Tampa Bay kicked off 2017 the right way by ended its 2016 season with a winning record. The Bucs defense picked off Panthers quarterback Cam Newton three times and sacked him three more as Tampa Bay held off Carolina, 17-16, to finish 9-7. Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston found Mike Evans with the game-winning touchdown and the defense held off a last-second comeback by Carolina, which failed to convert a potentially game-winning two-point conversion at the end.
It’s time for PewterReport.com’s 2-Point Conversion post-game column, which features two statements, two questions and two predictions based on the latest Bucs game.
TWO BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: WINSTON NEEDS BIGGER TARGETS IN 2017
Without 6-foot-5 tight end Cameron Brate in the lineup due to a season-ending back injury, quarterback Jameis Winston was without one of his bigger targets on Sunday, and he was sorely missed. On Tampa Bay’s first drive of the game, 6-foot-1 wide receiver Russell Shepard couldn’t haul in two high passes from Winston, including one in the end zone on third down.
It’s no surprise that Brate and 6-foot-5 wide receiver Mike Evans have been Winston’s top two receivers this season because both are big targets. Evans had a Pro Bowl season and led the team with a career-high 96 catches, while Brate finished the year as the team’s second-leading receiver with 57 receptions.
Winston, who finished 2016 completing 345-of-567 passes (60.8 percent) could benefit from another big receiver with a wide catch radius. Until Winston becomes more accurate he would benefit greatly from another big starting receiver with height, long arms and leaping ability that can snare some of Winston’s passes that are just off target. The Bucs attempted to assemble the “Dunkaneers” in 2014 with Evans, 6-foot-5 wide receiver Vincent Jackson and 6-foot-6 tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but constant injuries to Jackson and ASJ prevented that from happening. With ASJ gone and Jackson likely not returning in 2017, it’s time to try that approach again and find another big target to lineup alongside Evans and Brate.
Western Michigan WR Corey Davis – Photo by: Getty Images
There are two potential first-round receivers that fit the bill in Clemson junior Mike Williams, who has 90 catches for 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns to lead the Tigers into a national championship rematch against Alabama next Monday, and Western Michigan senior Corey Davis, who has 91 catches for 1,427 yards and 18 touchdowns to lead the Broncos into a bowl game match-up against Wisconsin.
Williams is 6-foot-3, weighs 225 pounds and is expected to be a top-12 pick. He likely won’t be on the board when the Bucs pick 19th in the first round. Davis, who is 6-foot-3, 213 pounds and is college football’s all-time leading receiver at the FBS level, has 5,212 career receiving yards and 51 touchdowns on 326 catches. He is expected to be drafted in the latter stage of the first round, so Tampa Bay could have a shot at selecting him.
STATEMENT 2: BUCS WERE WISE TO LOCK UP ANGER
Don’t you love it when a player who gets a contract extension comes out and has a dynamite game to show he deserves it? No, I’m not making a dig at Doug Martin and his 2.9-yard average this season, although that’s warranted given the fact that he failed to earn anywhere close to the $8 million he was paid this year (minus Sunday’s game check for his suspension). I’m talking about the day punter Bryan Anger had against Carolina.
Anger reportedly signed a five-year deal worth $17 million, which averages out to $3.4 million per season, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. Anger had a great day against Carolina and that pleased head coach Dirk Koetter.
“What a great day. Five punts, five inside the 20,” Koetter said. “He had a heck of a year. Great job by Jason (Licht) to get him back. We’re very excited about having him. Unfortunately, of our three specialists, Depo (long snapper Andrew DePaola) suffered a torn ACL today on that punt. That’s a crushing blow in the last game of the year. I don’t know how many people noticed but we had to go with our backup snapper, Adarius Glanton, on those last two place-kicks, the field goal that got blocked and the last extra point. That’s not a good situation for Depo. But as far as Bryan goes, another fantastic day.”
