Tampa Bay Buccaneers: State of Franchise at the Start of the 2014 Offseason
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in for some radical changes.
For the third time in five years, the Bucs replaced their head coach, former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano. For incoming head coach, Lovie Smith, it is a homecoming.
Since Tony Dungy was booted by the Glazer family in 2002, the Buccaneers haven't been able to spell the word "consistency" much less play with any. Every other year hope peeks over the horizon, only to slip away in a cruel vacuum of spotty coaching and questionable personnel decisions.
Greg Schiano's tenure was especially frustrating. From his victory formation rush to his alleged micromanagement, per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, Schiano failed to endear himself to Bucs fans, the Glazers or much of his locker room.
The return of Lovie Smith spells the return of legitimacy for a Bucs team mired in a series of bad coaching hires by the Glazers. Though Smith is only available because the Chicago Bears didn't believe he could push his team over the hump, Smith has a proven pedigree with developing championship-caliber defenses and getting the most out of his players.
The Bucs also replaced former general manager Mark Dominik with Jason Licht. Though Dominik established himself as a contract wunderkind, his personnel decisions were often questionable.
Replacing the head coach and general manager shrouds the future of the franchise in uncertainty. What schemes will Smith install?
Who will stay and who will go? What players will the Bucs pick up in free agency and the draft?
These are the questions we will try to answer in this examination of the state of the franchise entering the 2014 offseason.
2013 Season in Review
For as bad as it got, was the 2013 season really all that unexpected for the Bucs?
The Bucs hit some serious lows. Would-be franchise quarterback Josh Freeman imploded in a very public way and was cut by the team. A nasty MRSA infestation haunted One Buc Place and threatened the careers of some Bucs players.
Worst of all, it became all too apparent that Greg Schiano was in way over his head. His team started the season 0-8, dooming their playoff hopes before the halfway point of the season.
It was Greg Schiano's controlling ways that received the most attention. While the merits of his coaching style were both derided and praised by his team, it never appeared as though the Bucs quit on him.
The bigger, if less reported, issue with Schiano was his lack of competence at managing actual games. Fans lamented his use of stunts on the defensive front and questioned his use of cornerback Darrelle Revis in zone coverage.
Schiano's offense suffered under a lack of consistency. After Freeman was cut, QB Mike Glennon played mistake-free football but rarely played game-winning football. The offensive line missed guard Carl Nicks and could not repeat the same kind of road-grading blocking it demonstrated the prior year.
Very little went right for the Bucs with the exception of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and Revis. They formed a defensive triumvirate comprising the best players at each level of an NFL defense.
The 2013 Bucs were not a team lacking talent. They simply lacked a general who had the vision to lead them out of the NFL cellar.
Home sweet home.
The Buccaneers could not have planned a better public relations revival wrought by the hiring of Lovie Smith. Whether Smith will fulfill the promise of his auspicious arrival remains open for debate.
Smith became head coach of the Chicago Bears in 2004 and quickly built the team into a Super Bowl-caliber team. Though his Bears lost Super Bowl XLV, the defense was a stalwart of the 2000s.
More than his defensive prowess, Smith brings leadership. Unlike the Bucs' previous coach, Smith won't scream until the veins in his neck pop out of his neck. Instead, he brings a stoic gravitas and true sense of trust and accountability that endears him to his players.
Smith tapped former Cal head coach Jeff Tedford to run his offense. Tedford ran a variety of complicated offenses at Cal. Bucs fans should expect a complex scheme founded in a voluminous playbook.
Former Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier will run the defense for Smith. Though his run as the Vikings' coach was unsuccessful overall, Frazier has a history of putting quality defenses on the field.
After a year away from the game, Smith has a chance to follow in the footsteps of other successful second-run coaches like Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll and Dick Vermeil. The start of the Smith era could be a return to the championship-caliber days once enjoyed by the Bucs.
Impending Free Agents
The Bucs don't stand to lose many players to free agency this offseason. Only a handful stand to be key players on the new Smith-led team.
Strong-side linebacker is the position most affected by free agency. The two principal starters for the Bucs, Dekoda Watson and Jonathan Casillas, are both free agents.
As discussed in my column last month, this is one of the toughest decisions for the Bucs this offseason. Both performed admirably and bring separate strengths and weaknesses.
While it may be possible to re-sign both, the Bucs can't count on trying to bring back two linebackers who both believe they can be starters in this league.
Other free agents include DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, FB Erik Lorig and LB Adam Hayward. Te'o-Nesheim is as good as gone. In two years of seeing significant action for the Bucs, Te'o-Nesheim has only collected five sacks and 55 tackles.
Lorig also may have seen his last action as a Buc. With Schiano gone, so goes his traditional I-back system which frequently utilized the fullback position. New offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford plans on using two or three backs in the rotation, which may leave little room for Lorig.
Special teams captain Adam Hayward is one of only a handful of players left over from the Gruden era. While he is an exceptional special teamer, he's never been anything more than a mediocre linebacker. The Bucs could opt to go younger and cheaper in replacing him.
