It’s getting later in the season, and for many NFL teams, the playoffs are in sight. But some squads are already looking to next year. As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Up next are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday when the Vikings beat the Lions.
What Went Right
In a largely forgettable season, the Bucs had a few moments of offensive excellence, most notably when they set a franchise record for points in a 55-40 win over the Rams in September. Chris Godwin, everyone’s favorite fantasy breakout player heading into the season, proved his backers right with 81 receptions and 1,212 yards through Week 14—second only league leader Michael Thomas. Mike Evans is just behind him with 1,157. This is as fearsome of a pass-catching duo as there is in the league, and covering both is a nightmare for opposing teams.
The defense has been far less impressive, but there have still been some bright spots. Cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis have both been impressive in recent weeks, while defensive lineman Vita Vea and linebacker Lavonte David have both graded out as above-average players, according to Pro Football Focus. Todd Bowles’s first year coordinating the defense has left a lot to be desired, but there are pieces there to build on.
What Went Wrong
The Bucs currently have the second-longest playoff drought in the league behind the Browns, having not made the postseason since 2007. Few believed that would change in Bruce Arians’s first season, but even fewer thought the team would take a step back on offense in 2019. Thus far, Tampa Bay appears to have done just that, going from the 12th-most-efficient offense in 2018 to the 22nd before Sunday’s game, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Tampa Bay ranks in the top 10 in points scored this season, but the team lacks an offensive identity. Take Sunday’s win over the Colts: Quarterback Jameis Winston threw for 456 yards and four touchdowns, but also had three picks. While Winston’s questionable decision-making is certainly to blame, the team has been unable to develop any reliable options for him beyond Godwin and Evans. Neither Peyton Barber nor Ronald Jones II has impressed in the lead running back role, and tight end O.J. Howard has yet to become the pro many projected him to be coming out of Alabama and is reportedly on the trading block.
The true Achilles’ heel of this team, however, is its defense. Despite the aforementioned bright spots, pass coverage has been miserable at times. That’s been the same whether the Bucs are playing man or zone. As for the pass rush, Shaquil Barrett has been effective in his first year with the team, but the rest of the defense has struggled to generate pressure. That’s only exacerbated the coverage problems and exposed Arians’s offseason promise that the secondary was “fixed” as an extreme error in judgment.
The Bucs will finally have to decide this spring whether they want to retain Winston. The former Heisman Trophy winner has flashed at times in his five seasons in Tampa Bay—including a rookie campaign in which he was named to the Pro Bowl—but 2019 might be the worst of his career. He leads the league in interceptions and is throwing picks at career-high rate. He’s also already been sacked more times in 2019 than in any season of his career. There’s an argument to be made that the Bucs have failed their former no. 1 pick, but Winston likely is who he is at this point. Teams have made stranger decisions than signing a player like Winston to an extension, but when you consider his lack of improvement, his troubling off-field behavior, and the Bucs’ high draft pick in April, it appears unlikely that Winston will be back in Tampa Bay in 2020.
Beyond Winston, the Bucs look set to lose some key veterans in Jason Pierre-Paul, who is 30 and has played just seven games this year due to a neck injury; Barrett, who was leading the league in sacks entering Week 12; Carl Nassib, who had just five sacks and 26 tackles before Sunday; and Ndamukong Suh, who has had a quiet year after arriving from the Rams in the offseason. Thirty-four-year-old right tackle Demar Dotson, the longest-tenured Buc, is also slated to be a free agent this spring. Of those players, Barrett may be a priority to re-sign and the team could run it back with Dotson for a 12th season, but all could have new homes this time next year.
There’s also the matter of who will be making the decisions for the team this spring: The Bucs have just two winning seasons this decade, and GM Jason Licht has been calling the shots for the bulk of that time. Since the coaching staff took over just this season, Licht could be the scapegoat and most likely candidate to follow Winston out the door.
The Bucs look set for a high draft pick again this year, and Winston’s free agency looms over the team’s offseason. The Bucs, who are 6-7, likely won’t have a draft pick high enough to grab someone like Joe Burrow as a replacement, but if move on, someone like Justin Herbert or Tua Tagovailoa could be waiting for them. If they keep Winston, they could look to the draft to rebuild the offensive line with a player like Georgia’s Andrew Thomas or USC’s Austin Jackson.
With the volume of likely departures on defense, the Bucs should also target replacements on that side of the ball to pair with 2019 first-rounder Devin White. Players like Florida’s Jabari Zuniga, Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes, and Auburn’s Marlon Davidson should all still be on the board when Tampa Bay is making its second-day picks if they pass on prospects like Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa or Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos at the top of the draft.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the Bucs lost to the Falcons on Sunday.