FAB 3. 5 Mistakes Licht Can’t Make In 2019
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht isn’t perfect. No NFL G.M. is, and Licht is no exception. He’s had his share of mistakes as well as his share of successes. In last week’s SR’s Fab 5, I chronicled how Licht made a mistake by not bringing J.R. Sweezy to training camp to battle with Caleb Benenoch and rookie Alex Cappa for the starting right guard spot.
Licht and the coaches wanted either Benenoch or Cappa to take the job, and Sweezy was released prior to training camp in order to help make that happen. After missing the 2016 season due to a back injury and having a sub-par rebound season the next season that ended with a broken leg, Sweezy returned to Seattle this past season and wound up being a Pro Bowl alternate.
Aside from that gaffe, last year was a better year from a personnel standpoint for Licht, as I illustrated in my installment of the PR Roundtable this week. I think that’s a big reason why he stayed on in 2019. But if the Bucs are going to turn their ship around and steer towards the playoffs next year, there are some real pitfalls Licht needs to avoid when it comes to personnel.
The Big Takeaway
As he enters his sixth season as Tampa Bay’s general manager, here are five mistakes Licht can’t afford to make with the team’s personnel moves in 2019.
1. Don’t Expect RoJo To Rebound
Running back Ronald Jones II was a huge disappointment as a second-round pick last year, rushing for just 44 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries (1.9 avg.), as well as catching seven passes for 33 yards (4.7 avg.). Jones didn’t show any speed, decisiveness or good hands at any point during the preseason or the season.
Licht needs to treat Jones as a bust and re-sign restricted free agent Peyton Barber and draft another running back – even if it’s early. Memphis’ Darrell Henderson, who rushed for 1,909 yards and 22 touchdowns with 19 catches for 285 yards and three touchdowns, and Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams, who rushed for 1,760 yards and 18 touchdowns with 27 catches for 278 yards and one TD, are two of my personal favorites. Henderson and Williams are every-down backs that have the speed and tackle-breaking ability that Jones failed to display in his rookie year.
If Jones does rebound and play up to his draft status then the Bucs have three talented running backs capable of running and catching the ball. If not, Licht will have tried to bring in an extra running back with talent as insurance. Perhaps a veteran like Isaiah Crowell, who could be released from the New York Jets, is someone to consider. Licht should have signed Crowell last year as a free agent.
2. Don’t Anticipate Winston Being The Future At QB
It’s okay for Licht to want Jameis Winston to step up in his fifth-year option season and for Winston to shed his label as a turnover machine and develop into a franchise quarterback, leading Tampa Bay to the playoffs for the first time. But Licht must realize that Winston will be learning a new offensive system for the first time in five years and there will be some growing pains with a new head coach.
Licht has to avoid the temptation of putting all of his faith into Winston and do what’s right, which is to draft another quarterback – perhaps even early – to safeguard the future of the franchise. Greg Schiano did the same thing in 2013 during Josh Freeman’s fifth-year option season, drafting Mike Glennon in the third round that year. That proved to be the right move as Freeman had a meltdown that nobody saw coming in 2013 and was cut before the midway part of the season.
The hope is that Winston, who passed for 2,992 yards with 19 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and a 90.2 QB rating in 2018, plays well enough to become the first drafted quarterback in Tampa Bay history that signs a contract extension. But Licht has to make sure that the Bucs are well stocked at quarterback with a player that is capable of taking over for the long term in case Winston falters or gets hurt in 2019.
3. Don’t Be Forced Into Keeping Smith Long-Term
Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith is a good left tackle – not a great one. Yet with Smith having played four years in the league with 64 consecutive starts, he’ll be paid like a great one due to the current NFL model. Smith is coming off a decent season, but didn’t play his best football in his contract year and that is worrisome for a player that is prone to having a few lazy plays per game – often at inopportune times.
Outside of New England’s Trent Brown, the free agent market for left tackles is barren other than Smith, and the 2019 NFL Draft class features far more quality right tackles than it does left tackles. Locking Smith up to a long-term deal might seem prudent given the circumstances, but is it wise to give an inconsistent player $13 million per season with the comfort and security of a long-term deal? Is that going to make him a better tackle for the long haul?
