Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of Playoffs, but Future Still Plenty Bright

Luke Easterling@@LukeEasterlingCorrespondent IDecember 21, 2015

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston drops back to pass during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst)
Billy Hurst/Associated Press

With Sunday's Week 15 action in the books, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have now been eliminated from playoff contention in 2015.

Just two weeks ago, the Bucs were 6-6 and coming off a huge home win over the division-rival Atlanta Falcons, with a pewter ship-load of hope they could make a playoff run.

But after back-to-back losses to teams with losing records, Tampa Bay's postseason dreams have come crashing back to Earth nearly as quickly as they had risen. Those last two defeats exposed fatal flaws, namely their lack of depth as injuries mounted and a defense still in need of a serious overhaul.

There are plenty of negatives for Tampa Bay fans to dwell on after these last two weeks, but they would be wise to set their sights on the future, where things are extremely bright. The Bucs have already tripled their win total from last season, and there's a plethora of reasons why they're primed to be a contender for years to come.

The Jameis Factor

On the list of things for Bucs fans to be excited about for next season and beyond, No. 3 is No. 1.

The top overall pick in the 2015 draft, Jameis Winston already looks like the franchise quarterback Tampa Bay has been looking for since arguably the inception of the franchise.

Winston has put up numbers easily worthy of NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year consideration, throwing for 3,422 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions so far this season. He's also tied a single-season franchise record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with five. If the former Heisman Trophy winner can average 289 passing yards over his final two games of 2015, he would become just the third rookie in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards. Considering he threw for 314 yards in the second half of last week's loss to the St. Louis Rams, that mark seems quite attainable.

Not only has Winston been everything the Bucs could have hoped for on the field, he's also already established himself as the vocal leader in the locker room and on the sidelines. Despite being just 21 years old, Winston has risen up and snatched the leadership role, something the Bucs needed arguably as much as his on-field production.

Having a difference-maker at quarterback can single-handedly turn the fortunes of an NFL team. It's still early, but it sure looks like the Bucs have found their man in Winston.

Dougie's Back, Tell a Friend

After a Pro Bowl rookie season that saw him rack up nearly 2,000 total yards, Doug Martin struggled through two straight injury-riddled seasons, missing 16 games over his 2013 and 2014 campaigns.

After the Bucs declined to pick up his fifth-year option for the 2016 season, Martin responded by showing up to training camp 20 pounds lighter, more explosive and ready to prove he was back to full health and ready to return to his rookie-year form. And that's exactly what he's done.

Martin has rushed for 1,305 yards, just nine yards short of NFL leader Adrian Peterson and nearly 300 yards ahead of the next-highest total. He leads the league in runs of 20 yards or more with 13 and is the only back with at least 150 carries and a five-yard average per carry.

Martin has been the engine powering Tampa Bay's offense all season long, and he's proved he can stay healthy and be productive over an entire season again. He's earned a hefty contract extension and will still be only 27 years old next season. He's got plenty of tread left on his tires, and the Bucs should lock him up for the foreseeable future.

Despite Inconsistency, Evans Has High Ceiling

After a record-setting rookie season in 2014, expectations were sky high for Mike Evans in his second NFL season. And though he's struggled with drops and consistency, he's shown more than a few flashes of what could be one of the NFL's premier playmakers at receiver in the near future.

Due to a hamstring injury suffered in the preseason, Evans missed Week 1 and didn't have a catch in Week 2 of the regular season. And though he's tallied 64 yards receiving or less in eight of his 13 appearances this season, he's averaged just shy of 140 yards over the other five games.

His touchdown numbers are also down significantly this year—he's caught just three after posting a franchise-record 12 in 2014—but he's seen much more attention from opposing defenses this year. Due to injuries to both Vincent Jackson and Louis Murphy, Evans has spent much of the season with rookie undrafted free agents as his running mates at receiver, which has allowed defenses to focus most of their attention on him.

He may not touch his touchdown total from last year, but Evans is on pace to eclipse last year's performance in receptions, yards and average yards per catch. He's topped 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first two seasons and is just getting started when it comes to developing a chemistry with Winston and reaching his full potential.

The Ambassador of Kwon

Over their past two drafts, the Bucs have spent only one draft pick on a defensive player. Thankfully for them, that lone selection looks like a home run so far.

If Tom Cruise were actually a sports agent, he'd more than likely want to be representing Kwon Alexander, who has already established himself as one of the most important pieces of Tampa Bay's rebuilding project on defense.

The Bucs had originally expected free-agent signing Bruce Carter to fill the starting middle linebacker spot, but Alexander snatched the job away during training camp and never looked back. Highlighted by an inspired performance in the wake of his younger brother's death, Alexander's rookie season has already proven him to be a rare breed of both human and football player.

Though he'll miss the team's final four games due to a suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, Alexander already packed an impressive season's worth of starts into 12 games. He'll end his rookie season with 93 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.

The Bucs traded up in the fourth round to grab the LSU product, one of many moves this past offseason that looks to have laid the foundation for an extremely bright future for Tampa Bay.

...and the List Goes on

This list could go even further, from the emergence of a fully healthy Austin Seferian-Jenkins at tight end to a pair of impressive rookie starters on the offensive line in Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet. Throw in a huge improvement at offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter and veteran playmakers like Lavonte David and Vincent Jackson, and the Bucs have plenty of pieces in place to build a serious contender over the next decade.

Missing the playoffs may be frustrating, but considering where this team was just a year ago, Bucs fans should be extremely excited about what lies ahead for the Pewter Pirates.

Luke Easterling is a Featured Columnist covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and NFL draft for Bleacher Report. He is also a senior NFL draft analyst for Draft Breakdown. Follow him on Twitter @Luke Easterling.


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