Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Grading Strength of Every Position at Start of Camp
Few will argue the Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven't made a laundry list of personnel improvements this offseason, making upgrades at multiple positions through free agency and the draft.
But how much of an impact will those changes have, relative to the rest of the league?
Will the additions of Michael Johnson and Clinton McDonald make the Bucs' defensive line a top-10 unit? Will Lovie Smith's Tampa 2 scheme get the most out of his young defensive backs? Will Josh McCown prove to be nothing more than a glorified backup quarterback?
These questions will obviously have to be answered on the field this season, but on paper, let's take a look at how each unit grades out for the Bucs heading into training camp.
How They're Graded
Each unit is graded on a +/- scale, based on relative strength to the rest of the NFL. For example, a grade of "C" would put that unit close to the league average.
When the Bucs signed Josh McCown as a free agent this offseason, many Bucs fans probably hoped he would be the veteran backup to a rookie starter the team would choose early in the 2014 draft.
Lovie Smith squashed that thought by quickly naming McCown his starter. Fans in Tampa Bay still held out hope the team would spend a top pick on a quarterback and jettison Mike Glennon, who many felt didn't fit offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford's system. But Smith quickly addressed that notion on draft night, calling Glennon the Bucs' quarterback of the future.
A McCown-Glennon combo under center isn't going to set the Bucs' fan base ablaze with excitement, but the new regime in Tampa seems to have the utmost confidence in the pair.
While neither player is particularly flashy, both McCown and Glennon possess the qualities that Smith and general manager Jason Licht covet in their quarterbacks, namely the ability to not turn the ball over with much frequency. Tampa Bay has also surrounded their signal-callers with the weapons necessary to be successful.
In a division that boasts the likes of Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, the Bucs' stable of quarterbacks might still be division's worst, but that doesn't mean they won't belong in the top half of the league by season's end.
Arguably the strongest unit on the entire team, the Bucs should have one of the deepest running back groups in the league in 2014.
On the one hand, the Bucs know they have a Pro Bowl runner in Doug Martin, who amassed nearly 2,000 total yards as a rookie in 2012. But equally important was the depth discovered in 2013 because of injuries and the addition of a versatile back in this year's draft.
Doug Martin struggled through the first half of last season, and spent the second half on injured reserve thanks to a torn labrum. But he's been fully cleared to return to action, giving the Bucs one of the better young backs in the league.
A sixth-round pick in 2013, Mike James showed promise as a rookie, especially in relief of Martin. The former Miami Hurricane ran for 158 yards on the road against the Seahawks, but his stint as the starter was also ended by injury, as a broken ankle sent him to IR to join Martin.
This forced Bobby Rainey into the starting role, after having been claimed off waivers from the Cleveland Browns earlier in the season. Rainey made six starts for the Bucs down the stretch, rushing for 532 yards and five touchdowns, showing big-play ability on an 80-yard scoring run on the second play from scrimmage in a Week 14 win over the Buffalo Bills.
Despite the depth already on the roster, the Bucs spent the 69th overall pick in the 2014 draft on West Virginia's Charles Sims, who is talented enough to vault straight into the backup role behind Martin as a rookie. Sims particularly excels as a receiver and should see snaps in the slot, in addition to spelling Martin and giving the Bucs a better fit on third downs.
Throw in the possibility of speedster Jeff Demps making the roster, and the Bucs' stable of running backs is as deep as it is young and promising, making it one of the best in the NFL.
Receiver was one of the Bucs' biggest areas of need heading into the offseason, and the new regime was aggressive in addressing it in both in free agency and through the draft. There are some familiar faces, but some new blood helps elevate this unit beyond last year's.
Vincent Jackson returns as the team's No. 1 option after starting all 32 games since becoming a Buccaneer in 2012. The former Charger has over 70 receptions, 1,200 yards and at least seven touchdowns in each of his two seasons in Tampa Bay, and though he's on the north side of 30, he remains a downfield threat who uses his size well against smaller corners.
On the other side of the formation will be the player some see as a carbon copy of Jackson in this year's No. 7 overall draft pick Mike Evans. The massive pass-catcher out of Texas A&M sports a similar frame and skill set to Jackson's and is looking forward to the opportunity to learn from the veteran.
