In advance of March 14, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who failed to live up to preseason expectations and finished with a 5-11 record.
Pending Free Agents:
- Jude Adjei-Barimah, CB (RFA)
- Peyton Barber, RB (ERFA)
- Cameron Brate, TE (RFA)
- Will Clarke, DE
- Javien Elliott, CB (ERFA)
- Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB
- Nick Folk, K
- Adam Gettis, OL
- Adarius Glanton, LB (RFA)
- Brent Grimes, CB
- Adam Humphries, WR (RFA)
- Robert McClain, CB
- Clinton McDonald, DT
- Patrick Murray, K
- Kevin Pamphile, G
- Ryan Russell, DE (RFA)
- Garrison Sanborn, LS
- Sealver Siliga, DT
- Charles Sims, RB
- Evan Smith, OL
- Keith Tandy, S
- Justin Trattou, DE
- T.J. Ward, S
Top 10 Cap Hits for 2018:
- Mike Evans, WR: $13,258,000
- Gerald McCoy, DT: $12,750,000
- DeSean Jackson, WR: $11,000,000
- Lavonte David, LB: $8,750,000
- Jameis Winston, QB: $8,066,315
- Doug Martin, RB: $6,750,000
- William Gholston, DE: $6,500,000
- Robert Ayers, DE: $6,000,000
- J.R. Sweezy, G: $5,875,000
- Chris Baker, DT: $4,875,000
- Projected cap space (via Over the Cap): $61,478,282
- Seventh pick in draft
- Must exercise or decline 2019 fifth-year option for QB Jameis Winston
1) Find a new running back: It’s difficult to overstate just how poor Doug Martin played in 2017. Among the 36 running backs who handled at least 125 carries last season, Martin finished dead last with a paltry 2.94 yards per rush. Pro Football Focus ranked Martin as the No. 53 RB among 58 qualifiers, while the 29-year-old placed last among backs in Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric, which measures value on a per-play basis. Martin caught only nine passes a year ago, but even on a per-pass basis, he was well below-average, as FO ranked him 25th in receiving DVOA among the 30 RBs who managed fewer than 25 targets.
Martin took the most touches of any Buccaneers running back in 2017, but given that he only started eight games, he wasn’t the only problem in the Tampa Bay backfield. Peyton Barber handled 108 carries but finished with only 3.9 yards per carry — he’s an exclusive rights free agent, and if he returns next season, it could be as a backup. Jacquizz Rodgers may be a candidate for release after averaging 3.8 yards per touch, and Charles Sims — the club’s main receiving back — is a free agent and seems unlikely to be re-signed.
Tampa Bay will essentially start with a blank slate at the running back position, but the 2018 free agent market is well-stocked with potential upgrades. Le’Veon Bell is clearly the top available back, but it seems inconceivable that he won’t return to the Steelers next season (if not via a long-term deal, then under the franchise tag). If Bell somehow does finagle his way out of Pittsburgh, though, the Buccaneers would be a prime landing spot. Not only does Tampa have the cap space to pay Bell what he wants, but the club could immediately make him the centerpiece of its offense.
If and when Bell re-signs with the Steelers, the Buccaneers will still have plenty of options at running back. Aside from Bell, Carlos Hyde may be the most talented runner on the free agent market, although injuries and a lack of talent on the 49ers’ roster have limited his overall production. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay could afford the $6MM annual salary that Dion Lewis is reportedly searching for, while Isaiah Crowell could also make sense as an every-down back.
Another strategy the Bucs could pursue would involve installing the 225-pound Barber as their early-down bruiser while inking a running back who specializes in the passing game. Lewis would fit that bill (and add much more), but fellow Patriot Rex Burkhead could potentially serve as an excellent receiver for Jameis Winston. Burkhead ranked first among pending free agent running backs in FO’s receiving DYAR and DVOA, and shouldn’t be all that expensive given that he secured only a one-year deal in 2017. The Vikings’ Jerick McKinnon — essentially a souped-up version of the incumbent Sims — could also fill a receiving role.
In the draft, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is the clear-cut top available back, but it’s unclear if he’ll fall to the seventh overall pick. If he does, the Buccaneers would likely jump on him, although the club has enough other needs that it’s not a guarantee. Instead, Tampa Bay could hold off on adding a young running back until the second round, when other players such as Ronald Jones (USC), Sony Michel (Georgia), and Derrius Guice (LSU) may be available. Jones, in particular, would be a solid fit in an outside zone running scheme, as Benjamin Solak of NDT Scouting recently detailed.
2) Bolster the pass rush: No team struggled more to get after opposing quarterbacks in 2017 than did the Buccaneers. Tampa finished dead last in sacks (22), adjusted sack rate, and pressure rate, and just this week fired defensive line coach Jay Hayes. While there’s no word yet as to who will replace Hayes, a new coach should be leading a unit that undergoes a significant revamp this offseason.
The first thing the Buccaneers need to do is trim the fat on their defensive line. We’ll focus primarily on edge rushers given that Tampa Bay is set in the middle with Gerald McCoy and Chris Baker (although neither is a spring chicken). Veteran Robert Ayers posted the best season of his career in 2017 and is under contract for one more year, while former second-rounder Noah Spence will return from injury in 2018. Ayers and Spence should be in the Bucs’ plans for next season, but nearly every other pass rusher should be shown the door.
