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With the 2016 season wrapped up following a 9-7 record, PewterReport.com takes a look at each individual unit and offers up our grades. Take a look and see if you agree, and comment the story to share your thoughts.

TOTAL DEFENSE: 23rd, 367.9 yards per game
PASS DEFENSE: 22nd, 250.8 per game
RUN DEFENSE: 22nd, 117.2 yards per game
THIRD DOWN: 1st, 34.4 percent allowed
SCORING: 15th, 23.1 points per game
SACKS: 9th, 38 sacks

Like so many of the Bucs units this season, injuries took a toll and prevented the team from knowing exactly what they had in 2016. Prior to the stat of the season George Johnson was hurt, then in Week 1 Jacqiues Smith went down with a torn ACL. The hits kept coming, and in Week 2 Robert Ayers was also injured, severely hampering the Bucs from getting to the quarterback off the edge. To make matter worse, Howard Jones was also lost for the year, and Clinton McDonald, Gerald McCoy, Will Gholston and rookie Noah Spence were also banged up and missed time. Despite the long list of players down, the Bucs still managed to notch 38 sacks, which was 9th in the NFL in 2016, although some of those sacks came from other positions.

Bucs DT Gerald McCoy and DE Noah Spence – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Spence had an up and down season, catching fire in November where he was named rookie of the month, but then cooling off the last month of the year when teams started paying more attention to the rookie. Spence finished with 5.5 sacks, but showed flashes of why the Buccaneers thing he will develop into a double-digit sacker, sooner rather than later. 

Once Ayers returned the Bucs pass rush improved, and the veteran ended up with 6.5 sacks in the 10 games he started, finishing behind Gerald McCoy who notched seven sacks, leading to a Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection. Gholston notched three sacks and Clinton McDonald added 3.5. Another newcomer Ryan Russell had one sack along with mid-season addition Sealver Siliga.

The Buccaneers front office have some decisions to make moving forward as Akeem Spence (19 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and William Gholston (49 tackles, three sacks) are both unrestricted free agents. Both want to return to Tampa Bay, but management will need to determine their worth. The good news for the Bucs is, they will have plenty of cap room as the free agency period nears, and keeping both shouldn’t be problem if the team decides to. Gholston in particular seems to be a priority, as his run-stopping prowess was an important part of the Bucs mid-season turnaround. Gholston most likely will never be a big sack guy, but is tough to move and has versatility to play inside or outside, creating matchup problems for opposing defenses. 

If Smith can return to 100 percent, and the Bucs can keep Gholston and Akeem Spence, with another year of development from Noah Spence, the Bucs will have a potentially a very formidable line in 2017. That doesn’t mean the Bucs won’t continue to pursue more pass rushing help this offseason however. Improving their run defense will be a priority in the offseason as they were gouged at times, particularly at the end of the season when they could least have afforded it in the tail end of a playoff run.

The Bucs linebacking corps wasn’t perfect in 2016, and left more plays on the field than they would have liked, but Kwon Alexander improved from his impressive rookie season, and veteran Lavonte David, while his tackle numbers were down, made a number of impact plays as he adjusted to his new role in the Mike Smith-led defense. 

Alexander took it upon himself this season to take on a more leadership role from on the field to the time he spent studying film each morning. Those things paid off for the former LSU product, who finished the 2016 season with 145 tackles, seven pass breakups, three sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown. Good news for the Bucs, and their fans is, Alexander still hasn’t reached his ceiling, and with another offseason of preparation and another year under his belt, could be a breakout star in 2017.

Bucs LB Lavonte David – Photo by: Getty Images

Bucs LB Lavonte David – Photo by: Getty Images

As noted above, David’s numbers as far as tackles dipped in 2016 (87 tackles versus 147 in 2015) his role within the defense was much different, with more responsibility in coverage and also helping to funnel things to Alexander. While his tackle numbers were down, his impact was very much felt in most games, as he notched five sacks – second most in his career – along with four forced fumbles and an interception return for a touchdown. Like Alexander, David should be better with another year in this defense, if Mike Smith doesn’t leave for a head coaching opportunity. Even then, if the Bucs promote from within, David should improve in 2017.

Daryl Smith was signed as a free agent in the offseason and brought his leadership and knowledge from his prior outstanding career in the NFL to the Bucs locker room. The Bucs weren’t in their base 4-3 often so Smith’s snaps were somewhat limited, but added 35 tackles and an interception. Smith’s biggest attribute was his leadership according to the younger Bucs linebackers. 

