Predicting Tampa's Starting Lineup After the First Wave of Free-Agent Signings
In just under three months since former Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano was fired, the Buccaneers look like a completely different team.
The new Bucs regime, led by new head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht, wasted no time imposing their vision of a winning team in Tampa. For many veteran players, it meant a pink slip.
Obviously the biggest move Smith and Licht made this offseason was the release of cornerback Darrelle Revis. ESPN's Adam Schefter first reported the Bucs' efforts to find a trade partner for Revis:
Short of a trade in the next two days, the Buccaneers are expected to release CB Darrelle Revis by 4 p.m. Wednesday, per league sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 11, 2014
The Bucs failed to trade Revis and cut him, freeing up $16 million in cap space. Smith and Licht immediately put the money to use.
Over the past week, the Buccaneers signed several likely starters for 2014. At a press conference introducing the first batch of newly signed Buccaneers, Lovie Smith said, "We’re a 4-12 team, so we knew we had to look into all areas to improve. Luckily we had flexibility to do that, and then we had players that seemed like a perfect fit for what we wanted to do."
The 2014 Buccaneers will look vastly different than the 4-12 team lamented by Smith. Though the draft is still several weeks away, the starting lineup is beginning to take a definite shape.
Here is the Buccaneers' possible starting lineup in 2014.
Likely Starter: Josh McCown
The starting quarterback spot is Josh McCown's to lose.
When the Bucs signed McCown to a two-year, $10 million contract, his name was immediately placed atop the depth chart:
Bucs' Lovie Smith, asked if Josh McCown is his quarterback: "Yes, he is."— Greg Auman (@gregauman) March 12, 2014
After bouncing around the league for years, McCown proved last year that he is a capable starting quarterback.
However, McCown should not get too comfortable. Signing only a two-year deal is a strong indication of McCown's long-term prospects with the Bucs.
Lovie Smith also stated the addition of McCown would not prevent the Bucs from taking a quarterback in the first round of this year's draft.
McCown looks to be, however effective, a temporary stop-gap. The Bucs still have QB Mike Glennon, who started 13 games as a rookie last season.
The Bucs clearly don't have enough faith in Glennon's development to keep him the starting quarterback for 2014, but he and whatever quarterback the Bucs likely draft could factor into the Bucs' long-term plans for the quarterback position.
Likely Starter: Doug Martin
The Bucs learned last season that their deepest unit was the running back group. That won't keep former first-round pick Doug Martin from reclaiming his starting spot.
Martin struggled through the first part of 2014 before he was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. Most of Martin's ineffectiveness stemmed from the atrocious play of the Bucs offense line.
The Bucs revamped their offensive line over the offseason, which should result in greater dividends from the Bucs running backs.
Though Martin will surely be the starter, he can't rest on his laurels as Mike James and Bobby Rainey wait in the wings. James looked primed to break out following Martin's trip to IR, but he too fell victim to injury.
The Bucs' run game fell on the shoulders of Bobby Rainey, who proved equal to the task. The Bucs wisely locked Rainey up with a one-year extension before to the start of free agency.
All three running backs will factor into offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford's offense. At a press conference in January, Tedford said, "[You need] to have two and probably three backs that are quality backs that can provide different things for you[.]"
Fortunately for the Bucs, they have "three quality backs." With Doug Martin at the head, the Bucs running game will be expected to produce big things this season.
Likely Starters: Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams
WR Vincent Jackson is firmly entrenched as the Bucs' No. 1 wide receiver. He posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons as a Buccaneer and was the only consistent offensive weapon the Bucs had in 2013.
Jackson isn't going anywhere.
Former fourth-round pick Mike Williams isn't as safe.
Any wide receiver who makes headlines for his legal troubles should feel the temperature rise beneath him. According to the Tampa Bay Times' Greg Auman, Williams was charged with trespassing and criminal mischief early this year.
Williams' history of rambunctious soirees and confrontations with his neighbors made more headlines and headaches for the Bucs front office. General manager Jason Licht did not hide his disappointment:
#Bucs GM Jason Licht on what Mike Williams has to learn. "He has to learn not to make headlines off the field. Start there."— Rick Stroud (@NFLSTROUD) February 20, 2014
Despite his troubles, Williams is an asset on the field and would be difficult to cut. According to Overthecap.com, cutting Williams this season would cost the Bucs $4.6 million in dead money.
The Bucs won't be able to replace Williams with what is left on the free-agent market, but the Bucs could draft a guy like Sammy Watkins or Kelvin Benjamin to insure against any more of Williams' shenanigans.
