FAB 2. THE FORGOTTEN BUCS
It’s February and we’re a week away from the NFL Scouting Combine and just over two weeks away from the start of free agency. General managers, coaches and scouts are getting revved up to upgrade their rosters at several positions and NFL fan interest begins to peak in the offseason.
Everybody loves fantasy football, and I don’t necessarily mean the kind during football season on DraftKings or FanDuel. I mean offseason fantasy football where fans (and some in the media) speculate on which free agents and drafted players would be the best fits across the league.
The PewterReport.com staff engaged in this fun practice this week as I unveiled my Bucs’ Battle Plans For The 2017 Offseason on Wednesday, followed by Mark Cook’s own version on Thursday and Trevor Sikkema’s offering on Friday. Tampa Bay fans are eager to see their team improve the pass rush or the offensive line this offseason, and get some more weapons for Jameis Winston.
The Bucs are expected to make several moves at wide receiver, running back and tight end over the next two months to revamp those positions, but what about the defensive line and the blocking upfront? A quick glance at the roster reveals five “forgotten” Buccaneers already on the team that could play a role in 2017 at several key positions. One or more of these players could emerge from the shadows the way safety Keith Tandy did at the end of the 2016 season to drastically change their football fortunes.
Who are these “forgotten” Buccaneers? Let’s take a look.
Guard J.R. Sweezy
PewterReport.com broke the story of Sweezy being officially medically cleared by team doctors last month at the Senior Bowl. Sweezy, who signed a five-year, $32.5 million contract last March with $14.5 million in guaranteed money, was sidelined the entire season due to a back injury he suffered during workouts almost a year ago. Sweezy never suited up for a mini-camp practice or an OTA session, much less a game in 2016 due to nerve pain in his back. Sweezy not being able to play last year pained Licht and the Glazers, who essentially paid him $9.5 million for nothing.
Sweezy was expected to replace Logan Mankins, who retired following the 2015 campaign, at left guard. Instead, third-year pro Kevin Pamphile stepped in and did a fine job at the left guard spot, which will create some stiff competition when Sweezy returns to action beginning in April when the team begins its offseason workouts.
The Bucs do need to improve their running game in 2017, and better run blocking would help. That was Sweezy’s strength at Seattle where he helped Marshawn Lynch rack up three consecutive 1,200-plus-yard seasons with at least 11 touchdowns from 2012-14 while winning Super Bowl XLVIII in 2013.
Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter’s philosophy is to get the five best offensive linemen on the field at the same time, and Sweezy’s return gives them six starting-caliber linemen in Sweezy, Pamphile, right guard Ali Marpet, left tackle Donovan Smith, right tackle Demar Dotson and free agent center Joe Hawley – if he’s re-signed. If Hawley doesn’t return to Tampa Bay, the coaches could move Marpet or Pamphile at center and then have the other player play opposite Sweezy at guard.
If Hawley does return as the team’s starting center, Pamphile, who is entering a contract year, could be tried out as competition at left tackle or right tackle in addition to left guard. Either way, Sweezy’s return is a big plus for the Bucs.
For those fans that want help for Tampa Bay’s offensive line this offseason help isn’t on the way. It’s already arrived.
DE Jacquies Smith
So Tampa Bay needs help getting to the quarterback, eh? Think the Bucs should draft a defensive end? Help at defensive end may already be on the roster in Smith.
It’s going to be tough to find a rookie defensive end that can record seven sacks or more in his first year. Noah Spence, last year’s second-round pick, only had 5.5 quarterback captures. Four rookies had more – San Francisco’s DeForest Buckner (six), Chicago’s Leonard Floyd (seven), Jacksonville’s Yannick Ngakoue (eight) and San Diego’s Joey Bosa (9.5) – but none reached double-digit sacks.
Smith recorded 13.5 sacks and four forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in 18 starts over 27 games – 6.5 sacks in his first season in Tampa Bay and seven in 2015. After recording four sacks in the preseason to lead the Bucs, Smith tore his ACL in the first half of the team’s Week 1 win at Atlanta and his season was over in an instant.
Tampa Bay was able to match last year’s sack total of 38, but how many sacks could the Bucs have had with a healthy Smith available? Smith had three multiple sack seasons in essentially a year and a half in Tampa Bay, including three sacks and two forced fumbles against Drew Brees in a Week 2 win at New Orleans in 2015.
