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. BUCCANEERS’ CHRISTMAS WISH LIST
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, Bucs fans and loyal PewterReport.com readers! I hope Santa Claus brought you and your family everything you wanted.
I also hope that Santa brought the Buccaneers they wanted (and needed), too. Let’s review what could’ve (and should’ve) been on the Christmas list left at One Buccaneer Place for the jolly ol’ elf in the red suit.
1. A New Contract For Martin
Last year, other NFL teams were only offering Bucs general manager Jason Licht a late-round pick for oft-injured running back Doug Martin. He wisely didn’t take it. When it came time to pick up the fifth-year extension on Martin’s contract, Licht wisely didn’t do it, and gave the former first-round pick all the incentive he needed to have a monster season.
Martin lost weight, stayed healthy and earned his second career Pro Bowl berth with 1,305 yards and five touchdowns, in addition to 25 catches for 205 yards and an additional score. Martin is on the verge of a career year and needs just 150 yards over the next two games to top the 1,454 yards he rushed for as a rookie in 2012. He also has a chance at being the NFL’s leading rusher this year.
It’s time for the Bucs to extend Martin’s contract this offseason before he hits free agency. The good news for Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg is that Martin wants to remain a Buccaneer and that should help with contract negotiations. The Bucs should not break the bank for Martin, who missed 15 games between the 2013-14 seasons, but paying him in the neighborhood of $5.5 million per season seems reasonable over four years.
Bucs head coach Lovie Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
2. Better Coaching
I don’t think Lovie Smith will be fired this year – even if Tampa Bay tanks down the stretch, and finished the season 6-10 due to losing five of its last six games of the season. Smith can state his case that he tripled the win total from a year ago and doing so while starting as many as five rookies on offense – quarterback Jameis Winston, linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet and receivers Donteea Dye and Adam Humphries – and two rookies on defense in linebacker Kwon Alexander and cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah.
Smith could also say that Alexander’s suspension and injuries to receiver Vincent Jackson, defensive linemen Jacquies Smith and Gerald McCoy down the stretch took the wind out of the Bucs’ sails after a 6-6 start. But Tampa Bay will likely finish as the NFL’s most penalized team and could break franchise records for penalties and penalty yards. The level of undisciplined play is something Smith has been unable to fix in two years in Tampa Bay.
Defensive backs coaches Gil Byrd, Larry Marmie and Mikal Smith have failed to develop the talent in the secondary and need to be strongly scrutinized in the offseason. Smith also needs a lot of work on his game day strategy in terms of managing the clock, his use of timeouts and when to kick field goals, when to punt and when to go for it. Poor coaching showed up in the Bucs’ losses to the Titans, Redskins, Colts, Saints and Rams, especially.
The truth is that this may have end up being the easiest schedule in Buccaneers history. If Smith finishes with only six or seven wins it would be disappointing given the level of teams they faced. An 8-8 finish would come with an upset at Carolina, and is certainly preferred. That completely changes the mood towards Smith.
3. A New Defensive Coordinator
Perhaps feeling some heat after a surprising and disappointing 2014, Smith elected to take over as the defensive play-caller on game days this year, stripping Leslie Frazier of those duties. That move didn’t pay off as the unit has regressed in some areas, such as the areas of scoring and red zone defense. The Bucs’ scoring defense ranks 21st in the league with a 25.2 points per game average.
Tampa Bay’s run defense has proven to be stout, and is ranked ninth in the league with a 94.4-yard average, but the Bucs haven’t faced many dynamic rushers this year. The unit ranking is inflated a bit because teams can pass so easily against the Bucs’ awful secondary. Tampa Bay’s pass defense is ranked 19th, allowing an average of 245.1 yards per game.
The Bucs are tied for 17th with 11 interceptions and tied for 16th with 33 sacks. Smith has underwhelmed as a head coach over the last two years, compiling a record of just 8-22 (.266). He needs to shift the focus back to coaching the entire team and working on his game day management without the distraction of coaching the defense.
The Glazers need to either insist on Smith giving back the play-calling duties to Frazier or hiring a new defensive coordinator that can call plays. It may not be what Smith wants to do, but it would be in his – and the Bucs’ – best interests.
