. The kid nailed it.

Find somebody to step in for DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries? Arians said Chris Godwin will be close to a 100-catch guy. Godwin has also been learning how to play the slot this season, so there should be a lot of opportunity for him. Another name I'm going to throw out for you to keep an eye on will be rookie Scott Miller.

Three key dates:

-- Week 2 at the Panthers. Thursday night game. This feels like one of those games where either Winston goes out there and throws like six touchdowns, or you're sending a late-night text to Fitzpatrick to see if he's really super happy in Miami.

-- Week 8 at the Titans. Here's my thing. You go through a stretch where you play the Rams, Saints and Panthers in London. You take the bye week. You can't have any letdown after the bye in Tennessee. That would be disturbing. The Bucs could go 0-3 in those games, but the real disappointment would be losing to the Titans.

-- Week 10 vs. the Cardinals. REVENGE! I mean, I don't know for who, because it was Arians who retired, after all. And it's not like Kliff Kingsbury has any beef with Arians.

One storyline people are overlooking: The Bucs have a pretty good coaching staff. That's one thing that kind of gets overlooked when you talk about Arians. He's obviously the headliner and the guy everybody is talking about. But his staff is great. Todd Bowles turned down overtures from the Chicago Bears (THE FREAKING BEARS AND THAT DEFENSE) to stay loyal to Arians and join him in Tampa. Byron Leftwich is also joining him after getting a brief shot at calling plays in Arizona. And we also have Tom Moore on the staff. Tom Freaking Moore. The guy coached Lynn Swann and John Stallworth when he served as receivers coach for the Steelers from 1977 to 1982. I know a lot of you kids have never heard of either one of those players, but look them up. They were quite good.

One storyline people are overthinking: Arians' age. I've alluded to it in this post, and I've mentioned this in other parts of this series. But the NFL is getting younger. That said, the Bucs made a smart move by getting a proven winner. I mean, he's just 66. The only coaches older are Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll. So let me ask you this question: With all of these young coaches now coming into the league, would you rather be associated with them (and believe me, they are fun) or Belichick and Carroll? Just asking.

For 2019 to be a successful season, the Bucs MUST ...

-- Win eight games. You don't want to sell your team short of winning the Super Bowl. But breaking even in this highly competitive division would be a huge bonus.

-- Keep Winston's interceptions down. The further development of Winston would also be a bonus. If you come out of this season knowing that Winston is the quarterback of the present and future, you have to consider that a success.

-- Wear the creamsicles at least once. I love them. But in small doses. It's like Candy Corn. It's fun once in a while. I just don't want it every day.

In closing

One of my friends recently asked me if I had to root for one of our divisional rivals, who would I choose? I said Bucs, as long as it was 1982. There are a lot of cool things happening in Tampa. (Including me being at the Tampa Improv on July 10.) But there really is a lot to be excited about for the Buccaneers. Come aboard. (Wow, that was bad. I'll leave.)

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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