Monday, 4 a.m.
So where do they go from here?
Besides home, that is?
The playoff hopes of the Tampa Bay Bucs have been reduced to miracle status. In the end, they turned the ball over too much, they didn't rush the passer well enough and they didn't have enough offensive weapons. In their last six games, they were held to 20 or fewer points four times. In these days of high-flying offenses, that isn't good enough.
Bucs' General manager Jason Licht has to know this. He has to turn average players into good ones and good ones into very good ones. As it stands, I would imagine the Bucs have fewer blue-chip players than most teams. They have to take the field against Dallas, against other teams, and hope it doesn't tilt.
So look ahead.
Where do the Bucs add enough players so that next December will be better?
That's what it's about, right?
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First, acknowledge this. The Bucs, right now, draft only 18th in this year's draft. That's too late to get an instant star. Free agency is a roll of the dice, but the Bucs may have to dabble for a player or two so they can preserve their draft picks for other positions.
Second, there is this bit of good news: This year, the Bucs don't figure to take a kicker in round two.
So where might the Bucs' patch?
Running back: The benching of Doug Martin on Sunday said a great many things about the Bucs' running game. Mainly, they no longer see Martin as an elite back in the NFL. And, really, why should they? Martin ran for 421 yards this season, which would be the worst season of his career if the Bucs choose to sit him again. He averaged only 2.9 yards per carry.
Mind you, Martin wasn't hurt. And he wasn't suspended. He was benched for being bad.
So if the Bucs are in the first round, say, and FSU star Dalvin Cook is available, might that change the minds of the Bucs? Martin may be tough to figure out. In five years, he's had two seasons with more than 1,400 yards...and three with fewer than 500. How good a bet is he for next year?
Oh, one of the players the Bucs dressed instead of Martin was Peyton Barber. He had zero special teams tackles. Zip.
Wide receiver: The Bucs could use a weapon opposite Mike Evans. Maybe a burner. Maybe two. If quarterback Jameis Winston is going to reach his potential, he needs receivers with greater separation. No, that isn't Josh Huff or Freddie Martino.
The good news is that the Bucs can use the money being paid to Vincent Jackson to address the position.
Safety: One of the keys to the Bucs' five-game winning streak was the improved safety play by Keith Tandy, Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald. Still, the Bucs didn't make enough plays over the middle of the field. It wouldn't be a surprise if the team tried to upgrade in the off-season.
Offensive line: When the unit is healthy, it's, well, okay. But there isn't an anchor anywhere. Who knows if the Bucs will get anything out of J.R. Sweezy next year, either. The tackles tend to give up too much ground.
Defensive end: One of the biggest decisions the Bucs have to make in the off-season is about defensive end Noah Spence, who had enough sacks (5.5) to make him interesting. But is Spence the answer, or is the Bucs' search for a star defensive end still ongoing? We do know this: The Bucs' pass rush wasn't nearly consistent enough.
Cornerback: Free agent Brent Grimes may have been the Bucs' best newcomer this season. But Grimes is 34 and going into a contract season. This year or next, the Bucs need to think about replacing Grimes.
Tight end: The addition of overachiever Cameron Brate keeps this from being a crying need, but when Brate left the game Sunday, the Bucs desperately missed him. If Austin Seferian-Jenkins was worth saving, it would have helped. But the Bucs could use another body.
In which order would you like the see the Bucs' address their needs?
If they don't make an impact in free agency, I'd rank them like this: 1. Wide receiver. 2. Safety. 3. Defensive end. 4. Offensive line. 5. Running back. 6. Cornerback. 7. Tight end.