Bucs WR Mike Evans – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
4. Better Hands For Evans
Evans has avoided the sophomore slump that some feared he might have, and after a slow start that prompted some foolishly to project he was the second coming of Michael Clayton, the 2014 first-round pick has come through with his 1,000-yard season. Evans joins a select few number of receivers to have ever done that in their first two years in the NFL.
That elite eight consists of Evans, Odell Beckham, Jr., A.J. Green, Marques Colston, Randy Moss, John Jefferson, Bob Hayes and Bill Groman. Evans, who is just 22, joins Moss as the only two receivers in NFL history to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons under the age of 23 – a stat uncovered by Buccaneers.com veteran writer Scott Smith.
However, Evans does lead the league with nine drops and is tied with Denver’s Demaryius Thomas, the New York Jets’ Brandon Marshall and Oakland rookie Amari Cooper for the dubious distinction. The difference for Evans is that he has 66 catches and Thomas and Marshall have 93 – nearly 20 more receptions. However Evans did miss the season opener against the Titans and was also very limited in his return in Week 2, a win over the Saints on the road.
It’s difficult to calculate the potential yardage Evans has lost due to those drops, but if you take his 15.5-yard receiving average and multiple it by the nine drops that totals 142 yards, several first downs and a potential dropped touchdown pass at Indianapolis he has an even better year. Evans can take the next step in his development by becoming more sure-handed in 2016.
5. A Defensive-Laden Draft Class
Licht and the Bucs’ scouting department have spent every draft pick except one on an offensive player over the past two years. That will change in 2016 as Tampa Bay will likely do the inverse and spend every pick except for one to fix the defense.
The Bucs really struggled against the pass this year, so upgrading the secondary is a must. Tampa Bay needs an infusion of talent at cornerback, so expect two draft picks to be used there – one early and one late. Good size and good ball skills are prerequisites. The Bucs could also use a good safety and have had past success there in the middle and late rounds.
Because part of having a good pass defense is also having a good pass rush, Tampa Bay needs to invest two draft picks on edge rushers. The Bucs could spend a first-round pick on a defensive end and then come back and draft another one on Day 3. Expect the front office to look for twitchy pass rushers with speed.
If the Bucs are going to use a draft pick on offense it needs to be at wide receiver. Finding a speed receiver to complement Evans would be ideal. If Tampa Bay can’t find someone to stretch the field vertically in this draft, finding another target 6-foot-4 or taller to eventually replace Jackson might be the way to go as Winston loves throwing to big receivers.
Bucs LG Logan Mankins – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
6. Changing Of The Guard
The Buccaneers underwent a youth movement on offense this year with as many as five rookies starting when quarterback Jameis Winston, linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet and receivers Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye took the field. That trend needs to continue at a couple more positions.
Left guard Logan Mankins has had a better season in 2015 than he did in Tampa Bay a year ago after arriving from New England via a trade. Mankins’ leadership and steady play has been of great benefit to the team this year, and he’s entering the final year of a contract that is slated to pay him $7 million in 2016. That’s too much for a soon-to-be 34-year old lineman entering his 12th season.
The Bucs won’t ask Mankins, who is a Pro Bowl alternate, for a pay cut, nor will they cut him. At the same time, if Mankins opted to retire after 2015 Tampa Bay would wish him well and eagerly insert Kevin Pamphile in at left guard as his replacement. The team believes Pamphile, who had an excellent game against Jacksonville replacing the injured Mankins, has a lot of ability and would pit him against Evan Smith in a training camp battle for the left guard position.
The same holds true for wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who will be 33 in January. Jackson has had a down year with 33 receptions for 543 yards and three touchdowns and has battled a knee injury that will end up costing him six games. Jackson is the team’s second-highest paid player in 2016, and is slated to make $12,209,778. That’s too much for an aging player who is the second-best receiver in Tampa Bay and who isn’t one of the league’s top 20 receivers anymore.
Jackson, who is the Bucs’ Man of the Year, is a pillar in the Tampa Bay community, and a good influence on Mike Evans and the Bucs’ younger offensive players. Jackson has one year left on his contract and the team would save $9,777,778 in cap room in 2016 if it released him and only be hit with $2,432,000 dead money. With Louis Murphy and unproven Kenny Bell coming off injured reserve in 2016, a viable replacement for Jackson isn’t on the roster right now, so look for the Bucs to go to Jackson and ask for a pay cut.
