Talent upgrades should bring positive attention to Bucs

Redskins running back Mack Brown runs for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Redskins running back Mack Brown runs for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Published Sept. 1, 2016

TAMPA — Rain fell before, during and after the Bucs' 20-13 preseason finale loss to the Redskins on Wednesday night, a game moved up by 24 hours to beat the arrival of Tropical Storm Hermine and so unimportant that more than two dozen Redskins starters and significant backups were left home in D.C.

Not to be outdone, the Bucs moved just as many of their top players — including Jameis Winston — into a suite high above nearly empty Raymond James Stadium.

"I think it's been a good (training) camp, but the main thing is we have to get better every single day," Winston said before kickoff. "Can't wait until our first regular-season game in Atlanta (on Sept. 11), and we're just ready to kick off the season."

Forecasting wins and losses is an inexact science, but even the most fair-weather fan would have to admit that like Hermine, the Bucs should at least be on everybody's radar.

They have a clutch quarterback in Winston, an eminently likable leader who can extract outpourings of loyalty from his teammates.

They have deep, versatile offensive line with a mean streak; the league's second-leading rusher in 2016, who gained more than 900 of his 1,402 yards after contact in Doug Martin; and a change-of-pace back with good hands in Charles Sims.

Receiver Mike Evans always has had the talent, now he seems to have the temperament. The only thing he dropped in the offseason was weight — about 10 pounds by staying out of fast-food restaurants. He has more endurance, and his focus has sharpened under new offensive coordinator/receivers coach Todd Monken.

Vincent Jackson, at 33, is likely playing his final season but still productive and a solid No. 2 receiver. Adam Humphries, an undrafted second-year player from Clemson, has developed into a pesky slot receiver and punt returner.

Tight end may be among the strongest positions on the team. Austin Seferian-Jenkins may have some growing up to do, but nobody ever has questioned his ability. Cameron Brate may have the best hands on the team next to Evans, and the Harvard grad has a feel for sitting down for Winston in the soft spots of the defense. Luke Stocker is a good in-line blocker, and rookie Danny Vitale can do at fullback or tight end.

Defensively, the Bucs are still a draft away from being complete, but new coordinator Mike Smith will make it work. He still has only three marquee players — tackle Gerald McCoy and linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. But they are deeper and more dangerous off the edge with the additions of defensive ends Robert Ayers and second-round draft pick Noah Spence.

A year ago, the Bucs' cornerbacks couldn't make any plays on the ball. That won't be the case this season with first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves and free agent Brent Grimes.

Now for the warts.

It's unfortunate, because soggy weather conditions Wednesday really prevented the Bucs from evaluating their receivers and kick returners. The Bucs had only two first downs and 22 total yards in the first half in falling behind 13-0 against the Redskins.

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No team has fourth and fifth receivers who are game-breakers, but the Bucs need help there. Russell Shepard is serviceable as the No. 4. But the Bucs have no kickoff returners among the bunch. Wednesday, Bernard Reedy fumbled a kickoff but got the ball back. Kenny Bell never really showed up in games after fumbling the opening kickoff in the preseason opener in Philadelphia.

After Martin and Sims, the running back position is thin. Rookie Peyton Barber fumbled Wednesday. So did Russell Hansbrough. Mike James may be the best of what's left, which isn't saying much.

Defensively, after McCoy, Akeem Spence and Clinton McDonald, the Bucs are incredibly thin at tackle. Look for general manager Jason Licht to pick one off the waiver wire in the next few weeks.

There is almost no depth at linebacker. Luke Rhodes, Devante Bond and Josh Keyes don't seem ready to step in should there be an injury. The same is true at safety. Chris Conte is the biggest playmaker, and Bradley McDougald hasn't really blossomed as the Bucs had hoped.

The Bucs aren't crying about the quarterback position behind Winston. But no teams are calling about Mike Glennon, and his performance this preseason might be why. He completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and Wednesday was 1-for-5 for minus-1 yard. Ryan Griffin, who threw his fourth interception Wednesday, looked better at times.

Say this for the Bucs this year: They are a confident bunch. New coach Dirk Koetter is a creative play-caller, and he knows the Bucs have upgraded their talent. But only time will tell if a storm is really brewing in Tampa Bay or just a lot of hot air.