NFL scouting combine: Five things the Bucs must accomplish
A year ago, the Bucs came to the NFL scouting combine with the worst record in the league, the No. 1 overall pick and mystery surrounding whether they would choose quarterback Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota.
The man who went to bat for Winston is gone. Lovie Smith was fired after going 8-24 in two seasons. Winston won Rookie of the year after throwing for 4,000 yards and accounting for 28 touchdowns to make the Pro Bowl.
It wasn't enough to save Smith's job, but it provided his offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, with an unexpected opportunity to become the Bucs' new head coach. The task facing Koetter and general manager Jason Licht is a little different than a year ago. Can they add pieces around Winston while building a defense that has gone virtually ignored during the NFL draft the past two seasons?
Here are five things the Bucs are focused on this week at the scouting combine, aka the underwear Olympics.
1. Is a new contract with Doug Martin possible before free agency?
The Bucs want Martin back and Martin wants to remain in Tampa Bay. That means there's a good chance the NFL's second-leading rusher winds up with a new deal to play for the Bucs.
But several weeks ago, the Bucs seemed convinced Martin would make it to free agency March 9 and were preparing to explore replacing him with the Dolphins' Lamar Miller or the Jets’ Chris Ivory. That revelation got some dialogue going and Licht will meet with Martin's agent, Brian Murphy, this week in Indy.
The Bucs won't pay Martin $8-million per year like the deal DeMarco Murray got from the Eagles. Chances are this one comes down to the wire with still a good likelihood Martin makes it to free agency.
2. Decide on which veteran players to retain. Some players, such as CB Sterling Moore, are set to become free agents. Moore may have been the lone bright spot in a porous secondary last season, although the Bucs plan to salvage CBs Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks. Other players may not get another season, such as RB Bobby Rainey, DT Tony McDaniel, DT Henry Melton, FB Jorvorskie Lane. LB Bruce Carter will be a tough call. Carter is due to make $4.25-million with a $750,000 roster bonus due the fifth day of the new league year.
The Bucs would like to re-sign safety Chris Conte, but only at the right price.
3. Tender restricted free agents. The Bucs will make qualifying offers to S Bradley McDougald and WR Russell Shepard. But LB Danny Lansanah, at age 30, may not receive an offer. A lot depends on how the Bucs compare Lansanah with the talent available in the draft or free agency and you’re talking about a one down player.
4. Koetter will share his vision for the Bucs and Winston. It's one thing to be in charge of moving the football, it's another when you also take command of the entire team. Koetter will retain his role as play-caller and direct the offense. But what will his handprint be on the entire organization as head coach?
Already he has said the Bucs will likely be more aggressive offensively since he has nobody to answer to except himself. Koetter made significant changes on the coaching staff that indicates a change of philosophy on both sides of the football. It will also be interesting to see what improvements he believes Winston needs to make in year two.
5. Evaluate players at the NFL scouting combine, with a special focus on defense. The Bucs have two glaring areas of need in this order: an edge pass rusher and cornerback. There are players at both positions worthy of the Bucs' No. 9 overall pick. Considering LB Kwon Alexander is the only draft pick on defense in two seasons, it’s time to get busy.
Picking No. 9 overall may put the Bucs out of range for Oregon DE DeForest Buckner or Ohio State’s DE Joey Bosa. The Bucs may be faced with a decision on whether to take a character risk with Eastern Kentucky DE Noah Spence, who had a history of drug problems at Ohio State that forced his exit from the Big 10. Spence was outstanding at the Senior Bowl.
The Bucs may be in a better position to take a defensive back in the first round and many mock drafts already have him linked with Florida Gators star Vernon Hargreaves III. Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander also will get a long look at these workouts.