7. 16 Games For Alexander
Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht has only drafted one defensive player in his two years with the team, but it was a home run in middle linebacker Kwon Alexander. Licht traded up in the fourth round of this year’s draft to select the LSU standout and he was a 12-game starter for the Bucs until he was suspended for the last four games of the 2015 season due to PED (performance-enhancing drugs) use from drinking a banned energy drink.
Alexander could still finish as the Bucs’ second-leading tackler with 93 stops, nine pass breakups, six tackles for loss, five quarterback pressures, three sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery through 12 games. That’s quite a season for any middle linebacker – let alone a rookie.
Tragedy struck for Alexander in late October as his brother was shot and killed prior to the Atlanta game. He responded by having a career game with 11 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery and was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week. That game gave a glimpse into the player that Alexander could become in the NFL.
Alexander may be Tampa Bay’s fastest defensive player and is one of its smartest players. He often didn’t play like a rookie except for some missed tackles. Alexander does need to clean up that area of his game and become a better tackler in 2016, but the Bucs need him to be on the field for all 16 games next year. It is no surprise Tampa Bay is 0-2 without him in the starting lineup.
“I think it’s good for a player like Kwon Alexander to see too how much he means to his football team,” Smith said. “We haven’t been the same without him, but we knew that. Kwon Alexander, there’s a reason why we put him in after one preseason game. He brings something to the table. Nobody plays harder than him. The guy is an impact hitter. It’s about production with him. He’s intercepted the ball, he’s stripped the ball, all those big things you’re talking about that we have really missed the last couple weeks, those are things that he brought to the table. Yes, we definitely have an appreciation for good linebacker play and he has a bright future ahead of him.”
Bucs QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
8. No Sophomore Slump For Winston
Winston has had a rookie season for the ages and should win the 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He’s completed 58.4 percent of his passes for 3,422 yards with 25 touchdowns (20 passing, five rushing) and 12 interceptions. The passing yards and touchdowns are both Tampa Bay rookie records.
The team’s first-round draft pick has been everything the Bucs imagined he would be from being a heck of a passer, a savvy football player with a great mind for the game, an emotional leader with a strong will to win and a quarterback with the “it” factor. He’s the total package for a modern day pocket passer and has a bright future.
Winston and the Bucs can’t afford a sophomore slump in 2016. In order for Tampa Bay to make a playoff push next season, he has to raise his level of play and produce more points while keeping his number of interceptions down. Winston has made some daring runs this year and has stayed healthy for 14 games thus far, yet he must do a better job of protecting his body from big hits on scrambles.
Winston also needs to have an incident-free offseason to set up 2016 for a possible Pro Bowl run in his second year in the NFL. Winston has steered clear of any trouble off the field, too, which was a concern coming out of Florida State, so he’s off to a good start.
“Every time I’ve talked about Jameis I’ve said the same thing – great things,” Smith said. “The guys is an outstanding player, a great leader, everything you would want a first-round draft pick, top player in the draft, all of that to be he has been. He is excited about finishing it up the right way like we talked about with our football team. It’s safe to say his future is pretty bright.”
9. A Pro Bowl Berth For David
Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy made his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl on Tuesday after compiling 7.5 sacks in the 13 games he’s played in thus far in the 2015 campaign. But McCoy wasn’t happy with Lavonte David being snubbed once again. No one’s happy about it. David deserved to go to Hawaii following the 2013 season and also this year. McCoy went off on a rant on the NFL’s voting procedure, which lumps 3-4 pass-rushing outside linebackers with 4-3 outside linebackers with David.
“It’s terrible what’s happening to Lavonte right now,” McCoy said. “He’s easily the best at what he does. He had a million tackles, three picks, one for a touchdown, forced fumbles, two sacks – he’s been the most dominant at his position, probably since 2013. This has got to stop. It’s very unfair what’s happening to him. Seriously, if I could trade places with him, I would. He more than deserves to be in the Pro Bowl. I believe he’ll be an All-Pro, but what’s happening to him is unfair. You can quote me on that, I don’t care what they say about it, that’s how I feel. He’s the best. He got played and he should be in there, bottom line.”
“Everybody works hard to get to where they’re at, but the system is flawed. You’ve got to break that down or split it up. There’s no way he can keep getting treated unfairly like this because he’s a true 4-3 outside linebacker. If you ask me, he’s the best at being that. He keeps getting played. Something has to be done. … Any time your peers vote you in it’s always an honor. I’ll definitely take it. I’m happy about it, but at the drop of a dime, I would give it up to let 54 go.”
