FAB 2. The Case Against Licht As The Bucs’ G.M.
While the Buccaneers are undoubtedly better from a talent perspective today than they were in 2014 when former Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith and the Glazers hired Jason Licht, the team has a frustrating 27-49 record under his watch. In Licht’s five years with the team, the Bucs have failed to make the playoffs and will have one winning record – a 9-7 season in 2016.
Licht recommended Smith’s firing and the promotion of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to head coach in 2016. Both were the right moves at the time, but the Koetter era just hasn’t panned out with the Bucs falling to 5-11 last year and are only 5-7 this year with four games to go.
The jury is still out on Koetter, whose teams haven’t shown the ability to consistently win close games, evidenced by a 5-11 mark in games decided by a touchdown or less, including a 2-7 record in games decided by a field goal or less. Part of that record can be attributed to poor kicking, which is on Licht.
Licht’s biggest fault as Tampa Bay’s general manager has not been finding a reliable kicker. The Bucs have gone through 10 kickers in 10 years, including Shane Andrus, Connor Barth, Lawrence Tynes, Rian Lindell, Patrick Murray, Kyle Brindza, Roberto Aguayo, Nick Folk, Chandler Catanzaro and now Cairo Santos. Licht has been involved with seven of those kickers.
Perhaps Santos is a keeper and ends the Bucs’ kicking curse. If he is and remains perfect it only helps Licht’s cause – and perhaps Koetter’s down the stretch. But Licht will forever be remembered for trading up in the second round to draft kicker Roberto Aguayo in 2016. Aguayo was the league’s worst kicker as a rookie and couldn’t handle the pressure in Tampa Bay, lasting just one season before getting cut.
While Licht has helped build one of the league’s great arsenals of offensive talent, the Bucs defense hasn’t measured up. Licht all but ignored the defense in his first two drafts – selecting just one defensive player, middle linebacker Kwon Alexander in the fourth round in 2015.
Of the defensive players that Licht has drafted – Alexander, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, defensive end Noah Spence, cornerback Ryan Smith, linebacker Devante Bond, linebacker Kendell Beckwith, defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, defensive tackle Vita Vea, cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis, safety Jordan Whitehead and linebacker Jack Cichy, only Alexander and Beckwith have truly distinguished themselves at this point, and Beckwith has missed this entire season with a slow recovery from a broken ankle. Hargreaves was showing promise until a Week 1 shoulder injury sidelined him for the season.
To be fair, Alexander, Hargreaves, Spence, Smith, Bond, Beckwith, Vea, Stewart, Davis, Whitehead and Cichy are still with the team. It’s not like they are busts that can’t play in the league. If healthy, Alexander and Hargreaves would be starters, along with Vea, Davis and Whitehead. And Smith and Bond are currently starting due to injuries at cornerback and linebacker. For the most part, many of these defensive drafted players have yet to reach their full potential, but that’s not helping Licht’s cause right now.
While the re-signings of players like linebacker Lavonte David, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, wide receiver Mike Evans, tight end Cameron Brate and guard Ali Marpet are feathers in Licht’s cap, not all of his re-signings have gone according to plan. The Bucs re-signed Doug Martin, who rushed for over 1,400 yards and made the Pro Bowl during a contract year in 2015, and then didn’t rush for more than 500 yards, was suspended for substance abuse, and was cut two years later.
Run-stuffing defensive end Will Gholston was re-signed after the 2016 season and given $13.5 million in guaranteed money instead of pursuing a more expensive option like Calais Campbell. Gholston had a terrible year, which prompted Licht to sign Vinny Curry this year to replace him as a starter, while Campbell made the Pro Bowl with a career-high 14.5 sacks. Gholston has one sack this year, while Campbell has seven.
While he has had his share of draft hits, including Evans, Alexander, Marpet, tight end O.J. Howard, receiver Chris Godwin and others, Licht has also had his share of misses. Licht’s critics point to his questionable selections in the second round, beginning with tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins in 2014. While Marpet was a great second round find in 2015, fellow second-round pick left tackle Donovan Smith has been good, but not great.
