Plenty of Buccaneer fans were frustrated when general manager Jason Licht was retained by the organization. Nowadays, it’s clear that keeping Licht around paid off in terms of bringing in a proven coach. Bruce Arians cited his relationship with Licht as the biggest reason he considered taking the job in the first place. That’s great, as it brought in a good head coach and a solid staff. But now, Licht has more work to do.
With the coaching staff now in place, Licht’s next job is fixing and adjusting the roster. The Bucs have a ton of talent in some areas, while other areas have more unproven guys that have solid potential. But as we reach the free agency period in less than two months and the 2019 NFL Draft in about three months, Tampa Bay’s roster does have some holes that Licht will have to address. Here, we’ll take a stab at identifying what those holes currently are, as well as project how the front office will address them.
Running Back: The concern in the backfield has nothing to do with Peyton Barber, who put together a strong first season as a feature back. Instead, there are questions about depth. In 2018, the Bucs drafted Ronald Jones II out of USC in the second round to complement Barber right away. Jones never caught on, as he struggled to see the field for much of the season. Right now, he’s in need of a rebound. Whether Jones can get it together or not— and how quickly the team finds out one way or the other— will determine where he falls in the plans for 2019. With that uncertainty, plus Jacquizz Rodgers’ time likely up in Tampa, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say there is a hole at the No. 2 or No. 3 running back spot. Regardless of whether Jones fills in at No. 2 or No. 3, the Bucs surely need a strong pass-catching running back to give Bruce Arians some options. Shaun Wilson showed promise as a rookie in 2018, but look for the front office to make a move to build up the backfield a little more.
Projection: While the Bucs could spend a draft pick on a running back in one of the later rounds, it feels more likely that they’ll sign someone from the intriguingly-deep free agent class. That doesn’t necessarily mean Le’Veon Bell, but there are plenty of options out there this spring.
Offensive Line: Ryan Jensen at center and Ali Marpet at left guard seem to be the only two locks on the 2019 offensive line. The other three positions are where things get interesting and complicated. Ideally, the Bucs would be able to make upgrades at left tackle, right guard and right tackle. But to expect true upgrades at all three spots in one offseason may be a little unrealistic. Tampa Bay has a number of talented pass-catchers, a strong No. 1 running back and a quarterback that has proven to be plenty effective when he plays smart. That leaves the offensive line as the missing piece of the puzzle on offense. For the last few years, the group’s play has held back the offense far too many times. Some changes need to be made here in the coming months.
Projection: Donovan Smith might be worth a franchise tag. That would give him one more year with the team to prove that he can put it all together and truly earn the top tackle money that many think he can already get. By doing so, the Bucs would have one less task on their offseason to-do list. As far as the other two positions are concerned, who knows? My personal guess is that the team will sign a guard to replace Caleb Benenoch and draft a tackle to potentially replace Demar Dotson. But there will certainly be some guard options in the draft that the team might consider. This position group is a huge question mark right now, one that could be addressed in a bunch of different ways.
There are holes at every level of the Tampa Bay defense heading into 2019. Bruce Arians has said that he and new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles want to run whatever system allows their players to succeed, so we won’t really take any looks at holes as far as the system is concerned. Instead, we’ll look at the holes that are being left by impending free agents and those that are opening up because of ineffective play.
Defensive Line: The Bucs had to go all-in on addressing the defensive line last spring. They brought in Beau Allen, Mitch Unrein and Vita Vea to join Gerald McCoy in the interior, while adding Vinny Curry, Jason Pierre-Paul and later Carl Nassib to re-tool the edge. That overhaul worked in some places and failed in others. Allen, Unrein and Curry were all disappointing, but Pierre-Paul, Nassib and eventually Vea all proved to be valuable additions.
So, where do the Bucs go from here? By the end of the 2018 season, everyone seemed ready to push McCoy out. But what continues to puzzle me is this: if you trade or release him, who are you going to replace him with? By cutting ties with McCoy, the Bucs would be creating another hole on a defense that already has tons of them. It’s definitely a tricky situation, but it’s clear that the team needs help both on the interior and on the end. Pierre-Paul and Nassib are plenty efficient, but there isn’t a lot of depth behind them.
Projection: Tampa Bay could move on from Allen, Unrein and potentially Curry. As far as additions go, the front office will surely use both free agency and the draft to patch up the line. A veteran tackle paired with a mid-round interior guy might make sense, and taking an edge-rusher with the No. 5 overall pick would be a good move, especially in this year’s draft.
Linebacker (?): What was the Bucs’ deepest position in 2018 is more of an uncertainty than anticipated heading into the 2019 offseason. Lavonte David is still plenty capable of anchoring the position group, but where Kwon Alexander and Kendell Beckwith figure into future plans is suddenly unclear. Alexander, who is coming off a torn ACL, is a free agent. Beckwith just missed all of the 2018 season with a broken ankle he suffered in a car accident last April. Both guys, when healthy, are definitely starting-caliber. But with their injuries and the foggy depth behind them, the Bucs might have to make a move or two at linebacker.
Projection: The Bucs would be smart to give Alexander a one-year “prove-it” deal. Coming off a season-ending injury, that seems fair. Beckwith is still under his rookie contract, so he’ll be around. But with guys like Adarius Taylor, Devante Bond and Riley Bullough not being locks to return, plus 2018 sixth-rounder Jack Cichy also recovering from a torn ACL, Tampa Bay might need to explore some free agency options to rack up some depth at the position.
Cornerback: Carlton Davis had a strong rookie year in 2018, despite the fact that he had to assume No. 1 corner duties for a lot of the season due to injuries and the poor play of Brent Grimes. He should be locked in at one of the cornerback spots in 2019, but who fills in on the other side is one of the bigger questions that Jason Licht and his staff need to answer in the next few months.
Vernon Hargreaves III missed 15 games this past season with an injury, but he should be at the nickel spot regardless. That leaves Ryan Smith and M.J. Stewart as the primary options to fill in on the other side of Davis. That isn’t quite ideal, so there’s undoubtedly some work to be done at corner.
Projection: With as much youth as the Bucs already have in the secondary (at corner and at safety), finding a capable veteran or two in free agency should be in the plans. There are some good options out there, including guys that both Arians and Bowles are familiar with. Don’t rule out a trade being a possibility either.
Safety: The Bucs definitely have a lot of bodies at the safety position, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re set there. Justin Evans and Jordan Whitehead should be sticking around, but the futures of Andrew Adams, Isaiah Johnson and Josh Shaw are far less certain. Plus, the potential move of M.J. Stewart to safety is going to impact plans a little.
Projection: The Bucs will probably be looking for a safety in free agency, but a late-round pick could be a possibility too.
Kicker: The Bucs saw their kicking woes continue during the first part of 2018, with Chandler Catanzaro proving to be just as inconsistent as Roberto Aguayo and Nick Folk. He was probably even less consistent than Patrick Murray was during the 2017 season. After Catanzaro was let go, Tampa Bay signed Cairo Santos. The kicking game was better from there, though still not where the team would like it. Santos was 14-of-18 on the season, though his 3-of-6 mark on attempts between 40 and 49 yards left a lot to be desired.
Projection: At this point, guessing at what the Bucs will do with their kicking situation is silly. I don’t know.