Smith had a sack-fumble against Washington in 2015 that was returned for a touchdown by Howard Johnson in a narrow loss to the Redskins, and recovered a fumble of his own for a touchdown in a 38-31 win against Jacksonville. Nothing beats experience in the NFL and Smith, who will likely be given a one-year tender as a restricted free agent, is entering his fourth season.
The good news for Smith is that his injury occurred in Week 1, so he’s well on his way to recovery and should be okay to participate in training camp. Smith is entering a contract year and is eager to prove his worth and cash in monetarily. Don’t be surprised to see Smith pick up where he left off last preseason due to his sense of urgency given his contract situation.
LB Devante Bond
The Bucs aren’t expected to re-sign veteran strongside linebacker Daryl Smith, who turns 35 on March 14. That leaves a void in Tampa Bay’s starting lineup about 40 percent of the time as the team plays nickel defense 60 percent of the time.
Bond, the team’s sixth-round pick last year, spent his rookie season on injured reserve after suffering a hamstring injury in the preseason. The Oklahoma product didn’t record a single statistic, but the coaches and the front office liked what they saw from him in training camp enough to keep him around.
Bond will have a great shot at winning the Sam linebacker job this year, but won’t inherit it. He’ll have to earn it in training camp, but Tampa Bay likes his combination of size and speed.
At 6-foot-1, 236 pounds, Bond is now the heaviest linebacker on the team and he’ll need that size to help set the edge when the Bucs use a 4-3 Under formation that calls for the Sam linebacker to line up at the line of scrimmage over the tight end. Bond only had three sacks at Oklahoma, but wasn’t used properly. In two seasons in junior college, Bond often blitzed off the edge and recorded 17 sacks.
The Bucs could tap into that ability and blitz the Sam more given Bond’s ability. At the very least, Bond could star on special teams in his first real season of action.
DE George Johnson
Remember him? Yes, Johnson is still on the roster.
The 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end was signed to a three-year, $7 million contract in 2015, but didn’t record a single sack and lost his starting job to Smith after five games in 2015.
Johnson spent three years in Tampa Bay from 2010-12 and was signed by Licht after recording a career-high six sacks in his lone season in Detroit. While he didn’t notch a sack in the regular season, he did have 1.5 sacks in the 2015 preseason and had two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in the regular season.
Johnson was generating some buzz during training camp last season while splitting time at defensive end and defensive tackle – where he was actually looking better due to his quickness – before breaking his hip in practice. That placed him on injured reserve for the entire year.
Now Johnson is fully healed and ready to prove he deserves a roster spot. What makes Johnson vulnerable to being released is that he’s scheduled to make $2.25 million in 2017. That’s a hefty price tag for a player that has started just five games in Tampa Bay and hasn’t recorded a sack in two years.
Keep in mind that the Bucs have plenty of available salary cap room and don’t have to pay Johnson anything unless he makes the 53-man roster. That won’t keep Licht from drafting another pass rusher, but Johnson could surprise if he has another good camp.
C Ben Gottschalk
The Bucs are interested in re-signing Hawley to be the team’s starting center if the price is right either before or during free agency. But Tampa Bay also likes Gottschalk, who played most of the Chicago game at left guard after Evan Smith injured his knee and played well. Gottschalk got his first NFL start at center, which is his natural position, at Kansas City the next week before suffering a knee injury of his own.
Gottschalk signed a two-year, $990,000 contract last year and is scheduled to make $540,000 this year before becoming an exclusive rights free agent in 2018. If he’s healthy by the start of training camp, Gottschalk could be in the competition for the starting job if Hawley is not re-signed.
At the very least, the 6-foot-5, 293-pound Gottschalk should be in the running for a roster spot if Hawley returns where he’ll battle with Smith, who turns 31 this year and is slated to make $4.5 million. That’s quite a bit of money for a player that seems destined to be a backup, but Tampa Bay remains high on Smith due to his years as a starter in the league and his ability to play both guard and center.
Gottschalk aspires to be like Smith and make the kind of money he’s making. If he stays healthy and has a good training camp he could get that chance.