Anger finished the year with a 45.9-yard average and a 42.7-yard net. He also had 37 punts downed inside the 20 against just five touchbacks. But Anger’s biggest play of the year wasn’t even on a punt. It was as the holder on Roberto Aguayo’s blocked field goal in the fourth quarter. Anger raced after Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson, who returned the ball 21 yards to the Carolina 49-yard line before being shoved out of bounds by Tampa Bay’s punter.
Anger’s tackle on Thompson saved a touchdown that would have put the Bucs behind 17-10 with 11:55 left in regulation. Instead, the Panthers drove 31 yards down to the Tampa Bay 18 only to see kicker Graham Gano miss his third field goal of the game – a 36-yarder that went wide left. In the grand scheme of things, Anger’s tackle was just as significant as one of Lavonte David’s two sacks or one of the Bucs’ three interceptions – if not more because it saved a fourth quarter touchdown.
TWO PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: WHAT WAS THE MOST IMPROVED UNIT IN TAMPA BAY?
The Bucs improved in a lot of areas. Jameis Winston threw the most TD passes in Tampa Bay history this year with 28 and also threw for the most yards in a single season with 4,090. Mike Evans had a Pro Bowl year with a career-high 96 catches for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns, which tied his record set during his rookie season.
The Bucs’ front seven recorded 36 of the team’s 38 sacks, which tied last year’s mark, but the biggest improvement has happened in the secondary where better coaching from coaches Brett Maxie and Jon Hoke helped the unit record 14 of Tampa Bay’s 17 interceptions this season. That’s six more picks than the 11 interceptions the Bucs had a year ago. Tampa Bay finished with three INTs on Sunday against Carolina and could have had three more as safety Chris Conte, middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and cornerback Javien Elliott all dropped their chances at picks against Cam Newton.
Having better talent helps, too. Free agent cornerback Brent Grimes finished 2016 as a Pro Bowl alternate with a team-high four interceptions, including a pick-six against the Panthers on Sunday. That was twice as many as the entire cornerback unit had last year with two – one by Alterraun Verner and one by former corner Sterling Moore. Grimes also had a team-high 24 pass breakups, including four versus the Panthers. The cornerbacks finished with six interceptions.
Keith Tandy finished the season as a starting safety, and also had four picks, including two against Carolina. Fellow safeties Conte and Bradley McDougald also had two interceptions apiece for the secondary. Tandy will likely enter 2017 as a starter, while both Conte and McDougald will be unrestricted free agents in March.
Collectively, the Bucs had four pick-sixes this year, including Grimes’ against Carolina, one by Conte against Chicago, one by linebacker Lavonte David at San Diego, and one by Alexander against Los Angeles. That’s the most since 2002 when Tampa Bay had four interceptions returned for touchdowns during the regular season en route to winning the Super Bowl.
QUESTION 2: DID TANDY LOCK UP A STARTING JOB IN 2017?
If there is one player that put an exclamation point on his 2016 season on Sunday against Carolina it was safety Keith Tandy. The fifth-year defensive back finished an incredible season with a team-high 12 tackles and two interceptions versus the Panthers. Tandy ended his season with 57 tackles, nine passes defensed, four interceptions, which tied him with Brent Grimes for the team lead, and a fumble recovery.
Bucs S Keith Tandy – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
I wrote about Tandy emerging as a starter down the stretch this year in Friday’s SR’s Fab 5 column, as he has played every single snap on defense over the last five games, including the Panthers game. So when you see Chris Conte in the game, know that he rotated with Bradley McDougald – not Tandy.
Both Conte and McDougald will be unrestricted free agents in 2017, and it will be interesting to see who gets re-signed. I could see the Bucs giving either player – or both – a one-year, prove-it deal for the right to start opposite Tandy, but Tandy should earn the right to head into the offseason as the starter due to his preparation and his production.
By moving 2016 fourth-round pick Ryan Smith from safety to cornerback this year, Tampa Bay will likely draft a safety in 2017 and there is a decent crop available this year. Although picking at No. 19 in the first round will likely keep LSU’s Jamal Adams just out of reach as he’s regarded as a top 15 pick.
