The Definitive Blueprint to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Perfect Offseason
There is no standard template for a blueprint for success, but by wiping the slate clean, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made drafting the blueprint much easier.
The Buccaneers fired head coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik on December 30 per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport:
The #Bucs have fired Greg Schiano and GM Mark Dominik, per team source— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 30, 2013
The firings came after the Bucs finished the season 4-12 after starting with an eight-game losing streak. Schiano did little to dispute assertions that he was out of his depth.
With the top two positions in the organization vacant, the Buccaneers face a long, arduous offseason ahead of them. Not only do they need a new head coach and GM, the Bucs have holes in the roster that must be addressed.
Here is the definitive blueprint to a perfect offseason for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Hire Lovie Smith
Step one is already underway. Jay Glazer reported on Thursday that the Buccaneers were already finalizing a deal to make Lovie Smith their next head coach:
The Bucs are hiring Lovie Smith to be their new head coach, two sides are finalizing the contract tonight— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) January 2, 2014
Smith is the natural choice. He made his bones as the Bucs linebacker coach under former head coach Tony Dungy. After a stint as the Rams' defensive coordinator, Smith was hired to be the head coach of the Chicago Bears.
Within three years Smith led the Bears to Super Bowl XLI but lost to the Indianapolis Colts, then coached by Tony Dungy. Smith enjoyed mixed success as Chicago's head coach with five winning seasons in nine seasons.
Expect Smith to quickly transform the Bucs defense into a top-10 unit. He is expected to bring on Cal's head coach, Jeff Tedford, as his offensive coordinator and either Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli or former Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier as his defensive coordinator, per Adam Schefter and Jason La Canfora:
Former Cal coach Jeff Tedford will be Lovie Smith's OC, and Rod Marinelli will be the Bucs' defensive coordinator, ESPN is reporting.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 2, 2014
Wherever Love Smith lands (DET or TB most likely), look for former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier to be his D coordinator— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) January 1, 2014
Ideally Smith will follow in the footsteps of Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick in enjoying greater success in their second stints as head coaches. His greatest challenge will be finding a franchise quarterback to lead his offense, a problem he struggled with in Chicago.
Find a Cap-Conscious General Manager
In the CBA era, salary-cap management is vital to an NFL franchise's long-term health. The Buccaneers need a GM with the kind of contract savvy to sign top players without dropping the cap in a precarious position.
Former Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik leaves a Bucs team in a very good cap situation. According to Spotrac.com, the Buccaneers have a little over $115 million dedicated toward the 2014 salary cap.
A few names are attached to Lovie Smith to be the Bucs next head coach according to Ian Rapoport:
Some names to watch for personnel men joining Lovie Smith in TB: Jerry Angelo, Tim Ruskell (Titans), Chris Ballard (KC), Morocco Brown (DC)— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 2, 2014
Angelo seems like a logical pick if the Glazers want to build the Chicago Bears again. He was an excellent cap manager, but he often fell victim to bad deals, a few at the hands of the Buccaneers.
Ruskell's resume is less impressive, as he was fired after allowing the Seattle Seahawks' roster to atrophy following their appearance in Super Bowl XL.
Chris Ballard was one of Chicago's more productive scouts in the 2000s. He is currently Kansas City's director of player personnel. He has only been in the job for a year, so it would be difficult to say what kind of GM he would be.
The Bucs might also look within at Eric Stokes, the Bucs' current director of college scouting. Stokes previously worked in the Seattle Seahawks front office, where he helped scout players like Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman.
He may come from a scouting background, but his time working under Dominik may have given him some insight on how to effectively maneuver the Bucs' salary cap.
Re-Sign Dekoda Watson and Jonathan Casillas
Bucs linebackers Dekoda Watson and Jonathan Casillas were competitors for the starting Sam linebacker position in 2013. Fortunately for the Bucs, both players proved they could be worthy contributors both on defense and on special teams.
Watson was drafted by the Bucs in 2010 in the seventh round. Athletically he is a freak, but his football instincts were questioned even after he was drafted.
Casillas was signed by the Bucs as a free agent in 2013. He and Watson were pitted against each other after the career of former Bucs linebacker Quincy Black was ended due to injury in 2012.
The Bucs coaching staff selected Watson over Casillas prior to the start of the season but switched to Casillas near the halfway mark.
Casillas distinguished himself as one of the best special-teams players on the Bucs roster in 2013. He showed improvement over the course of the season but went down with a knee injury during the Bucs' Week 13 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Watson may have been phased out of the lineup through the midpoint of the season, but he came back in a big way when Casillas was lost for the season. He showed effectiveness not only as a run defender, but as a pass-rusher as well.
Both Casillas and Watson were special-teams standouts. Casillas was a beast in kick coverage, leading the team with 10 special-teams tackles. Watson was a special-teams game-changer, specializing in blocking punts.
Neither man sets the world on fire at the Sam linebacker position, but they're both young and still have upside. Their contributions on special teams alone should get them consideration for extensions.
Depth is an elusive asset for any NFL team. For two players who can be had for reasonable fares, the Bucs need to give Casillas and Watson extensions to stay with the team for a few more years.
