Saturday, January 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs GM Jason Licht raring to go as camp gets set to start

TAMPA — He flew away with his bride to Colombia and Panama to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. He joined a family reunion in Nebraska. He hiked the Rocky Mountains with his kids. He snuck away for a couple's weekend in Chicago, watched the Cubs at Wrigley Field and dined with manager Joe Maddon.

Then last week, Bucs general manager Jason Licht got that faraway look in his eyes, a clear indication that the NFL season was finally in sight.

"I don't care who you are, you need some time off and to reconnect with the family and make room for some balance," Licht said. "But then about a week or two before training camp, the wife can see it in your eyes that your mind is on other things and it starts to wander.

"It's kind of like, 'Okay, it's time.' "

On Monday, Bucs rookies report to training camp. Two days later, the veterans join them. The first workout under new coach Dirk Koetter is Thursday morning. Depending on who you listen to, Tampa Bay is either laying in the weeds ready to take down the Carolina Panthers or locked in the basement of the NFC South.

The truth is the Bucs, who finished 6-10 last season, are probably somewhere in between. Licht says the gap between his team and the NFC champion Panthers is narrowing.

"I definitely think we're closer," Licht said. "I don't think anybody is going to say we're going to unseat the champs and take their spot as the top seed (in the South) going into it. We've got a very competitive spirit, and we've got a lot of young guys who played big roles last year. Their confidence level is pretty high, and they have gotten a lot better. We're seasoned. There's a lot of reason for optimism. I do truly believe we will be a better team than we were last year.

"We've got to go to training camp, and we still need to chip away at it. It's a whole mentality. I can't say we've arrived just yet."

But Licht has seen worse, like the 2-14 club he started with in 2014, when the Bucs were so unpopular they could've been the first NFL team with a Won't Call window.

The franchise still hasn't been to the playoffs since 2007 or won a postseason game since Super Bowl XXXVII at the end of the 2002 season. But three above-average drafts, including one where fate smiled on them with franchise quarterback Jameis Winston, is building confidence.

Licht's glass is half-full for three primary reasons:

Dirk Koetter

As an offensive coordinator, Koetter got most of the credit for developing Winston from a turnover-prone talent to a polished passer who threw for 4,024 yards, 22 touchdowns and rushed for six more scores. Of his 15 interceptions, seven came in the first four games.

Getting his biggest break at age 57, Koetter is a no-nonsense-talking head coach who is holding players more accountable. A good example of that came in June when he kicked tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins off the practice field during a voluntary workout for not being prepared.

"Think the accountability is the first thing. You're seeing it," Licht said. "Things are very black and white with him and players like that. He's very direct and players are at the core, want to be coached hard, and all they want to do is get better.

"So they like his direct approach, and I know the staff does, too. And he's very, very prepared. Very organized, not that it makes you a great coach, but it's a great quality, but he's also one guy who can adapt.

"If he doesn't think a player hasn't bought in or is not about winning, we're not wasting energy and resources. I guess you'd say he's very efficient."

Defensive coordinator Mike Smith

The former Falcons head coach brings a ton of experience and worked well with Koetter in Atlanta and Jacksonville. A year ago, the Bucs were too predictable, evidenced by the 102.5 passer rating and 33 TDs from opposing quarterbacks. This year, Smith will pressure the passer from all angles, but there will be a learning curve.

"It takes disciplined players in this defense to do all those things," Licht said.

Defensively, the Bucs are far from a finished product. They're thin on the defensive line, particularly at tackle. And it might be hard to affect the quarterback rushing only four. "He's big on culture, too, making sure guys have bought in," Licht said.

Jameis Winston

A year ago, Winston emerged as the team's undisputed leader, the alpha to everyone's omega. The biggest improvement for quarterbacks in the NFL comes in the second season.

"Dirk feels more comfortable giving him more," Licht said.

The question is how quickly Winston can ascend to playoff caliber? He has improved his body and dropped weight, but expectations haven't lessened.

"We all think he's pretty darned good," Licht said. "I don't want to put too much pressure on him by saying he's playoff caliber and he's going to lead us to a championship. But I do expect to see him to show even more progression.

"If you polled the team, it would be unanimous that we've got the quarterback, and he's one of the hardest-working guys on the team. It's rare, but we got one. Really, it's like hitting the lotto."

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