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. BUCS DEFENSIVE OVERHAUL COMING
Changes are coming to Tampa Bay’s defense in 2016. Big changes.
Assuming Lovie Smith stays on as head coach, it will be interesting to see whether he will remain the defensive play-caller next year given how bad the Bucs performed this year on his side of the ball, or if the Glazers will force Smith to cede control to a bona fide defensive coordinator.
For Smith’s own good, I hope he relinquishes control of the play-calling and focuses on improving as a head coach and game-day manager. Smith needs to figure out how to transform the most undisciplined team in the league into a disciplined one so penalties won’t continue to be the Bucs’ undoing.
Bucs DC Leslie Frazier – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Will Leslie Frazier, Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator in title only, return in 2016? He signed a two-year deal and can’t be happy that he was stripped of his play-calling duties after the 2014 season. If Frazier hits the road, whom will Smith bring on as a replacement? Even if Smith continues to call plays he’ll need an assistant to break down film, game plan and coordinate the defense during the week in meetings and in practice.
Will potential changes in Dallas allow Rod Marinelli to come on board in Tampa Bay to potentially save the day?
The Buccaneers will have to examine their defensive coaching staff and determine if changes need to be made. Defensive line coach Joe Cullen is widely regarded as one of the best in the league and he’s helped make Gerald McCoy a four-time Pro Bowler with guidance over the past two years, in addition to improving the play of defensive ends Will Gholston and Jacquies Smith.
I want to see what he could do with an ultra-talented defensive end that the Bucs acquire with a first- or second-round pick in 2016. Cullen is part of the solution moving forward in Tampa Bay – not a problem.
Linebackers coach Hardy Nickerson deserves credit for rapidly developing rookie Kwon Alexander into a starter and playmaker for the defense. It’s no coincidence that the Bucs are 0-3 without Alexander in the lineup.
Lavonte David had a couple of forgettable games early in the season, but once he forged trust and a rapport with Alexander he resumed playing at a Pro Bowl level. Nickerson is a keeper as Tampa Bay’s linebackers coach.
The Bucs secondary has regressed this season, and I had a trusted source familiar with the coaching staff tell me that cornerbacks coach Gil Byrd, nickel backs coach Larry Marmie and safeties coach Mikal Smith, Lovie’s son, are far from elite coaches. There could be a change or two there, but not likely at the safety position.
I can’t see Lovie firing his son even though the safety position has been one of the weakest on the team over the past two years and has been a revolving door. First Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron couldn’t play. Then it was Major Wright and Bradley McDougald.
Bucs HC Lovie Smith and Ss coach Mikal Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
This year the Bucs have been shuffling Wright and McDougald, Chris Conte and Keith Tandy. Conte has been the best, but McDougald hasn’t developed into a reliable playmaker as the team expected. Some of those safeties may not return and Tampa Bay is expected to draft one to enter the mix in April. That’s a good thing because the safety positions have netted exactly six interceptions in 31 games under Smith’s watch.
Six. The Bucs need better results here, but nepotism will likely get in the way.
It’s been the same thing at nickel cornerback and cornerback. The Bucs have rolled through a ton of them over the past two years. After foolishly jettisoning Pro Bowler Darrelle Revis last year, Alterraun Verner, Johnthan Banks, Brandon Dixon, Isaiah Frey and Leonard Johnson were the primary cornerbacks and nickels in 2014. Only Verner and Banks made it to the 2015 roster, and Banks was benched early in the season, while Verner was demoted to nickel corner.
Tim Jennings, a Bears crony, was signed and inserted into the starting lineup along with Mike Jenkins. Jennings was so bad he was cut, and Jenkins was demoted. Heading into Week 17, the Bucs have started six players at cornerback this year, including Jennings, Jenkins, Banks, Verner, rookie Jude Adjei-Barimah and Sterling Moore, who has been the best of the bunch.
The truth is the Bucs have added more defensive backs over the past two years than any other position and don’t have much to show for it. Wright, Conte, Verner, Moore, Jennings, Jenkins and Adjei-Barimah are all new additions and an overall may be coming.
Jennings is already gone, and Jenkins, Moore and Conte were all signed to one-year deals and may not return.
Verner’s salary climbs from $4.25 million to $6.75 million in 2016, which means he’s not likely to return without taking a significant pay cut. And that is if the team wants him back. Verner only has three interceptions in two seasons in Tampa Bay.
Banks, a former second-round pick in 2013, was a good pick for Greg Schiano’s scheme, but not Smith’s Tampa 2. He’s not a lock to return next year, either.
