TAMPA — In his first comments since the season ended, Bucs general manager Jason Licht struck a tone of unfulfilled ambition and encouragement about one of the youngest teams in the NFL.
Though Licht said the Bucs failed to reach their goal of making the playoffs, their 9-7 record represents improvement after five straight losing seasons.
"Any time you don't like where the season ends, even when it goes until the final week and it ends the way it does (the Bucs were eliminated from the playoffs on the final day of the season), you can't say, 'Just be happy. Oh well, at least we did not have a losing record,' " Licht said. "But all that said, it is progress.
"You're disappointed, but as the dust settles, you realize my goal was for the team to show progress, and it did, (and) to come together, and it did. We have a very young team. At one point this year we had one of the youngest teams in the league. If you looked at our starters, even younger. So to show progress and growth with a very young roster is encouraging."
Not only did the Bucs have a new head coach, Dirk Koetter, and a new defensive system under coordinator Mike Smith, they overcame injuries at running back, receiver and defensive line that contributed to a 3-5 start.
Running backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims, who accounted for nearly 2,700 total yards in 2015, combined to miss 15 games. The Bucs lost receiver Vincent Jackson to a knee injury and had a revolving cast at the position.
"With the offense and the defensive-line injuries, and the running back situation and injuries, and with the way we dealt with it, I was really happy," Licht said. "Everybody came together and said this is what we have and they need to make it work.
"Now, I really have an appreciation for all our players. I'm not blind. … We know what we're missing. … I'm happy the way the team responded to a lot of adversity and injuries."
Licht said he was pleased to see how the defense responded under Smith, especially when it spearheaded a five-game winning streak. Smith's new contract may prove to be the Bucs' biggest offseason move, Licht said.
"It took some time with the new scheme, but Dirk and I and the Glazer family all are excited we don't have to start over again," Licht said.
The Bucs enter free agency with more than $65 million in salary cap space, fifth most in the NFL.
Their focus will be retaining many of their free agents, Licht said. Though he declined to comment on specific players, the list clearly begins with defensive end Will Gholston, the Bucs' best run stopper, and would also include receiver Russell Shepard, cornerback Josh Robinson and defensive end Jacquies Smith, who suffered a torn ACL in the season opener.
"We have a track record of rewarding our players that produce, keeping key players that thrive in the system, and we have the salary cap flexibility to make it happen," Licht said.
The Bucs also own the 19th overall pick in the draft.
"We need to add some layers to this young foundation, and we feel we're on the right track," Licht said.