The Buccaneers will have approximately $12 million in cap space going into the 2014 offseason, according to OverTheCap. While it's not enough for the Bucs to go on a spending spree, they will be able to fill some holes on the roster.
Lovie Smith's ties to Chicago could be central to the Bucs' free-agent shopping. Already, names like CB Charles Tillman, per Patrick Finley of the Chicago Sun Times, and kick returner Devin Hester, per Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com, have been tied to possibly joining Smith in Tampa.
Tillman is the player most likely to join Smith in Tampa. According to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, Tillman will be testing free agency this year.
Tillman is a Smith guy through and through, playing for him in all but one year of his career. The attraction is likely mutual as Tillman is a turnover machine.
The biggest need the Bucs have is at defensive end. Fortunately this year's crop of free-agent pass-rushers is as good as any in the past five years.
At the front of the pack is former Buc Michael Bennett. The Seahawks' leading rusher in 2013 will command a huge salary that Seattle likely cannot afford. Bennett could return to the Bucs. At least he has not ruled that out as a possibility.
Players on the Chopping Block
Cuts are inevitable for every NFL team during the offseason, especially coming off a 4-12 season. The Bucs already started trimming the fat off the roster but don't expect any blockbuster cuts this offseason.
The Buccaneers cut former Bears first-round pick tackle Gabe Carimi on Monday, according to the Tampa Bay Times' Greg Auman. They also cut DT Derek Landri, RB Michael Hill and QB Jordan Rodgers.
Hill was a guaranteed cut after he was arrested in Missouri last month. Rodgers was a third-string quarterback with little value. Landri saw significant action for the Bucs in 2013, but he was mostly ineffective.
Carimi was a disappointment from his first snap in the NFL. He demonstrated poor technique and leverage and seemed uninterested in initiating contact or playing football generally.
The Monday cuts saved the Bucs $2 million in cap space for 2014. Additional cuts are unlikely to save that kind of easy money without negatively affecting the roster.
In keeping with the annual tradition of postseason overreaction, fans have been clamoring for the release of high-paid players who may (or may not) have underperformed.
T Donald Penn and G Davin Joseph top that list. Penn is a perennial cut list fan favorite due to his past weight problems and hearsay of his poor play. In fact, Penn is an above-average left tackle, a position where solid starters are hard to find (read: Gabe Carimi).
Joseph is a different story. He actually did play poorly in 2013. Really poorly, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). His 2012 knee injury may be part to blame, but for a $6 million a year player, the Bucs can't afford for Joseph to be anything but a beast.
Neither is likely to be released, but they are both candidates for a pay cut. Both are due at least $6 million in 2014. Penn is paid on par for an above-average left tackle, but Joseph needs a solid 2014 to not only earn his large salary but to stay on the roster for 2015.
2014 Draft Preview
The Bucs' 2014 draft will be the first indication of the sort of team strategy Lovie Smith intends on installing. It will also be a clearer indication of how Smith envisions the Bucs' quarterback situation.
It may be a while before the Bucs will be in a better position to draft a top-rated quarterback. Though they would have to trade up a few spots for the likes of Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater, a quarterback with Smith's faith would be worth a trade up.
Another option is to draft QB Derek Carr, who will likely be available at the seventh pick or even later, per Andy Fenelon of NFL.com. Carr was the most impressive quarterback at this year's Senior Bowl and led an impressive 2013 campaign with Fresno State. Jeff Tedford is also a family friend of the Carrs and has known Derek since he was young.
Memories of Carr's older brother David could discourage the Bucs from taking Carr with their first pick. The Bucs would be wise to wait as long as possible to draft Carr.
Ideally the Bucs would trade down out of the seventh overall pick and recover some of its lost draft picks. The depth of this year's draft might actually garner a better pick for the Bucs in the first-round.
In my mock draft last week, I had the Bucs taking Clemson WR Sammy Watkins. If the Bucs stay put, that pick remains likely.
Should the Bucs trade down, they should look at taking North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron or FSU DT Timmy Jernigan. Ebron could be the playmaking tight end the Bucs have lacked since they dumped Kellen Winslow. Jernigan is a stud who would form a lethal tandem with DT Gerald McCoy.
Bucs fans should not expect Lovie Smith to lead their team to the Super Bowl in 2014. For as good a coach as he is, the Bucs are missing too many pieces on the roster and lack seasoning.
The biggest question marks remain at quarterback and the offensive line. Smith and company could look to give Glennon a year to prove himself on par with the likes of Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan.
There is no more undervalued unit on a football team than the offensive line. The Bucs learned how an offense can stagnate behind an inadequate line.
Jeff Tedford will hold the key to the Bucs' success in 2014. The defense is in good hands with Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier at the helm. It might even be a top 10 unit with Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Darrelle Revis holding down each level of the defense.
Tedford has the unenviable task of evaluating a potentially below average offense and extracting its maximum potential. With only a handful of playmakers, the Bucs offense will need to simply execute and not make the job of the defense harder than it already is.
The 2014 offseason could be transformative depending on Lovie Smith's evaluation of the Bucs' roster. If he doesn't believe he can truly compete with the current roster and one year's draft, 2014 will be a year of transition for the Bucs, rather than a year to make a run at the Super Bowl.