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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. Will The Bucs Keep Licht?
Jason Licht probably didn’t know it at the time, but he might have saved his job on April 27 and 28.
Those were the days when Tampa Bay’s general manager wisely chose Alabama tight end O.J. Howard in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft and then selected safety Justin Evans, wide receiver Chris Godwin and linebacker Kendell Beckwith. All four have been pressed into duty during their rookie season, and all have played very well, which should boost Licht’s stock within the walls of One Buccaneer Place.
It’s one thing for an NFL team to have one or two draft picks contribute during their rookie seasons. That’s the norm. It’s another thing to have four rookies do it – and do it well – in a given year.
And let’s face it. A show of strength of the 2017 draft class was needed after the slow disintegration of the 2016 draft class, which featured cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, defensive end Noah Spence and kicker Roberto Aguayo with the team’s first three selections in the initial two rounds.
Hargreaves has just one interception through 27 games and was demoted to nickel cornerback before a hamstring sidelined him the past four games after giving up too much cushion as an outside cornerback. Spence has missed all but three games this season after needing a second shoulder surgery. Aguayo was jettisoned after just one disastrous rookie year in which he was the league’s worst kicker.
Licht has also solved the Bucs’ kicking situation – finally. After going through Connor Barth, Kyle Brindza, Aguayo and Nick Folk, Licht was able to re-sign Patrick Murray, who was released after a successful rookie season in 2014 season due to a torn ACL. Murray has made all of his extra points and connected on 14-of-16 field goals this year (87.5 percent).
The Bucs are a disappointing 4-9 right now, but when Licht drafted Howard, Evans, Godwin and Beckwith he anticipated Howard helping the Bucs make the playoffs with Evans, Godwin and Beckwith developing into future starters down the road. Instead, the solid showing by Tampa Bay’s 2017 rookies might end up allowing Licht to stay on and receive a contract extension as the NFL is a “what have you done for me lately?” league.
No general manager has a perfect record when it comes to personnel acquisitions, but given the team’s drafts, which have generally been poor since the Super Bowl season in 2002, Licht has far more draft hits than at the end of Rich McKay’s tenure in Tampa, as well as the likes of Bruce Allen and Mark Dominik’s drafts. If the Glazers think they can find a better personnel man, then they can risk it and let Licht go.
But then again, they thought that Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano, Lovie Smith and Dirk Koetter were all better head coaches than Jon Gruden.
Now the Glazers are 0-4 in their last four head coaching hires and the Curse of Chucky is alive and well (not just in Tampa, but Oakland, too.).
Yes, the end is near for Dirk Koetter and this coaching staff. Based on what I know, I don’t see any way the Bucs don’t clean house on the coaching side after the end of a disappointing season that was once filled with such promise and high expectations for a playoff berth.
But perhaps the bigger question is will Licht and the Bucs’ front office survive as well?
Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer and GM Jason Licht – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
That will ultimately be up to the Glazers and likely the head coach they decide to hire to replace Koetter. Licht was in charge of the last coaching search and with Koetter failing after two seasons, coupled with Licht’s current contract status, the Glazers will take on the task of finding a new head coach independently.
If Koetter’s replacement – and the Glazers are probably going to pursue a big name on the offensive side of the ball because of Jameis Winston – wants to clean house and start over with a new front office too, Licht could be gone. That’s what happened when the Glazers fired both head coach Greg Schiano and Dominik, the former general manager, in 2013, hired Lovie Smith and let him hire his own general manager, which turned out to be Licht.
But if the new coach likes the existing talent on the Bucs roster and doesn’t have his own general manager candidate to bring to Tampa Bay, there’s a decent chance Licht stays on.
There’s a lot to like on offense where Winston has yet to hit his ceiling, center Ali Marpet and right tackle Demar Dotson are stalwarts on the offensive line, while left tackle Donovan Smith is still developing. Help is needed at guard where Evan Smith and Kevin Pamphile are free agents next year and a decision needs to be made about J.R. Sweezy, who has underperformed in his first year returning from back surgery.
