The Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren’t just hoping for an offensive explosion in 2016. They’re banking on it.
They fired a well-respected head coach in Lovie Smith and elevated offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in order to keep him from going somewhere else. They also dished out $15 million guaranteed to keep running back Doug Martin. Aside from that, they added little outside help to the unit, choosing instead to spend their top three draft picks on defense and special teams.
After a 6-10 season, they’re expecting big things on offense through the simple idea that younger, talented players get better with time. And it’s easy to understand their optimism because, outside of the Oakland Raiders, it’s hard to argue any team has more young talent across the offense than the Buccaneers.
It starts with quarterback Jameis Winston, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, and Martin, the league’s second-leading rusher last season with 1,402 yards. They return a two-time 1,000-yard receiver in Mike Evans and two ascending second-year players on the offensive line. The aforementioned all are under the age of 28. The Buccaneers finished fifth in total offense in 2015, so if the anticipated improvement becomes a reality, the unit could be dynamic.
But expecting all the young players to take a step up at the same time, without any hiccups, could be asking too much. The 2015 Raiders provide the example.
At this time a year ago, quarterback Derek Carr, running back Latavius Murray and guard Gabe Jackson were all coming off impressive rookie seasons, and No. 4 overall pick Amari Cooper was busy putting opposing cornerbacks on ice skates in the August heat. After Carr recovered from a hand injury for Week 2, Oakland went on a run in which it posted an offensive DVOA, or defense-adjusted value over average, of at least 17 percent in six of 11 games.
However, Oakland’s bad drafting over the years exposed some depth issues, and the young Raiders stars began to be a little overextended. The interior of the offensive line started to sputter in the second half, exposed by a gaping hole at right guard. A subpar running game then placed the Raiders in consistent third-and-long situations, when struggles in pass protection, combined with Cooper’s difficulty getting open in isolation routes brought immense heat on Carr. The young quarterback also showed he needs to develop his skills in diagnosing and managing pressure.
The Raiders posted negative offensive DVOA marks in each of the final four games en route to a 7-9 record.
It’s worth wondering if the Buccaneers could be the same kind of team this year. Granted, it’s the second season under Koetter and the past regime’s drafts were a little better than the some of the ones in Oakland. But it’s still possible for cracks to emerge in the Buccaneers’ frame this season.
For example, the retirement of left guard Logan Mankins might be harder to overcome than it seems. Mankins wasn’t the Pro Bowl player he’d been most of his career, but the Buccaneers are still searching for a long-term solution. J.R. Sweezy has plenty of experience from his days in Seattle, but his struggles last year coincided with the Seahawks’ move from a run-oriented approach to a balanced one. He might not be the interior pass protector Tampa Bay needs to effectively run Koetter’s deep-drop, big-play offense. It’s a scheme that will also challenge the limited athleticism of second-year left tackle Donovan Smith.
The Buccaneers are trusting Winston will take a step forward this season. After throwing 7 interceptions in his first four starts last year, Winston settled down and limited that count to eight during the final 12 games. And highly-drafted quarterbacks often take their biggest stride in Year 2, whether it’s Peyton Manning Andrew Luck or Carson Palmer. It’s the progression expected after learning the playbook and building a rapport within the scheme and personnel.
The question will be whether Winston can get better right away, while taking on the additional responsibilities Koetter plans to ask of him this season, such as making more full-field reads and controlling more of the play pre-snap, all while operating more in the hurry-up. Last season, Koetter employed more protection schemes to limit what Winston had to decide on the fly. That’s the part of Winston’s game that can lead to mistakes, such as the 18 interceptions he threw in his final year at Florida State.
As was the case in Oakland, it’s the process of plugging other holes and limiting mistakes on offense that will determine whether the young stars can take flight. Drops plagued Evans last season, when he caught only 50 percent of his targets. He finished with 1,206 yards but only 3 three touchdowns. Also, the Buccaneers had a difficult time converting production into points, finishing fifth in the league in yards but 18th in offensive DVOA and 20th in scoring, thanks in part to a minus-5 turnover margin.
Turnovers and red zone efficiency are two of the more fluctuating offensive stats on a year-to-year basis. With Tampa Bay’s overall talent level and roster continuity, there’s plenty of reason to think things will change for the better this year.