Why the Bucs are the NFL's offseason champions

Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate makes a one-handed catch during the third day of mandatory minicamp at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, June 15, 2017. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate makes a one-handed catch during the third day of mandatory minicamp at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, June 15, 2017. LOREN ELLIOTT | Times
Published June 16, 2017

TAMPA — This concludes the offseason portion of the NFL schedule. We're here to crown a champion. It's the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There's no champagne or confetti to commemorate the occasion. Kona Ice snow cones will have to do. How better to cool off the league's hottest team in June?

That's how the Bucs celebrated becoming the new It team among pundits and HBO producers.

It officially ended Thursday when Roberto Aguayo and Nick Folk combined to split the uprights with all four field goal attempts.

Coach Dirk Koetter blew the whistle and that was that.

"We were going to do a little contest," Koetter said. "They had to make four in a row and they we go in. So that was good."

Eat your heart out, New England Patriots.

Whether they like it or not, the next time players gather for practice at One Buc Place, they will be followed around by the Hard Knocks camera crew each week to document all 350 hours of expectations.

It's understandable, really. The Bucs went 9-7 and came within a third tiebreaker of reaching the playoffs in 2016. They added free agents receiver DeSean Jackson and defensive tackle Chris Baker. They had another boffo draft with tight end O.J. Howard, safety Justin Evans and receiver Chris Godwin.

"We can't control — good or bad — what's said," Koetter said, "The NFL's popular. It's great that you folks are here talking about us. It's great that people nationally are talking about us. But there's 31 other teams that got better. We've got to prove it on the field."

So what did we learn about the Bucs since the end of 2016, other than they won the offseason?

"That's always hard to judge because, A) you're practicing in shorts and B) you're going against yourself," Koetter said. "We had specific things we wanted to work on in all areas. We definitely worked on them. It's hard to judge how much better you go until you get against another team. Our guys are hungry. Our guys want to do well. We're on the right track, but everything is a process."

Here are a few things that did stand out during the practices and minicamps open to the media.

Defense may be better than expected: Frankly, we should have seen this coming. The return of defensive coordinator Mike Smith is huge because this time last season, he was just trying to install his system.

But Koetter says the defense got the best of the offense during the off-season.

"I think the best thing our defense has done is, they've had a lot of guys nicked up, they've had a lot of guys missing, and they've probably gotten the best of the offense," Koetter said. " … The main players in that defense — Kwon (Alexander) and Lavonte (David) Gerald (McCoy) in the middle, Vernon Hargreaves — have consistently made plays every day."

The seeds of improvement were planted the second half of 2016. In the first eight games last season, the Bucs were 29th in points allowed (29.0), 28th in yards allowed (398.9) and 21st in takeaways (11). But in the last eight games, Tampa Bay was fourth in points allowed (17.1), 14th in yards (337) and tied for second with 18 takeaways.

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Winston still can get better at MINIMIZING TURNOVERS: Sure, this is the time you want to try things if you're Winston. Learn your limitations. Give guys a chance to make plays. But …

"There's such a fine line because you want to protect the football, but at the same time, you got to experiment," Koetter said. "We're working with new things. New personnel. We've been doing a lot of red-zone work the last two days and we're trying to work some back shoulders to O.J. Well, if you don't throw them to him, if you don't ever throw any, you're not going to complete any. So, we have to temper that."

Kicking battle will be close: No clear winner emerged from the offseason and Aguayo closed any perceived gap this week. Training camp preseason games will decide it.

"We're just going to leave it as a competition," Koetter said. "We obviously know the numbers — we've charted everything this whole spring. We're just going to let that thing keep going."

Contact Rick Stroud at @NFLStroud