The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended the 2016 NFL season as the number two team in the NFC South — not good enough for a playoff spot, sadly, but a massive improvement over the five previous seasons when the Bucs either ended up in last place in the division, or tied for the last place on win-loss record.
So how much better will the Bucs be this year? ESPN asked its NFC South beat writers to analyse which divisional team improved the most over free agency, and two out of four chose the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here’s Jenna Laine explaining her rationale.
The Bucs get a slight edge here because of the impact of the DeSean Jackson signing in what was such a glaringly obvious deficiency on their offense the past few years. Teams aren't going to be able to roll coverage Mike Evans' way or double him up with a burner such as Jackson lining up on the other side. It will impact the way defenses in the division try to defend the Bucs and could play a big role in helping Jameis Winston improve throwing the deep ball. I'm also intrigued by what the Saints did on defense and what they can now do with two first-round draft picks.
I’m having a hard time disagreeing with any of that. The Bucs retained most of its most important players, added a few good players—most notably DeSean Jackson—and should see improvement out of many of its young players. Jameis Winston, in particular, should take the next step in his development. Meanwhile, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees have likely already played about as well as they can—expecting improvement there seems pretty unlikely.
That’s also how the Bucs should improve the most every season, really. Not by adding players in the draft or free agency, though that’s important, but by the steady improvement of the players already on their roster. The automatic attrition and evolution of every NFL team’s roster.
The Bucs, eventually, want to move on from adding big-name free agents. They want to maintain a roster they refill primarily through the draft, replacing aging players and departing free agents with rookies. Once that happens the Bucs won’t be listed as the most-improved team on rankings like this, but they’ll be a healthier team for it.