FAB 4. The Next Six Months Are Critical For Licht’s Future In Tampa Bay
Former Bucs general manager Bruce Allen once told me that the most helpless feeling for NFL GMs takes place in September once the season starts.
The majority of a general manager’s work is done in the offseason, and aside from some practice squad maneuvers and some injury replacements, it’s up to the coaching staff to deliver on the talent that has been acquired. Most GMs, including Allen, know that there aren’t many saviors on the street past September.
I’m guessing that current Bucs general manager Jason Licht feels the same way. He’s made a couple of roster moves that have paid off in early September, landing defensive end Jacquies Smith off waivers in 2014, signing running back Jacquizz Rodgers in 2016 and bringing kicker Patrick Murray back in October of last year. But for the most part, Licht’s job is done by the time training camp ends.
Last year, Licht’s calculated risk of hoping for the healthy return of speedy pass rushers Smith and Noah Spence backfired as Smith never fully recovered following an ACL injury that cost him the 2016 season and Spence reinjured his surgically-repaired shoulder in the second game of the season and was put on injured reserve shortly thereafter. Licht also expected to squeeze one more year of good production out of 31-year old Robert Ayers, but he finished with only two sacks and missed four games due to injury. As a result, the Bucs finished dead last in sacks with 22 last year, including just 20 from their defensive line,
Licht also assumed that a healthy Doug Martin would return to his 2015 form after serving a three-game suspension, but that never happened. Martin’s stagnant play, coupled with a mediocre seasons from Rodgers and Charles Sims hampered the Bucs’ ground game until unheralded fourth-string runner Peyton Barber was able to take over late in the season. Tampa Bay’s ground game was grounded for much of the season and ranked in the bottom five teams in terms of yards per game, which was less than 100 yards.
On the heels of a very good 2017 draft haul that featured four starting-caliber players in tight end O.J. Howard, safety Justin Evans, wide receiver Chris Godwin and linebacker Kendell Beckwith, Licht has the chance to earn a new contract extension with a successful offseason in 2018. The Glazers picked up the option year in Licht’s contract over the summer for the 2018 season, but with one winning record in four years in Tampa Bay the time is now for the Bucs to turn the corner make the playoff push this year that was supposed to happen last year.
But, I don’t necessarily think Licht’s tenure in Tampa Bay should be measured by the amount of wins and losses that take place during the 2018 campaign. Once the season starts it is Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith’s show. Licht won’t call a single play in the red zone, call a blitz on defense, call a timeout or decide to go for it on fourth down.
Yet what he can do is continue to stockpile talent in Tampa Bay, and that’s what a general manager’s job entails. Licht will rely on director of football administration Mike Greenberg to help sign some quality free agents and extend the contracts of some of the Bucs’ best players. Licht already locked up Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in his first season as general manager back in 2014, and also inked linebacker Lavonte David and right tackle Demar Dotson to contract extensions over the past couple of years.
If Licht is successful in extending the contracts of wide receivers Mike Evans and Adam Humphries, tight end Cameron Brate, middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and offensive linemen Ali Marpet and left tackle Donovan Smith, in addition re-signing cornerback Brent Grimes for one more year, that would be quite a coup and would bode well for his future in Tampa Bay. Throw in a couple of critical free agent signings at center or guard, at running back, in the secondary and along the defensive line, Licht will be in position to take the best player available in the draft rather than drafting for need.
Licht has had two wonderful draft classes in Tampa Bay in 2015 and ’17, and if he and director of college scouting Mike Biehl can once again find three or four more starters in this year’s draft he could be well on his way to earning a contract extension despite how well or how poorly the Bucs are coached on the field.
Of course Koetter was Licht’s first head-coaching hire and Licht will be evaluated on his performance, too. But, after years of suffering with awful drafts under Bruce Allen and mediocre draft classes by Mark Dominik, the Glazers should recognize that the caliber of team that Licht is building in Tampa Bay is different and better – despite it taking longer than most want it to. If Licht has success this offseason, the Glazers would be wise to lock him with a long-term contract extension before the 2019 offseason.
Now if Licht whiffs on some draft picks as he did with taking Roberto Aguayo in the second round in 2016, and strikes out in free agency with some awful veterans like left tackle Anthony Collins in 2014, linebacker Bruce Carter in 2015 and defensive tackle Chris Baker last year, then all bets are off and Licht will have to rely on Koetter’s coaching to win a bunch of games to extend his stay in Tampa Bay.