Projecting Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2015 Starting Lineup
In their first year calling the shots, head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht executed a significant overhaul to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster, hoping to start the process of rebuilding the team back into a playoff contender.
Over half the 2013 roster was turned over heading into last season, but the growing pains of a new regime were evident, as the team dropped from 4-12 to 2-14. Many of the team's biggest free-agent signings were disappointments if not complete busts in their first season in Tampa Bay, while injuries and the absence of a true offensive coordinator helped contribute to the worst record in the NFL.
While building solid depth is obviously a big concern for the Bucs heading into this offseason, the team could also be looking at quite a few new additions to the starting lineup, as well. From free agents to draft picks, there are likely to be multiple starting spots with a fresh face for the Bucs in 2015.
Here are my current projections for what Tampa Bay's starting lineup could look like next season.
2015 Starter: Draft Pick
Both Josh McCown and Mike Glennon had their chances to prove themselves as effective starters in 2014, but neither was impressive. Many will point to the struggles on the offensive line as reason for their ineffectiveness, but regardless of any other circumstances, it's clear the Bucs need a difference-maker under center, and that player isn't currently on the roster.
Fortunately for Bucs fans, the biggest silver lining of a 2-14 season is owning the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft, where they'll have the chance to take a swing on a potential franchise quarterback.
The debate between Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota will rage on throughout the coming months, but for now, my money's on Winston as the Bucs' best chance at winning right away. He should be their pick and should start from day one.
2015 Starters: Charles Sims (tailback), Luke Stocker (fullback)
The Bucs surprised most by using their high third-round pick on a running back last year despite a fully stocked backfield, but Sims could very well end up being their Week 1 starter in 2015.
The injury bug sank its teeth into nearly every member of this unit in 2014, forcing a committee approach for most of the season. Sims missed the first half of the year due to an ankle injury suffered in training camp, while Doug Martin and Mike James also missed time at tailback. Fullback Jorvorskie Lane also missed most of the year with a broken leg.
Martin showed flashes of his 2012 self late in the year, but he's been a popular candidate for a potential trade due to the presence of Sims, who has the skill set to be a three-down back. With a full offseason and another training camp under his belt, I expect him to get the lion's share of the touches in 2015, regardless of Martin being on the roster or not.
At fullback, Luke Stocker showed enough promise after moving from his tight end spot to fill in for the injured Lane, and I expect him to be re-signed and return as the starting fullback.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
2015 Starters: Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson (wide receiver), free agent/draft pick (slot receiver), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (tight end)
One offensive unit that should look pretty much the same across the board next season is the receiving corps, which will return savvy veterans and promising young playmakers alike.
Evans snatched the torch away from Jackson in his rookie season, establishing himself as the team's clear No. 1 target. Last year's seventh overall pick hauled in 68 passes for 1,051 yards, and finished with a franchise-record 12 touchdown receptions and will enter 2015 as the team's unquestioned leader atop the receiver depth chart.
Jackson was the source of plenty of trade rumors leading up to the Week 6 in-season trade deadline, but the Bucs were unlikely to get enough value for the aging veteran. He's not the downfield playmaker he once was, but he doesn't need to be with Evans now in the picture. Jackson is the perfect No. 2 receiver who can move the chains and still give the team another effective red-zone target.
Louis Murphy has already been signed to an extension and might seem like the logical choice to be the team's first option in the slot, but I see a free-agent move or a fairly early draft pick being used at the position. San Diego's Eddie Royal would be the perfect target in free agency, while the likes of Miami's Phillip Dorsett, Duke's Jamison Crowder and Kansas State's Kevin Lockett are projected mid-round draft picks who could conceivably come in and start from day one.
At tight end, Seferian-Jenkins will be the starter and should see a huge jump in production if he can stay healthy in his second NFL campaign. Hampered by injury and set back by missing rookie minicamp due to school obligations last season, last year's second-round pick will give the Bucs yet another big, physical target in the passing game.
2015 Starters: Demar Dotson (left tackle), Logan Mankins (left guard), Evan Dietrich-Smith (center), free agent/draft pick (right guard), free agent/draft pick (right tackle)
Dotson was the only returning starter from this unit in 2014, and it's not completely inconceivable to think he could be again next season. The entire group struggled mightily for most of last year, and replacing multiple starters is clearly on the horizon this offseason.
Collins was signed to a hefty free-agent deal last offseason to start at left tackle, but his poor play eventually led to the former Cincinnati Bengal being deactivated for the final three games of the season. Dotson was moved from right tackle to take over for Collins, and it's possible the move could be permanent.
If that's the case, the Bucs will be looking for a new starter on the right side, and they should have plenty of options in the draft or via free agency. In the draft, Oregon's Jake Fisher, Wisconsin's Rob Havenstein or Colorado State's Ty Sambrailo would be good fits on Day 2, while impending free agent Derek Newton should also be on Tampa Bay's radar.