The 2016 draft class for Licht hasn’t been a good one with the oft-injured Hargreaves being the first selection, followed by Spence, who has been a disappointment, and Aguayo, who was a bust, in the second round. While free safety Justin Evans, Licht’s second-round pick in 2017, has shown promise, running back Ronald Jones, one of this year’s second-rounders, hasn’t shown anything yet with 23 carries for 44 yards (1.9 avg.) and one touchdown.
Cornerback M.J. Stewart isn’t an elite athlete and was overdrafted by Licht in the second round. He’s struggled mightily at nickel cornerback and might be better competing at strong safety. However, the Bucs are high on cornerback Calton Davis, who was drafted after Stewart, and he looks like a long-term starter on the outside.
While Licht has been successful in finding some free agent gems like running back Peyton Barber, wide receiver Adam Humphries and tight end Cameron Brate, there have been plenty of misses with premium draft picks.
While the draft is typically a 50-50 arena when it comes to picking players, free agency is even hit-or-miss for general managers. Licht has had some success over the years with defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, punter Bryan Anger and wide receiver DeSean Jackson to a degree, but there have been plenty of busts, too. Defensive end Michael Johnson and quarterback Josh McCown were signed in 2014 at Lovie Smith’s request, but left tackle Anthony Collins and cornerback Alterraun Verner had Licht’s fingerprints all over them. Collins, Johnson and McCown lasted just one year in Tampa Bay.
Linebacker Bruce Carter was the notable free agent signing in 2015, but he was quickly beaten out by Alexander during his rookie year. Defensive end Robert Ayers and cornerback Brent Grimes were worthwhile signings in 2016 and helped the Bucs to a 9-7 record, but Ayers’ play fell off in 2017 and he’s currently out of the league.
Grimes underperformed last year and had to be talked into playing this year instead of retiring, and at $8 million, he’s had virtually no impact this season. Defensive tackles Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein were signed to help the run defense. Unrein has spent the entire year on injured reserve due to a severe concussion, and that’s not Licht’s fault. Allen has 14 tackles and hasn’t made any splash plays despite making $5 million per season.
Licht signed free agent defensive end Vinny Curry, who is making $6.5 million this year, and he has produced just 16 tackles and 2.5 sacks while missing four games with a high ankle sprain. Curry is due $8 million next year at age 31 and it’s not a foregone conclusion that he will return in 2019.
Licht also bolstered the defensive line with the first-round selection of defensive tackle Vita Vea. While it wasn’t Licht’s fault that Vea missed virtually all of training camp, the entire preseason and the first three games with a calf injury, the fact is that the first-rounder has just eight tackles and two sacks this year, although it should be noted that Gerald McCoy and Warren Sapp each had three sacks during their rookie years as they adjusted to life in the NFL.
What fuels Licht’s critics is that he passed on Florida State strong safety Derwin James in favor of Vea. James has made a huge impact for the San Diego Chargers during his rookie season with 81 tackles, 12 pass breakups, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions.
And finally, Licht’s success in Tampa Bay is tied to not only Koetter, but also to Winston, who was the first overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft. Winston has a losing record as a starter and he has 71 turnovers, which are the second-most in the league over the last four years. Winston is only 24 years old and has gone through an awful lot in his time in Tampa Bay – most of which has, including been attributed to his own poor decision-making that has led to him being suspended for three games this season and benched for two others.
None of the aforementioned facts should come as a shock to Bucs fans. If the Glazers end up replacing Licht this offseason there are some legitimate reasons why that would occur.
But NFL seasons are 16 games long and there is another quarter to be played in the 2018 campaign. If Winston stays away from turnovers, if defensive coordinator Mark Duffner continues to turn the defense around, if players like Vea, defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib and defensive back Andrew Adams continue to make plays, if Santos continues to make field goals and extra points, and if Koetter wins a few more games the Glazers may be focused more on what Licht has done in Fab 1 as opposed to Fab 2 and be inclined to keep him around.
Now that both sides of the argument have been presented, what do you think, Bucs fans and PewterReport.com readers? Should Licht stay or go? Or do you need one more thing to consider? If so, read on and click the next page for a very revealing Fab 3.