Is there such a thing as a "sleeper team" in the NFL anymore?
Think about it.
Offseason is a misnomer in 2016. You have the free agency frenzy, schedule-release day -- or, as I call it, Christmas in April -- and the three-day festival of team building that is the NFL draft.
The NFL is a prime topic 24/7/365. Sleeper team? You'd have to be in hibernation to not realize the Oakland Raiders are ready for prime time after further supplementing a great young core with numerous offseason upgrades. Everyone and their mother is on board the Jacksonville Jaguars' bandwagon. (For the record, my mom says 9-7 for Gus Bradley's bunch.)
But there is one alluring team that actually isn't receiving the attention it deserves.
Tampa is going to be right in the mix all season long. I see these young Bucs winning nine games (great minds think alike, mom!) and seriously competing for a playoff spot. I think they are the second-best team in the NFC South (behind the reigning NFC champion Panthers). And in five years, Bucs fans will look back on the 2016 season as the building-block campaign that catapulted them toward sustained success.
I loved the move.
Don't knock it because Roberto Aguayo's "just a kicker." With the extra-point change made permanent this offseason, and with the competitive balance and parity in the league nowadays, the kicking game is more important than ever. And Aguayo is one of the best kicking prospects we've seen. This is a big deal. If Bill Belichick made this pick, the media elite would call it a genius move. I'm calling it clever usage of the No. 59 overall selection.
And it's the process in Tampa that impresses me most.
Licht was a guest last week on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," and any Bucs fan who listened to our conversation had to come away with a ton of confidence in the general manager's general savvy. Licht explained, with dazzling clarity, how the team decided to trade down from No. 9 to No. 11. He had gathered strong intel that the Giants wouldn't pick Tampa's target, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. This info was indeed accurate, and Licht got his man.
"First of all, [Hargreaves] jumped off the screen for myself and all of our scouts and our coaches, in terms of being just a great athlete," Licht told me. "He is a ballhawk. He is tough, he is sturdy, and he is great in the run game, as well. It's not like he's an undersized guy who can just cover [but] gets beat up down the field versus size. This guy has an ego -- which I keep mentioning over and over, and I mean that in a good way. He's not afraid. He is very competitive. He feels he can match up with just about anybody in the league."
Thus, the Bucs moved down on Thursday night and, in the process, picked up an extra fourth-rounder -- which they would flip on Friday in the trade that landed Aguayo. And that wasn't even the first astute thing Tampa did on Day 2. Licht stole Noah Spence with the 39th overall pick. The GM thinks he plucked the most natural pass rusher in the entire draft -- a notion I don't disagree with. Spence only fell to Round 2 because of off-field issues from his past. Licht and his staff vetted Spence and were comfortable with what they learned. Licht told me how -- when he was in Arizona for the Cardinals' Day 2 selection of Tyrann Mathieu -- he learned to dive deep, then trust your scouts, instincts and coaches. That worked out incredibly well for the Cards with the Honey Badger.
So, all in all, in the first two rounds of the draft, the Bucs scooped up three players who will help them win games in 2016: Hargreaves is going to cover like a blanket, Spence is going to sack the quarterback, the kicker is going to make kicks. And this just adds to the enviable young core of talent in Tampa.
Jameis Winston enjoyed a highly encouraging rookie season, finishing second in Offensive Rookie of the Year voting. He wowed everyone with his work ethic and racked up 28 total touchdowns (22 passing, six rushing). Although his interception number was a little high at 15, he's poised to even things out this fall and really explode. His chemistry with fellow 22-year-old Mike Evans continues to grow. Doug Martin is back under contract, ready to provide balance from the backfield. There's room for improvement on the other side of the ball (see: the No. 26 ranking in scoring defense), but the Bucs do boast a pair of studs in DT Gerald McCoy and LB Lavonte David. Plus, athletic linebacker Kwon Alexander showed plenty of promise before his rookie campaign was cut short by suspension. This cupboard is far from bare -- new defensive coordinator Mike Smith has some enticing pieces to work with.
Speaking of coaches, I'm a firm believer that Lovie Smith held this team back. He was brought in to take Tampa to the playoffs. Instead, he went 2-14 in Year 1 and 6-10 in Year 2. Lovie was a bad in-game coach. The Bucs will be better after the promotion of former coordinator Dirk Koetter, who developed a great rapport with Winston while running the offense last season.
When I asked Licht how he would define success this year, he mentioned winning close games and winning down the stretch.
That latter point is crucial. Tampa Bay was in the thick of the playoff race in early December ... before closing out last season with four straight losses.
I don't see that happening in 2016. I see a team that's ready to ascend, an emerging threat that's hiding in plain sight.
Open your eyes. It's time to stop sleeping on the Bucs.