Ohio State’s Malik Hooker, who has seven interceptions this season, has said he’s returning to the Buckeyes next year, but has two weeks to change his mind. Hooker is regarded as a top 20 selection. Utah’s Marcus Williams, Washington’s Budda Baker, Texas A&M’s Justin Evans, Alabama’s Eddie Jackson, Florida’s Marcus Maye and Louisiana Tech’s Xavier Woods are some other names to know at the safety position.
TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: LICHT WON’T BE VERY ACTIVE IN NFL FREE AGENCY
Bucs general manager Jason Licht had more hits in free agency than misses this past offseason, and that’s harder to do because the success rate for free agency is actually considered to be a bit lower than it is for the draft in NFL circles. Licht had success with special teams aces like punter Bryan Anger and top gunner Josh Robinson and on defense with Pro Bowl alternate cornerback Brent Grimes, who had 24 pass breakups and four interceptions, including a pick-six, and defensive end Robert Ayers, who finished the year with 6.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one safety.
Licht’s most expensive free agent came on the offensive side of the ball in guard J.R. Sweezy, who suffered a back injury and never took one snap in practice during the entire year. Sweezy is expected to be healthy for the Bucs’ 2017 offseason and compete for a starting job next season. Sweezy was really the lone disappointment in free agency as the additions of Grimes, Ayers, Anger and Robinson all made up for it.
Bucs RB Jacquizz Rodgers – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
Hitting on four free agents again will be tough for Licht, and the initial crop looks weak at several of the Bucs’ “need” positions, including wide receiver outside of DeSean Jackson, who still averaged 18 yards per catch at the age of 30. Instead, look for Licht and Tampa Bay to turn its attention to re-signing several of its own players, including Robinson, running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who led the Bucs with 560 yards rushing and two touchdowns, defensive end Will Gholston and wide receiver Russell Shepard among others.
The Bucs also want backup quarterback Mike Glennon to return, but won’t break the bank to keep him if he is pursued by a team that will pay him starter money. Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg will spend most of free agency attempting to keep their own players rather than looking for additions outside of Tampa Bay.
PREDICTION 2: BUCS WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IN 2017
A play here or there against Los Angeles, Oakland, Dallas and New Orleans and Tampa Bay could have finished at least 10-6 and in the playoffs this season as I predicted before the 2016 season. Instead the Bucs fell one game short.
Tampa Bay lost to three teams with losing records (Arizona, Los Angeles and New Orleans) and beat three teams that are in the playoffs (Atlanta, Kansas City and Seattle). It was definitely a step in the right direction for a team with a first-year NFL head coach in Dirk Koetter, whose 9-7 record is the second best for a coach in his first season in Tampa Bay behind only Jon Gruden, who went 12-4 and won a Super Bowl in his first year with the Bucs in 2002.
In the end, the Bucs had a tough schedule in 2016, playing in seven games against teams with winning records, including Atlanta twice. Tampa Bay will again play in seven games against teams that finished with at least nine wins in 2017, including Atlanta (twice), New England, Green Bay, the New York Giants, Detroit and Miami. It’s early and there are a lot of pieces to the Bucs’ 2017 puzzle that need to be added in the offseason, but it’s not crazy to think this Tampa Bay team can win 10 or 11 games in 2017.
The difference for the Bucs next year is that Koetter, his team and the Bucs fans have once again made Raymond James Stadium a tough place to play and established home-field advantage with four straight wins, including Sunday’s 17-16 win over Carolina. And with upsets scored against the likes of the playoff-bound teams like the Chiefs and the Seahawks, the Bucs now believe they can win any game.
“I love the advancement that we made first and foremost, winning more,” Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston said. “Everyone likes winning. We have to continue to get better. We have to continue to expect to win rather than hoping to win.
“I’m going to go back to that time when we won five games in a row. It was one of the most exciting times of my NFL career. I think that’s what makes all of this worth it. When you see it can be done. When you see people buy in on what their coaches are telling them and make it happen.’’