As the final page of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 2018 season was being written, on the final day of open locker room and the final exit interviews of the season were taking place, Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht was asked the question, “what do you have to say to the fans who just had to endure back-to-back losing seasons?”
Licht’s response: “I feel your pain”
The Buccaneers have the second longest playoff drought in the NFL. Since 2007, this team and this organization has been pushed and pulled in drastically different directions to try to capture some sort of success and sustainability. They’ve tried former players as head coaches, only to creative one of the most undisciplined locker rooms in the league. They’ve tried the hard-ass, almost military-like approach, only to have the players quit on the coach and the philosophy before the season was over. They’ve tried the throwback approach by getting a coach from the past to hopefully recapture glory days, only to learn their coaching styles were also from the past and out-of-date.
And then their was Dirk Koetter. Koetter was suppose to be different. He wasn’t a specific style or narrative like those other guys, he was just a good, veteran offensive mind who was suppose to bring consistency to quarterback Jameis Winston and even take him to the next levele. But after a 9-7 season that turned out to be fool’s gold, the two most talented teams the Buccaneers have had since their Super Bowl Era went 5-11 under Koetter in 2017 and 2018.
After four different coaching attempts, many Bucs fans are left hopelessly thinking, “now what?”
But fear not, Bucs fans, this is how you can truly fix the Buccaneers in 2019 and beyond.
Keeping Jason Licht Was The Right Move
There are many Buccaneers fans who are split on Jason Licht as general manager. If you thought head coach Dirk Koetter had a bad overall record, Licht’s is worse. He is 27-53 in his five years in Tampa Bay, and has only been able to help produce one winning season during that time. He’s also had free agency whiffs like signing Anthony Collins and Micheal Johnson as well as bringing back guys like William Gholston and Brent Grimes on over-inflated contracts. Then there’s the draft questions like Ronald Jones, Vernon Hargreaves, Noah Spence and of course Roberto Aguayo.
But where there is bad, there is also plenty of good. Licht has been able to bring the Bucs to one of the most healthy and manageable cap situations in the league. This makes is so when they take a risk on signing a player, they can get out of it if it’s a mistake and it doesn’t kill them. This isn’t too common around the league. He also has plenty of draft hits like Mike Evans, Ali Marpet, Kwon Alexander, O.J. Howard, Chris Godwin and Kendell Beckwith. And you also have to give him credit for guys like Cameron Brate, Peyton Barber, Carl Nassib, Jason Pierre-Paul and Adam Humphries.
The fact of the matter is that you could make a case for Licht to be fired and you can make a case for him to stay a bit longer. I side with those who want him to play out his one-year extension for 2019, and the reason is because he actually cares about the Buccaneers organization. This isn’t just a job or a pinnacle of his career that he has reached and can coast. Licht genuinely wants to win, and he’s shown that by putting his pride aside in many instances with players and front office moves. For that, I think he deserves one more year to see if he can find a front office-coaching connection better than the one he had with Koetter’s staff.
Hire Bruce Arians
Speaking of front office and coaching connections, the Bucs would be wise to hire Bruce Arians as their head coach, if he does indeed want to return to coaching.
Arians and Licht both worked together when Licht was in charge of player personnel with the Arizona Cardinals while Arians was starting his coaching tenure there. The two were clearly on the same page, as the team went 9-1 in 2014 and won their division. Though Licht wasn’t there in the 2014 season, it was his players that were the foundation for what Arians wanted to do and ultimately did to have success.
After winning Coach of the Year two times in three years with two separate teams, the only real question mark with Arians is his health. If he wants to come back to coaching, it will likely only be for a few years, but for the Buccaneers that’s worth it. It’s worth it because Arians knows how to win. He was a winner as an assistant coach and he was a winner as a head coach. He knows what it’s like to set up a winner culture, and Tampa Bay should jump at the chance.
Work The One-Year Window
In 2019, the Buccaneers are going to have to operate in a one-year window. That’s where all their pieces are lining up. It’s truly going to be a win or rebuild kind of season, which is dangerous, but also necessary.
Bring Back Winston
The cornerstone of that one-year window begins with the quarterback Jameis Winston. Winston is under contract with the Buccaneers, as they picked up his fifth-year option for 2019, but there is nothing guaranteed beyond that. This is a good thing, as Winston has been up-and-down as a performer and mostly down as a winner.
