Although the Buccaneers are in the midst of an eight-year playoff drought, they appear to be on the right track after taking significant steps forward in 2015. Not only did Tampa Bay enjoy a four-win improvement and better its point differential by 58 from 2014 to 2015, but it may have found a franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston. The No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, Winston acquitted himself well as a rookie and could soon help lead the Buccaneers back to consistent contention for the first time since the early 2000s. In a perfect world for the Bucs, their return to the postseason will come in January 2017. However, given the club’s relatively modest offseason, it’s likely too soon to expect it to push for a playoff spot in the NFC.
- Doug Martin, RB: Five years, $35.75MM. $15MM guaranteed. $5.75MM available via escalators.
- J.R. Sweezy, G: Five years, $32.5MM. $14.5MM guaranteed.
- Robert Ayers, DL: Three years, $19.5MM. $7.5MM. $1.65MM available via incentives.
- Brent Grimes, CB: Two years, $14MM. $7MM guaranteed.
- Chris Conte, S: One year, $3MM. $2.5MM guaranteed.
- Daryl Smith, LB: One year, $2.5MM. $2MM guaranteed.
- Bryan Anger, P: One year, $1.75MM. $750K guaranteed.
- Josh Robinson, CB: One year, $2MM. $500K guaranteed.
- Keith Tandy, S: Two years, $1.85MM. $250K guaranteed.
- Bradley McDougald, CB: One year, $2.553MM. Signed second-round RFA tender.
- Russell Shepard, WR: One year, $1.671MM. Signed original-round RFA tender.
- A.J. Francis, DT: One year, $600K.
General manager Jason Licht said before free agency that the Buccaneers would be “selective and strategic” in spending money and wouldn’t dole out contracts with the potential to damage their cap over the long haul. Licht was true to his word, as even the most sizable deals he awarded to veterans will be easy to escape in short order if they don’t work out.
In terms of both contract (five years, $35.75MM with $15MM in guarantees) and star power, running back Doug Martin was Tampa Bay’s most notable offseason signing. Given that the Buccaneers decided in May 2015 to decline Martin’s $5.621MM fifth-year option for 2017, they took a financial hit this past winter in committing nearly three times that much in guarantees to their 2012 first-round pick. A year ago, though, Martin was coming off back-to-back miserable seasons that made his sensational rookie campaign look like a fluke. He revisited his first-year form last season, however, finishing second in the NFL in both carries (288) and rushing yards (1,409) en route to first-team All-Pro status.
Considering Martin’s inconsistent track record, betting on the 27-year-old going forward looks like a gamble. In the event he’s unable to live up to his new pact, the Bucs will be able to bail on his contract after the 2017 season, thus mitigating the risk. Should Martin keep serving as a quality option, Tampa Bay will continue to have one of the league’s most well-rounded backfield duos in him and Charles Sims. Led by that tandem, the Buccaneers finished last season first in yards-per-carry average (4.8), fifth in overall rushing (2,162) and 11th in DVOA – up from 31st in 2014.
Among the players who will be responsible for blocking for Martin and Sims is left guard J.R. Sweezy, whom the Buccaneers inked to a five-year, $32.55MM pact with $14.5MM guaranteed in free agency. With a combined $2.5MM in dead money through 2020 left after this year, the Buccaneers will be able to move on from Sweezy without much difficulty if they have buyer’s remorse.
Sweezy spent the first four years of his career in Seattle, where he started in all 46 of his appearances from 2013-15, though Pro Football Focus ranked him just 66th among 81 qualified guards in overall performance last season. Nevertheless, the Bucs are counting on Sweezy as the long-term replacement for the retired Logan Mankins, whom PFF placed 15th in 2015. The Sweezy era in Tampa Bay hasn’t gotten off to an ideal start, though, as the 27-year-old will miss at least the first five weeks of the season with a back injury. In the meantime, the Buccaneers are likely to go with former tackle Kevin Pamphile, a third-year man with four starts on his resume.
On the defensive side, the Buccaneers went into free agency looking to augment a pass rush that finished last season tied for 14th in sacks (38) and 22nd in hurries (91). To help with those issues, they added defensive end Robert Ayers, a former Bronco and Giant who amassed 21 sacks and four forced fumbles in 39 games over the previous three seasons. The soon-to-be 31-year-old Ayers missed four games in 2015, but his production was highly impressive – he picked up a career-high 9.5 sacks and added 18 hurries, placing him between the likes of Chandler Jones (16) and Olivier Vernon (20).