Or is it better to place the franchise tag on Smith again, give him another contract year situation and hope a new offensive line coach and head coach can help the 25-year old take his game to the next level? The latter sounds more appealing, but Licht must give him and the Bucs another option by scouting hard and drafting a tackle this year capable of playing either the left or right side as a possible replacement in case Smith gets paid and gets lazy. Smith’s backup needs to be a potential starter – not Leonard Wester or Michael Liedtke.
4. Don’t Leave The Secondary Too Inexperienced Again
The Bucs made a huge mistake in re-signing 35-year old cornerback Brent Grimes, who had a really bad attitude in 2018 and it showed in his play on the field as he was often burned in coverage and attacked in the running game. Grimes was the lone veteran cornerback on the team and he often sucked on the field. The Bucs would have been better playing Ryan Smith all season and letting him get experience.
Smith and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who has only played in 10 games with nine starts over the past two years due to injury, are entering their fourth years in the league. But Licht can’t focus on that, as neither Hargreaves nor Smith has really established himself as a quality NFL starter. Nor can Licht look at the second-round draft status of Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart and think Tampa Bay is fine at cornerback. Neither Davis nor Stewart has picked off his first NFL pass, and Stewart really struggled at nickel cornerback. Licht needs to add a quality veteran starting cornerback to the secondary and let the young guys battle it out. Too often the Bucs’ secondary was too young and inexperienced.
It’s the same situation at safety where veteran Chris Conte, who was placed on injured reserve after Week 3, probably won’t be re-signed. Jordan Whitehead, the team’s fourth-round pick, started 11 games in place of Conte and played well, but didn’t force a single takeaway. Justin Evans has just 21 starts in his first two years and missed six games last year due to injury. He’s not an accomplished veteran yet. Licht would be wise to target a veteran like New York’s Pro Bowl strong safety Landon Collins if he doesn’t get the franchise tag. Collins would bring plenty of experience and playmaking ability to the secondary while young players like Whitehead, Evans and Stewart, who may be moved from cornerback to safety, continue to gain experience and develop.
5. Don’t Believe The Bucs LBs Will Be Healthy
Tampa Bay had some unreal luck last year at the linebacker position as Kendell Beckwith, who had an impressive rookie season playing the middle and strongside spots, didn’t play at all after breaking his ankle in an offseason car accident. That injury, combined with torn ACLs that afflicted starting middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and rookie strongside linebacker Jack Cichy, left Mark Duffner’s linebacking corps weak over the last 10 games.
Licht can’t hope that Alexander, Beckwith or Cichy will be ready to go by the start of the season. Whether it’s adding a cheaper starting-caliber linebacker in free agency or in the draft – even early – Licht has to shore up the linebacker crew for 2019. Even if all three players return from their lower body injuries this year, will they need a full season to round back into form?
The reality is that Beckwith has only played one season in the NFL, and Cichy, who tore an ACL in college, didn’t even make it through his rookie season. Licht needs to pretend as if the Buccaneers won’t have either player back in 2019 – or the long term – and act accordingly. If Beckwith bounces back this season and winds up starting and Cichy makes a speedy recovery, then great – the team has even more talent and competition at the linebacker position moving forward.
The FABulous Ending
Licht did a great job of throwing a ton of bodies at the defensive line last year, trading for Jason Pierre-Paul, signing Vinny Curry and claiming Carl Nassib at the defensive end position, while signing defensive tackles Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein and drafting Vita Vea. It’s a good thing Licht went overboard on the defensive line, as Unrein suffered a massive concussion in training camp that kept him out all season and Vea suffered a torn calf that cost him most of camp, all of the preseason and the first three games of his rookie season. Curry missed four games and only started seven due to a high ankle sprain.
Licht needs to go overboard on several more positions, including running back, linebacker, offensive line, quarterback and in the secondary in 2019 and continue to stockpile talent by not believing in the health and ability of some of the current Buccaneers. By duplicating what he did with the defensive line last offseason, the Bucs will only be deeper, more talented and more competitive in 2019.