Sign Free-Agent Defensive End Michael Bennett
The Buccaneers have a chance to fix a mistake they made a year ago by signing Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett to a long-term deal. Bennett left the Bucs earlier this year, disappointed he didn't get the "love" he expected from his former team.
It should be apparent now that Bennett was not a "Schiano Man." He told NFL.com's Michael Silver, "There's not much respect for [Schiano] in that locker room." Clearly, Bennett had issues playing for the Bucs' former head coach.
With Schiano gone, the door is open for Bennett to return. Bennett is one of the best all-around defensive linemen in the league. His nine sacks belie his pass-rushing effectiveness, and he plays the run as well as any other 4-3 DE in the league.
He played for only $5 million in 2013 for a championship-caliber team, knowing he would only be a part-time contributor. Coming into the season with a shoulder injury he played through in 2012, Bennett proved that he is a prime-time player deserving of a big-time payday.
The Buccaneers got next to no pass rush from the defensive end position in 2013 despite defensive tackle Gerald McCoy attracting significant attention with his dominant play inside. DE Adrian Clayborn looked slow coming off knee surgery last year, and DE Da'Quan Bowers saw less and less time on the field as the season wore on.
Bennett's return may provide the spark the Bucs need to revive the glory days of Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice.
Upgrade the Nickel Corner Position in Free Agency
Opposing teams should have brought butter to their games against the Bucs because it was a sure thing that cornerback Leonard Johnson was going to get toasted by their wide receivers.
Johnson came to the Bucs as an undrafted free agent in 2012. He wasn't particularly fast, but he had upside as a cover corner.
As a part of an abysmal Bucs secondary in 2012, Johnson did little to disprove his doubters and little more in 2013. Opposing teams took advantage of his size, speed and general inability to cover.
In today's NFL, every team needs at least three quality cornerbacks to survive the pass-heavy offenses. The Bucs have arguably the best CB in the league in Darrelle Revis, and rookie Johnthan Banks showed promise in his first season. Johnson, however, appeared to make no real progress from the year before.
The Bucs may not be able to afford another high-priced free-agent CB with Revis cashing $16 million paychecks. Second- and third-tier players like Tracy Porter or Brandon Ghee could be had for small contracts to bridge the gap to better long-term options.
The NFL draft will be the best place to find an upgrade for the Bucs secondary. Florida's Marcus Robinson or Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller provide the Bucs with options during the second day of this year's draft.
Release Davin Joseph or Carl Nicks
Bucs guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks were supposed to form one of the best inside tandems in the league when Nicks was signed as a free agent in 2012. Instead, they played all of two games together in the past two seasons.
Joseph went down with a torn patellar tendon before the 2012 season even started and didn't make it back until this year. Nicks struggled with a foot injury since he arrived and was not the same player who dominated defensive lines while he was with the New Orleans Saints.
When Joseph returned in 2013, he clearly lost a step. His run-blocking was nonexistent, and he allowed far too much pressure up the middle.
Nicks' season was consumed by fighting a MRSA infection and more toe problems. There is a question whether he can even resume his career after doctors found nerve damage in his foot, according to Mike Garafolo.
These men will earned a combined $15 million in 2014, according to Spotrac.com. That is an absurd figure for two gimpy offensive linemen.
Obviously both men need to be evaluated medically before any decision is made. However, it would be unlikely that both guards will be able to return to the level of play that earned them their long-term contracts.
Nicks has at least another year's worth of guaranteed money left on his contract. Joseph is due no more guaranteed money, and his salary only increases over time.
While Nicks has to be paid in 2014, there is no guarantee he will be healthy enough to return. Joseph was a team captain in 2013 and is well-liked by the Bucs locker room. Though Nicks may be the better player, Joseph has to be the one who remains simply because there are fewer question marks surrounding his ability to actually play football.
Draft a Quarterback to Compete with Mike Glennon
No one could have been more dejected to hear Greg Schiano was fired than Bucs QB Mike Glennon. With Schiano gone, his institutional support is gone, and he will have to prove himself all over again to Lovie Smith.
Glennon didn't play too badly (247-416, 2,608 yards, 19 touchdowns, nine interceptions) as the Bucs' starter. In a division with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, not too bad simply isn't going to cut it.
Conventional wisdom would say draft a QB early to anoint the team's franchise quarterback. However, the Bucs only possess the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft, possibly not good enough for one of the top QBs.
The next best thing is to let Glennon duke it out with one of the less regarded QBs in the draft such as LSU's Zach Mettenberger or Alabama's AJ McCarron.
Mettenberger is one of the more underrated QBs coming out in the 2014 draft. His ACL tear came at the most inopportune time, as he will likely have to sit out the 2014 season to rehab.
McCarron is accustomed to winning. In his last season at Alabama, McCarron threw for 2,676 yards with 26 TDs and six INTs. He may simply be a product of Nick Saban's coaching scheme, but his production doesn't lie. McCarron may be the Bucs' best hope for a QB solution without trading more picks to obtain a better draft position.