Winston played very well down the stretch in 2018, and that was encouraging, especially since he was benched just a month and a half prior and his entire future in football was up in the air. He has since come down to really solidify that starting role once again, and the Bucs would be wise to build off that. There isn’t a quarterback out there in free agency worth bringing in cold over trying to get the most out of Winston in 2019 and beyond, and the same can be said with the crop of quarterbacks coming through in the 2019 NFL Draft.
It all hangs on Winston, and they should do everything they can to give him what he needs to not just play well but get wins in 2019.
Sign Donovan Smith To Franchise Tag
Speaking of doing everything they can to give Winston the best chance to get wins, they should sign left tackle Donovan Smith to the franchise tag. The tag will likely cost the Buccaneers a few more million dollars in 2019 than it would if they signed him to a new contract (which his contract is up and he is a pending unrestricted free agent), but Smith has not proven he is worth that long-term deal yet.
So why not just let him walk if he’s not worth it?
The answer to that is that the Buccaneer struggled in three out of five areas on their offensive line in 2018: LT, RG and RT. Smith is the left tackle and we already know he’s OK, but not as consistent as you’d like. Caleb Benenoch is not a starting caliber right guard and Demar Dotson’s age is catching up to him quick. If you let Smith walk, you’re going to be looking to replace three offensive line spot for a team you hope makes a playoff push. That simply is not realistic.
By signing Smith, you give yourself the flexibility to invest high draft capital and perhaps mid-level free agency capital into one other tackle and one new guard. That is much more manageable and would likely be the best offensive line they could create for Winston for 2019.
Beyond 2019 can be figured out later if Smith proves to be better next season — hence the franchise tag.
Keep Gerald McCoy
My final point of the one-year window is keeping defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. This one is a bit more up in the air, because McCoy is set to make $13M next season, but if they can keep him they should.
One reason for that is because I think McCoy’s lack of production was more on the defensive scheme with former defensive coordinator Mike Smith than it was on all him declining with age. I think with a new defensive coordinator that will let him truly one-gap, get off blocks and get up field again, he could be very useful in 2019.
If you’re getting rid of players for cap space, DeSean Jackson ($10M), Will Gholston ($3.5M) and Vinny Curry ($8M) should go before McCoy does, if you ask me. You need that defense to be as good as it can be, just like you need the offensive line to give yourself the best chance at wins to see what you really have with Winston.
In The Draft: Beef & Ball Skills
The last addition to the team is going to come through the draft.
As stated before, the Bucs would be wise to prioritize picking offensive line help whether they re-sign Donovan Smith, franchise tag him or let him go. The team is currently selecting No. 5 overall, and they have a good option at that spot. At the top of the list when it comes to offensive line play is Alabama’s Jonah Williams. Williams has been the Tide’s left tackle for three seasons now, and has faced the best pass rushers college football has to offer. He has more than held his own, and would be a good left or right tackle in the NFL.
If they can’t get their hands on Williams, another first round option I like is Oklahoma’s Cody Ford. Ford is a rare combination of athlete for his size with strength and technique to boot. He’s not being hyped as much as Williams is right now, but that all could change as the draft process goes on. Regardless of where his sweet spot to be picked might end up, he would look good as the Bucs future right tackle.
If the Bucs don’t go offensive line at the top of the draft, I think their only other choice is somewhere in the defensive back spots. The most obvious is at cornerback. Carlton Davis looked nice for a rookie, but the team will lose Brent Grimes, Vernon Hargreaves should be their nickel and M.J. Stewart should switch to safety. That leaves a glaring need at outside corner opposite Davis.
Byron Murphy from Washington and Greedy Williams from LSU are the top two candidates to be picked at No. 5, if thats’ the choice they want to make. Murphy is smaller at 6-foot, 180 pounds, but the game he plays is bigger. He’s a lockdown player with great ball skills. Williams is a longer cornerback at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds. He isa true man coverage cornerback who likes to play close and in press.
If the Bucs go offensive line with their first pick, they can still get a ball hawks in the second round with guys like Juan Thornhill, safety out of Virginia or perhaps Nasir Adderley, a safety/cornerback hybrid from Delaware with great size, ability and mentality for taking away the ball.
– Find good front office-coach chemistry between Licht and likely Arians
– Keep Jameis Winston
– Give Winston the best team possible to get wins
– Draft offensive linemen and defensive players that get takeaways