We peg potential Cinderella candidates based on the progress they've made during the offseason, knowing full well that offseason champions rarely captivate us in January and February. But some teams are being built the right way, which is why we're breaking down the five trendiest Cinderella candidates to determine whether they're worth keeping an eye on in 2016.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2015 record: 6-10
2016 projected record: 7-9
Why we believe
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can have a great season and not make the playoffs, no matter how difficult that will be for fans to understand. Their future is about Jameis Winston going from promising to exceptional, and there were moments during his rookie season that led us to believe it's possible. The team sacrificed a lot to keep Winston on track, including the puzzling and aggressive move to fire coach Lovie Smith and replace him with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Winston, though saddened by the firing of Smith, is on record expressing how happy he is to keep the same playbook. That will help, but can Koetter rally a team like Smith could? People easily forget that Smith oversaw the vast improvement of a bad Buccaneers team last year. There are two schools of thought among NFL decision-makers on the move, but the encouraging one suggests Koetter has been a hidden gem for more than half a decade. Had the Falcons powerhouse not crumbled so swiftly when he was OC in Atlanta, Koetter would be a head coach somewhere else.
Why we still have questions
The Bucs' smartest offseason move might have been their acquisition of cornerback Brent Grimes. A majority of their glaring holes, though, were also filled with veteran talent in the middle of the free-agent market. Tampa Bay gave up the seventh-most points per game in the NFL last season (26.1) but might not have improved enough to bring that number under control. A departure from the reliance on Tampa-2 might help even if Smith was more versatile than he was given credit for. The team will endure the typical hiccups that come from starting a rookie cornerback and might not have the level of help on the back end they'll likely need to bandage mistakes. Two years from now, though, assuming that Noah Spence develops, the team will be something to fear.
What we need to know
- Robert Ayers had a fantastic resurgence with the New York Giants, though his market price might have been decided by sack numbers that are no longer realistic. Ayers put up nine sacks in 2015 but will be 31 before the start of the season. If nothing else, he should be a great bridge player until Spence is ready to contribute, but can he be a lead pass rusher?
- What are realistic expectations for Doug Martin? Some analysts were crazier about a long-term deal for Martin than others. Consider us undecided. Martin, a former first-round pick, will be 28 at the end of the season and is coming off a campaign with nearly 300 rushing attempts. The Buccaneers will continue to lean on him despite an offensive line that is breaking in young starters because a developing quarterback needs a good running game. How good will he continue to be if he approaches 300 carries again this year?
- Will Mike Evans turn the corner? Evans is boiling over with potential, and Winston is smart enough to know he needs the ball. Evans saw 148 targets last season, which is in the realm of Odell Beckham and quickly approaching DeAndre Hopkins territory. The Bucs are hoping for a Hopkins-like ascension as well, especially in terms of dependability.
- Will Winston keep taking shots downfield? An encouraging sign for a rookie quarterback is his ability to safely decide when to hurl the ball 20-plus yards. His completion percentage on long throws was fantastic and with no significant changes in the offense, Tampa Bay should enjoy more chunk plays. Should is the key word. The team is crossing its fingers that Winston does not take a step back.
- Can a few small upgrades aid the offensive line? The Bucs added J.R. Sweezy this offseason, which might not exactly be a player-for-player replacement for the retired Logan Mankins. The team struggled up front, at times, which is common for two rookie starters at key positions. Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith will be interesting to watch. The team is banking heavily on their development in order to keep the offense balanced.