There are common traditions, when it comes to making season predictions. Multiple analysts usually state, "The surprise team in the NFL will be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers." It has become a reoccurring off-season tradition over the past several years.
Besides last year, Tampa Bay's promising off-season moves would generate buzz in an always-unpredictable NFC South division. In 2013, they invested in Dashon Goldson and traded for Darrelle Revis. In 2014, their big-money signings continued with Michael Johnson and Alterraun Verner. None of these moves were successful, as every player was either released or demoted from their starting role.
The horrid personnel decisions have been erased following a promising 2015 season. Despite finishing 6-10, they managed to go 3-3 in the division, which included a sweep over the Atlanta Falcons. They found stability at the quarterback position with Jameis Winston. There are consistent stars and leaders on both sides of the ball. With Lovie Smith's flawed scheme out of the picture, Tampa Bay appears to be headed in a positive direction.
Last July, I wrote about the Carolina Panthers deserving more respect as a team. Not many analysts were predicting them to repeat as NFC South champions. With Kelvin Benjamin's season-ending injury and major offensive line concerns, there wasn't much optimism surrounding them. The Panthers erased all doubts by winning 15 games in a spectacular season. With a star-studded front seven and Cam Newton's brilliance, they ascended above expectations and nearly won a Super Bowl.
Carolina is clearly better than all three teams in the NFC South. They will likely repeat as division champions, while the rest of the division are vying for second place and a wild card spot. That puts the spotlight on Tampa Bay, who should be Atlanta's biggest adversary this season. They are better rounded than the New Orleans Saints as an overall team. With a slightly easier schedule, the Buccaneers should win more than six games.
A strong offense
As mentioned above, the Buccaneers have their franchise quarterback in Winston. Instead of trotting out Josh Freeman or Josh McCown, they have an emerging star at the most important position. Winston can be erratic by overthrowing his intended receivers or forcing passes into double coverage. His decision-making is also problematic, but most young quarterbacks struggle to read defenses in their first season as a starter. What can't be doubted is Winston's determination. Dan Quinn knows all about the former number one pick's fortitude, after seeing his defense fail to bring him down on a crucial third-and-nineteen.
Winston's strong rapport with new head coach Dirk Koetter can't be discounted either. While it remains to be seen how Koetter adjusts into a new role, there is no denying that he got the most out of a limited offense. There were multiple games, when Winston and Doug Martin carried Tampa Bay's offense to impressive victories. By allowing Martin to carry a heavy workload, it allowed Winston to run more play action and only take 27 sacks behind a below-average offensive line.
When healthy, everyone knows what to expect from Martin. The dynamic running back is one of the most elusive players in the league. The same notion applies to veteran wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Although injuries derailed him last year, all defense coordinators know what to expect from the massive wide receiver. He is still capable of being a vertical threat and making catches across the middle of the field.
What will ultimately determine Tampa Bay's offensive progression (besides Winston) is Mike Evans' development. After an impressive rookie season, Evans failed to evolve as a wide receiver. The former first round pick led the NFL with eleven drops. A drop rate of 7.4 percent is unacceptable for a number one wide receiver. Evans possesses all the physical traits to be a dominant player. Other than Allen Robinson, no wide receiver gave Desmond Trufant more fits than Evans last season. He forced the star cornerback into four penalties in two games, including two consecutive pass interferences.
If Evans can overcome that issue, there is no reason why Tampa Bay doesn't have one of the most dangerous wide receiver duos in the league. As long as both players stay healthy, they can succeed without much depth at wide receiver. Contributions from role players such as Charles Sims and Cameron Brate should give Winston enough dependable weapons. With Martin entering the prime of his career, Koetter's offense should remain balanced.
The defense has improved
After several unsuccessful off-seasons, the Buccaneers' front office may have finally found the right formula. Instead of spending lavishly on high-profile free agents, they acquired solid veterans, who are still capable of playing at a high level for another two seasons. Robert Ayers, Daryl Smith, and Brent Grimes fill a hole within every aspect of their defense.
Despite recording 38 sacks last season, Tampa Bay didn't have a well-rounded defensive end. Despite his pass rushing efficiency, Jacquies Smith is a liability against the run. Ayers proved to be a revelation for an abysmal Giants defense. A potential combination of Smith, Ayers, Gerald McCoy, and rookie Noah Spence could give any opposing offensive line severe problems. Daryl Smith can be a mentor for Kwon Alexander and utilized as a strong-side linebacker. Combine both players with Lavonte David and they form one of the better starting linebacker units in the league.
The secondary remains as their biggest flaw. Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald are slated as the starting safeties, but nobody quite knows going into August. It appears to be an open competition between mediocre veterans and unheralded young players. For new defensive coordinator Mike Smith's sake, he will have two talented cornerbacks at his disposal. Vernon Hargreaves is an ultra-aggressive cornerback that possesses excellent ball skills (38 passes defensed and ten interceptions over three seasons at Florida). It won't happen right away, but Hargreaves will eventually start shadowing the opposing team's number one wide receiver.
At 33 years old, Brent Grimes is coming off a subpar season. Those are two concerning signs, but his familiarity with Smith should be a positive move. Miami's flawed defensive scheme forced Grimes into one-on-one coverage against the likes of Brandon Marshall, Sammy Watkins, and Odell Beckham. Grimes wasn't offered much safety support, which led to him being on the receiving end of several highlight-reels. The coaching staff needs to recognize Grimes' limitations at this stage of his career. Similar to most cornerbacks at his age, the former Pro Bowler has lost a step. Grimes still possesses excellent ball skills and instincts, which makes him a useful player.
The offensive line is still a work in progress, especially with leader Logan Mankins retiring in March. The left side of Donovan Smith and J.R Sweezy doesn't instill much confidence. An enforcer needs to emerge from their offensive line. Winston's athleticism and Koetter's offense can only assist them for so long, when facing ferocious defensive lineman such as Kawann Short and Cameron Jordan.
There isn't much depth at wide receiver, linebacker, and safety. It's surprising to see the front office not addresses those evident needs. A serious injury to Evans or David would likely end their playoff aspirations. Replacing a star player is always difficult, but they should at least be somewhat prepared for a potential disaster. Trading up for a kicker in the second round must have been higher on their agenda.
The rivalry between Atlanta and Tampa Bay has declined in recent years. It should increase this year, especially after two close games last season. In the mid 2000's, it was one of the more heated rivalries in football. The familiarity between both teams will be an intriguing storyline as well. Besides general manager Thomas Dimitroff, many Falcon fans blame Smith and Koetter for Atlanta's demise. With a talented roster, both coaches have the opportunity to build a contender and dethrone their former employer in the process.