By Robert Weintraub
Sports on Earth's NFL writers will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most important problems facing every franchise, and proposing solutions for each. Our series kicked off with the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders and Atlanta Falcons. Today, it's the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went for the full Level-Five Hazmat Cleansing of the front office, sweeping out head coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Domenik along with (hopefully) any remaining MRSA bacteria in the facility.
Hiring Lovie Smith was almost universally hailed as a quality move to right the sinking pirate ship, and there is a new GM as well in Jason Licht, fresh from the Cardinals personnel department. Licht will have to operate without a third- or sixth-round pick in May's draft, but he is in good position with the seventh overall selection. Before Licht gets a chance to maneuver, here's a handy primer for him to use as a guiding light.
Problem: The Bucs need another wide receiver.
Solution: Draft Sammy Watkins.
The Bucs are set with Vincent Jackson, but they desperately need some speed elsewhere, in particular a player who can take a screen pass or slant and break it into a chunk play. Fortunately, one is not only available in the draft, but he could well be available to them with the seventh pick.
Clemson's Sammy Watkins is just the kind of electrifying playmaker this oft-moribund attack requires. After an incredible freshman season, Watkins struggled with injury and off-field issues before rebounding with an excellent junior season, one he finished by exploding off the screen in the Orange Bowl, destroying Ohio State with his speed and hands. (He caught 16 passes for 227 yards and was the game's MVP.) If quarterbacks weren't so crucial, Watkins would probably be the second pick in the draft after Jadaveon Clowney.
If Watkins is gone before the Bucs can snag him, one Plan B could be to sign free agent Dexter McCluster. The Chiefs never figured out a way to use his talents consistently, and DMC didn't help by underwhelming when his opportunities did arise. A fresh start in a new system could be just what McCluster needs, and the Bucs could use his quickness underneath and in Percy Harvin-style carries.
Problem: The quarterback was the other guy's fave.
Solution: Stick with Mike Glennon -- for now.
It's no doubt been an awkward couple of months for the Bucs incumbent quarterback. Just minutes ago, seemingly, he was on the right side of the old "the last coach picked you, not me" dynamic, when Schiano chose him and forced out Raheem Morris' choice for the position, Josh Freeman. Now, his future in Tampa is reliant on the love Lovie shows him, despite the fact that Glennon is the face of the disgraced former rulers of the Tampa regime.
Glennon had some moments in 2013, including a poised and sharp performance in a near-upset of Seattle and the Legion of Boom. But he was also last in the NFL in yards per attempt (among qualifying players) with 6.27 (league punchline Brandon Weeden managed 6.48) .Glennon showed shades of Blaine Gabbertosis, playing considerably poorer when under duress. He is stiff and unathletic, locked in the pocket and not the fastest when it comes to making reads and unloading the ball.
That said, the Bucs should stick with him.
New offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford is a renowned quarterback whisperer, and has worked closely with several high achievers, most notably Aaron Rodgers. The upgrade in weaponry described above would help Glennon immensely -- much of his poor play while being rushed is directly connected to having nowhere to go with the ball. And he should be immune to a sophomore slump with nowhere to go but up.
More to the point, viable alternatives are lacking. The names Michael Vick and Josh McCown have been washing up on Tampa's rumor shores as potential replacements, but neither portends a significantly higher ceiling. The Bucs aren't in a position to trade up for a top quarterback prospect, and even if they grab a Day Two prospect, such as Eastern Illinois riser Jimmy Garoppolo, he won't be ready to go right away. Best to let Glennon have a chance to build on the positives he showed last year, and let Tedford try to smooth away his rough edges.
Problem: Perimeter pass rush is lacking.
Solution: Hit the defensive end yard sale.
The final piece to what could become a dominant front seven is another pass rusher to bring heat off the edge. The Bucs don't have the cap wiggle room to go for Greg Hardy, but with some creativity, they might be able to get Michael Johnson. Darrelle Revis would need to restructure his huge contract, and the Bucs would do well to cut punter Michael Koenen and his ridiculous $3.25 million cap figure. Lovie coached Minnesota's Jared Allen once upon a time, and a run at him is a possibility as well.
But Licht isn't reputed to be one for splashy signings, and even the maneuvering isn't likely to be enough to sign Johnson. So less expensive but potentially high-quality pass rushers are the target, someone like Seattle's Chris Clemons. The Seahawks can't pay everybody on that defense, and Clemons' age (32) and high salary (almost $10 million against the cap in 2014) make him a strong release possibility. Tampa would have to bargain him down to a far lower figure, but no team is going to pay him that much, and the Bucs could snag him at cost.
The Bucs could also use the top draft choice on either Kahlil Mack of Buffalo or Anthony Barr of UCLA. An intriguing lower round prospect is Florida's Ronald Powell, who was the top rated recruit in the country in 2010 but was derailed by knee injuries. If he can regain his tremendous athleticism (flashes of which he showed in a solid but not exceptional 2013 for the Gators), he'd be a Day Three steal.
The Bucs could also reach a bit on Day Two and tab Michael Sam of Missouri, who has blinding speed off the edge. But of course, in addition to being a "tweener," Sam is no longer just a football player as much as he is a national hero / trailblazer / distraction, depending on your view of such things. Sam was unstoppable against SEC lines and is a perfect fit for this defense, however, and in a true and just world, that would be the only thing that defines his draft status. Unfortunately, we all know that's not how NFL teams think, so Tampa Bay's willingness to take him remains an open question, as it does for all clubs.
Problem: An underachieving offensive line.
Solution: Upgrade at guard (again).
Tampa Bay thought this problem was in the rear view when it signed Carl Nicks two years ago. But Nicks obviously crossed a black cat's path en route from New Orleans, because his luck in pewter has been awful. A primary victim of the MRSA bacteria, Nicks has played in just nine games in two years, and may or may not ever suit up again. Meanwhile, former first rounder Davin Joseph was poor a year out from a serious knee injury sustained in 2012. Donald Penn didn't play well at left tackle, either.
Surely if Jake Matthews were to slip to seventh, and Watkins and/or Mack were taken, the A&M tackle would be a Buccaneer. More likely, the team will take a lineman in the second round, when some top guards are still around. Gabe Jackson of Mississippi State would be a solid selection here, preferable over massive Cyril Richardson of Baylor because of his better pass blocking, critical up the middle due to Glennon's immobility. The Bucs could wait until the fourth round and opt for Alabama's Anthony Steen, who might slip to them due to recent shoulder surgery.
That leaves tackle to free agency, and there are some intriguing options. Michael Oher never worked out on Joe Flacco's blind side, but that was as much perception of unrealized potential as it was actual poor play by Oher. A change of uniforms and lowered expectations would do him a world of good. Optimistically, Jordan Gross may be a victim of Carolina's cap crunch, and some creative accounting would make him a most welcome addition.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.