The running back stable needs to be completely cleared out except for Peyton Barber, who is an ideal backup running back similar to Earnest Graham from yesteryear. The 2018 NFL Draft is full of capable running backs, and the Bucs can find an instant impact player at that position.
What offensive-minded head coach wouldn’t love to walk into Tampa Bay where the passing game is well-stocked with a young, talented quarterback that needs to be developed in Winston, four starting-caliber wide receivers in Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries and Godwin, and two young stud tight ends in Cameron Brate and Howard? There are enough offensive weapons to score more than the 20.3 points per game that the Bucs have been averaging this season.
In fact, in three years in Koetter’s offense, the Bucs have averaged just 21.3 yards per game. The fact that scoring is down from 22.1 points per game last year to 20.3 points per game this year given the fact that there are more weapons on offense is a crime.
That’s on Koetter – not Licht.
There are more than enough weapons to score more points than three touchdowns per game.
Bucs K Patrick Murray – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Licht’s biggest fault, aside from taking three years to stabilize the kicking situation in Tampa Bay, was not doing enough this year to address the defensive line. It’s hard to argue with the selections of Evans and Beckwith, especially given the injuries at the safety position and linebacker this year, but Licht has selected just two defensive linemen in the last four drafts – Spence in the second round in 2016 and defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu in the sixth round this year.
Licht is well aware of that fact and plans on revamping the defensive line with an edge pass rusher or two, and perhaps another defensive tackle this offseason – if he gets a contract extension and remains in Tampa Bay.
The biggest issue with the defense this year is the Bucs’ lack of pass rush. Defensive line coach Jay Hayes has done a poor job this season, but Licht also deserves some heat. He and Koetter gambled on four things while passing over defensive end in the 2017 draft.
First, they anticipated squeezing one more year out of the 31-year old Robert Ayers. Instead, Ayers has been a shell out of his former self this season with just two sacks and one forced fumble. He’ll be released in the offseason regardless of who takes over as head coach or general manager. Ayers’ $5 million base salary in 2018, which is the final year of his contract, is not guaranteed.
Second, they banked on Will Gholston living up to the four-year, $27.5 million contract extension he received in the offseason after two really good seasons of productivity. After recording three sacks and at least 49 tackles in each of the last two seasons, Gholston has underwhelmed in 2017 with only 28 tackles and zero sacks. Hayes has clearly underutilized him this year, and Gholston hasn’t shown much progress in his development.
Third, Licht and Koetter counted on Spence and former defensive end Jacquies Smith to rebound from their respective injuries. Spence’s first shoulder surgery wasn’t done properly and didn’t fix the problem of his recurring shoulder separations, which prompted another one back in October. Smith had setbacks in his recovery from an ACL injury and never regained his form when he returned to practice. Those two ends were counted on to provide speed off the edge. Spence had one sack-fumble in the season opener before going on injured reserve after the third game of the season.
Bucs DT Chris Baker – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
And finally, free agent signing Chris Baker has turned out to be what many feared – a lazy, unproductive, overpaid player. Baker couldn’t beat out holdover Clinton McDonald for the starting nose tackle spot and has been a reserve player for most of this season. Baker didn’t bring the pass rush that Licht expected him to, notching just half a sack this season to go along with 28 tackles. Like Ayers, Baker will be gone next year, as his $4.875 million base salary is not guaranteed.
Those four whiffs involving those five players, in addition to poor coaching from Hayes, doomed the pass rush this year. But a quick fix should be in store next season with another round of free agency, a couple of more defensive linemen from the draft and a new position coach. It can’t get much worse in 2018 than this year’s group of defensive linemen, which have a combined paltry total of 15 sacks this season.
Licht has done very well stocking the linebacker position for the future with three starters in Lavonte David, the team’s best player, who was wisely re-signed to a five-year, $50.25 million contract in 2015, Kwon Alexander, a fourth-round pick in ’15 and Alexander. Throw in Adarius Glanton and Davante Bond and the Bucs have the flexibility to run a 3-4 defensive scheme or a 4-3 for the next head coach.