Ayers, who also finished last year as PFF’s eighth-best edge rusher (110 qualifiers), is now on the Buccaneers’ books through 2018. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case – in the event of an appreciable decline in output, the Bucs will be able to move on from Ayers either after this season or after next without taking on any dead money. While Tampa Bay would rather see Ayers play well and remain in place for the duration of his three-year, $19.5MM deal, the fact that his contract has no cap ramifications past this season makes it a worthy gamble for the organization.
Joining Ayers in the Buccaneers’ front seven is 13th-year man Daryl Smith, who’s slated to start at strongside linebacker after dividing his first 12 seasons between Jacksonville and Baltimore. Notably, Smith played the first four years of his career under new Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who was the Jaguars’ defensive chief during those seasons. Daryl Smith enjoyed some fine seasons with the Jags, and he was particularly durable as a member of the Ravens. In Baltimore, Smith started in 48 straight games from 2013-15 and racked up 120-plus tackles in each of his three seasons with the club, while also combining for nine sacks and four forced fumbles. PFF was unimpressed with Smith’s play last year, though, as the outlet ranked him 71st among 97 qualified linebackers. The Ravens then cut Smith in early March, but based on his ability to stay on the field and produce, the Bucs made out well in signing the 34-year-old for a fairly meager sum of $2.5MM.
“Not only is he a really good football player, but once you get to know Daryl and the type of guy he is, I think Daryl will be a really good sounding board,” new head coach Dirk Koetter told Scott Reynolds of Pewter Report. “His experience and the players that he’s played with in his career, the things that he’s accomplished in his career, will do nothing but help Lavonte [David] and Kwon [Alexander] advance as players.”
Thanks largely to a weak secondary, Tampa Bay allowed the fourth-most touchdown tosses (31) and the second-highest passer rating (101.2) in the league last season. With that in mind, the club addressed the area over the winter by signing outside help (Brent Grimes and Josh Robinson) and re-upping Chris Conte, Bradley McDougald and Keith Tandy to new deals.
Grimes, a cornerback, is clearly the most accomplished member of the group, having started in 90 of 106 appearances with two teams – the Falcons and Dolphins – and totaling 26 interceptions since entering the league in 2007. Like Daryl Smith, Grimes also worked under Mike Smith previously. Grimes played in Atlanta from 2007-12, and Smith was the Falcons’ head coach in five of those six seasons. The rapport they established with the Falcons helped lead to a reunion in Tampa Bay.
“It’s a big deal for me, because I like the system,’’ Grimes told Roy Cummings of the Tampa Bay Times in March. “And one thing I know about Mike Smith is, he’s a great coach as far as everybody on the field knowing where they need to be and knowing what their assignment is, and he pays great attention to detail.”
After leaving Atlanta, Grimes was an impressive producer in Miami, where he started in all 47 appearances over the previous three seasons and picked off either four or five passes in each of those years (though he did yield a 103.2 passer rating against in 2015). Grimes is now in his age-33 season, so he’s unlikely to resemble a shutdown corner at this juncture. Still, as is the case with their other established veteran signings, the Bucs will have the option of waving goodbye to Grimes with no real harm done at season’s end. Regardless of whether Grimes sees his two-year deal with the Buccaneers through, the organization will hope his outspoken wife, Miko, is capable of avoiding controversy. She already made headlines for the wrong reasons last month, which wasn’t anything new.
While neither Robinson nor Tandy is expected to play a huge role at corner in Tampa Bay’s secondary this year, both Conte and McDougald have realistic chances to occupy the starting safety spots. Conte performed well in 2015, his first season with the Buccaneers, starting 13 of 14 appearances and totaling 79 tackles, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. The ex-Bear’s output also netted him a solid 32nd-place ranking among 88 qualifying safeties at PFF, and the Bucs elected to bring him back on a one-year deal. The team made the same decision with McDougald, whom it signed to a second-round tender for 2016. McDougald led the team’s defensive backs in snap percentage last season (81.2 percent), and he piled up 87 tackles and two interceptions along the way, but the Bucs haven’t been happy with his work this summer. However, with only flawed options behind McDougald, he’s a good bet to open the season as the club’s No. 1 free safety.