Is it training camp yet? No, but we’re almost there. Buccaneers rookies report Sunday, veterans report four days later and the first full-squad practice is July 26.
As you count down the days, let’s count down the team’s most important decisions of the offseason. Here are our definitive, indisputable, purely scientific rankings:
8. Signing punter Bradley Pinion
Shortly after the free-agency period opened in March, Tampa Bay agreed to terms with Bradley Pinion, guaranteeing him $3.6 million. Soooooo, uh, what was the rush? Was it because he also can kick off? That’s plausible. Two months later, however, the Bucs spent a fifth-round draft pick on kicker Matt Gay, who most definitely has the leg for kickoffs. That would seem to negate the extra value Pinion provides. Worse, the signing likely costs Tampa Bay a compensatory pick in next year’s draft. (Compensatory picks are awarded to teams that lose more or better free agents than they acquire.)
7. Failing to add a reliable pass-catching running back
Bucs running backs last season ranked 31st in percentage of team targets (14.2 percent), partly because of the offensive scheme and partly because of the lack of trustworthy options. Tampa Bay responded by signing Andre Ellington, who caught a total of 85 passes in 2014 and 2015 but just 66 since. Also, he didn’t play last season. Also, the last time he played for Bruce Arians (in 2017 in Arizona), Arians cut him halfway through the season. Though the Bucs didn’t draft anyone, they did sign undrafted free agent Bruce Anderson (above), who could emerge as the dual threat they need in their backfield.
6. Signing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh
This was Tampa Bay’s splash move of the offseason, and while Suh is a recognizable name, he alone doesn’t transform this defense. Is he an upgrade over Gerald McCoy? Yes. In a way that significantly moves the needle? No. He’s a better run stopper but a comparable pass rusher.
5. Signing linebacker Shaquil Barrett
It feels as if this move has flown under the radar a bit. Barrett had a solid 2017 with the Broncos, generating pressure on 13.3 percent of his pass rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s not Khalil Mack, but that’s a healthy rate of pressure. By comparison, Justin Houston generated pressure on 12.6 percent of his pass rush snaps for the Chiefs. Barrett’s playing time decreased last season, though, after Denver drafted Bradley Chubb in the first round. Can he return to 2017 form? Tampa Bay is paying $4 million to find out. He could prove to be a bargain.
4. Drafting linebacker Devin White
The Bucs were wise to let middle linebacker Kwon Alexander walk in free agency instead of handing him a top-dollar contract. Since 2015, his rookie season, he has missed 78 tackles, second most in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Only Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith has missed more.
White, Tampa Bay’s fifth overall pick, will do more than replace Alexander. There has been a lot of chatter about defensive coordinator Todd Bowles using him as a blitzer (he will), but White’s range, explosiveness and mobility could make him an asset in pass coverage, where the Bucs need immediate help. Opponents relentlessly picked them apart over the middle last season. Granted, Tampa Bay simply didn’t have enough bodies. No team’s linebacking corps was as hard-hit by injuries, according to a Football Outsiders analysis.
3. Drafting three defensive backs
After a season in which the Bucs nearly allowed a record highs in completion percentage and passer rating, the No. 1 priority on defense was to restock a barren secondary. Tampa Bay did exactly that in April’s draft, selecting cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (above) in the second round and cornerback Jamel Dean and safety Mike Edwards in the third round.
A better defense truly could help the offense, especially if it forces turnovers, which the Bucs seldom did last season. Tampa Bay intercepted only nine passes, tied with Dallas for 26th, and four of those came in one game. The result: The offense didn’t see many short fields. On average, the Bucs started a possession at the 26.3-yard line, the fourth-worst field position in the league.
2. Skipping the offensive line
So the drafting of three defensive backs might not have been completely by design. There’s a good chance, based on offensive line coach Joe Gilbert’s postdraft comments, that Tampa Bay was targeting an offensive lineman with one of those picks.
“There were certain parts of the draft that were going on where we had the opportunity to possibly get a lineman at a certain time, and those guys got picked just prior to us going,” he said. “We were just a pick off from maybe getting a guy or two there, and it just didn’t fall the right way.”
He didn’t mention anyone by name, but the educated guess here is that he was referring to Oklahoma’s Cody Ford, whom the Bills drafted 39th overall, one spot ahead of the Bucs. Had Tampa Bay drafted Ford, he likely would have been the leading candidate to start at right guard. He also could have been the future replacement for right tackle Demar Dotson, who turns 34 in October. Instead, Alex Cappa and Earl Watford will compete for the guard job while Dotson hobbles around for another season. The Bucs could be looking for both a guard and a tackle next offseason.
Tampa Bay’s offensive line allowed 109 hits last season, tied for fourth most, and allowed running backs to be tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage on 24.7 percent of carries, the third-highest rate.
1. Hiring Bruce Arians to be the head coach
You know the resume. A 58-33-1 record as a head coach. A two-time coach of the year (2012 and 2014). A two-time Super Bowl champion as an assistant coach (2005 and 2008). Mentor to Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer.
Question the wisdom of the Bucs’ tying their fortunes to Jameis Winston all you want, but given that they remain as committed as ever, Arians was a logical hire. Manning, Roethlisberger and Palmer all showed progress under his tutelage. And as the offensive coordinator of the Browns in 2002, he even squeezed a good enough passing game out of Kelly Holcomb/Tim Couch.
Winston isn’t Arians’ only challenge, of course. He and his army of assistant coaches are trying to install a new mindset. Some might label the bold claims emanating from One Buc Place as “swagger.” Some might call it “hype.” Others might call it “insanity.” Whatever you want to call it, there’s a new attitude in Tampa. Arians, 66, didn’t risk his reputation and trade in his golf cart — check that, he still travels via golf cart — to go 6-10 or 7-9.
“We ain’t playing for second place or just to get better,” he said in March. “We’re going after the Lombardi Trophy.”
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.