This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Bucs once again must contend with a defending NFC champ in their division, but high expectations abound. Tampa's offseason haul potentially makes the offense one of the NFL's most explosive, while a second year under Mike Smith's aggressive scheme should produce marked defensive improvement.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
WINSTON HANDED NEW TOYS
Jameis Winston's statistical output improved almost across the board between 2015 and last season, despite skill-position players missing a number of games due to injury. Much of what befell the offense was expected to be rectified through free agency and the draft, a prognosis that manifested in rather spectacular fashion. Winston now boasts prized free-agent pickup DeSean Jackson and decorated first-round pick O.J. Howard as his top new targets alongside accomplished incumbents Mike Evans and Cameron Brate. Even at full health, last year's offense doesn't come close to the potential firepower of the 2017 version, while the atrophied unit that fell short of the playoffs at season's end bears even less of a resemblance. The replacement of the fading Vincent Jackson with DeSean Jackson is a substantial upgrade, and Howard boasts an all-around skill set that's a cut or two above the very solid Brate. The draft also yielded another pair of appealing pass-catching options in third-round wideout Chris Godwin and fifth-rounder Jeremy McNichols, a receiver-turned-running back with 103 receptions on his college resume. The embarrassment of riches leaves a third consecutive 4,000-yard season firmly within Winston's sights, with his first 30-plus touchdown campaign a real possibility as well.
YET ANOTHER BOUNCE-BACK CHANCE FOR MARTIN
A 2016 season in which Doug Martin was supposed to justify a lucrative new deal instead morphed into a nightmarish campaign that included a multi-game absence due to a hamstring injury and ultimately a four-game PED suspension prior to Week 17. He also looked woefully ineffective in his appearances, with a precipitous drop in yards per carry (4.9 to 2.9) versus 2015, as well as a near 1,000-yard reduction in rushing yards. While the 28-year-old back has by all accounts made excellent strides both physically and mentally since the beginning of the calendar year, doubts about what he can offer will persist until he has a chance to demonstrate his wares on the field. Further complicating matters is Martin's lack of availability for the regular season's first three weeks while he completes the aforementioned ban. The stretch of DNPs could provide promising fifth-round pick Jeremy McNichols, a fellow Boise State alumnus who offers a strikingly similar skill set, a chance to run with the lead back role, though Jacquizz Rodgers' and Charles Sims' experience in the system should help them lay claim to a fair share of carries and catches, respectively. However, a healthy and fully engaged Martin remains the Bucs' best runner at present and would represent an ideal complement to what should be a highly potent air attack.
CAN THE BUCS RUN TWO-TE SETS EFFECTIVELY?
A young tight end emerged in rather unexpected fashion for the Bucs last season, just not the one they'd initially expected. The talented but troubled Austin Seferian-Jenkins possessed plenty of physical skills on the field, but not enough to offset some faulty decision-making off of it. His September release led to the blossoming of the previously unheralded Cameron Brate, who set a slew of personal bests while serving as an increasingly trusted target for Jameis Winston. Brate showed plenty of route-running and pass-catching acumen, but his work as a blocker was often lacking. Enter 2017 first-round pick O.J. Howard, whose 6-6, 251-pound frame is an asset in both clearing lanes for the running game and giving linebackers and safeties fits down the seam. With a pair of mismatch-creating weapons, coach Dirk Koetter is naturally expected to utilize both tight ends in numerous formations. The middle of the field is likely to have plenty of unobstructed real estate, with at least one safety sure to be preoccupied with the dynamic duo of Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. While the simultaneous deployment of two true pass-catching tight ends could require an acclimation period, both Howard and Brate should thus benefit from a substantial amount of one-on-one coverage as the season unfolds.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Mike Evans
Evans established personal bests across the board in 2016, despite position mates dropping like flies around him throughout the year. With a pure speed threat in DeSean Jackson opposite him, Evans could be primed for one of the truly prolific fantasy seasons for a wideout in recent memory, even if he sees a slight drop in targets.
RISING: Jameis Winston
Winston is primed for another leap forward with pass catchers DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard joining holdovers Mike Evans and Cameron Brate, plus a potentially rejuvenated Doug Martin providing valuable balance.
FALLING: Jacquizz Rodgers
Rodgers' playing time could be much scarcer this season. Martin appears to be on the right track, fifth-round selection Jeremy McNichols brings an impressive skill set, and Charles Sims remains a pass-catching option.
SLEEPER: Jeremy McNichols
With aptitude as both a runner and pass catcher, McNichols will be given a chance to carve out a prominent spot in the backfield, especially if Rodgers and Sims don't take advantage of Martin's absence to begin the season.
KEY JOB BATTLE – THE BACKFIELD
The primary tailback position retains a certain amount of ambiguity as the Bucs prepare for training camp, and the majority stems from Doug Martin's situation. The one definitive regarding the sixth-year back's status heading into the 2017 campaign is that he won't be available for the first three regular-season games as he serves the rest of his 2016 PED suspension; however, how his seemingly improved physical condition and reenergized approach translates to the field will remain an unknown until the bullets start flying. The Bucs will get some sense of what Martin could bring to the table during the preseason, albeit in abbreviated doses and against what will likely be some vanilla defenses. In the meantime, Tampa knows what it has in holdovers Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims, serviceable and versatile options that nevertheless don't project as clear-cut lead backs over a full season. The one wild card could be 2017 fifth-round pick Jeremy McNichols, who in three college campaigns came very close to matching Martin's four-year rushing numbers at Boise State, their mutual alma mater. McNichols was an even more accomplished receiver than Martin in college as well and flashed an all-around skill set that helped produce 55 total touchdowns. With the torn labrum that prompted his draft fall expected to be healed in time for training camp, McNichols could make a push – both during preseason and over the first three regular-season contests – to wrest the top running back job.
O.J. Howard – TE (Rd. 1, No. 19 – Alabama)
Best all-around tight end in deep class should make immediate impact.
Chris Godwin – WR (Rd. 3, No. 84 – Penn State)
Accomplished college wideout brings speed and size to receiving corps.
Jeremy McNichols – RB (Rd. 5, No. 162 – Boise State)
Draft fall belies an impressive all-around skill set, college production.
J.J. Wilcox – S (from Cowboys)
Experienced, hard-hitting safety offers serviceable coverage skills.
Vincent Jackson – WR (FA)
Provided exemplary character and leadership, despite fading skills.
THE INJURY FRONT
Doug Martin, RB – Martin's absence isn't injury-related, as he'll miss the first three games of the regular season due to a four-game PED ban handed down at the end of the 2016 campaign. The former Pro Bowler looked to be in excellent physical and emotional condition during OTAs and minicamps, lending credence to the notion that he could retake the mantle of top running back upon his Week 4 return.
Cameron Brate, TE – Brate is completely recovered from the fractured transverse process in his lower back that forced him to the sidelines for the 2016 season finale, and he participated without restrictions in OTAs and minicamp. After unexpectedly rising to the role of No. 1 tight end last season following the release of Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Brate will share targets with 2017 first-round pick O.J. Howard, which will almost assuredly lead to a drop in production.
Charles Sims, RB – Sims' torn pectoral muscle cost him the final game of the 2016 campaign, but the fourth-year back was all systems go for OTAs and minicamp. He could see an increased role in the season's first three weeks while Doug Martin finishes serving his suspension, but Sims is likely to be deployed most often in his usual role of pass-catching specialist once the latter returns.