Depth at the position has improved as well, despite the departures of Mike Williams and Tiquan Underwood. Veteran Louis Murphy was signed to a one-year deal and should be the top reserve on the outside, while Chris Owusu continues to improve and should be involved, as well.
In the slot, sixth-round pick Robert Herron and undrafted free agents Solomon Patton and Quintin Payton join the likes of free-agent pickups Lavelle Hawkins, Tommy Streeter and David Gettis, as well as returning targets in Skye Dawson, Eric Page and Russell Shepard.
Jackson is definitely the elder statesman of the group, and while he might start to show decline soon, his numbers over the past two seasons have been impressive enough that we can expect him to repeat them again this year. A slew of newcomers give the Bucs improvement both in the starting lineup and down the depth chart, helping put this unit in the top half of the league's pass-catching groups.
Many were surprised when the tight end position wasn't addressed heading into the 2013 season, but the Bucs found an undrafted free agent who became one of the more pleasant surprises on the entire offense.
But even with Tim Wright's encouraging potential, the new decision-makers at One Buc Place felt the need to upgrade the position, both through free agency and the draft.
As part of their early attack on free agency, the Bucs signed Brandon Myers to a two-year deal. Coming off a somewhat disappointing 2013 campaign after signing a free-agent deal with the Giants, Myers and Tampa Bay is hopeful that the tight end can return to the form that saw him haul in 79 passes for 806 yards in 2012.
But the biggest upgrade to the unit came in this year's draft, when the Bucs spent the 38th overall pick on Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins. A massive target with rare athleticism and fantastic hands, the former Husky gives the Bucs their new-breed tight end who they hope can create similar matchup problems as division-rival Jimmy Graham and the like.
Luke Stocker remains on the roster for the time being, but injuries and inconsistency have kept him from being a reliable contributor, and he faces an uphill battle to make the final cut.
Wright's development will be interesting to watch, and Myers gives the Bucs solid veteran depth at the position. And while Seferian-Jenkins' potential is sky high, he's yet to play a down in the NFL and is coming off foot surgery that kept him out of offseason workouts.
There's plenty of upside in this unit, but it'll have to prove it on the field before it can be considered one of the better groups in the league.
In 2012, this unit paved the way for a Pro Bowl season from running back Doug Martin. Last season was a much different story.
Injuries and subpar performance plagued the offense's front five throughout the entire season in 2013, helping contribute to a horribly inconsistent performance on that side of the ball. This led to a purge in the offseason, as veteran mainstays Donald Penn, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah were all given their walking papers.
Anthony Collins is the new starter at left tackle after signing a sizable free-agent deal this offseason. The former Bengal has plenty of potential, but this will be his first gig as a full-time starter on the blind side. Demar Dotson is the steadiest presence on the unit, and he should continue to carve out his place as one of the best right tackles in the league.
On the bench, things look pretty skinny. Jace Daniels will fight with fifth-round pick Kevin Pamphile and undrafted free agent Matt Patchan to make the final roster, but none of them are ready to step into a starting role in the event of an injury.
Depth is just as shaky at guard. Jamon Meredith should lock down the starting spot on the right side, while Carl Nicks has reportedly been medically cleared to return, giving him the top spot on the left.
But Nicks' health will always be a question mark, and the depth behind those two is shaky, at best. Patrick Omameh, free-agent pickup Oniel Cousins and fifth-round pick Kadeem Edwards aren't starting-caliber players at this point, making an injury at guard a scary proposition.
Free-agent addition Evan Dietrich-Smith replaces Zuttah at center, which should be an upgrade. But again, there's very little depth behind him.
Catching a theme here? The Bucs' offensive line has some solid players across the top of the board, but things don't look too peachy after that. Collins and Dietrich-Smith are somewhat of a mystery at this point, and an injury at any spot could spell serious trouble for this unit and the offense as a whole.
With so much doubt surrounding this group, it's impossible the rank them in the top half of the league until we see chemistry and results on the field.
The Bucs boast one of the best defensive players in the league on this unit, and this year, it looks like Gerald McCoy could finally have the supporting cast to restore the defensive line's once feared reputation.
McCoy has made the past two Pro Bowls and looks to finally be reaching the potential he showed as the third overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft. He'll be joined at defensive tackle by free agent Clinton McDonald, who joins the Bucs after tallying 5.5 sacks as a rotational player for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks last season.
