For Bucs, how many keepers are there?

by Gary Shelton on January 5, 2016 · 2 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Winston is the No. 1 player the Bucs keep, of course./JEFFREY S. KING

Winston is the No. 1 player the Bucs keep, of course./JEFFREY S. KING

Tuesday, 6 a.m.

You are Lovie Smith. You have a fresh hand and not nearly enough aspirin.

You are Lovie, and you have won eight games in two seasons. Chip Kelly won 20 in his first two, and 26 in his first three, and he's gone. But you started with very little, and you added very little, and so the hole you dug yourself from is greater.

But now it is the off-season, and you and general manager Jason Licht have to build a defense in a matter of months. It's hard. Defensive ends are hit and miss in the draft, and cornerbacks come and go, and you have choices to make.

On your own roster, you have choices to make. Who stays? Who goes?

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You have only so many draft picks, and your owners will let you have only so many free agents. And there are holes. There are so many holes.

In hindsight, the Bucs finished about where the Bucs should have finished. Yeah, they should have beaten Washington. They could have beaten Houston. But they could have lost to Atlanta. They could have lost to Dallas. It evens out.

Now, there are choices. You are Lovie Smith, and you are aware that by the third year of a program, it is established if it is going somewhere. Smith has to have a winning record next year, and he at least has to flirt with the playoffs into the final weekend. Either that, or his seat begins to warm. By next year, it should be more than disgruntled fans who are not satisfied with his job.

So who do you keep? Who do you cut?

The basic realization is this. The Bucs have a lot more disposable players than they have players worth protecting with both hands. Perhaps that's to be understood. When a team is on the bad side of .500, then less than half of its players are keepers. That makes sense, right?

Of course you keep the quarterback. Right now, he's the light that shines on this franchise. It isn't just that Jameis Winston was the third rookie to throw for more than 4,000 yards. It's that half of the Bucs' wins were because he led the team to a fourth-quarter comeback or a game-winning drive.

Yeah, yeah, he threw 15 interceptions, and over the last three weeks, he threw as many picks as touchdown passes. But that happens when a quarterback is forced to throw as much as Winston was. Over his last three games, Winston threw 127 times. He's a competitive sort, a natural leader. And he's as big a reason to believe as there is.

Who else? Yes, I keep Martin if his off-season price is reasonable, and if there are enough nickels left over from paying Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson. It's true that running back has been devalued in the NFL. But Martin was the second-leading ballcarrier in the NFL with more than 1,400 yards.

I keep Mike Evans. Yeah, he's annoying the way he constantly yaps at the referee, as if he's going to get an interference call every time he wants one. But that can be controlled with coaching. Mess with his playing time, and he'll come around. Evans is a decent guy who plays a frustrating level. Throw in his drops, and he's a vexing player. Still, he had 1,200 yards in an off-year.

Who else? I keep Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith. I keep Logan Mankins if I can talk him into coming back without too much effort (we've seen him when his mind was elsewhere). I keep Demar Dotson if it doesn't break the bank. Continuity is important on the offensive line.

I keep Vincent Jackson, because we've seen what Winston looks like with only one elite receiver. I keep Austin Seferan-Jenkins and hope he grows up. I keep Cameron Brate. Maybe Joe Hawley.

Defensively, I keep Gerald McCoy, although I warn him that undertackles get old fast in the NFL. It's time for him to lead a defense to be better than it should be. I keep Lavonte David. I keep Kwon Alexander.

After that, it gets difficult. Again, there are only so many slots a coach can replace in one off-season. Chris Conte, maybe. Maybe Bradley McDougald gets a shot to show that he's capable of more plays than in 2015. Clinton McDonald maybe. Akeem Spence. William Gholston.

So what are we up to? Seventeen?

And there is your problem.

Hey, I throw a grenade into the cornerback meeting room, and I blow it up coaches and all. Same thing with the defensive ends. Most of the receivers are just guys named Ned. Jags, Bill Parcells called them. Just another guy.

You are Lovie Smith, and it is time to grade your players. And your coaches. Dirk Koetter was mostly a find — he brought direction to the Bucs. He was good with Winston, and you at least knew what the Bucs were trying to accomplish. But there were too many games where the yardage was more impressive than the points. Seven times, the Bucs scored less than 20.

The question with Leslie Frazier is more complicated. There was a reason that Lovie Smith stripped him of the play-calling duties. You sort of feel sorry for Frazier, who had only one draft pick in two years. But there isn't a lot in those two years to feel that you've got a good one in him.

Look, just because a defense is bad, it doesn't make the coaches safe. I'm not pleased with what I've seen from the Bucs' secondary coaches. They've run through a lot of corners before deciding that none of them can play. Shouldn't a coach know who his best corners are? Yet, late in the season, the Bucs were still looking.

“When you do that much shuffling, you’re searching, that’s what you are. I think it’s safe to say we didn’t play as well as we need to in the secondary,” Smith said Monday. “There are a lot of reasons for that. When you have a group that you’re working with and you don’t feel like you’re getting the type of play that you need to win, you look at other options. We kept doing that right up until the last game. That’s not a good thing. At the same time, you want to be able to see everybody that you have on your roster. I think we gave everybody an opportunity to show what they can do. We’ll make decisions based on that.”

A lot of the Bucs' problems can be cured by better players. But better coaching, too, is needed. Take the Bucs' problems with penalties. Tampa Bay isn't so good it can give yards away.

So how much help is there in the draft?

It depends, of course, but a lot of defensive ends aren't great out of the box. Take J.J. Watt, the resident star at defensive end. He was taken 11th in 2011, but he only had 5½ sacks as a rookie. That blossomed to 20½ his second year.

Still, he's a keeper when you compare him to Miami's Dion Jordan, a bust with the No. 3 pick in 2012. He's had one start in two years. Jadeveon Clowney started only two games as a rookie. Yet, Ziggy Ansah had 30 sacks his first three seasons (eight as a rookie).

It goes on. Kansas City's Tyson Jackson, taken 10th in 2009, had no sacks as a rookie and only one his first two years. Chris Long, taken second by the Rams, had only four sacks his first year. Even Hall of Famer Bruce Smith of Buffalo, taken first in 1985, had only 6.5 his first year.

Cornerbacks? Generally, they are as coveted as defensive ends in the Tampa 2. But they are not bust-proof either. For every Patrick Peterson (5th in 2013), there is a Justin Gilbert.

Is there enough help for Smith in a single off-season?

Answer: There had better be.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Cecil DeBald January 5, 2016 at 7:44 am

Don’t disagree with you, but you know our Bucs…who are we going to let go (or trade) that is going to become a real asset to another team…?

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Gary Shelton January 5, 2016 at 10:02 pm

Only the guys the team needs desperately to keep.

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