It’s halfway through the 2017 season and the PewterReport.com staff offers up its midseason awards for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. From the MVPs on offense, defense and special teams to the most improved players on offense and defense to Tampa Bay’s top rookie, here is a look at the Midseason Awards.
The Buccaneers are one of the most disappointing and underachieving teams in the NFL thanks to a dismal 2-6 start that has seen the Bucs lose their last five games – and star quarterback Jameis Winston sidelined with a shoulder injury. Poor play and poor coaching have shown up on the road especially, where Tampa Bay is 0-4 and allowing over 30 points per game. PewterReport.com reviews the individual efforts from the first eight games and analyzes the Buccaneers’ performances in its 2017 Midseason Awards.
BUCS 2017 MIDSEASON OFFENSIVE MVP – TE Cameron Brate
Touchdowns have been hard to come by for Tampa Bay’s offense, especially over the last two games where the Bucs have scored just 13 points. Brate has four touchdowns on the year and is tied for the team lead with wide receiver Mike Evans. Brate has the second-most catches on the team with 32 for 414 yards, which ranks third on the team behind Evans (40 receptions for 532 yards) and wide receiver DeSean Jackson (27 catches for 422 yards). Brate is on pace to record 64 catches for 828 yards and eight touchdowns. The Harvard graduate set new career highs when he recorded 57 receptions for 660 yards and eight touchdowns last year.
Brate hasn’t been perfect and has had more drops this year than expected, including three against New England in a 19-14 loss, but he’s been the most reliable weapon on offense. Despite the fact that the Bucs spent a first-round pick on tight end O.J. Howard, Brate has improved enough to remain the starter and is thriving. One of Brate’s touchdown receptions came from backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a fellow Harvard alum, so don’t be surprised to see Fitzpatrick continue to look Brate’s way, especially in the red zone.
BUCS 2017 MIDSEASON DEFENSIVE MVP – LB Lavonte David
Imagine what David’s numbers would be if he hadn’t missed the games against the New York Giants and New England with an ankle injury. He’s third on the team in tackles with 43, behind only Kendell Beckwith (48) and safety Chris Conte (43), and should eventually wind up as the season leader for tackles on the team when it’s all said and done if he remains healthy. David is playing the best football of any Buccaneer on the team, and is the only defender making regular splash plays.
David already has four forced fumbles on the season and three fumble recoveries, including one that he returned for a touchdown against Arizona in the team’s 38-33 loss. The four fumble recoveries ties David’s career high that he set in 2014 and matched last season, while the three fumble recoveries sets a new personal best. Tampa Bay’s defense has had its share of struggles this season, and David hasn’t been perfect, but who knows how bad this defense would be without him in the lineup. David is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season.
BUCS 2017 MIDSEASON SPECIAL TEAMS MVP – P Bryan Anger
Anger had a tremendous season for the Bucs last year with a 45.9-yard average, a career-best 42.7-yard net, a career-high 37 punts downed inside the 20-yard line and just five touchbacks. While he’s not at that level thus far in 2017, Anger is close. He’s averaging 43.5 yards per punt with a 39-yard average, 15 punts downed inside the 20-yard line and just two touchbacks. Anger was in Pro Bowl contention last year, and he’s in the conversation for that distinction again this season.
Anger had his first punt blocked as a Buccaneer last week in New Orleans, which led to a scoop-and-score touchdown, but it wasn’t his fault. Second-year linebacker Devante Bond did a poor job blocking upfront to allow that to happen. When Anger gets the ball away he does a great job of working with Tampa Bay’s coverage units to limit return yards. Last year, the Bucs allowed just 128 yards on 24 punts (5.3 avg.). This season, Anger is close to those numbers with 78 yards allowed on 12 returns (6.5 avg.).
MOST IMPROVED OFFENSIVE PLAYER – G Evan Smith
It was a surprise to see Smith split time with Kevin Pamphile, who is in a contract year, at left guard from the start of the season, but that’s because Smith has played well enough to deserve some playing time. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith has a 76.4 grade this year with a 77.1 grade in pass protection and a 76.5 grade in run blocking. Pamphile, who has six more snaps, has a 50.3 grade with a 69.1 grade in pass protection and a 44.2 grade in run blocking.
The Bucs have split the reps nearly 50-50 for the first half of the year between Smith and Pamphile, but the if the grades from PFF are to be believed, Smith should be the sole starter at left guard based on those numbers. There may be some politics at play as the Bucs want to keep Pamphile happy so that the free agent-to-be can be signed long term, but Tampa Bay needs to get its five best linemen on the field. If Pamphile plays left tackle to replace the injured Donovan Smith this week, Smith will get the start at left guard regardless.
MOST IMPROVED DEFENSIVE PLAYER – CB Ryan Smith
Smith was relegated to special teams duty during his rookie season and became one of the best gunners not only in Tampa Bay, but also the league last year. After making a position switch from safety to cornerback he finally got his chance to see some defensive action in 2017 when he started at cornerback in Week 3 at Minnesota for the injured Brent Grimes. Smith really struggled in the 34-17 loss to the Vikings, but rebounded nicely in his second opportunity, which came against Carolina, finishing with two pass breakups in that game.
The jury is still out as to whether Smith could be a potential starter down the road, or if he’s strictly a reserve cornerback and a special teams ace, but there has been some dramatic improvement in his game – not just from last year to this season, but from Week 3 to Week 8. The Bucs are eager to see how he progresses as the season rolls on to determine whether or not they will have to address cornerback in the 2018 NFL Draft, or if they have a couple of solid, young corners in Smith and Vernon Hargreaves III.