The nickel position has been a huge letdown since Smith brought his Tampa 2 scheme to Tampa Bay two years ago. Leonard Johnson and Isaiah Frey didn’t work out last year and only had one interception between them. Moore and Verner have split time at nickel corner and only one interception – Verner’s – has come from that position this year.
As former Tampa Bay defensive tackle Booger McFarland pointed out on Twitter this week, most teams usually have one defensive backs coach and an assistant to help out. Think Mike Tomlin and Raheem Morris, and then Morris and Jimmy Lake.
Bucs CBs coach Gil Byrd – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Part of the chemistry issues with the Bucs secondary could be the multiple voices the players are hearing from three defensive backs coach – Smith, Marmie and Byrd – rather than just one voice. Don’t look for the coaching scheme to change though, as having a dedicated nickel corner coach is Smith’s brainchild.
There needs to be a shakeup in the secondary coaching staff, too. But I would be surprised if Smith doesn’t remain loyal to his assistants and not make any changes even though it would be in the team’s best interests.
Tampa Bay could wind up with as many as nine new defensive backs next year, but new talent doesn’t necessarily mean better talent.
There will be new faces in different places, too. Backup middle linebacker Bruce Carter is slated to make $4.25 million in 2016, which is way too much for a reserve. Even if the team decided to keep him and start him at strongside linebacker, that’s too rich for a part-time position.
Danny Lansanah, the team’s Sam linebacker, is a restricted free agent, but was a bit of a disappointment this year with no interceptions after three last year, including two pick-sixes. He’ll be 31 next August and Tampa Bay will likely want to get younger and faster on the strong side.
On the defensive line, defensive end George Johnson is likely a goner. He’s been a bust, failing to record a sack in 2015 and he’s slated to earn $2 million next year. The Bucs will likely have another defensive end or two next year at George’s expense.
Overhauling the offensive line worked this year with four new starters – rookies Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet and veterans Gosder Cherilus and Joe Hawley – coming together and helping Tampa Bay have a top 10 offense this season. Will the same thing work for the Bucs defense next year, especially the secondary?
It needs to for Lovie Smith’s sake.
FAB 2. ROSTER CUTS WILL CREATE MORE CAP ROOM FOR TAMPA BAY
According to OverTheCap.com, the Buccaneers will enter the 2016 offseason with $46,929,507 million in salary cap space, which is the third-most cap room in the NFL behind Oakland ($61,638,819) and Chicago ($56,291,827). Tampa Bay has $103,205,256 on the books for 2016 with just $390,237 in dead salary cap room.
That’s plenty of room to extend the contract of Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin and to get a few free agents at reasonable prices. The Bucs’ days of spending lavishly on free agency are over (think Dashon Goldson, Michael Johnson, Alterraun Verner and a plethora of others).
Do not expect the Bucs to be big participants and heavy spenders in free agency, as the front office’s philosophy remains to build through the draft. But here’s how Tampa Bay can create even more cap room to accommodate Martin’s new deal, re-signing some of the Bucs’ own free agents and signing some new additions.
The Bucs will likely part ways with the likes of defensive end George Johnson, who is scheduled to make $2 million and produced no sacks in his first year in Tampa Bay. Parting ways with reserve linebacker Bruce Carter could save $4.25 million. He would be a better fit making half of that if the Bucs wanted to retain him with a pay cut.
Cornerback Alterraun Verner has failed to live up to his big salary and was demoted to the nickel role this year. He’s slated to make $6.75 million, which is way too much.
Tight end Brandon Myers was re-signed to a two-year extension last year, but is on the books for $1,916,668 in 2016. Myers has been inactive down the stretch with the return of Austin Seferian-Jenkins to the lineup and the emergence of Cameron Brate. That’s too rich for a fourth-string tight end.
Despite being a second-round pick in 2013, cornerback Johnthan Banks’ stock is on the decline at One Buccaneer Place and his $1,503,829 salary in 2016 could be too much for the team’s liking. The same could be said of safety Major Wright’s $1.75 million salary.
If the Bucs were to release Johnson, Carter, Verner, Myers, Banks and Wright it would represent a cap savings of approximately $18 million. That would give Tampa Bay an estimated cap space of $65 million.
Bucs WR Vincent Jackson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
If the Bucs cut wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who will be 33 in January, it would save Tampa Bay close to $10 million. The Bucs don’t want to pay the aging receiver the $9.7 million base salary he’s due in 2016, which is the last year of his contract, but the offense functioned much better with Jackson in the lineup.
Combine that with Jackson’s ability to mentor young receivers and all of the community service he does in the Tampa Bay area and it would be difficult to part ways with him. Don’t be surprised to see the Bucs suggest a pay cut for Jackson in the offseason.