Rookie Devante Bond spent the year on injured reserve but looks to be the heir to Smith on the outside, and was visible on the sidelines and observing practices most day, soaking up as much knowledge as possible. Adarius Glanton saw some playing time this season contributing 13 tackles in a reserve role. 

Like the Bucs defensive line, an emphasis to be better against the run in 2017 is something the linebacking corps will look to improve on this offseason, heading into next season. Adding more depth is also something the team most likely will look to do this offseason.
The Bucs defense saw as much or more improvement throughout the season as any unit in the NFL, and no position group exemplified that progression better than the secondary.

After giving up over 1,000 yards combined in consecutive weeks – against Oakland and Atlanta – the backend found its footing and was a large reason for the Bucs five-game win streak. First-round pick Vernon Hargreaves III came into his own, showing elite potential in coverage as well as a physical defender, with 76 tackles to his credit. The rookie from Florida was also versatile, sliding into the nickel role in the dime package at times.

Bucs S Chris Conte – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Moving to the other corner of the field, Brent Grimes was everything the Bucs expected when they signed him away from Miami in March. After being disappointed by a few priority free agents in recent years, Grimes was arguably the best “big money” addition to Tampa Bay since Vincent Jackson in 2012. The three-time Pro Bowler, snubbed for a fourth trip, led the NFL in pass deflections (28) while intercepting four passes. He also served as a mentor to young defensive backs like Hargreaves and undrafted rookie Javien Elliott, who saw increased time in the wake of Jude Adjei-Barimah’s suspension. Both young nickel backs, for their part, likely showed enough promise to compete for the limited role in 2017.

With a first-round investment and $16 million to a free agent, the Bucs rightly expected strong play from their corners. The safety improvement, however, was more of a pleasant surprise.

Bradley McDougald started all 16 games, leading the secondary in tackles (91) and adding two interceptions and 10 breakups. If Mike Smith leaves, it’s hard to know what type of safeties the new defensive coordinator will want, but signs point to the physical McDougald getting an extension in the offseason albeit another one-year prove it type of deal.

Speaking of safeties and contract extensions, Chris Conte might also be due. Though he lost his starting job after returning from a serious chest injury in Week 13, that decision was due to the emergence of Keith Tandy more than anything. Though not particularly known for his coverage, Conte silenced some doubters as the season progressed. Along with being physical against the run (65 tackles), the sixth-year pro had two key interceptions in consecutive weeks against the Bears and Chiefs. The Bucs could want him back at the right price.

Just when it seemed like Conte had solidified his status as a long-term starter, Tandy turned into the Bucs 2016 success story. After keeping himself on the roster the past five years through special teams play, the former fifth-round pick never stopped studying defense and it paid off when he got his shot. In the final five weeks, Tandy recorded four interceptions, including the clincher in San Diego during his first start of the year. The Bucs were right to give him a two-year extension last offseason.

The Bucs have more pressing needs heading into the offseason, but if a highly-graded safety or corner falls to them in the early rounds, it stands to reason they could bolster the secondary with another elite prospect.

As far as kicking specialists go, you couldn’t have had more polar opposite seasons from the kicker and punter.

Starting with the good, Bryan Anger was one of best punters in the league in 2016. Along with hitting 37 inside the 20-yard line, a significant portion of which inside the 10, the fifth-year pro had a 42.7-yard net average. Both ranked third in the NFL. After flipping the field or getting the Bucs out of jams numerous times throughout the year, Anger’s consistency was awarded with a contract extension just before the season finale.

Punter Bryan Anger – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR

Then there was Roberto Aguayo. The Bucs second-round pick got off on the wrong foot in preseason – missing two field goals and an extra point – which made restoring his reputation difficult. Even when he got on a bit of a hot streak during the second half of the year – hitting 17 of 20 FGs since Week 8 – fans expected perfection and couldn’t shake the early memories. The season finale didn’t help his case.

Dirk Koetter didn’t mince words when he said the Bucs needed better than 71 percent from their kicker, and the front office showed its teeth by immediately signing competition. Aguayo is still the guy and the Bucs have faith in a turnaround, but he’ll likely be kicking for his future in Tampa starting in Week 1 of the preseason.

Gunners Russell Shepard and Josh Robinson were excellent in punt coverage, which proved to be an asset for the Bucs throughout the season. Without the duo, and Ryan Smith, many of Anger’s gems would’ve come out to the 20-yard line and that’s a significant difference from inside the 10 or 5.

Moving to the return game, this is an area in need of improvement. Fourth-round rookie Ryan Smith struggled, but his replacement, Josh Huff, made him look a lot better. In fairness, Huff joined the team late, but his critical mistakes in both games against New Orleans were hard to excuse. Adam Humphries, for his part, faired pretty well as the main punt returner. He took back 24 for an average of 10 yards per attempt and had two 20-yard returns. 

