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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. 5 Bucs Who Need To Bounce Back
Tampa Bay’s OTAs (organized team activities) have begun and the Bucs’ veterans have hit the field with the coaching staff to work on alignments and fundamentals in advance of the team’s mandatory mini-camp next month and training camp, which begins in late July. All eyes will be on the Bucs’ newcomers, but we’ll also be watching these five players from last year who need to bounce back and have a better year in 2018.
DE Will Gholston
After recording 116 tackles over the past two seasons with three sacks in each of those years, the Bucs rewarded Gholston, its top run-stuffing defensive lineman, with a five-year, $27.5 million contract that includes $13.5 million in guaranteed money during the 2017 offseason. The last $6.5 million of that guaranteed money is payable this year, which means the Bucs can trade or cut Gholston after 2018 with no salary cap hit. In fact, his base salary falls from $6.5 million this year to just $3.75 million next year, which could give him some trade appeal if he doesn’t bounce back from a sackless season in 2017.
Of course the Bucs signed the 26-year old Gholston to a five-year deal for a reason. He’s been an instrumental force against the run and he made some strides as a pass rusher until last year. The fact that Tampa Bay signed Vinny Curry and Mitch Unrein, who can both play strongside defensive end, should be a wake-up call for Gholston, who must show that he can do more than just make tackles.
Having a new defensive line coach in Brentson Buckner may shake Gholston out of the funk he was in last year and spur him to get back on track. If not, Curry, Unrein and Noah Spence will steal some of his playing time. Gholston has lost 15 pounds after playing last year too heavy at close to 290 pounds, so that should help.
DE Noah Spence
A right shoulder that has been separated multiple times over the past two years has marred Spence’s fledgling NFL career. Although he played the last 12 games of his rookie season in a shoulder harness, Spence was able to record 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles during his rookie season. Tampa Bay’s second-round pick in 2016 had offseason shoulder surgery, but it didn’t work as his shoulder kept popping out during the 2017 campaign. The Bucs pulled the plug on Spence’s sophomore season after five games in which he recorded just one sack and forced one fumble.
Spence had a much more involved procedure done on his shoulder this time around and the fact that he had surgery last October allowed him sufficient time to recover so that he could be ready for offseason workouts. Spence bulked up for the NFL Scouting Combine, weighing in at 251 pounds, but played much of his rookie season around 240 pounds.
With a surgically repaired shoulder, Spence has now muscled up to 257 pounds, which should help him play the run better. In a suddenly crowded defensive line room, the key for Spence room is to show that he can be a designated pass rusher at left defensive end and get to the quarterback, and quality teaching from Buckner can help. The Bucs could have used a healthy Spence last year when their 22 sacks were the lowest in the league.
QB Jameis Winston
An injury to Winston’s throwing shoulder rendered him ineffective in a few games and cost him three games last year, which is why he fell short of reaching 4,000 yards passing – a mark he achieved in each of his first two seasons. While Winston’s accuracy made a big leap from 60.8 percent in 2016 to 63.8 percent last year along with a QB rating that rose by six points to 92.2, Winston’s penchant for turnovers remained too high for the team to have success.
After presiding over nine wins in 2016, Winston was just 3-10 as a starter last year. Although his interceptions fell from 18 in 2016 to only 11 last year, so did his touchdowns, from 28 in ’16 to just 19 last season. But what was on the rise were the number of fumbles he had, which was 10 – up from six in 2016. Projecting Winston’s turnover rate of 1.6 per game over an entire 16-game season would have seen Winston have 25 turnovers last year. Any quarterback that has 25 turnovers would be hard-pressed to guide his team to the playoffs.
Winston needs to continue increasing his accuracy and keep producing touchdowns, but has to cut his turnover rate in half. Having a more robust running game with the addition of center Ryan Jensen and rookie running back Ronald Jones II will help take some of the pressure off Winston’s shoulders. Winston will also need to stay healthy for 16 games, but that’s just as much on the Bucs’ offensive line as it on Winston. A great year from Winston, who had his fifth-year option picked up for 2019, means Tampa Bay will make the playoffs. Anything less means the Bucs likely won’t.
WR DeSean Jackson
The signing of Jackson sent shockwaves through the league last year and made the Bucs one of the most talked about teams of the 2017 offseason. With plenty of hype from NFL Network’s Good A.M. Football and HBO’s Hard Knocks, the arrival of Jackson was supposed to give head coach Dirk Koetter a speed merchant at wide receiver that could take the top off the defense and open up the Bucs’ rushing attack.
Bucs WR DeSean Jackson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
That didn’t happen, but Koetter didn’t blame Jackson, as he did his part by often getting free behind the defense. Instead, it was Winston, whose deep passes failed to connect with Jackson downfield. Jackson, like any wide receiver, is at the mercy of his quarterback and play-caller when it comes to making an impact on offense. Regardless, Jackson signed a three-year, $33.5 million deal, so he’s in the cross-hairs from media and the fans to make an impact due to enormous salary, which will be $11 million this season.
It’s up to Winston to become a more accurate downfield thrower and if that doesn’t happen, it’s up to Koetter and offensive coordinator Todd Monken to get creative in terms of how to use Jackson in underneath routes to take advantage of his speed, which can produce yards after catch. After posting 668 receiving yards last year in 14 games, Jackson doesn’t have to necessarily be a 1,000-yard receiver this year in Tampa Bay, but getting his touchdown production up from three a year ago and his average up from 13.4 yards closer to 17 yards, which is his career average, would do wonders. Now the question is, will Jackson do his part by showing up for more OTAs this spring to continue to work on the timing and chemistry with Winston?
CB Vernon Hargreaves III
There might not be any Bucs player that needs to bounce back more than Hargreaves, who was the 11th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Tampa Bay defensive backs coach Jon Hoke said that Hargreaves has the intelligence in the classroom and the physical ability to be an NFL starting cornerback, but it hasn’t translated to the field yet. Time is running out as Hargreaves is entering his third year in the league and the Bucs just drafted two talented cornerbacks in the second round in M.J. Stewart, who can play both in the slot and outside, and Carlton Davis.
While Hargreaves hasn’t lost the support of the Bucs coaching staff yet, there have been a few of his teammates that have privately questioned his work ethic and seriousness when it comes to preparation. Tampa Bay is hopeful that the drafting of Stewart and Davis will serve as a wake-up call for Hargreaves to live up to his potential and that he is up for some serious competition in training camp.
Before a hamstring injury cut his second year in the league short, Hargreaves had rebounded from bad games against Minnesota and Arizona earlier in the season to play two of his better games against Buffalo as a slot corner in nickel defense, and against Carolina as an outside cornerback. Hargreaves plays better as a press cornerback and the hope is that with a better pass rush in 2018 with all of the new additions along the defensive line that the defensive backs will be able to be more aggressive in coverage and play more press.