Left guard Logan Mankins is due to make $7 million in 2016, which is the final year of his contract. The Bucs won’t ask him to take a pay cut, but at age 34, there is a chance that Mankins decides to retire. If he does, that’s an additional $7 million worth of salary cap room for Tampa Bay.
Despite having a good deal of salary cap space and the ability to add much more, don’t expect Tampa Bay to come close to using it all in free agency.
FAB 3. BUCS’ FREE AGENT FORECAST
With the extension of linebacker Lavonte David’s contract prior to the 2015 season, Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht has one less big contract to deal with heading into the 2016 offseason. The biggest contract hurdle for Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg to clear will be that of running back Doug Martin’s.
Here’s a preview of Tampa Bay’s free agents heading into 2016.
Unrestricted Free Agents – 2015 Salary Cap Value
DT Henry Melton – $3,750,000
RB Doug Martin – $2,159,668
RB Bobby Rainey – $1,542,000
CB Sterling Moore – $1,525,000
SS Chris Conte – $1,500,000
DT Tony McDaniel – $1,500,000
CB Mike Jenkins – $825,000
FS Keith Tandy – $690,150
DE Larry English – $586,750
DT Da’Quan Bowers – $131,470
Bucs RB Doug Martin – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Analysis: Martin could wind up as the league’s leading rusher this year and deserves a new contract. But don’t expect the Bucs to break the bank for him. Look for Tampa Bay to offer Martin a deal in the $5 million neighborhood rather than the $7 million he might be looking for.
Moore and Conte might be deemed keepers by the front office, but the Bucs won’t be offering either player a premium paycheck.
“I would love to stay here,” Conte said. “I think we’re building something special here. I feel like I’ve been a part of that and I want to be a part of that, so I want to do everything I can to be here and stay healthy. I think this franchise is on an upward trend. We’re making a playoff push now. I think we should be a team that is in the playoffs. This is definitely a place I’d like to be.”
McDaniel wants to remain in Tampa Bay and the feeling is believed to be mutual.
“Not as of right now, but hopefully it works out where I get to stay here,” McDaniel said. “This is the place I want to be. We’ve got an awesome defense and we’re winning some ball games.
“Joe Cullen is a great coach. He’s taking me back to basics and working on my hands and he has me playing with pad level. He gets me prepared for the game by teaching me how to read offensive linemen by their stance and how they give away things with their hands. It’s all about getting off the ball and playing defensive line with him.”
The Bucs like Melton, but not at his current salary. The jury might be out on whether to bring Rainey, Tandy, Jenkins and English back next year. Bowers won’t return.
Restricted Free Agents
LB Danny Lansanah – $660,000
FS Bradley McDougald – $585,000
WR Russell Shepard – $585,000
FB Jorvorskie Lane – $585,000
RB Mike James – $68,823
Bucs LB Danny Lansanah – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Analysis: Lansanah will turn 31 in August and had a down year from 2014 when he had three interceptions, including two pick-sixes. The Bucs will likely offer him a one-year tender and bring him to camp to compete for the strongside linebacker position. McDougald, Shepard and Smith are part of the team’s long-term plans and will receive one-year tenders.
The future for Lane and James in Tampa Bay is unknown at this time, but both could be tendered one-year contracts and brought to camp for competition.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents
LB Jeremiah George – $510,000
LS Andrew DePaola – $510,000
DE Jacquies Smith – $510,000
TE Cameron Brate – $450,000
DE T.J. Fatinikun – $374,647
CB Jude Adjei-Barimah – $358,235
WR Adam Humphries – $255,882
LB Josh Keyes – $179,117
Analysis: Tampa Bay is expected to sign all eight exclusive rights free agents. DePaola has done an admirable job snapping the ball, and Brate and Humphries are key building blocks on the Bucs offense. Adjei-Barimah and Fatinikun showed promise on defense, while George and Keyes are core special teamers.
FAB 4. BUCS’ FREE AGENCY WILL HAVE A NEW TWIST IN 2016
This section of the SR’s Fab 5 is going to be short and sweet.
Imagine the recruiter that Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston will be in free agency. Imagine a free agent going out to dinner with general manager Jason Licht, head coach Lovie Smith and the enthusiastic and effervescent Winston.
Bucs QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“I would think so,” Bucs offensive lineman Kevin Pamphile said. “I would think guys would be happy about the opportunity to get with a young quarterback who is up and coming and like the prospect of winning like that.”
How does a player not want to play with Winston? How can anyone say “No” to that guy and the Buccaneers?
“Bottom line is probably the money and how they fit on the roster of a team is what makes the difference,” Tampa Bay tight end Brandon Myers said. “But to have the opportunity to come here to play with a guy like Jameis and with the offensive coordinator we have I could see that being a big selling point.”