Dietrich-Smith will likely return to start at center, though he also struggled in his first year as a Buccaneer. Mankins didn't play up to his previous six-time Pro Bowl self, but he should still be next year's starter at left guard.
The right guard spot simply must get a starter in 2015. San Francisco's Mike Iupati is the best option in free agency, but he won't come cheap. The Bucs' best bet for filling this spot will be through the draft, with a choice somewhere between the second and fourth rounds. Duke's Laken Tomlinson should be Tampa Bay's target on the earlier end of that spectrum, while Arizona State's Jamil Douglas would be the perfect pick near the top of the fourth round.
2015 Starters: Michael Johnson and Jacquies Smith (defensive end), Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald (defensive tackle)
Another year, another Tampa Bay defensive line unit that simply didn't put enough pressure on the quarterback. Especially now that the team has moved back to the Tampa 2 scheme, the need to create consistent pressure with the front four is even greater, but a combination of injuries and underachievement led to another lackluster season from this group.
That said, McCoy and McDonald turned in solid seasons on the inside and will return to their starting roles in 2015. McCoy fought through multiple injuries to tally 8.5 sacks over 13 games, and he'll once again lock down the vital 3-technique spot. McDonald ended up being the Bucs' best free-agent signing last year, and he'll start next to McCoy again next year.
Things are less certain on the ends. Johnson was a disappointment after signing a lucrative deal in free agency, managing just four sacks and struggling to stay healthy. Adrian Clayborn started the year on the opposite side but missed most of the season due to injury, and I don't expect him to be re-signed. William Gholston didn't do much to cement himself in the starting lineup as Clayborn's replacement, either.
The most pleasant surprise in this group was Smith, a waiver-wire wonder who racked up 6.5 sacks over the final eight games of the season while playing in a reserve role most of the time. Some may view him as just a situational pass-rusher, but his relentless pursuit extended to the run game, as well.
Smith earned the right to start in 2015, and while Johnson didn't play up to his lofty price tag, he finished the year much better than he started and should return as the other starter.
2015 Starters: Lavonte David (weak side), free agent/draft pick (middle), Danny Lansanah (strong side)
David has the weak-side spot locked down, and he should be expecting a hefty contract extension sometime this year. Heading into his fourth NFL season, David is easily one of the best linebackers in the league and should only continue to flourish in the Tampa 2 scheme.
Across from him, Lansanah earned a starting spot after turning heads during training camp and delivering during the season. His versatility is a huge plus, as he became the first player in franchise history to start at least one game at each of the three linebacker spots in one season.
The middle will be one of the team's biggest question marks this offseason. Mason Foster has had a solid career in Tampa Bay, but he struggled to stay healthy in 2014 and doesn't look like the best fit for what the Tampa 2 needs from that position. His contract has expired, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Bucs let him walk and move on.
If they decide to bring in a free agent to start in the middle, Dallas' Rolando McClain should be their prime target if he hits the market. If they go the draft route, USC's Hayes Pullard is a name for Bucs fans to keep in mind. He's a late Day 2 projection at this point, but he has the skill set to fit perfectly in the middle of the Tampa 2 and excel immediately.
2015 Starters: Johnthan Banks and Alterraun Verner (cornerback), free agent/draft pick (nickel), Major Wright and Bradley McDougald (safety)
Banks and Verner will be the unquestioned starters on the outside, but a new starter in the vital nickel role is an absolute must-add this offseason. Neither Isaiah Frey nor Leonard Johnson could cut it in the slot, so look for either a free agent or mid-round draft pick to fill that spot. The Colts' Darius Butler would be the best free-agent fit, while Mississippi's Senquez Golson and TCU's Kevin White would be Tampa Bay's best bets in the draft.
At safety, I expect the Bucs to move on from Dashon Goldson in 2015, choosing instead to re-sign the veteran Wright, who is much more comfortable in the Tampa 2 thanks to his previous experience playing under Lovie Smith in Chicago. Across from him will be one of the Bucs' most pleasant surprises of the 2014 season in McDougald, who made big plays all year against both the run and pass and is only scratching the surface of his potential.
2015 Starters: Patrick Murray (kicker), free agent (punter), free agent/draft pick (return specialist), Andrew DePaola (long snapper)
Many questioned the Bucs' decision to keep the rookie free agent Murray over veteran Connor Barth, but it proved to be the right call. Murray connected on 20 of his 24 field-goal attempts in 2014, nailing five of his six tries from 50 yards or longer. He'll undoubtedly return to his kicking duties in 2015.
The Bucs could very well see a new face at punter, considering Michael Koenen's up-and-down performance last season and a price tag over $3 million per year. It wouldn't surprise me to see a rookie free agent—such as Baylor's Spencer Roth or Florida's Kyle Christy—handling the punting duties for Tampa Bay this coming season.
DePaola should return as the long snapper, but the revolving door in the return game should continue with another fresh face this year. If the Bucs don't land a slot receiver who can handle the duties, they could spend a late-round pick on a return specialist like Maryland's Stefon Diggs.