As the NFL Draft and free agency frenzy has passed, and teams are now in training camp, football season is just around the corner. From the 2016-17 season, it doesn’t look like much will change amongst the NFL’s hierarchy next season. Or will it?
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick hoisted the Lombardi trophy, yet again, last season, and the conference title games featured four teams that have become accustomed to playing late in the postseason. Nevertheless, change is coming to the NFL, soon.
While a few teams have surfaced as legitimate contenders in their respective conferences, there’s another team that may surprise football fans this fall and make a playoff push — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston battled media criticism throughout his collegiate career and early years in the NFL. Despite accusations that tarnished his reputation, Tampa Bay selected Winston first-overall in the 2015 draft, realizing he can be a dual-threat quarterback at times with a cannon for an arm.
Starting all 32 games, Winston has improved immensely in his first two seasons in the league. He threw for more than 4,000 yards in each season, improving his touchdown pass total from 22 to 28. The biggest knock on him thus far has been his interceptions, raising that total from 15 in his rookie season to 18 in his second year, which have brought him scrutiny for his risk-taking tactics. Although he sometimes fails when taking chances, he has proven to be a big play threat that defenses must keep in check.
Much of the young quarterback’s success can be attributed to the drafting of former Texas A&M wideout Mike Evans, who looks like an NBA player playing receiver. The 6-foot-5, 231-pound receiver is a corner’s worst nightmare and has proven to be a top 10-caliber receiver in the league during his only three seasons. Despite Evans’ phenomenal play, the Bucs seemed to be missing another piece or two offensively that would help set them apart in the tough NFC South.
The Bucs attempted to address the need in the offseason with two big acquisitions. The first was the signing of speedster DeSean Jackson, who has been plagued by injury throughout his career but has proven effective when healthy. He’s small in stature, but makes up for his size with his blazing speed. Jackson is also an ideal slot receiver, who poses a mismatch for linebackers with the ability to blow by them as a home run threat.
The other move was the drafting of Alabama tight end O.J. Howard with the 19th-overall pick in this year’s draft. Howard is a 6-foot-6 game-changer, who ran a 4.51 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine and is a plug-and-play starter who could make an immediate impact in Tampa Bay’s offense. The Bucs ranked 18th in total offense last season, but look for them to jump several spots in 2017, possibly developing into a top 10 offensive unit.
Tampa Bay was a middle of the pack team in 2016, finishing with a record of 9-7 in a division the Super Bowl-contending Atlanta Falcons won at 11-5. Their defense, however, was their downfall in the 2016-17 season, ranking 23rd yards allowed. Yet, Tampa feels its defense is on the rise and onto something special, made clear by extending the contract of defensive coordinator Mike Smith in January.
Despite having a rough defensive 2016-17, the Tampa Bay defense is relatively young with talent such as Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and defensive end Robert Ayers. The Bucs also made several moves in free agency to bolster their defense, starting with the signings of defensive tackle Chris Baker and cornerback Robert McClain, coupled with the extension of defensive end William Gholston.
Tampa also addressed a secondary need by drafting safety Justin Evans out of Texas A&M in this year’s second round of the draft. He needs to work on his cover skills, but can bring a sense of intensity to the Bucs secondary with his hard-hitting ability.
Last season was a successful campaign for the Bucs, where some of their young talent evolved into legitimate playmakers. Despite playing in a tough division, the Bucs are a team to watch in 2017 and could be a sincere contender to win the NFC South come December.