Well said, Gerald.
The Bucs want a playoff berth in 2016 – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
10. A Playoff Berth For The Bucs
More than anything the Bucs and their fans could want in 2016 is a long-overdue playoff berth. It’s been since the 2007 season since Tampa Bay has been in the playoffs, and it’s been since winning Super Bowl XXXVII following the 2002 campaign that the Bucs have tasted a postseason victory.
The schedule will be decidedly harder in 2016 than it was this year (see Fab 2.), and there will be several rookies asked to step in and play right away on the defensive side of the ball that may cost Tampa Bay a win or two. But the front office has been adding talent to this team, especially on the offensive side of the ball where offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has put it all together so well in just one with a rookie quarterback at the helm.
Winston, that rookie quarterback, was asked this week what he would ask Santa for at Christmastime.
“Take away some of our losses, give us some wins so we can be in the playoffs,” Winston said. “That’s the worst thing is sitting at home and watching other people play. That’s probably what’s going to eat me a lot more than anything else.”
Maybe Santa will bring Winston what he – and the entire organization and Pewter Nation wants in 2016.
FAB 2. BUCS HAVE BLOWN PERHAPS THE EASIEST SCHEDULE IN TEAM HISTORY
Sometimes it’s dangerous to take an early look at an NFL team’s schedule when it comes out in April and forecast wins and losses. There are always some Cinderella teams that come out of nowhere in a modern day NFL that is created to achieve parity, and some teams with high expectations that fall flat due to injuries or turmoil or just some bad breaks.
Tampa Bay entered the 2016 schedule with the fourth-easiest schedule in the league as its opponents had a .425 winning percentage (108-146-2) from the year before. Usually that doesn’t hold to form due to the surprises that unfold when injuries hit, free agents flop, rookies rise up faster than expected and breakout stars emerge.
But this year’s schedule has been exactly what most pundits expected. It’s been easy – super easy.
The Bucs are still in a weak NFC South division that has three teams that likely won’t post winning records, in addition to the league’s dominant team in the Panthers, who are surprisingly undefeated at 14-0. Remember, Carolina won the NFC South last year with a 7-9-1 record, so nobody saw the Panthers going undefeated in 2015.
Titans OLB Derrick Morgan – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The Bucs also played the AFC South and the NFC East this year – two very weak divisions that have lived up to their advanced billing. With two games left in the season there isn’t a team in either division with a winning record yet, and the winners in those divisions might even finish 8-8 or 7-9.
So in a down year in the NFC South except for Carolina, and facing two very bad divisions what do the Bucs have to show for it? A 3-2 record in the NFC South, which is good, but a 2-2 record against the NFC East and a 1-3 mark against the AFC South. That’s just poor, folks.
Remember that the Bucs’ first loss of the season came at home to Tennessee by the score of 42-17. The Titans are the worst team in football with a 3-11 record. A team with a rookie quarterback, and a team that fired its head coach seven games into the 2015 season.
When it’s all said and done, every opponent the Buccaneers will have faced may have a losing – or non-winning – record this year except for the Panthers. That means Tampa Bay will have lost at least seven games – and potentially eight depending on the outcome of the game against Chicago on Sunday – to teams with losing records or .500 records this year.
Has there been progress this year in Tampa Bay? Yes, winning six games is far better than winning two. But most of the improvement has been on the offensive side of the ball where offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and his staff have turned a handful of rookies led by Winston into NFL players extremely quickly.
The defense has been sub-par for most of the season, especially against the pass. Tampa Bay has rolled through all of its cornerbacks this year and truly only found one that could be considered a starting-caliber player in Sterling Moore based on play this year. Undrafted rookie Jude Adjei-Barimah has potential, but needs to develop, while veterans Johnthan Banks, Alterraun Verner and Mike Jenkins have disappointed. Those three may not return in 2016, as the position needs to be overhauled.
Bucs CB Sterling Moore – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The Bucs also need upgrades at safety where Chris Conte’s play has leveled off a bit and Bradley McDougald has had some ups and downs in coverage. Major Wright has also been a disappointment.