MOST DISAPPOINTING OFFENSIVE PLAYER – LT Donovan Smith
Smith has shown virtually no improvement since last year in pass protection or in run blocking. This is a big season for Smith in terms of showing that he can do to become the long-term answer at left tackle in Tampa Bay. His strength has been his availability, as he hasn’t missed a start since the first game of his rookie season, but a knee injury he suffered at New Orleans could take that away as he may miss Sunday’s game.
Smith has a 43.9 overall grade, according to Pro Football Focus and he ranks as the 59th best offensive tackle in football out of 64 starting tackles. His 49.9 pass blocker rating is marred by the fact that he has allowed 25 QB pressures this season thus far. Smith fares even worse as a run blocker, earning a 36.1 grade. It may be time for Tampa Bay to look for a new left tackle in 2018 if this keeps up.
MOST DISAPPOINTING DEFENSIVE PLAYER – DE Robert Ayers
Noah Spence gets consideration here because the team was relying on him to be the team’s speed rusher off the edge. However, the second-year player suffered another dislocated shoulder in Tampa Bay’s second game and was placed on injured reserve after just six games, finishing 2017 with just one sack and one forced fumble. You can’t blame a player for being injured, so the dubious award goes to Ayers instead.
Ayers signed a three-year deal worth $19.5 million last year and produced 6.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one safety despite missing for games due to injury. Ayers has been healthy this year, but has only generated two sacks, which has been a huge disappointment. Without Spence in the lineup, the Bucs need Ayers more than ever to get to the quarterback and he’s failing to produce and certainly has been worth $6 million this season.
BEST ROOKIE – LB Kendell Beckwith
The Bucs got a first-round steal in tight end O.J. Howard, who was a top 10 talent that slipped to the No. 19 draft spot. Howard has been a bit under-utilized as a receiving weapon on offense, but does have three touchdowns on the year, including two against Buffalo. But the surprise pick for Best Rookie midway through the 2017 campaign is linebacker Kendell Beckwith, the team’s third-round pick.
Beckwith didn’t participate in any of the team’s mini-camps or OTAs as he recovered from a torn ACL he suffered last November at LSU. That makes his NFL rookie season even more surprising. Not only is Beckwith leading all rookies in tackles with 48, he’s also leading the Bucs, too. Beckwith has started games at SAM (strongside) linebacker as well as MIKE (middle linebacker) and posted a career-high 14 stops in the team’s 19-14 loss to New England.
BEST FREE AGENT ACQUISITION – K Pat Murray
Tampa Bay’s desperate search to find a kicker may have come to an end with Murray, who replaced veteran Nick Folk last month and has missed just one field goal, a 56-yard attempt last week at New Orleans. Murray had gone 4-of-4 on his previous attempts, including two from 50 yards, and has made all five of his extra points. Murray is on a short leash as the Bucs continue to monitor the health of former Kansas City kicker Cairo Santos as he recovers from a groin injury. Santos is a more accomplished and more talented kicker, so it’s imperative for Murray to continue to be accurate and not miss from inside 50 yards if he wants to remain in Tampa Bay.
Murray beats out wide receiver DeSean Jackson, defensive tackle Chris Baker and safety T.J. Ward for this distinction. Jackson is the team’s second-leading receiver with 27 catches for 422 yards and two touchdowns. Not bad numbers, but they could have been even better if Jameis Winston could have hit him in stride on a few shots down the field. Baker and Ward are both part-time players on defense and have yet to create a takeaway or get a sack.
WORST FREE AGENT ACQUISITION – K Nick Folk
Folk was signed to compete with Roberto Aguayo, the team’s second-round pick from a year ago, and quickly won the job in training camp after the first preseason game when Aguayo was released. Folk had been released from the New York Jets after connecting on 87.1 percent of his field goals.
Folk missed five field goals and was 6-of-11 (54.5 percent) before the Bucs moved on, which was actually worse than Aguayo was as a rookie. Folk also missed two extra point attempts, finishing with a 7-of-9 mark in Tampa Bay before he was placed on injured reserve. The 33-year old kicker missed three field goals in a 19-14 loss against New England that proved to be the difference in the game and his undoing in Tampa Bay.
BEST PLAY OF THE YEAR (SO FAR) – Howard’s TD vs. the Giants
There have been few highlights for the 2-6 Buccaneers thus far in the 2017 season, but the one that sticks out the most to the PewterReport.com staff is O.J. Howard’s 58-yard touchdown catch-and-run against the New York Giants. The Bucs schemed the play perfectly and snuck Howard, who was lined up on the right side of the offensive line, across the formation where he ran wide open down the left sideline. Jameis Winston’s pass was on the money and the rookie got his first NFL touchdown on what happened to be the longest pass play of the season in Tampa Bay thus far.
Howard scored on a similar play three weeks later on Buffalo, that one going for 33 yards in a game in which he established career highs in catches (six), yards (98) and touchdowns (two). Howard’s 16.2 yards per catch average currently leads the team.
BUCS’ RECORD DOWN THE STRETCH – 2-6 to finish 4-12
With expectations sky-high this year in Tampa Bay, no one saw the Bucs’ dismal 2-6 start or a five-game losing streak coming. Without wide receiver Mike Evans, who is serving a suspension for the Jets game, or quarterback Jameis Winston, who is nursing his injured shoulder for a few weeks, the Bucs’ hopes of rebounding during the second half of the season look bleak as neither the offense nor the defense are playing competent football right now.
If the losses continue to pile up, as we suspect they will, look for the effort level to dip as the season progresses. If the Bucs could only get two wins during the first half of the season when the team was healthier and still in contention, it’s hard to rationalize the team winning more games down the stretch. Our initial projection was a 5-11 record with wins at Miami, at Green Bay and at home against Atlanta on Monday Night Football, but we backed it down to 4-12 because this Bucs team has a way of underachieving. This season is not going to end well for Dirk Koetter and his coaching staff.