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The Buccaneers who will define the rest of the 2019 season

Franchise-altering decisions loom for Tampa Bay as it nears the halfway point of the season. Among them: Should the Bucs be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline? How much stock should they place in Jameis Winston’s final 10 games?

The Bucs have, at times, looked like a team on the rise. They’ve also looked like the Bucs of old — turnovers, penalties, bad defense. After six games, they find themselves in a new, yet familiar, hole. These are the coaches and players who will determine whether they can climb out of it and rally from a disappointing 2-4 start:

1. Bruce Arians

Someone has to look out for the long-term future of this franchise. Who’s that going to be? General manager Jason Licht? He’s here because he lured his bestie out of retirement. You think that Arians, 67, gave up the view from his Georgia lakefront home to take orders from Licht? Of course not. With that in mind, it’s hard to see the Bucs conceding the season and becoming sellers at the NFL trade deadline (4 p.m. Oct. 29).

Much hinges on Tampa Bay’s commitment to Jameis Winston. If the Bucs plan on retaining him in 2020 (the franchise tag would pay him roughly $27 million), they won’t be able to afford very many other large contracts. Mike Evans’ salary cap hit next season is $18.4 million, Donovan Smith’s is $14.5 million, Ali Marpet’s is $11.0 million, Lavonte David’s is $10.8 million and Ryan Jensen’s is $10.0 million. More than 40 percent of Tampa Bay’s will be tied up in six players. That’s not an impossible figure around which to build a team, but it leaves little margin for error.

The Bucs will need to find some bargains, which are hard to come by in free agency. The best course might be to trade the assets they have now for draft picks. That’ll be Arians’ call.

MORE BUCS: Changes Bruce Arians and his staff should consider

2. Jameis Winston

Winston’s first six games this season have been a mix of good and bad. Overall, however, he hasn’t made a compelling case for being worthy of a multiyear contract extension. Essentially, we’re right back where we started the season.

Yes, there are 10 games left to play, but Tampa Bay would be wise to not put a disproportionate amount of stock in that sample, no matter what happens. The more prudent approach would be to consider the entirety of not only this season but also his career.

If Winston plays well over the next 10 weeks, it will be tempting to wonder whether he has turned the corner, to believe that Arians’ whispering is working, to assume that his inconsistency at the start of the season was the product of getting acclimated to a new coach and offensive coordinator.

History tells us that would be a mistake. In each of Winston’s past four seasons, he improved during the second half. Each season, we expect that improvement to carry over. And then it doesn’t. Beware of recency bias; full-season performance tends to be more predictive than second-half performance. See also Mayfield, Baker.

MORE BUCS: With Jameis Winston at quarterback, Tampa Bay is going nowhere

3. Byron Leftwich

Byron Leftwich's offense ranks 19th in Football Outsiders' efficiency ratings. [ MONICA HERNDON | Times ]

The offensive coordinator’s game plans have been run-heavy, and after games like the one Winston had in London (six turnovers), you can understand why.

Leftwich’s tendencies, however, border on predictable. The Bucs feature the 12 personnel grouping (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers) more often than all but four teams. That makes sense given that Tampa Bay has two credible pass-catching tight ends in O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. Of course you’d want them on the field at the same time. With this grouping on the field, though, the Bucs’ preference has been to run. Of the teams that use 12 personnel the most (at least 20 percent of the time), only the 49ers run the ball more (65 percent vs. 61 percent).

Defenses have responded to the Bucs’ reliance on the run by stacking their fronts. Ronald Jones has run into a front featuring eight or more defenders on 29 percent of his carriers. Peyton Barber has done so on 25 percent of his carries. Both rates rank among the 10 highest in the NFL. That in itself doesn’t seem optimal, but it seems even less so when you see the defense tackle the running back at or behind the line of scrimmage, which has happened on 21 percent of Tampa Bay’s runs, the 11th-highest rate. It was Albert Einstein who once said that the definition of insanity is running into eight-man boxes over and over again and expecting a different result.

Through the first six weeks, the Bucs led their conference in scoring, but don’t let that fact fool you. This offense is in trouble, and its issues are deeper than turnovers and sacks.

MORE BUCS: Warrick Dunn surprises St. Petersburg mother with a new home

4. O.J. Howard

Much to the consternation of fantasy football players, Howard has only 13 catches this season. None of them has resulted in a touchdown.

Leftwich said recently that Howard’s “time is coming.” Don’t hold your breath.

The narrative of Howard’s season is that he has been underused. That has not been the case. He has been on the field more than ever. He has played more than 80 percent of the offense’s snaps. Through Tampa Bay’s first six games last season, he played less than 60 percent of the snaps.

It’s not a matter of whether the Bucs are using Howard. It’s a matter of how they are using him. The difference this season is that he’s running fewer routes. It’s hard to catch passes while blocking defensive linemen and linebackers.

This season, Howard has lined up in the slot or out wide on 26 percent of his snaps. Last season, he lined up in the slot or out wide on 41 percent of his snaps. And until this past game against the Panthers — in which Tampa Bay lined up Howard in the slot a season-high 27 times — the difference was even starker. As long as the Bucs try to patch the right side of the offensive line together with duct tape, this trend is likely to hold for a bit longer.

5. Devin White

In April, Tampa Bay passed on edge rushers Josh Allen and Brian Burns to draft Devin White, an inside linebacker out of LSU, fifth overall. Because of a knee injury that cost him three games, he hasn’t had much of a chance to validate that decision. His most noteworthy play so far is one he’d rather forget: In the Bucs’ Week 6 loss to the Panthers, Christian McCaffrey stiff-armed him out of the way en route to a 25-yard touchdown.

6. Sean Murphy-Bunting

Tampa Bay’s pass defense has been leaky this season, but with the team at 2-4, parting with premium draft picks in a blockbuster trade for a veteran cornerback wouldn’t be a shrewd move. Upgrades to the secondary will have to emerge from within. One of those potential upgrades: second-round draft pick Murphy-Bunting, who has supplanted M.J. Stewart as the team’s primary slot cornerback.

Through the Bucs’ first four games, Murphy-Bunting played a total of 16 defensive snaps. In their past two games, he played 95 of a possible 136 (70 percent). Stewart played only 35 snaps and just two against the Panthers.

In slot coverage, Stewart has allowed quarterbacks to complete 66 percent of their passes for an average of 7.7 yards per attempt, two touchdowns and a 109.8 passer rating. Bunting has defended only six targets, allowing four catches for 65 yards and one touchdown. He did, however, pick off a pass intended for Alvin Kamara against the Saints in Week 5.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at Follow @tometrics.