Likely Starters: Brandon Myers and Tim Wright
Consistency is not a word that would aptly describe the Bucs' tight end position. The Bucs have not had a tight end start a full 16-game season since Anthony Becht in 2006.
The Bucs find themselves in another period of transition at the tight end position. Former fourth-round pick Luke Stocker can't stay healthy and doesn't make an impact when he's on the field.
Tom Crabtree struggled with injuries in 2013 and failed to make an impression.
Converted wide receiver Tim Wright proved to be a legitimate threat in the passing game once he started seeing significant playing time halfway through the season. At 220 pounds, Wright being labeled as a tight end is either generous or delusional.
The Bucs signed former Giants TE Brandon Myers at the start of free agency to a two-year, $4 million deal. Myers did not enjoy the same kind of success some of his predecessors in New York had, but he does have skills as a pass-catcher.
With two talented pass-catching tight ends, the Bucs will likely try to get both on the field together to create mismatches with defensive backs and linebackers.
Likely Staters: Anthony Collins and Demar Dotson
Lovie Smith and Jason Licht entered free agency with the intention of rebooting the Bucs offensive line. Collins, a former Cincinnati Bengal, is the centerpiece of this metamorphosis.
To be fair, Donald Penn is still a quality left tackle. He didn't have a great season in 2013, but few Bucs did.
Whether or not Collins provides an upgrade from Penn remains to be seen. Collins built his stock playing in relief of Bengals starting LT Andrew Whitworth, but he has never played a full season at tackle.
Pass protection is definitely a strong suit for Collins, but expect a downgrade in run blocking, as Penn's massive frame overmatched a lot of edge defenders last season.
Bucs right tackle Demar Dotson stands as the pillar of consistency on the Bucs line. He was the only Buccaneer to start all 16 games at the same position last season.
The Bucs' investment in Dotson's development proved wise last season. He can be counted among the best right tackles in the league, according to B/R's Matt Miller and his NFL 1000 ranking of right tackles.
Though the Bucs will be in a position to draft a tackle like Jake Matthews or Taylor Lewan, Collins and Dotson are quality starters that will give the Bucs more flexibility to fill other holes in this year's draft.
Likely Starters: Carl Nicks and Jeremy Zuttah
The guard position descended into the stuff of nightmares in 2013. Even with a new regime and free agency, the Bucs still have not settled the situation at guard.
The Bucs cut longtime guard and team captain Davin Joseph just before free agency this year. Joseph's cap number, injury history and noticeable decline last year made it an obvious choice.
Remaining guard Carl Nicks poses a conundrum for the Bucs brass. When healthy, Nicks is one of the best guards in the league.
The Bucs have yet to see that Carl Nicks in a Buccaneers uniform. Between his toe problems and bouts with MRSA, Nicks has played only nine games in two seasons with the Bucs.
Lovie Smith expressed some optimism regarding Nicks' prospects for return, according to The Tampa Tribune's Roy Cummings. Nicks' health may not have much bearing on his status on the Bucs roster given the $7 million in dead money on his contract in 2014, per Overthecap.com.
With Joseph gone, the right tackle position is an open spot. The signing of Evan Dietrich-Smith may be the harbinger of a move to guard for Jeremy Zuttah.
Zuttah is an unremarkable center and may be a better fit as a guard, especially with the more athletic look the Bucs are building within the offensive line.
CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora reported the Bucs would be willing to trade Zuttah for the right offer. If Zuttah isn't moved by this year's draft, he will likely stay on the roster as a guard.
Likely Starter: Evan Dietrich-Smith
The other piece of the Bucs' transformation of their offensive line was the acquisition of former Green Bay Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith. According to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, Dietrich-Smith signed a four-year deal:
The #Bucs agreed to terms with G/C Evan Dietrich-Smith, they announced. Source says it’s a 4-year deal worth $14.25M overall.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 14, 2014
The former Packer comes as a relative bargain of $14.25 million over four years, less than even incumbent center Jeremy Zuttah. Nonetheless, his deal signals a clear change at the center position.
Dietrich-Smith brings athleticism and consistency. Like Anthony Collins, Dietrich-Smith is a better pass-protector than run-blocker, but his ability to pull and block in space offers yet another indication of a move to a zone-blocking scheme for the run game.
Likely Starters: Michael Johnson and Adrian Clayborn
The defensive end position has been a weakness of the Bucs' defense since Simeon Rice left the team. None of the draft picks or free-agent signings since has given the Bucs a consistent pass rush off the edge.
The Bucs signed Michael Johnson to a five-year, $43.75 million deal with the hope that Johnson will be able to take advantage of the chaos defensive tackle Gerald McCoy wreaks upon offensive lines.
