While the Buccaneers have made several splash free agent signings so far in 2014 under new head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht, the roster is far from complete. The NFL Draft was pushed back to mid-May this year from the normal late-April time frame, and that extra two weeks gives the Buccaneers – and every NFL front office – more time to evaluate their rosters as well as draft prospects. With a new staff, and a ton of unknown variables, Smith and Licht most likely welcome the extra time.
The free agent crop has thinned considerably so finding an impact starter at this point in free agency could be very difficult, although there will be some June 1 cap casualties, training camp releases, and of course, the upcoming NFL Draft.
In this article, PewterReport.com takes a look at the five positions that still need an influx of talent whether it be starters or just solid depth, including the starters and backups if the season were to being today. Also included are one early, mid-round and late-round potential draft targets at each position.OFFENSIVE GUARDStarters: Jamon Meredith, Oniel CousinsReserves: Patrick Omameh, Jason Foster
Meredith, who was re-signed on the eve of free agency last month, has been a solid backup the last two seasons filling in for an injured Davin Joseph in 2012 and then for Carl Nicks last season. But his play hasn’t been close to Pro Bowl level and Meredith has battled some nagging injuries. At just 27 years old, and without a ton of wear and tear, the hope is Meredith could develop into a quality, above-average starter under new offensive line coach George Warhop.
The signing of Cousins was probably the least attractive acquisition of the offseason, as the former Brown guards struggled during his career in Cleveland, drawing the ire of fans for his inconsistent play. Can Cousins turn it around in Tampa Bay? Warhop, who also came over from Cleveland, must think so, and was able to convince Smith and Licht the potential is there.
The wild card at guard is Carl Nicks, who reportedly has been coming along well in his rehab from a MRSA infection on the same foot that required surgery in 2012 for a toe injury. The trade of the versatile Jeremy Zuttah, and release of longtime Buccaneer guard Davin Joseph tells many, including PewterReport.com, that Nicks has, at the very least, a decent shot to return to action in 2014. If not, guard becomes a huge priority for Tampa Bay in the draft next month.Potential draft targets: Stanford G David Yankey, Baylor G Cyril Richardson, Notre Dame G Chris WattOFFENSIVE TACKLEStarters: Anthony Collins, Demar DotsonReserves: Emmett Cleary
The Buccaneers front office reviewed the tape and decided they had seen enough of left tackle Donald Penn’s inconsistent play and waived the veteran left tackle the same day they added Collins, a former Bengals tackle. Collins should provide an upgrade, and Demar Dotson will line up on the opposite end of the line of scrimmage provided two solid bookend tackles for the Buccaneers in 2014.
Despite having two quality starters, the Buccaneers would be in a world of hurt if either Collins or Dotson went down for an extended period of time. While drafting an offensive lineman with the seventh-overall draft pick wouldn’t excite many in the fan base, it may be something to consider. Dotson will be 29 this year, and while he doesn’t have many miles on the tires, asking him to hold up for the next five years may be hoping for too much.
It doesn’t matter if Johnny Unitas came back from the grave, without protection, it would be a disastrous season in Tampa Bay, regardless of the quarterback. The Buccaneers can sign and draft all the All-Pro skill position players they want, but without depth at the tackle position, the staff will need to keep their lucky rabbit’s foot in their pocket all season.Potential draft targets: Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews, Virginia OT Morgan Moses, Stanford OT Cameron FlemingLINEBACKERStarters: Lavonte David, Mason Foster, Jonathan CasillasReserves: Dane Fletcher, Ka'lial Glaud, Danny Lansanah, Damaso Munoz
The three starting linebackers look to be a solid bunch led by superstar-in-waiting David. The former Cornhusker has put together two amazing seasons, surpassing Bucs legendary linebacker Derrick Brooks’ stats through their first two years in the league.
In the middle, Foster will get first crack at being Tampa Bay’s Cover 2 starter which will require a lot more pass coverage than Foster has been responsible for over his first three years in the league. Smith recently told the media he has no concerns if Foster can handle the duties of being his force in the middle. The Buccaneers moved quickly to sign Casillas, last year's strongside linebacker, on the eve of free agency and he will be given the first shot as a starter. Casillas took over for Dekoda Watson midway through last season and played well before suffering a knee injury that forced him to injured reserve.
Behind those three, things are a little slim. The Buccaneers offset the loss of Watson and Adam Hayward to free agency by signing part-time starter and special teams standout Dane Fletcher from the Patriots, but question marks remain behind those four.
Like the offensive line, if the Bucs lose a starter at linebacker, the defense would have a hard time firing on all cylinders if the season began tomorrow. Potential draft targets: Alabama MLB C.J. Mosely, Florida State MLB Christian Jones, LSU MLB Lamin BarrowKICK RETURNERStarters: Eric PageReserves: Jeff Demps, Skye Dawson
Many, including PewterReport.com, felt that signing a kick returner like former Bear Devin Hester or Chiefs special teams standout Dexter McCluster would be a big priority for the Buccaneers this offseason. So far it hasn’t been the case as both signed elsewhere.
Can Smith, who publicly stated the need for an emphasis on special teams when hired, be ready to just hand the keys to Page, last year’s kick returner? The Buccaneers will almost certainly draft a receiver that also has kick returning capabilities, and if they somehow find a way to pick up additional picks, could target a return specialist like Smith did with Hester in Chicago. The big difference from then to now is less than 50 percent of kickoffs are even returned so spending a premium on basically a punt returner may not make much sense.
Smith has hinted that he likes Demps, a track star whose intentions to play football full-time are still unknown. Maybe the Bucs are rolling the dice that Demps will be committed to football over track, but regardless, expect Tampa Bay to bring in more potential kick returners before training camp opens.Potential draft targets: Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks, Oklahoma WR Jalen Saunders, Kent State RB Dri Archer WIDE RECEIVERStarters: Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Louis MurphyReserves: Eric Page, Chris Owusu, Russell Shepard, Skye Dawson, Tommy Streeter
The receiver position has also been barely addressed in free agency thus far, although the Buccaneers did sign local product and former Gators receiver Louis Murphy last week. But that only offsets the loss of receiver Tiquan Underwood, who signed as a free agent with Carolina. With Mike Williams on a short leash, and Vincent Jackson turning 31 and carrying a large contract, the Buccaneers will most likely address the position in the draft and could do so with their first pick.
While Smith was known for his stingy defenses in Chicago, and most likely will be again in Tampa Bay, the fact that his first hire was offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford tells most that he plans to prioritize the offense side of the ball a little more than he did in the Windy City.
Tedford stressed "speed in space" when he was introduced to the media back in January, but as of now, the roster doesn’t have a whole lot of speed to get into space. The Buccaneers backups are not an impressive bunch on just the surface and other than Russell Shepard, none are particularly known for their speed. Because of that, the Bucs are trying out running back Jeff Demps as a receiver this offseason.Potential draft targets: Clemson Sammy Watkins, Wyoming WR Robert Herron, Georgia State WR Albert Wilson
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