The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be kicking off their 2017 regular season on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium against the Chicago Bears after a Week 1 bye due to Hurricane Irma. That means it’s time for the PewterReport.com staff to post its 2017 Pewter Predictions when it comes to the Buccaneers players. Who will be the MVP of Tampa Bay’s offense, defense and special teams? Who will be the Most Improved Players on offense and defense? Continue reading to find out.
2017 BUCCANEERS OFFENSIVE MVP
QB Jameis Winston
Let’s put it this way. Winston better be Tampa Bay’s MVP on offense because the Bucs will need him to up his game in 2017 if the team is going to make the playoffs. That means tossing around 30 touchdowns while reducing his number of interceptions and overall turnovers.
Last year, Winston set the single season franchise record with 28 touchdowns, but also threw a career-high 18 picks. With 31 touchdown passes this season, Winston would break the career touchdown mark in Tampa Bay of 80 set by Josh Freeman (2009-13). That would be amazing considering that this is only Winston’s third year in the NFL. It’s also a testament to how mediocre the play of Bucs quarterbacks has been over the past four decades.
Winston is a gunslinger and a playmaker, so the idea of him breaking that franchise record this year isn’t far-fetched. But what head coach Dirk Koetter needs Winston to do is to eliminate the bad decisions and reduce the number of interceptions. If Winston can have a 3:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio of 30:10 the Bucs should be on track to win at least 10 games and make the playoffs. Winston has been working hard this offseason to get better and it’s time for all that hard work to pay off. He showed that he was a more accurate passer in the preseason and that’s a great first step.
2017 BUCCANEERS DEFENSIVE MVP
LB Lavonte David
In his first four seasons in Tampa Bay David increased his tackle output each year from recording 139 tackles as a rookie in 2012 to 145 stops the next year to 146 tackles in 2014 to a career-high 147 tackles the following year. But in the first year in Mike Smith’s defense last season, David’s production fell to just 87 tackles – 60 fewer tackles than he had in 2015.
David got off to an incredibly slow start statistically, recording five or fewer tackles in four of the first eight games of the season. In a 40-7 loss at Arizona in Week 2, David failed to record a single tackle or any statistic for the first time in his five-year NFL career. But as David began feeling more comfortable in Smith’s defense, he began reverting to form as a playmaker on Tampa Bay’s defense. Down the stretch David recorded four sacks, two forced fumbles, two pass breakups and a key pick-six, which came in a win at San Diego to help fuel the Bucs’ 6-2 finish.
David has had a strong offseason and looks to pick up from where he left off. David proved to Smith that he can be an effective blitzer and finished with five sacks, which was just two behind his personal best of seven, which was set in 2013, a year in which he had five interceptions and was named to the All-Pro team. While Kwon Alexander, PewterReport.com’s 2016 Bucs Defensive MVP, will continue to grow into his role as a playmaker, we predict that David will have 100 or more tackles, at least seven sacks as a blitzing linebacker, in addition to at least three interceptions and another pick-six in helping Tampa Bay’s defense put the team in position to make the playoffs.
2017 BUCCANEERS SPECIAL TEAMS MVP
P Bryan Anger
The Bucs special teams received a major upgrade this offseason with the addition of kicker Nick Folk, who replaced Roberto Aguayo, the team’s second-round pick from a year ago. Aguayo was the worst kicker in the league last year and the Bucs will receive more consistency from Folk, an 11-year veteran. But Folk won’t finish as Tampa Bay’s Special Teams MVP this season.
That distinction belongs to Anger, who has become a Pro Bowl-caliber punter entering his sixth NFL season. In his first year in Tampa Bay, Anger nailed 37 of his 70 punts inside the 20-yard line and only had five touchbacks, while averaging 45.9 yards per punt and a 42.7 net. With the help of gunners like Josh Robinson and Ryan Smith, Anger became a weapon that helped the Bucs defense by giving opposing offenses poor starting field position. Robert Ayers’ safety in the team’s win against Chicago and David’s pick six in a win at San Diego were aided by Anger’s punts downed inside opponents’ 10-yard line.
Through the first three preseason games Anger nailed 10 of his 13 punts inside the 20-yard line and finished the exhibition season with 11 touchbacks, eight forced fair catches, zero touchbacks and only 44 return yards allowed. The 28-year old Anger is getting better as a punter and figures to have another strong year that should garner him Pro Bowl consideration as he continues to help Tampa Bay’s defense with punt after punt downed inside the 20.
MOST IMPROVED OFFENSIVE PLAYER
LT Donovan Smith
It would be easy to suggest that veteran running back Doug Martin could be considered the Most Improved Offensive Player, as he only needs to rush for more than 421 yards for that to be technically true. If Martin stays healthy upon his return from a three-game suspension, he appears motivated to eclipse 1,000 yards for the third time in his six-year career after an injury-plagued 2015 campaign.
But the player the Bucs need to actually improve the most in 2017 is left tackle Donovan Smith – and for a couple of reasons. First, Smith plays a vitally important role as Winston’s blindside protector. Keeping Winston upright and healthy is paramount to Tampa Bay’s success. And second, the Bucs need to find out if Smith can indeed be the franchise left tackle the team hoped he would be when general manager Jason Licht selected him in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. If he doesn’t become more consistent with his technique as a pass protector in 2017, the Bucs may have to spend a high draft pick on a left tackle next year to challenge Smith.