Tampa Bay’s defense, which is Smith’s side of the ball, is ranked 11th in the league in total defense, but that’s a bit misleading. The pass defense is ranked 19th, allowing an average of 245.1 yards per game, and the scoring defense is ranked 21st, surrendering an average of 25.2 points per game.
Smith’s play-calling on the defensive side of the ball has been no better than that of Raheem Morris in 2010, which was his first full year as Tampa Bay’s play-caller. What’s damning for Smith and this year’s Buccaneers team is that there is far more talent on the 2015 roster than there was in 2010, and yet Morris coached better that season and produced better results.
Josh Freeman was a second-year quarterback that produced a season similar to Jameis Winston’s rookie campaign, but the running back tandem of Doug Martin and Charles Sims was much more productive than that of LeGarrette Blount and Cadillac Williams. Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and Adam Humphries are a better trio of wide receivers than Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn and Sammie Stroughter were, although Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Cameron Brate were a bit less productive than Kellen Winslow and John Gilmore were.
The Bucs offensive line in 2010 featured Jeremy Trueblood and Donald Penn at tackle, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah at guard and Ted Larsen at center. Give the Bucs’ younger and more talented 2015 offensive line, which features rookies Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet, in addition to veterans Logan Mankins, Joe Hawley and Gosder Cherilus, a slight edge over their 2010 counterparts.
On defense, the Bucs had a better secondary with Aqib Talib, Ronde Barber and E.J. Biggers at cornerback, although Sean Jones, Sabby Piscitelli and Cody Grimm were nothing special at safety. Tampa Bay’s secondary is worse this year, but the linebacking corps in 2010 paled in comparison to this year’s unit.
Barrett Ruud, Geno Hayes and Quincy Black weren’t as talented as Pro Bowl alternate Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander and Danny Lansanah. The Bucs’ front four featured Roy Miller, Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder along with Gerald McCoy as a rookie for 13 games in 2010. This year’s front four features Jacquies Smith, Will Gholston, Clinton McDonald and a four-time Pro Bowler in McCoy.
Ex-Bucs head coach Raheem Morris – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Morris, a younger and lesser head coach than Smith, was able to manufacture 10 wins against a similar schedule. The Bucs opponents that year had a .477 winning percentage, which was slightly higher than the 2015 schedule Tampa Bay is facing this year. The Bucs’ current schedule strength this year is .449.
Morris’ Bucs were an impressive 9-1 against teams with losing records in 2010. Smith’s Bucs are currently 6-7 against teams with losing records in 2015. That number improves to 7-7 with a win over Chicago or sinks to 6-8 with a loss to the Bears.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Tampa Bay only lost one game out of 10 to a losing team in 2010. This year’s Bucs will have played as many as 14 games against opponents with losing records and will not have won more than half. That’s bad coaching. That’s an undisciplined Tampa Bay team continually beating itself with penalties game after game.
Morris’ Bucs were 1-5 against teams with winning records in 2010, but ended the season on a high note at New Orleans with a victory over the playoff-bound Saints. Smith’s Bucs are 0-1 against winning teams, and will have another shot at the Panthers when the Bucs’ season ends in Carolina on January 3.
Is a 6-10 record against possibly the easiest schedule in the franchise history acceptable to you? Is it acceptable to the Glazers?
Bucs head coach Lovie Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
When did 6-10 become the standard in Tampa Bay? Didn’t the Glazers fire Tony Dungy after a 10-6 season? Didn’t they fire the all-time winningest head coach in Bucs history, Jon Gruden, after back-to-back 9-7 seasons?
That’s why these last two games of the season are so important for Lovie Smith’s future in 2010. A 7-9 mark is far better than 6-10 given how easy this year’s schedule is, and an upset win at Carolina in Week 17 would do wonders to keep Smith, who has an 8-22 record in Tampa Bay, off the hot seat in 2016.
If the Bucs do finish 6-10 it will be due to a 1-5 finish. The Glazers would need to seriously consider firing Smith and promoting offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to head coach for the sake of continuity on offense. However, an 8-8 finish completely changes that narrative.
FAB 3. STOCKER IS AN UNSUNG HERO FOR BUCS’ OFFENSE
For years Buccaneers fans were down on tight end Luke Stocker.
He was always hurt.
He wasn’t worth spending two fourth-round draft picks on.
He wasn’t fast enough.
