It’s that time of year when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today, we look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are staring at another last-place NFC South finish.
What Went Right
Ryan Fitzpatrick’s postgame look: pic.twitter.com/4qkRyu7l7X— Greg Auman (@gregauman) September 16, 2018
Ryan Fitzmagic knocked off the Saints in Week 1, became the only player in NFL history to throw for 400 yards in three consecutive games, and borrowed DeSean Jackson’s clothes for a postgame press conference that unleashed a mini sexual awakening across the nation. There were other bright spots too, albeit none that shone as brightly as the chain Fitzpatrick wore. The Buccaneers offense blossomed under offensive coordinator Todd Monken, and the team has looked impressive (and occasionally dominant): They lead the NFL in passing yards per game (318.9) and are second in the league in third-down conversion percentage (47.6), third in total first downs (339), and fourth in the league in yards per play (6.3). Receiver Chris Godwin, the 2017 third-round pick, looks to be a legitimate building block. Godwin has been outdone only by Tampa Bay’s 2017 first-rounder, O.J. Howard, who looked like a top-five tight end before foot and ankle injuries landed him on IR. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, acquired for a third-round pick and fourth-round pick swap from the Giants, is tied for 12th in the league with 11.5 sacks (one less than Khalil Mack). On the other side of the line, defensive end/Hard Knocks finance wizard Carl Nassib is second on the team with 6.5 sacks and has looked promising after the Browns cut him in September.
What Went Wrong
No matter how many points Tampa Bay’s offense scored, the team’s defense always found a way to give up more. Tampa Bay’s defense allows the third-most points per game (28.8), the fifth-most yards (386.6), and tied for the second-most yards per play (6.2) and has just eight interceptions (tied for 24th) and is 30th in defensive DVOA per Football Outsiders. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith was fired just six weeks into the season, but the team’s issues on that side of the ball have gone far beyond one person. Injuries landed linebacker Kwon Alexander, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, and safety Chris Conte on IR. (Conte’s injury happened on one of the most memorable stiff-arms of the year.)
The injuries forced Tampa Bay to turn to rookies early on in the season, and they didn’t fare well. Tampa Bay’s first-round pick, defensive tackle Vita Vea, suffered a calf injury in July, didn’t start until Week 7, and will spend the rest of his time in Tampa Bay being compared to Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite Derwin James, whom the Bucs passed on in April. Pass rusher Vinny Curry, who signed with Tampa Bay for three years and as much as $23 million, has 2.5 sacks in 10 games. The Bucs lost games this season in which they scored 27, 29, 34, 28, and 35 points.
Of course, it’s also hard to play defense when the offense is giving away the ball like free samples at Trader Joe’s. The Bucs have put up dazzling yardage numbers, but Jameis Winston and Fitzpatrick are both in the top 10 in interceptions despite each starting just seven games. Unsurprisingly, the Buccaneers lead the league in interceptions (25) and turnovers (32). The run game has been abysmal, as the team has averaged just 97.7 yards per game (28th in the league) and 4.0 yards per attempt (tied for 29th). Second-round pick Ronald Jones was the fifth running back off of the board in April, but he’s 51st among rookies in yards per attempt (1.9 on just 23 carries) and has struggled to win playing time. All of this adds up to how the Buccaneers followed their promising 2-0 start with a 1-7 faceplant that took them out of the playoff race. The Bucs are now in danger of finishing at the bottom of the NFC South for the eighth time in the past 10 seasons. CBS’s Jason La Canfora reported on Sunday that head coach Dirk Koetter is likely going to be fired at the end of the season and that the Glazer family is already putting a coaching search in motion.
Whomever the owners bring in, Tampa Bay’s biggest decision is what to do about the quarterback position. Jameis Winston was suspended for the first three games of the season after a female Uber driver said he groped her crotch and a league investigation found her account credible. Despite missing those games and being benched midseason, Winston is two interceptions behind Ben Roethlisberger, who’s tied for the lead league, despite having half as many starts. He’s good for a few astonishing interceptions each season.
Winston is due to be a free agent at the end of next season, and the Bucs have to decide as soon as this offseason whether they want to extend him for a long-term deal. He’s on Tampa Bay’s books for $20.9 million in 2019, but none of that money is guaranteed; he could be a trade candidate if the team wants to move on, or the team could let him play out his contract year and punt the decision down the road with the franchise tag as the last resort. Whatever Tampa Bay does, the Winston decision will say a lot about what kind of team Tampa Bay wants to be—both on and off the field.
The Buccaneers are projected to have the fifth-least cap space in the NFL this offseason with less than $20 million. Cutting or trading Winston would double that, though that seems unlikely. Adding to the Winston pressure is that Fitzpatrick is also a free agent after this year, and the 36-year-old may have a market larger than it was in August. Bringing Fitz back would not leave much room for the Bucs to maneuver. Veteran corner Brent Grimes is likely gone, as is running back Jacquizz Rodgers. Peyton Barber is a free agent, but it’s unclear whether the team would rather shell out to keep Barber, who failed to be effective as a lead back, or hand the reins to Ronald Jones, who was worse. Conte (the guy who got hurt from a Vance McDonald stiff arm) is also a free agent, and the market for safeties has cratered, so his status is certainly in question as well. Tampa Bay’s negotiating will also be complicated with Alexander, who may be their best defensive player, but tore his ACL in October.
The Bucs need help all over the field, but especially on defense. Tampa Bay could double down on its pass rush in a loaded draft (you can never have too many pass rushers), but the team just selected Vea, signed Curry, and traded for Pierre-Paul last year. Fortifying the secondary may make more sense. LSU cornerback Andraez “Greedy” Williams, Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker, and Alabama safety Deionte Thompson—three of the four defensive backs on the All-SEC team—are all excellent candidates for the Bucs to take with their first pick. No matter whom they take, any defender from this year’s class will go a long way to improving the team in 2019.