More work will need to be done in the secondary where another stud safety must be paired with Evans, and the cornerback position needs to be rebooted as Brent Grimes will turn 35 next year. He is scheduled to be a free agent, while the jury is still out on whether Hargreaves can develop into a solid starter. A better pass rush and a more aggressive scheme next year could immediately help the secondary.
Couple a defense that is surrendering 24 points per game with an offense that isn’t even scoring an average of three touchdowns per game and that’s the recipe for a losing season. There’s no doubt that Licht partially contributed to Tampa Bay’s 4-9 record.
Yet I wonder if a new coaching staff better utilizes the talent the Bucs already have. Former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden isn’t wrong when he said last week that Tampa Bay is a few plays away from being 8-4.
There is an argument to be made about keeping the personnel staff and front office intact and bringing in a new coach. Look at the two of the biggest turnarounds in the league this year that have new head coaches – Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Rams.
In Philly, fans were ready to run general manager Howie Roseman out of town. He and owner Jeff Lurie brought in Chip Kelly in 2013, and then Roseman lost a power struggle with Kelly, who wanted full control of personnel. Roseman was demoted to being the salary cap manager dealing with contracts for two years before Kelly was fired. Then Roseman regained personnel power, which wasn’t popular with the fan base at all, hired Doug Pederson in 2016, drafted Carson Wentz, and in two short years the Eagles have won the NFC East and are the best team in the NFC. Lurie’s patience with Roseman paid off.
Rams COO Kevin Demoff, HC Sean McVay and GM Les Snead – Photo by: Getty Images
Rams general manager Les Snead was on the hot seat the last couple of years under Jeff Fisher in both St. Louis and in Los Angeles. Despite building a dominant defensive line and drafting an electric running back in Todd Gurley, the Rams constantly underachieved without a quarterback. Snead drafted quarterback Jared Goff first overall in 2016 and it looked like he would be a bust during his rookie season.
The Rams fired Fisher, kept the front office intact with Snead at the helm, and hired Sean McVay as the head coach and play-caller. All of a sudden, Goff has developed at a rapid rate, Gurley is having a tremendous 1,000-yard season, and the careers of Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods are flourishing alongside rookie receiver Cooper Kupp.
What are the common threads of Pederson and McVay? Both are dynamic offensive coaches that know how to develop quarterbacks and can inspire players. Koetter has failed in that area, and it’s even more magnified because he is presiding over a more talented roster than Morris, Schiano or Smith had in Tampa Bay.
If I’m the Glazers, I’m finding Koetter’s replacement and seeing if that person – perhaps it’s Gruden – wants to work with Licht before I make a decision to let him go.
Demoff is right. It’s the body of work that counts, although what you’ve done lately certainly carries some weight. The Bucs’ 2017 draft class looks like a real good one, just like the class of 2015 looked, and that might be enough to keep Licht around to work with a third head coach.
Bucs GM Jason Licht with ex-coach Jon Gruden – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
If Gruden ends up being the Glazers’ preferred choice to replace Koetter they know better than to have him pick out his own general manager – see Exhibit A: Bruce Allen. The last thing Gruden needs in personnel is a “yes” man. Instead, he would need a general manager that would be able to correctly identify the kinds of players Gruden likes and convince him to like the right ones. I think Licht has the ability and the personality to do that.
Just remember that the hit rate on first-round draft picks is about 50 percent. The success rate drops by about 10 percent for players drafted in each round after that. Most NFL general managers would be happy if 40 percent of their free agent signings worked out as planned.
I think Licht has more hits than misses on personnel in four years, especially when it comes to his predecessors for this franchise. You may disagree.
Ultimately, whether Licht stays in Tampa Bay is not up to you or me. It’s up to the Glazers and perhaps the next head coach, which might be Gruden.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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