Johnson's paycheck alone guarantees his starting spot. His ability to find the quarterback without abandoning run defense makes him a vital piece to the Bucs defense.
The other defensive end position remains up for grabs, but former first-round pick Adrian Clayborn has the inside track.
Clayborn started the 2013 season coming off a major knee injury and it showed. He was slow off the snap and lacked power when engaged with blockers. However, his explosiveness showed signs of resurgence as the season closed.
The former Hawkeye was also hampered by numerous stunts that often took Clayborn out of plays entirely.
Clayborn is the best option on the roster to play opposite Michael Johnson. DE Da'Quan Bowers looks like he may be a bust. Rookie DE William Gholston came on as a pass-rusher at the end of last season but he is still an unproven commodity.
Though the Bucs may still draft a premium pass-rusher in this year's draft, Adrian Clayborn could still be the ideal bookend to the recent acquisition of Johnson.
Likely Starters: Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald
The defensive tackle position required fewer changes than some of the Bucs' other defensive units. All-Pro DT Gerald McCoy will be the centerpiece of Lovie Smith's defense, likely for years to come.
The spot next to McCoy is subject to more debate. Second-year DT Akeem Spence started beside McCoy in 2013, playing the tilted nose tackle role in Greg Schiano's defense.
Spence was a serviceable run-stopper, but he offered virtually no pass rush. Furthermore, in a brilliant offseason maneuver, Spence was arrested in January for marijuana possession.
Having his mugshot in the papers won't help Spence keep his starting spot. That could be the reason why the Bucs signed former Seattle Seahawk DT Clinton McDonald:
Former Seahawks DT Clinton McDonald reached agreement on a 4-yr, $12M deal with Buccaneers, per ESPN sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 11, 2014
McDonald is the inverse of Spence: an effective pass-rusher but poor in stopping the run. McDonald will likely rotate with Spence and the Bucs' other tackles.
Likely Starters: Lavonte David, Mason Foster and Jonathan Casillas
Going into the offseason, the biggest question facing the Bucs' linebacking corps was "who would be starting at strong-side linebacker?" Free agency offered some insight to the question but did not necessarily provide the answer.
Returning linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster aren't likely to go anywhere. David is becoming the Derrick Brooks of his generation and is a franchise player.
Foster's future with the Bucs isn't as secure, but it would behoove the Bucs to see what Foster has to offer in Lovie's system this coming season. He made some big plays in pass coverage in 2013 and could have more in him going forward.
Both are strong special teams players but have yet to make a distinct mark as starting players.
Though NFL defenses use nickel packages more and more, the Bucs still need a starting strong-side linebacker for their base defense. While Casillas could fill that role, the Bucs are likely to add more potential starters in free agency and the draft.
Likely Starters: Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks
The departure of cornerback Darrelle Revis was a disappointing development. Since he's arguably the best cornerback in the NFL, replacing him is virtually impossible.
However, the Bucs did not cut Revis without a plan in mind. They signed former Tennessee Titan Alterraun Verner before they even cut Revis, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport:
Verner is a member of the Bucs, per source— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 12, 2014
Though Verner does not possess the coverage skills of Revis, he comes at a considerable discount and is no slouch in coverage. His nose for the ball earned him five interceptions in 2013.
Verner will likely be joined by second-year CB Johnthan Banks. The former second-round pick struggled in 2013, but many rookie cornerbacks do, especially in Greg Schiano's poorly conceived scheme.
While the Bucs recently signed CB Mike Jenkins, per The Tampa Bay Times' Rick Stroud, Banks has more upside and doesn't have Jenkins' injury history. Even in the event that Jenkins beats Banks for the starting spot in training camp, it's a very real possibility that Jenkins would not keep it due to injury.
Banks is also a longer defensive back who is best suited to cover receivers along the perimeter. Jenkins is stockier and plays the run probably better than he covers, making him a better fit at nickel corner.
Make no mistake, both Banks and Jenkins will be seeing a considerable amount of the time on the field regardless of who is listed as the starter.
Likely Starters: Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron
The Bucs have not yet made any changes to their safety group this offseason. However, that is not the same as saying the Bucs are content with their current safeties.
The Bucs' marquee free-agent signing last year, free safety Dashon Goldson is nearly uncuttable as his $9 million 2014 salary is fully guaranteed, according to Overthecap.com.
Though Goldson is apparently safe this year, barring a lucrative trade offer, he could be cut after this year if his play does not improve. His signing last year was puzzling given that Goldson is a natural strong safety not unlike Mark Barron, who was already on the roster.
Barron began fulfilling his potential in 2013 and could make a real leap forward in Smith's defense. He still needs to work on diagnosing plays more quickly, but his future is bright.