Ryan Russell somehow managed to play the second-most snaps of any Tampa Bay edge defender a year ago, but now that he’s a restricted free agent, I’m not sure he should even be offered an original round tender (which would pay him in the neighborhood of $1.9MM). Will Clarke is a failed former Day 2 draft pick who followed Hayes from Cincinnati; he’s a free agent now and shouldn’t be retained. And William Gholston was signed to a “$27.5MM deal” last offseason that — thanks to Tampa Bay’s contract strategy — is really worth $7MM. He can be released with no penalty this spring.
The Buccaneers should have their choice of the non-Bradley Chubb edge rushers in the 2018 draft, but there may only be one or two other defensive end worthy of the No. 7 overall selection. In his first mock draft of the year, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com sent UTSA pass rusher Marcus Davenport to Tampa Bay, noting that he compares well to the Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com says Davenport has “good quickness in lateral slides down the line of scrimmage” but lacks change-of-direction speed and acceleration. If the Bucs trade down in the first round or wait until Day 2 to draft an edge defender, Harold Landry (Boston College), Sam Hubbard (Ohio State), Arden Key (LSU), or Hercules Mata’afa (Washington State) could come into play.
Speaking of Ansah, he should be the Buccaneers’ top free agent target when the market opens on March 14. Aside from Demarcus Lawrence (who isn’t leaving the Cowboys), Ansah is the best available edge rusher scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. The 28-year-old managed 12 sacks in 2017 — the second time in three years Ansah has posted double-digit takedowns — but he only put up 21.5 total pressures, meaning he was converting pressure into sacks at an unsustainable rate. Still, Ansah would give Tampa Bay a much-needed burst of athleticism on the edge, and should be general manager Jason Licht‘s first call next month.
Other younger defensive ends such as Alex Okafor and Kony Ealy could also be on the Buccaneers’ radar, but given that Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter are likely facing a “playoffs-or-bust” ultimatum, I don’t think Tampa Bay will be adverse to adding aged veterans. Edge rushers such as William Hayes, Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney, and Lamarr Houston are each at least 30 years old, but that shouldn’t stop them from being in the Buccaneers’ potential plans.
3) Add a starting corner (plus depth): So, the Buccaneers couldn’t put pressure on opposing quarterbacks…and they also couldn’t hold up in the back end. It doesn’t take a seasoned NFL analyst to realize that’s a combination ripe for exploitation. Not only did Tampa Bay rank 31st in pass defense DVOA, but the team gave up a ton of big plays in the passing game, as it allowed 57 completions of at least 20 yards (third-most in the league).
Veteran cornerback Brent Grimes wasn’t typically the problem last season, although a few advanced metrics have conflicting opinions of the 34-year-old defensive back. PFF graded Grimes as the No. 36 corner in 2017, and the Bucs finished 15th in DVOA against opposing No. 1 wideouts, but Grimes finished just 57th among 80 qualifiers in FO’s success rate and 68th in yards allowed per pass. Overall, it was a slightly above average campaign for Grimes, which is an excellent accomplishment for a defender of his age. Given his fit in defensive coordinator Mike Smith‘s scheme, Grimes should be retained for another year — but he can’t be Tampa’s No. 1 corner for much longer.
Former first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves took a large step forward in 2017 after moving to the slot, and if the Bucs can count on him to be their nickel corner (and bring back Grimes), they can take a big swing in free agency to land a top-end defensive back. Malcolm Butler could potentially be in consideration for Tampa Bay, but he played a ton of man coverage in New England, while the Buccaneers play mostly zone. The Rams’ Trumaine Johnson, then, might be a better candidate: most of his career had been in a zone-based scheme before Los Angeles hired Wade Phillips as DC in 2017. Both Butler and Johnson figure to command $10-12MM annually on their next contracts.
Other free agents that could be of in interest to Tampa Bay include Kyle Fuller (Bears) and E.J. Gaines (Bills), but Bashaud Breeland and Byron Maxwell could possibly be had for even cheaper. Breeland is only 25 years old, and the 2018 Pro Football Focus Free Agent Guide indicates he’s best playing off coverage in a zone scheme (another nugget from the PFF guide: Breeland finished 14th among CBs in yards per coverage snap in 2017). Maxwell, meanwhile, has always been solid in zone looks, and while he’s been inconsistent, he could serve as the Buccaneers’ No. 2 option behind Grimes.
Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick is considered the best defensive back in the 2018 draft class, and Todd McShay of ESPN.com sent Fitzpatrick to Tampa Bay in his most recent mock draft. But Fitzpatrick is likely going to play slot corner or safety in the NFL (he played only 13 snaps at outside corner last year), so he may not be what the Buccaneers need. Instead, Tampa could eye Denzel Ward (Ohio State) at pick No. 7, or Josh Jackson (Iowa), Mike Hughes (Central Florida), or Jaire Alexander (Louisville) following a trade down or in Round 2.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.