Wondering if and how your NFL team can make the playoffs in the coming season? Adam Rank and Marc Sessler have you covered in this ongoing series, as they provide five reasons why each of the league's 32 teams will make an appearance in the 2018 postseason. Today, Rank examines the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers are going to the Super Bowl. Is something that I wrote about last year. And SPOILER ALERT: That didn't quite go as planned. (If you check the dateline on that story, you'll notice it was published before the team appeared on "Hard Knocks," so it's not like I was swayed by the footage in the HBO documentary like a lot of people can be. Wait, can we change the publish date so I can pretend I was, though? And not have to just dwell on the knowledge that I foolishly bought into the Bucs pre-"Hard Knocks?" My editor says no. Fine. For what it's worth, Dick Vitale thought I was going to be right.)
1) Jameis Winston
Winston was voted the MVP of "Hard Knocks" last year by our own Dan Hanzus. The quarterback built a nice buzz around himself because of his unmistakable charisma. It was kind of like the way Cuba Gooding Jr. ended up stealing the show in "Jerry Maguire." He was a breakout star -- believe he won an Oscar and everything. And life looked pretty good. And then Gooding Jr. appeared in "Snow Dogs," "Boat Trip" and some movie with Robert De Niro where he played a Navy diver, and things were never the same. Similarly, Winston made a questionable decision when, during a pregame hype session in New Orleans, he started talking about eating the W, and his season never recovered. It was his "Daddy Day Camp," if you will.
Now, to be clear, I'm not blaming last year's 5-11 Bucs disappointment on Winston and Winston alone. No, sir. In Year 3, Winston posted career highs in completion percentage (63.8), yards per attempt (7.9), yards per game (269.5) and passer rating (92.2). And as the NFL evolves into a short-passing league, Winston is like a throwback who will push the ball downfield. He averages 10.62 air yards per pass, and he picked up a first down on more than 40 percent of his throws. He's one of the best passers on third down. But if he is on a strict diet of Ws, then he went hungry for most of last year.
That is going to change this season, because Winston's going to have more help around him.
2) Mike Evans and Cameron Brate
Before we start with what's new, we need to at least address the moves the Bucs made to lock up Evans and Brate. Evans signed a five-year, $82.5 million extension on March 9; three days later, Brate inked a six-year, $41 million pact. The duo received 44.5 percent of the Bucs' red-zone targets in 2017 and combined for 11 touchdowns. So keeping both of these guys in-house was a huge step.
The Evans decision was a no-brainer. Like you get offered a free upgrade to sweet potato fries, you make that move. But it was refreshing to see the Bucs throw that money at Brate. Many might have assumed the team would probably start to focus on O.J. Howard, who was gifted to them in last year's draft. And Howard has a lot of potential. But you see more and more teams putting value into having a pair of quality tight ends. That's a smart move.
3) Ronald Jones
Saquon Barkley is the most-talked-about rookie running back. And he should be. But Jones is just as important to his team's development. Tampa Bay hasn't had a lot of consistency at the position in recent years. The Bucs haven't had a running back break a 50-yard run since 2015. Jones will change all of that. He topped more than 100 rushing yards in 13 of his last 19 games at USC, eclipsing 140 yards in seven of those contests. His name dots the record books at USC, and if I'm not mistaken, the Trojans have a pretty nice stable of backs in their proud history. Remember Ricky Bell, the prolific USC RB who went No. 1 overall in 1977 to these same Tampa Bay Buccaneers?
Jones, who was taken 38th overall in April, is already expected to be a three-down back for the Bucs. That might surprise some, because he compiled just 40 targets in college, but converted on 32 of them. He had a pretty sick catch-and-run against Texas, which, no doubt, helped convince Tampa he can be stellar out of the backfield:
I just never got the sense USC did enough with him. Like, we're going to see Sam Darnold and Jones flourish in the NFL and wonder why the Trojans didn't win more games -- as if they were coached by Les Miles or something.
4) The armada on defense
My daughter loves Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. She always cackles at the scene with the pirate being chased by the village woman wielding a rolling pin. And it hits me: That is a pretty good metaphor for Tampa Bay's last-ranked defense in 2017. The Bucs should've been the ones pillaging; instead, they were being chased around. The Bucs allowed 5.98 yards per play last year, the most bloated figure in the league. That will not be the case in 2018.
GM Jason Licht traded down in Round 1 for extra picks and still wound up nabbing Vita Vea -- the kind of anchor (oh yeah, I'm using all of the pirate puns) who should help the run defense. In Round 2, Licht picked a pair of corners who could immediately start. All of this after he signed Vinny Curry, Mitch Unrein and Beau Allen, and traded for Jason Pierre-Paul, the kind of headliner who will add the final panache to this defense. Like when Disney brought in John Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. (I told you, I'm all in here.) The most important thing JPP should add is a presence on the field. Like, actually being on the field. The Bucs lost a lot of players on defense to injury last year, while JPP rarely left the field of play. I hate to use this cliche (not enough to keep me from doing it), but sometimes your best ability is your availability. That was worse than the pirate puns. I'll go walk the plank.
5) Kicking -- it can't be that bad, right?
A number of my fantasy leagues have eliminated kickers from the scoring system in recent years. And whenever the NFL explores new ways to tweak its kicking rules, I half expect Licht to be all like, "Hey, do we actually need to have kickers?"
Licht had to wear it on "Hard Knocks" last year when he cut his former second-round pick, Robbie Aguayo. It's OK, Jason -- I felt the same way when I saw my Super Bowl prediction blow up. I feel you.