PewterReport.com’s Zach Shapiro contributed to this post

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About the Author: Mark Cook

Mark Cook currently is the director of editorial content and Bucs beat writer and has written for PewterReport.com since 2011. Cook has followed the Buccaneers since 1977 when he first began watching football with his Dad and is fond of the 1979 Bucs team that came within 10 points of going to a Super Bowl. His favorite Bucs game is still the 1979 divisional playoff win 24-17 over the Eagles. In his spare time Cook enjoys playing guitar, fishing, the beach and family time.Cook is a native of Pinecrest in Eastern Hillsborough County and has written for numerous publications including the Tampa Tribune, In the Field and Ya'll Magazine. Cook can be reached at mark@pewterreport.com
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4 years ago

Generally agree with these grades …. maybe with one exception: the defensive line grade is more like, in an academic sense, “incomplete”. The injuries on the line made it really tough to maintain continuity and the performance varied tremendously throughout the season. We also had two rookies who were learning on the job, and their performance in the second half of the season was much more skilled than in the first half. If we can avoid the major decimation by injury that we had in 2016, and given the rookie learning curve for Hargreaves and Spence being largely complete, I… Read more »

4 years ago

Doesn’t look like Mile Smith will be moving to Jacksonville.
NFL.com just reported Doug Marrone will be getting the Jag job.
Aestecially it’s probably a good thing for Smith. Who really wants to move to Jacksonville. Blah.

Reply to  drdneast
4 years ago

Hope he stays here.

4 years ago

Jags hired Doug Marrone, not Mike Smith, eh! ESPN Insider Mark Dominik predicted that Smith was the leading contender and the Jags would likely announce that on Tuesday. That should have been our clue. Now if we can get Dominik to predict that Smth gets the San Diego job, we can all relax. Lol.

Bucs D-Line coach Jay Hayes just went “What the………you gotta be kiddin’ me! lol.

4 years ago

Just my opinion: DL, C; LB, C+; CB, C+; Special Teams, C.

4 years ago

We have two Pro Bowl alternates in our LB corp… unit is an A. Secondary is a C due to subpar safety play the majority of the season. final quarter Tandy was great.

Reply to  SappAttack
4 years ago

Subpar safety play? Durring our 5 game winning streak we had INTs every game by a safety including multiple game winners. If thats subpar play, what is par play?

4 years ago

the way this season went, you should give separate grades for the 1st and 2nd halves of the season. if you did the secondary would have gone from an F to an A

4 years ago

I don’t try to grade each unit, the only grade that counts is 9-7 which is an improvement over 6-10 in 2015. As has been the case over the past several years with the concussion protocol, injury factor, rule changes, and win now philosophy football has changed dramatically. “The next man up,” mentality has become the new norm. Therefore the sack leaders, tackle leaders, TFL leaders, INT leaders are collectively useless statistics. The sack leaders get double teamed, The INT leaders get avoided and when you praise a CB for the number of solo tackles he is making, you are… Read more »

4 years ago

I’m ok with the grades but I do have an issue with this statement “First-round pick Vernon Hargreaves III came into his own, showing elite potential in coverage as well as a physical defender, with 76 tackles to his credit.” The kid showed some glimpses but he was also the only CB in the NFL to give up 1,000 yards receiving. I’m all for pumping up good stuff but VHIII has plenty to work on this offseason and I dont think elite would be the word I’d use to describe his season. Eli Apple who we traded down and missed… Read more »

Reply to  stlbucsfan
4 years ago

I agree 100% with your review of Hargreaves. He couldn’t cover anyone against Carolina last game and struggled big time also against New Orleans. l did not see elite cover skills at all!!! He was atrocious at the beginning of the year missing tackles and not making tackles with bad techniques. Was not a correct pick at the spot last year in the first round. Very disappointed in his overall play last season for where he was picked in the draft.

Buc 1976
4 years ago

VH lll should be in the slot yes he can tackle because he let his man make catch in front of him. Without Tandy in games we may have lost 1or2 more games he really played well! McCoy is still good but getting older I wish we had taken DT first rd. last year. Just my thoughts but a better pass rush helps our DB more. Playing against Carolina twice a year our it is hard to stop tall wr in red z.

4 years ago

Hargreaves really came on by yrs end and Noah Spence shows real promise, Alexander might become best lb in league in a few yrs if not next yr, Tandy a stud sad it took this long to realize this, future bright

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