STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
For the third time in four years, the Buccaneers failed to win five games last season. In his first year helming the squad, coach Lovie Smith never found his footing with a roster lacking star power, and even the players he did inherit were often injured. Thanks to the team's 2-14 record in 2014, the Bucs held the top pick in the 2015 NFL draft, with GM Jason Licht electing to select signal-caller Jameis Winston
, who became the fifth No. 1 overall draft pick in team history and first since 1987.
Though there were some off-field concerns for the Bucs to consider with regard to Winston, his on-field track record and experience in a pro-style system at Florida State bode well for his chances of making a positive impact as a rookie. Also working in his favor is that he'll be surrounded by more offensive weapons than most quarterbacks who are taken No. 1 overall. The team's pair of 6-foot-5 wide receivers, Vincent Jackson
and Mike Evans
, together with second-year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins
, will provide the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner with a trio of talented big-bodied pass-catching targets, who should help ease Winston's transition to the NFL. Moreover, five of the team's remaining draft picks were dedicated to the offensive side of the ball, including second-round offensive linemen, Donovan Smith
and Ali Marpet
Though the Bucs' passing attack should be much-improved in 2015, the running game, which ranked 29th in the league last season, remains a work in progress. Doug Martin
, on whom the team declined a fifth-year contract option, figures to compete with 2014 third-rounder Charles Sims
for the starting job. After a standout rookie campaign in 2012, Martin hasn't looked like the same player in the two seasons since then. Hampered by injuries keeping him off the field and a step slow when on it, this is a make-or-break season for the former first-rounder. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who enjoyed good results during the past few seasons in Atlanta while working with Matt Ryan
, could be the team's most important offseason hire, as he'll be tasked with the vital assignment of helping develop Winston.
On the other side of the ball, though Mason Foster
departed in the offseason, the team signed Bruce Carter
, re-signed Danny Lansanah
and drafted Kwon Alexander
, so the linebacking corps shouldn't miss his absence too much. Apart from those changes, Gerald McCoy
and Lavonte David
will continue to anchor a front seven that must improve for the team to move forward. Meanwhile, cornerback Alterraun Verner
leads a secondary bolstered by the additions of safeties Chris Conte
and D.J. Swearinger
Jameis Winston – QB, Florida State
(ROUND 1, 1st overall)
The new face of the franchise is expected to start from the outset.
Bruce Carter – LB, Cowboys
The veteran will bring versatility to the team's linebacking corps.
Henry Melton – DT, Cowboys
Should help bolster the team's defensive line depth.
Kenny Bell – WR, Nebraska
(ROUND 5, 162nd overall)
Boosts the team wideout depth behind Vincent Jackson
and Mike Evans
and can help out in the return game.
Josh McCown – QB, Browns
Lasted just one season with the Bucs, but gets another chance to start with Cleveland.
Mason Foster – LB, Bears
The team chose to re-sign Danny Lansanah
instead of Foster, who headed to Chicago.
Michael Johnson – DE, Bengals
A salary cap casualty who'll return to the team where he parlayed a career year into a massive contract.
Dashon Goldson – S, Redskins
Not a great fit for Lovie Smith's defense and now in line to start at free safety for Washington.
MARTIN ON THE SPOT
Just three years ago, Doug Martin
was a workhorse back whose first NFL season propelled him into the upper echelon of all-around running backs in the league. A shoulder injury in Week 7 of the 2013 season prevented him from building on that breakthrough effort, and the cumulative toll injuries have taken could now relegate him to a role in a time-share with Charles Sims
, who displays promise as a pass-catching back. Though the Bucs' 2014 third-round selection turned in modest production in limited action as a rookie, Sims remains the runner with fresher legs and the approval of the team's current administration. Barring injury, he'll likely be the Bucs' back of the future, with Bobby Rainey
and Mike James
on hand to provide depth in the team's backfield.
OPENING THINGS UP
Lovie Smith has a reputation for being a conservative coach, earned mostly based on his defensive pedigree. Joining his coaching staff this season is new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who the Bucs envision bringing an explosive, pass-first offense with him from Atlanta. With that in mind, Koetter has earned a reputation as a bit of a "quarterback whisperer." Prior to successfully overseeing the advancement of Matt Ryan
, Koetter was the offensive coordinator in Jacksonville during the Jaguars' most successful offensive stretch. The current incarnation of Koetter's offense will likely represent a slightly more balanced attack than the one he featured with the Falcons. He leaned heavily on Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, and while it remains unlikely that either Doug Martin
or Charles Sims
will be that type of back this year, they will, at a minimum, be asked to take some heat off rookie quarterback Jameis Winston
THE Jameis Winston EFFECT
Of the Bucs' last 15 draft picks, only one was made on the defensive side of the ball. The team continued to struggle to move the ball last season despite stockpiling offensive weapons in each of the last two drafts. The 2015 draft class, however, offers the one piece the others have lacked; a franchise quarterback. Enter Winston, who'll likely start from Week 1 and become the driving force that transforms a promising core of offensive talent into a dynamic unit. Jason Licht, Lovie Smith, Dirk Koetter and Co. will ultimately be judged by how quickly the young quarterback adjusts to the pro game and on whether he becomes a bona fide franchise signal-caller. The questions aren't with Winston's physical tools, as he has the ability to make NFL throws, rather it's his decision-making (on and off the field) that will largely dictate his level of success as a pro.
One of the top gems in last year's bumper crop of rookie receivers, Mike Evans
' long-term upside is bolstered by the addition of a promising franchise signal-caller.
Declining: Bobby Rainey
who saw added action last year due to injuries, now slots in behind both Doug Martin
and Charles Sims
Sleeper: Austin Seferian-Jenkins
possesses the size and athletic ability to be a big-play threat in Dirk Koetter's offense.
Fifth-round draft pick Kenny Bell
could compete with Louis Murphy
for the team's slot wideout duties.
Lavonte David – LB
Near the top of the league in total tackles every year and should continue to put up robust numbers.
Danny Lansanah – LB
The team had enough confidence in the 29-year-old undrafted free agent to let Mason Foster
Alterraun Verner – CB
A good tackler for a corner, he offers a nice blend of statistical upside as an above-average ball hawk.