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• Buccaneers tight end Luke Stocker speaks for his teammates when he says that quarterback Jameis Winston deserves the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
“Jameis definitely deserves it,” Stocker said. “His overall understanding of our playbook was huge. That’s one thing that stood out to me during the OTAs and the mini-camp. From Day One of him stepping in and announcing the cadence he never missed a beat. His understanding of the entire game plan – he’s spot on with all of the calls, the checks and the protections.
“That’s big for a rookie quarterback – to learn how to protect himself by knowing how to I.D. the fronts so that everyone is picked up and accounted for, and also understanding when he doesn’t have a guy accounted for and getting the ball out quickly. He’s done a great job with that. He’s the rookie of the year, in my opinion.”
Bucs QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
• Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston has 3,717 passing yards, which is the fourth most in NFL history by a rookie behind Andrew Luck (4,374), Cam Newton (4,051) and Peyton Manning (3,739). Winston needs just 22 yards to move past Manning, and 334 yards in the Week 17 game at Carolina to pass Newton’s rookie total.
If Winston throws for 283 yards against the Panthers he’ll hit 4,000 for the season and became just third rookie in NFL history to accomplish that feat. If Winston passes for 349 yards on Sunday he’ll top Josh Freeman’s franchise record of 4,065 yards set in 2012.
• Tampa Bay tight end Luke Stocker is one of the smartest players on the team and has coaching aspirations when his NFL days are done. Stocker had three different offensive coordinators in college and has played for three more in Tampa Bay.
“I definitely want to go into coaching after my playing career is over,” Stocker said. “I really enjoy football. Going back to my days at Tennessee, I’ve had a lot of different coaches and I’ve been in a lot of different install meetings. I don’t know if that’s part of it or what. I’ve had a lot of exposure to different verbiage and a lot of different ways to do the same things. Football comes to me naturally. Hopefully I can become a coach one day.”
Bucs quarterback Mike Glennon raved about Stocker’s football I.Q.
“He’s a very intelligent guy,” Glennon said. “He’s one guy that could truly line up and play any position on offense for us. I mean he could line up and play wide receiver if we needed him to. I think he wants to get into coaching after his playing days are done and he’ll make a good one because he’s so smart.”
• Out of all of the Buccaneers on the practice squad this year, the team is the most excited about rookie tight end Tevin Westbrook, who was signed to the active roster this week. Whether Tampa Bay will play him this week at Carolina or the reason it signed him was to avoid another team signing him this week is unknown. But the Bucs definitely want to have him around for next year.
Westbrook, who played at the University of Florida, was underused as a receiver in college. The 6-foot-5, 257-pounder caught only 11 passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns for the Gators and has good hands. The Bucs feel he could possibly develop into a bigger version of Cameron Brate in time.
Bucs WR Vincent Jackson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
• One of the reasons why the Buccaneers have so much salary cap room in 2016 is that the team only has 10 players that make more $3 million or more. As I’ve pointed out in this edition of SR’s Fab 5, a couple of these high-paid players may be jettisoned this offseason, too.
Buccaneers With $3 Million+ Cap Values 1. DT Gerald McCoy – $13,000,000 2. WR Vincent Jackson – $12,209,777 3. LB Lavonte David – $10,000,000 4. G Logan Mankins – $7,000,000 5. CB Alterraun Verner – $6,750,000 6. QB Jameis Winston – $5,761,654 7. LB Bruce Carter – $4,250,000 8. WR Mike Evans – $3,990,410 9. RT Gosder Cherilus – $3,500,000 10. DT Clinton McDonald – $3,250,000
• Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is the highest-paid offensive coordinator in the NFL. The Bucs absolutely love him and won’t lose him this offseason. If another NFL team makes a play to hire Koetter as its head coach, that could be the lone situation where Lovie Smith is fired and Koetter is promoted in order to keep the continuity with quarterback Jameis Winston and the Bucs’ top 10 offense.
• Happy New Year, Buccaneers fans and PewterReport.com readers! Visit PewterReport.com on Saturday for the final edition of SR’s Pick 6, my Bucs vs. Panthers game preview. And be sure to follow us on Twitter at @PewterReport.
PewterReport.com will be your offseason headquarters for Bucs coverage with plenty of free agency and NFL Draft information. We’ll have live reports from the East-West Shrine and Senior Bowl practices to kick things off in January.
Thank you for making 2015 a memorable one for PewterReport.com, Bucs fans. We’re looking forward to an even bigger and better 2016 – thanks to our loyal PewterReport.com readers.
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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