No sooner had the Bucs 5-11 season ended than coach Dirk Koetter identified the two areas his team needed to improve for 2018.
"I think we were 3-7 in one score games. You're going to have a hard time getting where you want to go when you win 30 percent of one score games,'' Koetter said. "It's got to be higher than that.
"We have enough talent on offense to score more points. So score more points, that's one issue. Number two, the biggest issue on our football team is we can't get pressure with a four-man rush. I'm not telling any big secrets here. There's a lot of other stuff in there, too. But those are the two things right off the bat we have to be better if our team is going to be better.''
Aside from maybe six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the Bucs defensive line is in total rebuild mode. Defensive tackle Chris Baker and defensive end Robert Ayers are expected to be released. Defensive tackles Clinton McDonald, Sealver Siliga and defensive end Will Clarke are free agents. Defensive end William Gholston has a $6.5-million base salary.
Free agency is still a month away, so it's still too early to know which players may receive a franchise or transition tag, or signed a contract extension with their current team, thereby not making it to the open market.
Of course, any discussion about the Bucs and free agency begins with their own players. Tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet will become unrestricted free agents at the end of 2018, so locking them both up is a big priority. Likewise, the Bucs plan to pursue talks aimed at signing receiver Mike Evans to a long-term extension. The Bucs picked up his fifth-year option that would pay him $13.258-million in 2018.
The Bucs also may want to lock up a few of their restricted free agents – players with three years of accrued seasons, such as tight end Cameron Brate, receiver Adam Humphries, linebacker Adarius Glanton and defensive end Ryan Russell.
The Bucs have more than $63 million in salary cap space, fifth-most in the NFL. But that could increase to more than $80-million after players are released.
Improving the defense is a priority in free agency and the draft. The combination of an edge pass rusher and a lock down cornerback will be the focus for Tampa Bay and a lot of teams.
Tampa Bay also needs an upgrade at running back. The Bucs will cut Doug Martin. Charles Sims is a free agent, leaving only Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber to return for 2018. The Bucs are more likely to find another ball carrier in the draft, but a free agent or two may catch their eye.
Here's a look at some key free agents in need positions. Keep in mind, however, some may not be available when the signing period begins March 14.
DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Cowboys, 25: Lawrence tied for the second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks, had 26 quarterback knockdowns and was one of the league's most dominant players. The Cowboys will try to negotiate a long-term deal but the franchise tag is an option.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Lions, 28: Ansah had 12 sacks and 44 tackles last season, marking the second time in three years he managed to reach double digits in sacks. That's misleading. Half came in the final two games. Even so, the Bucs haven't had a player do that since Simeon Rice in 2005. New coach Matt Patricia has to decide if Ansah fits his scheme. If so, he could receive a long-term deal or be given a franchise tag.
Alex Okafor, DE, Saints, 27: Okafor was a fourth-round pick by Arizona when Bucs general manager Jason Licht was the Cardinals' vice president of player personnel. Okafor was off to a good start in 2017 with 4.5 sacks in 10 games before tearing his Achilles. He may not be ready for training camp and how much do you want to invest in a player with 18 career sacks?
Julius Peppers, DE, Panthers, 38: Peppers is now a situational pass rusher. Even at his age, he's been more productive than Bucs defensive ends. He had 11 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries last season.
Adrian Clayborn, DE, Falcons, 30: The former Bucs first-round pick had a career-high 9.5 sacks in 2017, six in one game. It's unlikely the Bucs would want a second act with Clayborn.
Kony Ealy, DE/OLB, Jets, 26: A few years ago, Ealy dominated in the Super Bowl with three sacks, an interception and forced fumble for the Panthers. Last March, he was traded to the Patriots but was released in August and claimed by the Jets, where he had one sack and an interception.
COULD BECOME A FREE AGENT
Michael Bennett, DE, Seahawks, 32: Bennett has a $3 million roster bonus due four days after the start of free agency, so a decision is forthcoming. Bennett had 8.5 sacks last season. His current contract averages over $10 million per year. McCoy has openly lobbed for the Bucs to sign him.
Star Lotulelei, DT, Panthers, 28: The Bucs need someone good to play next to McCoy. Lotulelei can push the pocket and could be the player they hoped Baker would be.
Sheldon Richardson, DT, Seahawks, 27: Still a relatively young player, he never reached his potential as a first-round pick of the Jets. Made an impact in Seattle last season, but is he too much like Baker?
Trumaine Johnson, CB, Rams, 28: Johnson has the ability to shadow receivers man to man or play zone. But he's a big-ticket player. Spotrac projects his value at 5-years, $55-million.
Malcolm Butler, CB, Patriots, 28: The Bucs would have to solve the mystery of why he didn't play in the Super Bowl. Licht has plenty of contacts with New England so that shouldn't be a problem. If he passes that test, he could earn top 10 cornerback money.
Vontae Davis, CB, Colts, 29: Played only five games last season before a core muscle injury required surgery. Since he was released, Davis is free to sign with any team before the new league year March 14.
Brent Grimes, CB, Bucs, 34: Grimes will turn 35 in July but his body and athleticism belies his age. His 20 interceptions the last five season are tied with Richard Sherman for the most in the NFL. Bucs have told him they want him back, but at what price? He missed three games with injuries.
Kyle Fuller, CB, Bears, 26: Fuller burst onto the scene as a rookie with four interceptions. He played well last season with 22 passes defensed and has never missed a game.
Rashaan Melvin, CB, Colts, 28: Former Bucs player had three interceptions in 10 games . Has improved steadily and a valuable player on special teams as well.
COULD BECOME A FREE AGENT
Aqib Talib, CB, Broncos, 32: Talib, a former first-round pick of the Bucs, has enjoyed a borderline Hall of Fame career. But he has two years left on a six-year, $57-million contract and the Broncos are intent on trying to trade him. So far, they haven't found any takers because everyone believes he will ultimately be released. Would the Bucs dare?
La'Veon Bell, RB, Steelers, 26: An elite back with more than 5,300 rushing yards in his career. He can do it all, but will the Bucs pay heavily for another ball carrier after the Doug Martin experience?
Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers, 27: Hyde is not flashy but a downhill runner who can carry the load on first and second down.
Isaiah Crowell, RB, Browns, 25: Underrated power back who has made the most of his opportunities.
Dion Lewis, RB, Patriots, 27: Interesting player who can be a threat as a runner or a receiver. Hasn't had to carry the load because he split carries with James White, among others.
Nate Solder, T, Patriots, 29: Solder is coming off one of the worst years of his career, but left tackles with experience are rare. He stands to make about $50 million on the free agent market. What would the Bucs do then with Smith?
Andrew Norwell, G, Panthers, 26: This could be addition by subtraction. Assuming the Bucs move on from J.R. Sweezy, they will need a guard since Evan Smith is a free agent. Norwell was first-team All Pro and could help the run game immediately.
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLStroud.