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Welcome to the offseason edition of Bucs Briefing! My weekly column will appear each Wednesday morning, typically detailing seven key observations about the team’s offseason. We’ll look at tape, scheme, free agency, draft prospects and major storylines as we get ready for an offseason full of intrigue.

This week, we’re looking at six ways the Bucs must improve their roster this offseason. For the purpose of this exercise, we’re not assuming any free agent departures just yet.

7. A Returner Who Can Run Without Falling Over

Bucs WR-KR Jaelon Darden

Bucs WR-KR Jaelon Darden – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

I was willing to be patient with Jaelon Darden for most of his rookie season. But by the end of the year, I was done. Darden simply has no vision or balance as a runner. On countless returns this season, Darden wiped out in the open field. Like, literally tripped over his own feet. “Sniper got him” type of stuff. All year long. Minimal contact was almost always enough to bring him down, and Darden consistently failed to create splash plays with the ball.

Long-time Bucs fans might remember what a disaster former second-round receiver Dexter Jackson was as a return specialist in 2008 for the same reason. Sadly, Darden appears to be Jackson 2.0.

The Bucs traded up in the fourth round for Darden, so I’d expect him to be the incumbent kick and punt returner going into camp. But Tampa Bay needs to bring in some serious competition for him. Maybe it’s a free agent. Or perhaps one of this year’s day three draft picks is an improvement over Darden. Heck, bring back Jaydon Mickens. But trotting Darden out without a serious fight for a roster spot next season would be a huge mistake.

6. An Upside Backup Linebacker

I like K.J. Britt and Grant Stuard as special teamers. Heck, I love Stuard as a special teamer. Mr. Irrelevant was quietly awesome this season on special teams. But I can’t see either player ever becoming a defensive starter, or even a desirable fill-in like Kevin Minter. Both lack the athleticism to play on the second level in today’s NFL. Especially in Todd Bowles’ scheme. They would be exposed quickly.

Bucs ILB Kevin Minter

Bucs ILB Kevin Minter – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

As for Minter, he’s a 31-year old free agent who may retire. Even if he doesn’t, his best days are behind him. Minter struggled mightily when called upon this season. And Lavonte David is entering the final year of his contract. The Bucs could add a year in 2023 if he wants to keep playing, but they need a succession plan in place.

It’s not critical for the Bucs to find David’s replacement in the upcoming draft. But if they do target a linebacker in the middle rounds, looking for upside is key. Do that player have range and aggressiveness? Is he fearless and physical? Will he be a student of the game behind Devin White and David? Those are all questions the Bucs should be asking themselves when scouting linebackers this offseason.

5. Blocking Tight Ends

Bucs TE Cam Brate

Bucs TE Cam Brate – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

One of the strangest aspects of the Bruce Arians’ tenure in Tampa Bay has been his lack of emphasis on blocking tight ends. Everywhere else he has been, Arians has prioritized blocking amongst his tight end room. In the Bucs’ duo-heavy run scheme, tight ends that can block are important.

But for three years, Tampa Bay has really only had one tight end, Rob Gronkowski, who can block. O.J. Howard and Cam Brate are average at best in that area. And the depth guys they’ve had around in the past, Tanner Hudson and Codey McElroy, aren’t blockers either.

In last year’s Battle Plan for the offseason, I wanted the Bucs to sign Packers TE Marcedes Lewis. The veteran returned to Green Bay and was an excellent blocker again this season. Maybe Darren Fells will return to the Bucs, as Howard departs. Could Cardinals tight end Maxx Williams be an option this offseason? He’s one of the best blocking tight ends on the market. And he should be cheap with minimal production coming off an ACL injury.

4. Competition At CB

If the Bucs go into next season with their current group at cornerback – Carlton Davis III, Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Ross Cockrell, Pierre Desir and Dee Delaney – they might be fine in 2022. But they won’t be great. And they won’t be great beyond 2022 either. Dean and Murphy-Bunting will be entering contract years. The former has started to prove worthy of being a reliable starter in the NFL. But Murphy-Bunting’s struggles on the field and to stay healthy are troubling.

Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting

Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

The Bucs have done a good job of finding quality veterans to provide depth and leadership at cornerback. But if they pay Davis this offseason, it’s unlikely Dean or Murphy-Bunting come back for a big contract. Also, Tampa Bay should be actively examining ways to push Murphy-Bunting’s playing time in 2022. He’s been below average for three years, despite not having to face No. 1 or even No. 2 wide receivers very often.

To me, Tampa Bay needs to go back to the well for another cornerback in the draft. This position, along with wide receiver, are probably the biggest draft priorities for the Bucs. The good news is, if Davis is back, the Bucs don’t need a No. 1 cornerback. They can spend another day two pick in a deep cornerback class. Prioritizing a player who can defend the slot should be a priority. The Bucs have not had a suitable answer for inside receivers for some time now. That must improve in 2022.

3. Interior Pass Rush

If the Bucs defense is going to take a step forward, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles must stop blitzing so often. Don’t get me wrong, Bowles can still blitz. What he can’t continue to do is blitz at a rate that dwarfs the next closest team in the league. That’s what Bowles did in 2021. And it’s what he’s done too often throughout his career.

Moving forward, the Bucs need to look at their roster and evaluate why they can’t get more from their four-man pass rush. If you look at so many of the top teams around the NFC, they have legitimate difference makers that can dominate even good offensive linemen one-on-one.

Rams DT Aaron Donald

Rams DT Aaron Donald – Photo by: USA Today

The Rams have Aaron Donald and Von Miller. The 49ers have Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, with tremendous depth. And the Cowboys have Demarcus Lawrence, Micah Parsons and Randy Gregory. Even the Packers, who aren’t as strong in this area, got a year three leap from Rashan Gary and have Za’Darius Smith and Kenny Clark.

Tampa Bay wants to have those guys in Shaq Barrett and Vita Vea. But Barrett is a good, not great edge rusher. He’ll probably always struggle one-on-one against the top-tier offensive tackles in the NFL. Barrett just doesn’t have the size and athleticism to be an elite player. As for Vea, he could be a monster interior rusher. But he needs to develop more rush moves. Also, Vea must find a way to get on the field more often. Tampa Bay’s goal should be to get him to 65-70 percent of defensive snaps next season.

Meanwhile, how can the Bucs improve their current crop of talent? The organization hopes Joe Tryon-Shoyinka will develop into that premier No. 1 edge rusher. There is no question he has the size, length, athleticism and mental makeup to do so. But the Bucs need another presence on the interior. It doesn’t even need to necessarily be a full-time player. But they need a pass-rushing defensive tackle who can consistently win one-on-one when other teams double Vea.

Unfortunately, Scott Reynolds tells me it’s another abysmal defensive tackle class in the draft. We both told y’all last year’s defensive tackle class was miserable, and we were right. The 2021 rookie interior defensive line group was one of the worst in a long time.

So the Bucs may need to look at cheap free agent depth. One interesting name is Calais Campbell. He’s 35 years old, but still played at a high level last season. Campbell played for Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles in Arizona, so he knows the system. Arians is always interested in bringing back former players, especially great people like Campbell.

Don’t think that age is a turn off, either. Ndamukong Suh and Steve McLendon played on Sunday at ages 35 and 36, respectively.

If the Bucs look like a contender, I’d expect there to be some mutual interest here. Of course, Campbell also could choose to retire.

2. Improve Talent At WR3/WR4

Outside of re-signing their own players and staving off retirement for a few key veterans, this is the most important objective of the Bucs offseason. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are an outstanding tandem. But the reality is that the Bucs play a ton of football out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers). WR3 is a more valuable position in their offense than almost any offense in the league. They need players who can get open, read coverages and make plays after the catch.

Bucs WR Tyler Johnson

Bucs WR Tyler Johnson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

After this past season, we know Tyler Johnson can’t be counted on as one of those players. The second-year receiver received ample opportunity and played miserably. He dropped four passes in the playoffs and caught only five balls for 45 yards despite operating as the team’s No. 2 wideout. Johnson also failed to score a touchdown all season.

It’s also clear the Bucs don’t care for Scotty Miller. Jaelon Darden struggled mightily as a rookie, and Breshad Perriman is a journeyman. Cyril Grayson, Jr. looked good for two games, but he’s 28 years old with 11 career catches.

