Time for Bucs to start finding playmakers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson makes a catch during training camp at the team’s practice facility, One Buc Place, in Tampa, Fla., on Friday, July 29, 2016.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson makes a catch during training camp at the team’s practice facility, One Buc Place, in Tampa, Fla., on Friday, July 29, 2016.
Published Feb. 26, 2017

TAMPA — The Bucs feel the need for speed, especially on offense, where coach Dirk Koetter noted how their fuse kept going out on explosive plays last season.

"We need more speed, and when we say playmakers, playmakers and explosive plays are one and the same," Koetter said, "guys that can catch a 10-yard pass, break one tackle and turn it into a 30-yard gain. Our run after the catch is not where it needs to be.''

The Bucs were 29th in the 32-team league with an average of 4.04 yards after the catch. With receiver Vincent Jackson becoming a free agent and running back Doug Martin's future with the team uncertain in the wake of his suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, general manager Jason Licht and his staff will begin looking to build around quarterback Jameis Winston at the scouting combine, which begins Wednesday in Indianapolis.

Getting weapons for Winston is the movement among the Bucs and their fans. There are holes to fill on defense. Though the focus at the five-day combine will be on players entering the draft, attention will quickly shift to free agency. Beginning March 7, teams have a two-day window in which they may contact and begin negotiations with agents of players who will be unrestricted free agents March 9.

The Bucs have 17 free agents, and their focus will be on retaining several, including defensive end William Gholston, running back Jacquizz Rodgers, cornerback Josh Robinson and receiver Russell Shepard.

Here's a breakdown of what's on tap at the combine and beyond.

Combine players to watch

The Bucs will have their eyes on any player who is explosive at the skill positions. Running backs and pass catchers are big needs. Even a playmaking tight end to play in the same formation as Cameron Brate is a possibility. The Bucs own the No. 19 overall draft pick. Assuming they remain in that position — and keeping in mind the draft's uncertainties — these players will garner extra scrutiny.

Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State: Cook will likely be at least the second running back off the board, after LSU's Leonard Fournette. Cook is a three-down back who runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.4-second range and with power. Among the concerns: His straight-ahead style may force him to absorb injuries, he fumbled six times last season, he had shoulder surgery last offseason and there are character questions. Being a former teammate of Winston's never hurts. But it seems unlikely Cook would fall to No. 19.

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford: He is intriguing for the Bucs. He had 1,639 rushing yards last season. In 2015 he set an NCAA record with 3,864 all-purpose yards and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Some see him as a complementary back, and others believe he can carry the load. The son of former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey could provide the Bucs with a multidimensional playmaker as a runner or a receiver who can also return kicks. McCaffrey skipped the Sun Bowl to prepare for the draft.

Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan: Davis is elite as a route runner and would be the perfect No. 2 outside receiver opposite Mike Evans. Coached by former Bucs receivers coach P.J. Fleck, Davis had more than 5,000 career receiving yards in college. He didn't face a ton of NFL talent, but he dominated in a non-Power Five conference (Mid-American).

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Budda Baker, S, Washington: Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald are free agents, so safety is a need for the Bucs. Baker is physical and can run, but his size — he's listed at 5 feet 10 and 192 pounds — is a concern. But if his true height and weight are much less, he could slip into the draft's second or third round.

Free agents to watch

The Bucs' priority will be re-signing many of their free agents and negotiating extensions for receivers Mike Evans, Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate. But there are other free agents who could provide big upgrades immediately and lessen draft needs. The Bucs have the fourth-most salary cap space in the NFL at nearly $68 million, the cap website says.

DeSean Jackson, WR, Redskins: Jackson is 30 but still among the fastest players in the NFL who can take the top off a defense. "I've met him before, and we want DeSean,'' Jameis Winston said. "I think he would be a great asset to our team. Me growing up an Eagles fan, seeing what he did for the Eagles and back in his Cal days and even with the Redskins, I would love to have DeSean." Jackson also has an interest in returning to the Eagles and is going to command a huge contract, one at least in the $8 million to $9 million range.

Calais Campbell, DT, Cardinals: Campbell, 30, is enormous at 6 feet 8 and 300 pounds, and he is coming off a very good season (eight sacks, two forced fumbles). The Bucs' Akeem Spence is a free agent, and Tampa Bay could benefit from a disruptive tackle next to Gerald McCoy.