He never became the receiving threat that Tampa Bay fans envisioned he would be coming from the University of Tennessee where he broke some of Jason Witten’s records.
Bucs TE Luke Stocker – Photo by: Getty Images
Yet five years later, there’s Stocker hustling 40 yards downfield last Thursday night in St. Louis to recover a fumble by rookie wide receiver Donteea Dye, who flipped the ball down to the ground to celebrate after he thought he was down by contact at the Rams’ 1-yard line following a 47-yard catch. Instead it was a live ball and Stocker raced to recover it at the 3-yard line.
On the next play, Jameis Winston found Stocker for a 3-yard touchdown – his first of the year and just the second of his career – to cut the Rams’ lead to 28-13 in the fourth quarter.
“That play right there epitomizes who Luke is as a player,” Bucs tight end Brandon Myers said. “He’ll do anything for the team. That was probably one of the most well deserved touchdowns anyone could ask for. He races down there and bails out a teammate. We paused it on the film and he was 40 yards away, but he ran down there. It just shows you how smart he is as a player. He’s very intelligent. That play shows you who he is.”
Stocker will never be a receiving tight end with the speed and playmaking ability of Austin Seferian-Jenkins. But that’s not what the Bucs are asking him to do. They see value in other areas of Stocker’s game.
Catching the ball is a bonus for Stocker, who has just seven catches for 51 yards on the season and 42 receptions for 349 yards in his Bucs career. What the 6-foot-6, 253-pounder is typically called on to do is the dirty work – blocking. That was on display on his perimeter block to spring running back Charles Sims for a 35-yard run on the next series against St. Louis.
“I definitely like to block,” Stocker said. “Every tight end wants to catch passes, but I take pride in all aspects of my game. I want my teammates to count on me and depend on me when I’m called on to make my end of the play. It comes down to taking pride in everything you can do to make sure the team is successful.”
Bucs TE Luke Stocker – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Stocker is as team-oriented as they come, and that’s a big reason why he was signed to a three-year contract prior to the start of the 2015 season. Because he blocks so well Stocker is an honorary offensive lineman around One Buccaneer Place.
“Luke has always been a pro and he just goes about his business, which is probably why people don’t really notice him much,” Tampa Bay center Evan Smith said. “He’s not getting the ball thrown his way in the game, but he’s always doing his job and doing it well. He plays hard and he’s smart. He knows the offense and he knows where he’s supposed to be. He doesn’t have any missed assignments.
“He’s a great blocker, but when he runs his routes he runs them hard and he’s always where he’s supposed to be. Sometimes he gets the ball. Sometimes he doesn’t, but he’s always ready and prepared in case his number is called. Every team has a receiving tight end, but you always have to have a jack-of-all-trades that can block and catch and do the dirty work. That’s Luke and he’s extremely valuable to our team.”
He may not be the starter every game, but when the Bucs want to get their ninth-ranked running game cranked up or need to keep a tight end in to help double team a defensive end on a passing play Stocker’s name gets called.
“Luke is a do-it-all guy,” Myers said. “We don’t get the chance to catch the ball very much, but he showed during camp that he can do that. He’s reliable and he’s not afraid to stick his nose in there and mix it up. His game is gradually going up and up. He’s playing well.”
Stocker literally stuck his nose in there as a blocker in August during training camp. Stocker hit linebacker Danny Lansanah so hard during a block that he broke his own nose.
“I did break my nose during training camp,” Stocker said. “I broke my chin strap when I hit Danny Lansanah and my helmet came down on my nose. They limited me in practice for a few days to let it heal, but I was fine. A broken nose isn’t that big of a deal in football.”
Bucs TE Luke Stocker – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“He broke his nose and that’s what happens,” Myers said. “He’s a tough guy. He’s thick. He’s a bully as a blocker. It’s impressive. He’s versatile and he can pass pro and run block. He can also catch the ball, which we don’t show a lot with him. But he can do it.”
Stocker is glad that this year’s training camp injury was minor compared to years past when he suffered multiple injuries, including a broken hip.
“It was definitely difficult with the injuries my first three years,” Stocker said. “The third year I missed the whole season. The first year I missed the whole training camp. In my second year I also missed most of training camp. It was just a ton of missed reps and chances to show what I could do.
