FAB 1. The 5 Bucs With The Most To Prove
In a quarterback-driven league there is no doubt that Tampa Bay’s 2017 season rides on the right arm of franchise QB Jameis Winston. Coming off back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons – the first NFL quarterback to start his career with that particular accomplishment – Winston needs to improve his completion percentage and cut down on his interceptions (18 last year) in order to get the Bucs into the playoffs.
But there are other players in Tampa Bay with just as much to prove as Winston for varying reasons. Here are five Bucs that must step up in 2017 to help the team’s playoff push:
RB Jacquizz Rodgers
We know three things about the Buccaneers running game heading into the 2017 season. First, Doug Martin is clearly the best and most talented running back. Second, Martin is unavailable for the first three games of the season due to a suspension that began in Week 17 last year. And third, barring injury, Rodgers will be the starter in Martin’s place for those three games. Rodgers led the team in rushing last year with 560 yards and a 4.3-yard average, in addition to having the Bucs’ only two 100-yard rushing games and the longest run of the year, a 45-yarder at San Francisco.
Miami was the 30th-rated run defense last year, allowing 4.8 yards per carry and 140.4 yards per game. Chicago’s run defense was ranked 27th, surrendering 4.4 yards per carry and 121.9 yards per game. Minnesota’s run defense was rated 20th, allowing 4.2 yards per carry and 106.9 yards per game. Of course those three teams have spent the offseason trying to bolster their run defense, just as the Bucs, who had the 24th-ranked rushing attack last year, averaging 3.6 yards per carry and 101 yards per game, are trying to improve their run game.
Why is Rodgers listed here instead of Martin in terms of having something to prove? It’s because the Bucs are counting on him to provide a better than average running game in Martin’s absence. Rookie Jeremy McNichols isn’t ready to carry the load yet and Peyton Barber doesn’t have the speed and playmaking ability to be an every down back, although he looked good in Jacksonville with 42 yards on nine carries against a second-team defense.. The coaches trust Rodgers’ ability to move the chains and he’ll want to show them that he – not Martin when he returns in Week 4 – should be the team’s feature back.
What if Rodgers is averaging 100 yards per game in Martin’s absence against the Dolphins, Bears and Vikings? Would Dirk Koetter and the coaches want to rock the boat and replace Rodgers with Martin? That’s a question Rodgers hopes to pose with a September to remember and needs to pick it up. He has just 15 yards on seven carries in the preseason, along with two catches for seven yards.
RG J.R. Sweezy
Sweezy, a starting guard on the former Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, was signed to a five-year deal worth $32.5 million and originally featured $14.5 million in guaranteed money. But after missing the entire 2016 offseason and regular season after back surgery last spring, the Bucs got Sweezy to restructure his deal to protect the team in the event that the 28-year old guard were to reinjure his back.
Sweezy’s new deal will pay him $21.75 million over the next four years with the chance to reclaim some of his lost earnings with a 2017 per game active bonus of $78,125 for every game he suits up for. From 2018-2020 he’ll get a $1.25 million for each season in which he plays 70 percent of the snaps.
Now he has to earn that money as the highest-paid offensive lineman in Tampa Bay, averaging over $5.4 million per year. The good news for Sweezy and the team is that he has gone nearly four weeks without any back problems and saw his first action in a Bucs uniform last week in Cincinnati and again last night in Jacksonville. The Bucs are expecting Sweezy, who is a mauler and a road-grader, to get the team’s running game back on track after a down year last season.
Expectations are high for Sweezy. Not only did the team insert him into the starting lineup based on reputation (and contract) without him essentially earning the position, it also moved Ali Marpet, the team’s starter at right guard over the past two years, to center to accommodate Sweezy, who struggles occasionally in pass protection. The Bucs viewed Marpet as a possible candidate to eventually move to center after drafting him in the second round in 2015, but Sweezy’s return to health enabled that move to happen this year. We’ll see if it pays off.
LT Donovan Smith
After a lackluster start to the 2016 season, his second as a starter at left tackle, Smith came on down the stretch and helped the Bucs finish the season 6-2 to earn a 9-7 mark, the first winning record in Tampa Bay since 2010. Smith has the toughest job on the offensive line, which is protecting the blind side of Jameis Winston, the team’s franchise quarterback, and he hasn’t missed a play in his two years in the league.
