Wednesday, 4 a.m.
For a team on the cusp of playing extra games, the Tampa Bay Bucs need to put out a sign.
Despite the presence of Jameis Winston and Mike Evans, Kwon Alexander and Brent Grimes, this is not a team that will make it with just a little age. There are teams like that, teams you can see coming like a balled up fist. The Bucs aren't like that. There are teams that are whacking at the boulder, and sooner or later, it's going to break into little pieces. The Bucs aren't like that, either.
The Bucs are a team that needs reinforcements. After all, they are but two seasons removed from 2-14. They need key additions. They need more weapons. They need help.
And after that, where else?
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This is Jason Licht time, of course. It is the time that a football team prepares for free agency, and then the draft, in order to transform from pretty good to very good. Licht is in charge of that, of shoring up what he can in the free agent shopping spree, where players cost only money. And then he has to draft well — again. In the meantime, the coaches need to develop players, the under-appreciated part of growing a team.
How has Licht done? Well, the results are mixed. The lines have always been blurred as to how much of the catastrophe that was free agency was Lovie and how much was Licht. There was enough failure to go around with Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson and Josh McCown and the rest. It was the kind of spending that costs a man his job – I'm convinced it had a great deal to do with the impatience over Lovie. An owner hates to spend money on players and see them fail.
But even last year, you can debate Licht's impact. Yes, he signed Brent Grimes and Robert Ayers, and the grades were pretty good. But he also re-signed Doug Martin – a mistake, especially since no one knows when his first positive drug test was. He invested heavily in J.R. Sweezy, and we're still waiting for a sighting. He drafted Vernon Hargreaves, who was all-rookie, but he traded up for Roberto Aguayo, who wasn't.
On the other hand, the expectations of 2016 were small compared to the expectations of 2017. No one really expected the Bucs to make the playoffs last year. Most of us expect it this year.
So let's look at the roster with Licht's eyes. Where do the Bucs need help the most?
Quarterback: The need isn't urgent. The Bucs need a proven backup quarterback to replace Mike Glennon, but Glennon hasn't played meaningful minutes for three seasons. Most backups play 4-6 games a season; the Bucs have been fortunate that Winston has stayed healthy. Maybe he will again, but Winston isn't adverse to taking a lick, either. Need (on a scale of 10): 3.
Running back: The Bucs figured to be set for a while, but Martin's drug suspension puts all of that in doubt. Can the Bucs trust Martin to stay clean? Can they count on him to be productive (he has been in two of five years). It's hard to believe Tampa Bay would bring Martin back at the same price, which means he could be gone. If Tampa Bay can re-sign Jacquizz Rodgers, it would help. But it's hard to count on Rodgers to carry the entire load. Need: eight.
Wide receiver: Unless a top-flight running back falls to them, this might be where the Bucs draft. There will be value with the 19th pick in the draft. The Bucs could certainly use an impact player on the opposite side of Mike Evans. Adam Humphries is a very nice No. 3 receiver; being a No. 2 is a bit of a stretch. CFL alumnus Derel Walker is an interesting fishing expedition, but it's hard to count on a guy from the other side of the border. Need: Ten.
Tight end: Cameron Brate is everyone's favorite tight end, an overachieving receiver who gets every drop of his ability out of his body. He is what Austin Seferian-Jenkins was supposed to be all along. But the Bucs could still use a star wide receiver. Frankly the Bucs have wheels that squeak more loudly. Need: Three.
Offensive line: Every time someone grumbles about the offensive line, coach Dirk Koetter defends it. He listed three players – Ali Marpet, Donovan Smith and Kevin Pamphile – as players who are leading the Bucs into the future. Of course, that still leaves holes at center and right tackle. A healthy Sweezy could help if he's as good as the Bucs thought he was going to be. It could be addressed in free agency so you don't have to in the draft. Need: Seven.
Kicker: Aguayo was a punch line in his first season. The Bucs paid a high price, and they got a clunker. But Aguayo didn't make up his college career. I still think he'll be okay. Of course, I've been wrong a lot. Need: Four.
Punter: With Banger (Brian Anger), there isn't much to worry about. He was one of the finest weapons of the year. Need: Zero.
Defensive end: It seems as if the Bucs have always needed a pass rusher. Most of the times, they've drafted Booker Reese or Eric Curry or Gaines Adams. The problem this year is that the team has a lot of bodies with Robert Ayers, William Gholston (if they bring him back) and Noah Spence. The great ends are usually snapped up long before the 19th pick. And the Bucs might be reluctant to draft a player to get in the way of Spence's progress. Need: Seven.
Defensive tackle: Again, the Bucs could use a great force to go alongside Gerald McCoy, who is playing a position that puts the years on a player pretty quickly. Again, the Bucs figure to be drafting fairly late to expect greatness. It seems that other needs are more pressing. Need: Five.
Linebacker: Two of the best players on the Bucs' defense play linebacker with Alexander and Lavonte David. Darryl Smith played at the third linebacker this year without a lot of notice. You might expect a draftee in the the middle rounds. Need: Four.
Cornerbacks: The Bucs added Grimes in free agency and Hargreaves in the draft, and both were improvements over what had been there. The only concern is that Grimes is 34, and eventually, he's going to get old. Besides, a team can always use corners. Need: Three.
Safeties: Do you judge from the first half of the season or the second? In the first half, it was a concern that the Bucs' safeties just didn't make enough plays. That changed in the second half. But could the Bucs use a better athlete in their secondary? Of course they could. Need: Eight.