“But I did have a lot of time to develop and adapt to life in the NFL. It’s nice to get healthy and to take care of my body. Everything seems to be doing well these past couple of years.”
Stocker, who was called on to play fullback late last year when Jorvorskie Lane went down with a broken leg, was excited to see Dirk Koetter take over as offensive coordinator and that was a big reason why he wanted to re-sign with Tampa Bay. Koetter sees the value of tight ends and doesn’t neglect the position.
“Knowing Dirk was coming in and his reputation, it was exciting for us tight ends,” Stocker said. “His offense creates a lot of opportunities and let’s the tight ends do a lot of different things, especially in the passing game.”
Bucs TE Luke Stocker – Photo by: Getty Images
Stocker did a lot of different things to help Tampa Bay’s offense amass over 500 yards for the second time this season last Thursday night in a 31-23 loss at St. Louis, and that’s just the way he likes it. He may not get the attention, the fanfare, the catches, the touchdowns or the respect of the fans, but he certainly well respected by the Bucs players and coaches. He received a ton of accolades in the building for his effort, hustle and production against the Rams while catching three passes for 25 yards and a touchdown and throwing several great blocks to spring Sims and Doug Martin.
“I consider myself a football player before anything else,” Stocker said. “I don’t want to get stuck doing one thing. I want to be a complete player. Playing tight end is perfect for me. I just want to do whatever it takes to put our team in position to win. Whether it’s running down and falling on a fumble and making the recovery, or playing full back, or pass protecting, or sealing the edge on an outside run – I take pride in whatever I do.”
And Stocker does everything very well.
FAB 4. EARLY LOOK AT BUCS’ 2016 SCHEDULE
The Buccaneers failed to take advantage of perhaps the easiest schedule in franchise history this year and make a surprise playoff run in December. So what does 2016 have in store for Tampa Bay?
Here’s an early look at the Bucs’ opponents, which will be finalized after Week 17 with the dates and times determined by the NFL in April.
BUCS’ 2016 HOME GAMES St. Louis Rams Seattle Seahawks Oakland Raiders Denver Broncos Atlanta Falcons Carolina Panthers New Orleans Saints NFC North – TBD (likely Chicago or Detroit)
BUCS’ 2016 AWAY GAMES Arizona Cardinals San Francisco 49ers San Diego Chargers Kansas City Chiefs Atlanta Falcons Carolina Panthers New Orleans Saints NFC East – TBD (likely Washington, Philadelphia or NY Giants)
Entering Week 16 with two games left, Tampa Bay is in third place in the NFC South division, while the New York Giants (6-8) are the third place team in the NFC East and Detroit (5-9) is the third place team in the NFC North. Philadelphia (6-8) is tied with the Giants, but don’t have the tiebreaker. The same is true with Chicago (5-9) and Detroit in the NFC North.
The Bucs will play the Rams for a fifth straight year – Photo by: Getty Images
The bad news on the surface for the Bucs is that they trade out the weak AFC South and NFC East divisions for much tougher divisions next year in the AFC West and the NFC West. The chances that Tampa Bay improves on its record with a defense that figures to feature two or three rookie starters isn’t impossible, but making a playoff run with that schedule could be a tall order for the Bucs.
The NFC West has two dominate teams in Arizona (12-2) and Seattle (9-5) that feature dominant defenses and two great quarterbacks in Carson Palmer and Russell Wilson with multiple weapons to utilize. Keep in mind that St. Louis has beaten Tampa Bay four straight times since 2012. The Bucs will have three trips out west, including two NFC West teams in Arizona and San Francisco, as well as San Diego, which is always difficult for East Coast teams like Tampa Bay.
The AFC West features two playoff-caliber teams in Denver (10-4) and Kansas City (9-5) with strong defenses and potent running games. Oakland has a balanced offense led by Derek Carr and Amari Cooper and an up-and-coming defense featuring the NFL’s leading sacker, Khalil Mack.
The Bucs will have played three different playoff teams in 2015 in the Panthers, the eventual AFC South champion (likely Houston) and the eventual winner in the NFC East (likely Washington). That number will likely climb to five in 2016 with those teams being the Panthers, the Cardinals, the Seahawks, the Broncos and the Chiefs – assuming that both of those AFC West teams make the playoffs.
