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ESPN’s Insiders love the Bucs, and Noah Spence

ESPN analysts think the Bucs will make the playoffs.

Carolina Panthers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Offseason analysis is always a little pointless, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Which is why we’re talking about ESPN’s latest panel of six analysts who answered some questions on this (off)season.

Turns out those analysts really like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Really. Mike Sando called them the team most likely to get into the playoffs after missing out last year, while Sando and Matt Bowen named them as the most improved teams this year.

Bowen: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed a true deep-ball threat in wide receiver DeSean Jackson during free agency and then scooped up tight end O.J. Howard in the first round of the draft. Both players will become instant weapons for quarterback Jameis Winston and open up even more opportunities for No. 1 target Mike Evans. After throwing for over 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, Winston is now in a position to lead an offense that can create matchup issues at all three levels of the field.

That sounds about right, though the running game may be an issue—hopefully Jameis Winston is good enough to compensate for any possible deficiencies there.

I’m more intrigued by Dan Grazianos’ comment that the player poised for a sophomore breakout in the entire NFL is Noah Spence, and the implications that has for the Bucs defense.

Tampa Bay pass-rusher Noah Spence had 5.5 sacks in a limited role as a rookie, but I expect his playing time -- and his impact -- to increase in 2017. Remember, this was a first-round talent who fell to the second round because of off-field concerns from early in his college career. He adapted well to what coordinator Mike Smith was teaching last year in Tampa Bay and could be part of a real defensive renaissance there.

I am skeptical of this supposed defensive renaissance. There’s certainly reason to be optimistic: the Bucs defense played very well toward the end of last season, and they added some good talent. At the same time, though, there’s little evidence that late-season improvements are actually good indicators of future play, and some of that shutdown play was driven by turnovers—which are highly variable year-to-year.

I am very optimistic about Noah Spence, though. He had 5.5 sacks in a limited role, while playing through a serious shoulder injury. Those stats understate the quality of his on-field play, especially in the second half of the season, and the team’s move to incorporate some more 3-4 looks may help him get on the field and to the quarterback even more often.

Will that lead to the defense taking the next step? And will that lead to a playoff spot? Those are two different things entirely and won’t depend mostly on Spence anyway—the key there will be getting the same performance out of Brent Grimes, it will be Justin Evans’ adjustment to the NFL, it will depend on the team’s stars (Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander) playing up to their level.