All of these players can come to camp and compete. None of them should be counted on as the Bucs WR3 or WR4 next year. The players that will play one or both of those roles are not currently on the roster.

Will that player (or players) come in free agency or the draft? Likely the latter.

A few players in free agency pique my interest – WR/RB Cordarrelle Patterson and WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. Patterson is a terrific YAC player who can play out of the backfield on third downs. He’s also a fearless returner and a great locker room guy. Soon-to-be 31 years old, Patterson might be looking for a place to finish his career with a shot at another ring. He already won one with Tom Brady a few years ago in New England. Bruce Arians loves him too, raving about how hard he is to tackle this past season. Patterson would likely be cheap and accepting of a role player designation.

As for Smith-Schuster, that one is a bit trickier to figure out. As a free agent last year, there was almost no market for Smith-Schuster. The Ravens and Chiefs had short-term deals on the table for him. Ultimately, Smith-Schuster went back to the Steelers on a one-year deal. But then he hurt his shoulder and missed all but five games. What will his market be this offseason?

CB Brent Grimes - Photo by: Mary Holt/PR

Bucs CB Brent Grimes – Photo by: Mary Holt/PR

It’s hard to imagine Smith-Schuster generating much more interest than he did during the 2021 offseason. Reportedly, the Chiefs are high on his list. But if he’s going for a one-year, prove-it deal again, there aren’t many better places than the Bucs. Playing with Tom Brady for a year could seriously boost his pedigree. Smith-Schuster can play inside or outside, he’s very good after the catch and he might be a better blocker than Chris Godwin. He’s the epitome of a “dirty work” wide receiver who can still make plays down the field.

His presence would allow Godwin to play an even more versatile role. And if Godwin were to be injured, the Bucs wouldn’t have to change their offense that much schematically. Smith-Schuster isn’t as consistent as Godwin, but he’s like a B-version of Tampa Bay’s star receiver. People forget, back when Smith-Schuster had a real quarterback, he put up a 1,400-yard season and was a 13 yards-per-catch guy.

But the Bucs are likely to focus on their own players in free agency first. So look for the draft as a more likely option. This is supposedly a strong wide receiver class with plenty of depth. You’ll see tons of wide receiver scouting reports and content rolling out on Pewter Report over the next few weeks/months.

1. Laugh A Little

This is pretty incredible. And you can add another two for Evans, putting him at 31 touchdowns from Brady. This graphic was published before the playoffs. If Brady returns, Evans will have a great shot at becoming the second-leading touchdown receptor from Brady. Despite only playing three years together!

He’ll need just 10 touchdowns to tie Julian Edelman for second behind Gronkowski. Evans has caught more than 10 touchdowns in four of his eight seasons in the NFL.

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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Ted in Tampa
Ted in Tampa
3 months ago

The biggest hole we must fix is our OLine left tackle. Donovan Smith is a well below average left tackle, led the entire NFL in penalties last year, can’t run block, and edge rushers run around him with ease (see videos of the Rams game). Put together a package (trade and draft picks) so we can move way up in the draft and get Sean Rhyan from UCLA. I saw him play three times this year and he has the quickness, grip strength, forearm strength, and athleticism to be a top 5 draft pick. Read reviews on him and they… Read more »

fredster
fredster
3 months ago

I agree with the list. It’s a lot of holes this year. Sucks. . JPP being ineffective this year since he was hurt made our pass rush not work. Bowles answer was to blitz more which didn’t work. Why he wouldn’t play JTS more over JPP is another reason he should go imo. I been harping on these CB’s for long time and it bit us in the ass this year probably more than anything as far as why we couldn’t repeat. We can extend Levonte possibly if have to and address LB later, but it’s imperative to get another… Read more »

Bradley Smith
Bradley Smith
3 months ago

Darden looked like a deer in headlights and ran toward the sideline too often rather than upfield. Even when the team was down WRs, he rarely saw the field. So much for the preseason hype. I can see a few players joining the teams of Leftwich and Bowles if both are named head coaches. It was good year, but injuries and dumb play by the defense doomed the team. Too often players on defense had busted assignments, particularly in the secondary, and the LBs cannot cover TEs.

Buc76
Buc76
3 months ago

How about a quarterback. We don’t know if ours is coming back.

surferdudes
Reply to  Buc76
3 months ago

Trask would be the first QB off the board in this year’s draft. Even if we used our 1st rounder on a QB he wouldn’t be as good as Trask.

drdneast
drdneast
Reply to  surferdudes
3 months ago

LMAO.

surferdudes
3 months ago

No good DTs in this years draft? Did you watch any SEC games this year? Tell me there’s no good DTs coming out of Bama,or Georgia?

Eddie
Eddie
Reply to  surferdudes
3 months ago

Agreed, will be happy with either one of them

lambeau
lambeau
3 months ago

Yes to Juju/Cordarrelle!
Excellent overview.
Maybe lay off Sapp as a consultant following his spectacular failure evaluating Barmore.

The Freeman
The Freeman
3 months ago

Maxx Williams was on my wish list in 2019 and 2020, will be again this year… give me Gronk ($8-10M), Maxx Williams ($2-3M), a rookie (Trey McBride, Greg Dulcich or Jeremy Ruckert) and some ST guys on minimum salary for the 4th/5th spot (Demetrius Harris, Eric Tomlinson, JP Holtz, Jeremy Sprinkle…) i was so mad we didn’t trade for Calais Campbell in 2020, he was definitly worth a late 5th round pick would like a stop gap/old vet like Campbell or Akiem Hicks + a young FA on a one-year prove it deal looking for a big contract later (see… Read more »

Horse
Horse
3 months ago

Assuming Brady is back; players signed Godwin,Gronk,Fournette,Jensen,Cappa,Davis; Via Draft: DT,TE, LB,WR,RB,OL; Off SeasonTE,OL,QB,RB,OL,WR,Punter,Kicker,DT,CB.

bucballer
bucballer
Reply to  Horse
3 months ago

Don’t forget Whitehead! He may be the most well rounded DB we have. I definitely like him better than Davis! WR Cordarelle would look really good in a Pewter uniform. Guys been a Buc killer his entire career regardless of which team he plays for.

The Freeman
The Freeman
3 months ago

the problem with the nickel back spot is more the profile Bowles is looking for… is really rare. (+ we miss on guy like Nate Hobbs in the draft) with another coordinator it will be easy to find a good nickel back, every year there is a good FA available + they are not really expensive, $6-8M/year for the best in the game. if it was my shot, i’m looking in FA for that spot. one CB to draft early on Day 3 is Marcus Jones (Houston), best returner in CFB. but if i have to bet, they’ll draft Kyler… Read more »

The Freeman
The Freeman
3 months ago

have no trust on this FO to pick a good LB, they always pick the one who can’t cover…

WVBuc
WVBuc
3 months ago

I have one hope for Tyler Johnson. I don’t know if this is still a strong supposition in the NFL but at one point the prevailing statistics indicated that Wide Receivers often break out in their 3rd season. The transition to the NFL seemed as difficult, if not more, for Receivers than Quarterbacks. One can hope. But also sign or draft competition.

BDOG
BDOG
3 months ago

Draft WR3, trade 2022 TB 27, 91, and 155 to PHI for pick 19, draft WR USC Drake London opposite Evans, and Godwin in slot?! It’s looking like might have to move up for serious difference making WR if using as a starter for team trying to get back to SB. DB TB 59, then fill TE, DL, ILB, from FA’s. And ask Brady to get Edelman off rocker for one more year so Evans doesn’t pass him as #2 overall WR TD connection with TB12!

scubog
scubog
3 months ago

Pretty good analysis Jon. I’m not the biggest fan of free agency to construct a team, but I would love to have Cordarrelle Patterson on the roster. Gruden would have called him a “joker”. It’s clear that the team is currently made up of a lot of aging veterans playing key roles, and there are not enough Draft picks to adequately replace them. Thus, the personnel staff will have it’s work cut out for them finding emerging talent on the free agent market. Look for those guys who took a bit longer to develop, who haven’t yet lived up to… Read more »