Of course free agency and the 2016 NFL Draft will reshape the rosters for every team, including Tampa Bay. With another solid draft the Bucs will have more talent on defense, and the offense should continue to improve with more experience. To beat a greater number of better teams next season the Bucs will have to upgrade the roster and their level of play next year.
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• Congrats to Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and running back Doug Martin for making the Pro Bowl, and to linebacker Lavonte David and guard Logan Mankins for being named Pro Bowl alternates. The Pro Bowl honors were McCoy’s fourth in his career and Martin’s second. McCoy has had a down season with just 7.5 sacks, but he’s played through a rotator cuff injury, which explains a lot.
Bucs LB Lavonte David – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
David has a good chance of making his first Pro Bowl due to the fact that every outside linebacker is on a playoff-caliber team. If the Broncos (DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller), Chiefs (Justin Houston, Tamba Hali) or Patriots and/or the Panthers (Jamie Collins) make the Super Bowl, David will get the call because Super Bowl participants don’t end up going to Hawaii because they are practicing for the league title.
Mankins also has a decent shot of making his seventh Pro Bowl as four of the six guard selected are on playoff teams. If the Panthers (Trai Turner), Packers (Josh Sitton) or Cardinals (Mike Iupati) and/or Steelers (David DeCastro) make the Super Bowl, Mankins will head to Hawaii to represent the Bucs.
• Heading into Sunday’s game against Chicago, Tampa Bay currently has the 12th overall pick. Depending on how well or poorly they finish the season, it’s possible for the Bucs to pick anywhere from fourth to 19th in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
• Many Bucs fans are mentioning New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and Buffalo defensive end Mario Williams as free agents they would like to see in Tampa Bay. But that’s not the kind of defensive players that are the best fit for the Tampa 2 defensive scheme.
Instead, take a look at Miami’s potential free agent defensive end Olivier Vernon, who has seven sacks this year and 28.5 and four forced fumbles in his four years with the Dolphins. Vernon, who is 6-foot-2, 275 pounds, has 26 quarterback hits, which trails only Houston’s J.J. Watt, according to Pro Football Focus, in addition to 71 QB pressures.
Seattle’s potential free agent defensive end Bruce Irvin played some strongside linebacker for the Seahawks, but Tampa Bay would use him strictly as a pass rusher. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound Irvin drops into coverage one third of the time in Seattle where he’s picked off three passes in his career, but he’s also notched 22 career sacks and four forced fumbles, including 5.5 sacks this year. If the Bucs are interested in Irvin they may have competition from Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn, who coached him in Seattle.
Vernon and Irvin are the type of fast, undersized defensive ends (think Jacquies Smith) that the Bucs are looking for to potentially replace George Johnson, who has been an overpaid bust this year. Vernon ran a 4.64 at his pro day coming out of Miami, while Irvin ran a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine.
• The Tampa Bay defense has 33 sacks through 14 games and needs just four more over the next two games to surpass last year’s total of 36. Thirty-three of the team’s 36 sacks came from defensive linemen last year, and that group accounts for 25.5 this season. Defensive line coach Joe Cullen continues to do an amazing job with a bunch of non-descript players not named Gerald McCoy, who leads the team with 7.5 sacks.
Defensive ends Will Gholston and Jacquies Smith reached career highs with three and seven sacks, respectively, under Cullen’s tutelage. Cullen also helped develop newcomer Howard Jones, who has five sacks during his rookie year.
• Last week’s SR’s Fab 5 highlighted some of the potential first-round defensive ends in this year’s draft class, as well as some small-school sleepers. Here’s one likely late-round option to keep in mind – Maryland junior Yannick Ngakoue. The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Ngakoue set the Terrapins’ single season sack record with 13.5 this year and has 21.5 in his three years at Maryland.
He’s fared well against the likes of Ohio State’s Taylor Decker, Michigan State’s Jack Conklin and former Iowa left tackle Brandon Schreff and ex-Penn State left tackle Donovan Smith, who are now in the NFL in Washington and Tampa Bay, respectively.
• Bucs fans and loyal PewterReport.com readers, have a Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday season from everyone at PewterReport.com. We thank you for reading our content and for making 2015 such a great year for PR. We have a lot of big things in store for 2016 content-wise that we think you’ll love. Stay tuned.
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Have a safe and Happy New Year and there will be a brand new SR’s Fab 5 column for you to read next Friday on New Year’s Day to help kick off 2016!
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com
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