Where Smith has to improve is in his consistency, especially in pass protection. Smith has been susceptible to inside counter moves by Bucs defensive end Noah Spence in practice after Spence would rush outside hard for a few plays. Former Bucs defensive end Michael Johnson tried to do just that to Smith last week in Cincinnati. After driving Smith back on the Bucs’ first pass play, Smith showed impressive strength, knocking Johnson down on three straight pass plays on Tampa Bay’s first series.
Smith got into a shoving match with Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who had eight sacks last year as a rookie to lead his team, in Jacksonville during practice this week. Smith has had trouble with the faster, quicker pass rushers in the past, but Spence has been giving him good looks in practice and it paid off against Ngakoue in practice and in the game.
While the team hasn’t been critical of Smith’s play in his first two years, it is clear from talking to members of the Bucs’ brass that he needs to take a big step forward this year and become the franchise left tackle the team expected him to be when Tampa Bay spent a second-round pick on him in 2015. The Bucs need to know if they will have to draft competition for him in 2018, and Smith’s effort and performance in 2017 will determine whether or not that takes place.
DE Noah Spence
In 2016, the Bucs were counting on Jacquies Smith and Spence, the team’s second-round draft pick last year, to become a pass rushing force on obvious throwing downs. When Smith tore his ACL in the first quarter of the season opener at Atlanta those plans had to be scrapped. That left Spence, a rookie as Tampa Bay’s lone speed rusher off the edge, and his effectiveness was greatly limited after a shoulder injury in a Week 4 loss to Denver.
Spence finished his rookie campaign with 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles and earned a lot of respect from the coaching staff and the veterans for playing hurt for most of the season with his shoulder in a harness. There has been a lot of talk about Spence, who is now healthy and in incredible shape, becoming a double-digit sacker for the Bucs. Fellow defensive end Robert Ayers, Jr. predicted that Spence would be “a 15-sack guy.”
It’s time for Spence to step up and do just that with a breakthrough season. The Bucs haven’t had a double-digit sacker since Simeon Rice last accomplished that feat with 14 sacks in 2005. Spence has had great training camp, even being dominant in some practices, giving left tackle Donovan Smith and veteran right tackle Demar Dotson fits with his explosive get off and speed around the corner. Now it’s time to carry that over into games.
With Jacquies Smith having a setback in his recovery from ACL surgery that will keep him out for at least the first few weeks of the 2017 season, the pressure is on Spence, who is once again the lone speed rusher, to stay healthy and become even more productive in getting to the quarterback. If Smith doesn’t return to action this year or is ineffective up on his return, the Bucs will be in the same boat as last year, counting on Spence to deliver with sacks in nickel rush and obvious pass-rushing downs.
K Nick Folk
The most anticipated training camp battle in Tampa Bay this year – the kicking duel between Folk and Roberto Aguayo, last year’s second-round pick – quickly fizzled out after the first preseason game when Aguayo’s extra point attempt hit the right upright and when he missed a 47-yard field goal wide right while kicking from the left hash. The 32-year old Folk made his lone kick against the Bengals, a 45-yarder.
That was good enough as the Bucs cut Aguayo, the league’s worst kicker last year, upon returning to Tampa. Aguayo’s release, which was handled by general manager Jason Licht and Koetter, was featured on this week’s episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks. Licht said that Folk could miss kicks in practice, but that come game day he had confidence in him. Licht said that Aguayo could nail his kicks in practice, but when it came to games he didn’t have the confidence in him.
Koetter had seen enough of Aguayo, and said there was no need to wait until the end of the preseason for this to play out. He said it was time to rally around Folk and that’s what the Bucs are doing. Zach Hocker was signed to compete with Folk and provide injury protection for the team if something happened to the 11-year veteran. But it’s pretty much Folk’s job to lose.
Folk needs to prove he’s worth Koetter’s trust, and hasn’t done that yet. He had an extra point blocked in Jacksonville and also missed a 47-yarder after connecting from 29 and 35 yards. The Jets cut Folk after seven years, despite making 87.1 percent of his kicks in 2016. The Bucs haven’t had a kicker make more than 85 percent of his kicks since Connor Barth hit 92.9 percent (26-of-28) of his field goals in 2011. The Bucs have had five different kickers – Barth, Rian Lindell, Patrick Murray, Kyle Brindza and Aguayo – over the past five years. It’s time for Tampa Bay to have a consistent kicker and the Bucs are counting on that to be Folk.