The NFC has been a weird hangout for the last few seasons, with previously-mediocre teams like the Eagles, yes, Falcons and Panthers having revival seasons the year after, and making it to the big game.
If this is a trend, than perhaps there’s a sleeping giant about to take up and wreak havoc on the rest of the conference. I fear their uniforms might involve the color “pewter.”
Yes, this might finally be the year we are to get nervous about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Please note that this is coming from a longtime Buccaneers doubter, someone who pegged them as overhyped in 2017 when everyone was getting giggly about their offseason prospects. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a Super Bowl in 2002, but it’s been downhill racing from then on. Each and every year, it’s a new sitcom called “What Will the Bucs Overspend On This Time,” and each and every year, they face plant when it counts. It’s a seasonal scourge for those pewter pirates, but this...feels different.
After a decent-enough 2016 campaign, they suffered from locker room malfeasance and a slog of mediocre play in 2017, but as the season winded down...they showed life. Each of their games post-Nov. 26 were within six or less points (as were about half of their 2017 outcomes), and they closed the season with an impressive 31-24 win over the red-hot Saints. Jameis Winston played some of the better football of his pro career down that stretch, finally clicking with the offense that Dirk Koetter laid out for him.
Mike Smith’s defense was pretty banged up down the stretch, but no opponent scored more than 25 points on his ramshackle scrubs, which is kind of a miracle in and of itself.
So, why on Earth would anyone give the Bucs a chance in 2018?
Well, they’re about to have a boatload of talent.
If you look at the defense, you see the focus -- adding to the defensive line. Their DL was once a punchline, but look who they’ve added -- DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DE Vinny Curry, DT Beau Allen, DE Mitch Unrein. They join DT Gerald McCoy, DE William Gholston and DE Noah Spence to form one of the more formidable front fours that the Bucs have had in quite some time. Pierre-Paul and Curry could boost the pass rush and help Spence come into his own, Allen and Unrein will notch up the pass rush, and the added talent will help McCoy not have to do so much on his own.
If you look at their already-ridiculously talented linebacking core of Kwon Alexander, Lavonte David and Kendall Beckwith, and the growing secondary (S Justin Evans could be poised for a breakout season), the Bucs defense, at least on paper, doesn’t look so bad right now. Now, yes, we know who’s calling the plays, and what that man’s tendencies are with defensive talent. But, if Smitty can overcome some of his lapses in judgment...the Bucs could be onto something here.
Offensively, there’s even more reason for concern. Winston is the wild card, and as goes the ole “W” chomper, so go the Bucs. But, as he enters his fourth year, he’s doing so with a fully-healthy offseason, and time to really get into the intricacies of Koetter’s scheme with a pretty stacked group of receivers. Mike Evans continues to play like an elite talent, DeSean Jackson is still fast and Cameron Brate just signed a six-year deal. But, watch for dangerous rookies like Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard to hit their strides in 2018. The offensive line is...fine, but Ali Marpet is going to move back to guard, and pretty solid C Ryan Jensen has joined the mix.
The team has some work to do to get a starting running back, but that’s where the draft comes in. TB’s front office has top-ten picks in each round (sans the third, where Pierre-Paul slots in), and they’ve quietly been drafting well as of late.
The Bucs have long felt like a power keg that lacks a light -- explosive talent just sitting there, ready to be ignited. With a strong draft class, the wheels might finally get to start rolling for the team. They’re set to face down a fourth-place schedule next season, which only helps. Now, again, it’s a bit of “carrot and a stick” with getting worked up about Tampa Bay, because so often, when you do, they...don’t.
But, the stars are beginning to align for the Bucs. With Carolina in an odd spot, the Saints relying on Drew Brees evading Father Time, and Atlanta still waiting to see if Steve Sarkisian takes the leap, the door, somehow, is open for Tampa Bay to surprise in 2018.
If they have a nice draft next month, things could get every interesting, very fast, for the Floridians...which would not be ideal for the Dirty Birds.
The Falcons and Saints are still the teams to beat in the NFC South...but don’t sleep on those Bucs. For once, the preseason hype might live up to its fever pitch.