Football Outsiders hasn't published its always outstanding Almanac yet, but it did provide some limited season projections for ESPN, picking three teams most likely to rise and three teams most likely to fall for each conference. In the NFC, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers top the list, alongside Washington, the Atlanta Falcons and an honorable mention for the Green Bay Packers.
For the first time in five years, the Bucs have a legitimate NFL coach in Lovie Smith. Josh McCown could be a big upgrade at quarterback if he plays like he did in 2013, when he tossed 13 touchdowns against one interception for the Chicago Bears. The team also added veteran talent on the offensive line, picking up free agents Anthony Collins and Evan Dietrich-Smith, and two likely starters in the draft in first round wideout Mike Evans and second round TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David give the Bucs two of the best defenders in the league in their front seven. After playing the toughest schedule in the league last season and going 2-5 in one-score contests, the Bucs should have some better luck in close games. Expect them to jump from 4-12 to .500 or better.
Annoyingly, this is not a very strong prediction. 8-8 or better would be a minimum prediction given the talent on both sides of the ball, despite some holes on the roster. Then again, I remember making similar claims about the Bucs' prospects and Football Outsiders' projections in earlier years, and yet Outsiders was usually right, or at least closer to the truth.
Which is annoying because of course, Lovie Smith and company have repeatedly emphasized that they are not rebuilding. Yes, they overhauled the roster, but they did so by bringing in veterans, by improving positions, and by stating over and over and over again that they will win right now. Not in two years' time. Not when a roster rebuild is done. Now. In 2014.
Which, honestly, sounds more than doable. Every team has some holes on its roster: the Saints have perpetually weak offensive tackles, not a lot of depth at wide receiver, question marks at cornerback and still need to find an edge rusher opposite Cameron Jordan. The Panthers had a brilliant defense last year, but their offense is lacking talent at every position but quarterback. The Falcons still have holes all over their roster.
I could probably list question marks for every team, even the Seattle Seahawks (wide receiver) and the San Francisco 49ers (defensive line). Question marks are normal on any team, even though we'll obsess over them constantly. That doesn't mean every roster is made equal, but it does mean that the fact that the Bucs have problems doesn't doom them to another year of mediocrity or worse.