TAMPA — In evaluating his team’s strengths and flaws after a 5-11 season, Bucs coach Dirk Koetter made a point Monday to defend LT Donovan Smith and his offensive line, saying he doesn’t understand much of the public criticism of the three-year starter.
"If you listen to rumors, you’d think Donovan Smith should never play football again," Koetter said. "All Donovan Smith does is play hurt, play consistent, play against the best pass-rushers in the world. Donovan Smith is a pretty darn good football player."
Koetter said RT Demar Dotson was having his best season in the coach’s three years with the Bucs before he was lost to a knee injury, missing the final five games.
The Bucs also lost C Ali Marpet with five games left and lost G J.R. Sweezy for the final two, and Koetter was impressed by how well the line held up without three starters down the stretch.
"I think we have depth on the offensive line, we have versatility on the offensive line," Koetter said. "I know our O-line is heavily criticized. I think our O-line is in the upper half of the league. … When I’m looking at tapes of other teams, I see some bad offensive line play. I think our O-line hung in there pretty good."
The Bucs gave up 40 sacks in 2017 — tied for 13th most in the NFL, and up from 35 last year and 27 the year before. But the two previous years, the Bucs gave up 52 and 47 sacks. In run blocking, the Bucs averaged 3.7 yards per carry on the season, which ranked 27th, and had just one game in which a back rushed for 100 yards.
Tampa Bay has decisions to make personnel-wise. Kevin Pamphile and Evan Smith, who split time at left guard, are both free agents, and Sweezy is due to make $5.875 million next season. Marpet and Donovan Smith will be free agents after the 2018 season.
Koetter said RB Peyton Barber — who took over with five weeks to play and finished as the Bucs’ leading rusher — would be "in consideration" to be next year’s primary running back, Koetter said.
Former Pro Bowl back Doug Martin is a potential salary-cap cut, due to make $6.75 million after struggling for the second year in a row. In the past four years, only twice has an NFL back rushed 100-plus times and averaged less than 3 yards per carry — Martin, in each of the past two years.
"If recent history in the NFL has shown anything, it has shown that good running backs can come out of nowhere," Koetter said.
This and that
The Bucs started their offseason by signing five players from the practice squad to reserve-futures contracts for the 2018 season: CB Maurice Fleming, WR Jake Lampman, OT Givens Price, OT Brad Seaton and FB/TE Austin Johnson. … Koetter expressed concern about K Patrick Murray on kickoffs. Murray went 17-for-18 on field goals inside the 50 but couldn’t consistently put the ball in the end zone on kickoffs. The Bucs had the NFL’s lowest touchback percentage at 35 percent, down from 64 percent last year. The Bucs gave up kickoff returns of 100-plus yards in each of the past two games, the only team this year to allow more than one kickoff return for a touchdown. … QB Jameis Winston rushed for a career-best 32 yards Sunday, showing good decision-making on when to tuck the ball and scramble for first downs. His top five rushing games had all come during his rookie year in 2015. … QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, a free agent this spring, said he would like to play again in 2018 and understands his role moving forward is likely as a backup. The Bucs also have Ryan Griffin, their No. 3 quarterback for the past three years, under contract for 2018. Griffin, 28, hasn’t taken a snap in a regular-season NFL game.
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