Akeem Spence steps back into a reserve role after getting plenty of valuable starting experience as a rookie in 2013, while Matthew Masifilo and undrafted free agent Euclid Cummings will be fighting for a roster spot.
At defensive end, the Bucs spent big money to bring over free agent Michael Johnson from the Cincinnati Bengals, who they hope can become what Simeon Rice was for this group during the team's title run in 2002. Across from Johnson, Adrian Clayborn returns as the starter, but he'll have to fight off the likes of William Gholston, Da'Quan Bowers and Steven Means to remain the top dog on the left side.
The Bucs will look to rotate their defensive lineman often, even sliding ends inside in certain situations, making depth and versatility a necessity. Players like Clayborn and Bowers must prove they can live up to their potential, and the younger bodies must continue to develop.
With that potential, combined with the talent of Johnson and McCoy, this unit has all the makings of a dominant force that could be one of the league's best by the end of the year.
Like many other units on this team, the Bucs' corps of linebackers is stellar at the top, but lacks the the depth necessary to be considered a truly strong group.
Having one of the best young defenders in the league sure does help, though, and that's exactly what Lavonte David is for this defense. Named first-team All-Pro in just his second NFL season last year, David should shine even brighter in Lovie Smith's defense.
Mason Foster will remain the starter in the middle, taking over play-calling duties after David handled them last season. Some question whether Foster is good enough in coverage to play the middle in a Tampa 2 scheme, but Smith and his staff seem to be confident that he can meet the challenge.
Jonathan Casillas is coming off a torn ACL and will compete with free-agent pickup Dane Fletcher for the starting spot on the strong side. Undrafted free agent Nate Askew is as raw as they come, but his natural athleticism could be a great fit for this scheme, helping him possibly nail down a roster spot.
This group is strong at the top, but it's pretty lean once you move past the starters. David elevates this group because of his elite ability, but all bets are off if he goes down with an injury.
Long a source of much frustration for Bucs fans, the team's secondary looks to be one of the best the team has enjoyed in recent memory.
Gone is Darrelle Revis and his $16 million in yearly salary, replaced by a younger Pro Bowler in Alterraun Verner. The former Titan comes at a fraction of Revis' cost, and is a much better fit for Lovie Smith's defense.
Across the field, veteran free-agent pickup Mike Jenkins will battle it out in camp with last year's second-round pick Johnthan Banks for the other starting spot. No matter who wins, the Bucs will have three strong corners in a division that requires such.
Leonard Johnson was forced into plenty of action during his first two seasons after being signed as an undrafted free agent, and he'll provide even more depth. In the slot, the likes of Deveron Carr, Danny Gorrer and Rashaan Melvin are solid and will battle it out for camp reps and a roster spot.
At safety, the Bucs potentially have one of the best starting tandems in the league. But Dashon Goldson will have to learn to adjust his technique to avoid more fines, and Mark Barron must continue to progress to meet the high expectations of being a top-10 draft pick. Both have all the ability in the world, but they must put it all together consistently.
Behind the starters, things are still pretty strong at safety. Major Wright joins the Bucs after spending most of his career under Lovie Smith in Chicago. Keith Tandy played admirably in Goldson's stead as he recovered from an ankle injury last season, and should provide valuable depth.
All of the pieces are there on paper for the Bucs to have one of the deepest, most talented defensive backfields in the NFL. If they can stay healthy and away from repeated penalties and fines, this unit is a top-five group.
Tampa Bay's special teams crew struggled at times last season, but a huge boost is returning, which should bring this unit back to a solid state.
After recovering from a torn Achilles tendon prior to training camp in 2013, Connor Barth returns to his kicking duties. The most accurate kicker in franchise history takes back his spot from Rian Lindell, who was inconsistent at best last year.
Michael Koenen is still a solid punter, though at $4 million for this year, he's a bit pricey. Still, he's reliable and shouldn't be a source of worry for Bucs fans.
One spot to keep an eye on is at long snapper, where longtime Buccaneer Andrew Economos is no longer present. Jeremy Cain, who played his first two NFL seasons in Chicago under Lovie Smith, will take over the long-snapping duties.
Koenen is serviceable, and there's a new face at the underappreciated spot of long snapper, but the return of Barth keeps this unit strong and ranked among the top half of the league's special teams groups.