Smith has a few good things going for him. First, he’s the only offensive lineman not to miss a single play since his first start as a rookie in Week 1 of the 2015 season. Second, he’s a great run blocker that allows Koetter the ability to call running plays to the right and the left side. But Smith needs to become a better and more consistent pass protector in his third year in the NFL and it’s our guess that he will do so.
MOST IMPROVED DEFENSIVE PLAYER
DE Noah Spence
There is no defensive player in Tampa Bay with a higher set of expectations than Spence, who is entering his second season after being the team’s second-round pick in 2016. Spence showed flashes of becoming a dominant pass rusher with 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles during his rookie campaign despite a separated shoulder that hampered him over the final 12 weeks of the seasons.
Spence has transformed his body this offseason, reducing his body fat percentage while adding muscle and is now up to 243 pounds after playing in the 230s last year. Ayers said he believes Spence has the ability to become “a 15-sack guy,” and as the only healthy speed rusher in Tampa Bay (Jacquies Smith is coming off a second surgery for a torn ACL), Spence needs to deliver on third downs and obvious passing downs in Smith’s defense.
While it might be a stretch to think that Spence will hit 15 sacks in 2017, he has the potential to become a double-digit sacker and become the first Buccaneers defender to accomplish that feat since Simeon Rice had 14 in 2004. Spence also got better against the run down the stretch last season and figures to make a big leap not only as a pass rusher but a complete defender from his rookie season to his season year in Tampa Bay as the Most Improved Defensive Player.
DT Gerald McCoy
The Bucs have gone 11 years without a double-digit sacker, but that dubious streak is about to come to an end. While one may think Spence is the best Buccaneer poised to record at least 10 sacks he will be edged by McCoy, who will finish with a career-high 11 this season. McCoy has led the Bucs in sacks the last four seasons with a career-high 9.5 in 2013, followed by back-to-back years of 8.5 sacks and then seven sacks last year.
At age 29 and having gone his entire seven-year NFL career without making the playoffs, McCoy appears to be more determined than ever to have his best season. McCoy opened up to the media in the offseason about how he has not done enough to help the Bucs get to the postseason despite five Pro Bowls. The arrival of newcomer Chris Baker allows Clinton McDonald the opportunity to share some reps at the three-technique position and keep McCoy fresher and more effective for the fourth quarter and perhaps the entire season.
CB Vernon Hargreaves
Veteran cornerback Brent Grimes and safety Keith Tandy tied for the team lead with four interceptions last year, but it’s Hargreaves’ turn to lead the Buccaneers in picks in his second season in Tampa Bay. Hargreaves, the team’s first-round pick in 2016, was targeted by opposing quarterbacks more than any other cornerback last year and that should continue this season, especially with Grimes showing no slow down after leading the NFL with 24 passes defensed.
Hargreaves will have more opportunities at interceptions than any other Bucs defensive back. That, coupled with increased confidence as he enters his second season in the NFL, will lead to Hargreaves picking off at least four passes in 2017. Hargreaves led the Bucs with two picks in the preseason and should continue his playmaking ways into the regular season.
TE O.J. Howard
Howard, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick this season has the luxury of not having to be forced into the starting lineup due to the presence of Cameron Brate, who had a career-high eight touchdowns last year, which was the most among NFL tight ends. Yet, with his ability to block and be a receiving threat, Howard will see significant action as a rookie and take some targets away from Brate and slot receiver Adam Humphries as Koetter will deploy more two-tight end sets than he did last year.
Due to the playing time he will receive, Howard figures to have more production than any other rookie in Tampa Bay. Safety Justin Evans, the team’s second-rounder, will likely see more time on special teams than defense as a rookie. Wide receiver Chris Godwin, a third-round pick, is the fourth receiver on the depth chart and won’t see the reps that Howard will on offense. Kendell Beckwith, the team’ other third-round pick will see limited time as the Bucs’ strongside linebacker, thus ensuring Howard will be Tampa Bay’s most productive rookie this season.
BEST FREE AGENT ACQUISITION
WR DeSean Jackson
Although the Bucs bolstered their defense with the additions of Baker and Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward, Jackson will be Tampa Bay’s best free agent acquisition in 2017. Baker is expected to help the Bucs run defense on early downs, which should aid the team’s pass rush and sack totals on third downs. Ward will help Tampa Bay’s secondary and its front seven at the safety position due to his ability to stuff the run and create takeaways.
But Jackson will make more of an impact in the fact that he has the speed to take the top off NFL defenses and score from anywhere on the field. That also means that the Bucs will be facing more Cover 2 and less eight-man fronts, which will help the ground game. Jackson’s speed also means that opponents can steadily double-team Mike Evans, which should make the Pro Bowl receiver more effective in one-on-one situations. Whether he’s scoring touchdowns on his own or helping his teammates have success within Koetter’s offense, the addition of Jackson will make a big impact in 2017.
The PewterReport.com 2017 Pewter Predictions were voted on by Scott Reynolds, Mark Cook and Trevor Sikkema.