The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are confident they’re on the verge of becoming relevant again.
Jameis Winston believes it. So do coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht, the tandem trying to provide the young quarterback with everything he needs to lead the team back to prominence.
Winston is coming off a strong rookie season after being the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s NFL draft. Winston threw for 4,042 yards and 22 touchdowns to validate the decision to make him the centerpiece of a rebuilding project that began eight years and three coaching changes ago.
"It’s what every head coach, owner, general manager, staff member strives for, to have the franchise quarterback. It puts that to rest, hopefully," Licht, entering his third draft with the Bucs, said.
The job, though, is far from complete.
The Bucs improved from two victories in 2014 to six with Winston taking every snap in his first year. The offense is much better after the team devoted the past two drafts to upgrading talent on that side of the ball. The defense needs fixing, so it won’t be a surprise if Licht and the usually offensive-minded Koetter seek help for an inconsistent pass rush or porous secondary with the ninth overall pick this year.
"This is a very good draft, the more we dig into it and the more meetings we have, the more tape we watch. It’s very deep at certain positions — a lot of positions," Licht said.
"We’ve spent a lot of time on defensive players … whether bringing them in or working them out. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to pick a defensive player at nine, or wherever we are in the first round," Licht added. "We did some things in free agency that gave us some flexibility. We have several needs on this team. We need to get better, there’s no getting around that. We still strive to pick players where ‘best available’ and ‘need’ intersect."
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who played high school ball in Tampa and went on to star at nearby Florida, would be a popular choice. But so would a defensive end or tackle capable of making the pass rush better.
An offensive tackle, if say Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley is available, would make sense, too, considering protecting Winston and ensuring Doug Martin continues to be a productive runner are priorities, too.
"You strive to have the perfect team, you strive to have the best player at every position, even though that never works out," Licht said. "But you keep striving for it."
Some things to know about the Buccaneers, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2007:
TIME TO GET DEFENSIVE: Licht and former coach Lovie Smith used 12 of 13 selections over the past two drafts to bolster the offense, following a carefully constructed plan to get better on that side of the ball before seeking reinforcements on defense. Smith was fired after a four-game season-ending slide left the Bucs with an 8-24 record under him. However, the plan remains intact. DE Robert Ayers, CB Brent Grimes, LB Daryl Smith were added in free agency, but incoming defensive coordinator Mike Smith needs more pieces to work with.
AN EDGE RUSHER WOULD BE NICE, BUT: The perpetual search for an edge rusher continues. Licht isn’t discounting the impact defensive tackle can have on putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
"I know it’s just one game, but if you watched the Super Bowl last year — Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware had their share of success there, but really the interior pressure had a big, big effect on that game, so there are other ways to do it," Licht said. "We all want a great defensive end, or two, or three, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way."
DECEPTIVE RANKING: Despite improving from 30th to fifth in total offense last season, the Winston-led unit is still a work in progress. Besides bolstering the line, the Bucs could use a receiver capable of turning short completions into big gainers and touchdowns. Despite ranking near the top in yards gained, Tampa Bay was 20 in points scored.
NICE TRACK RECORD: Six players from the past two drafts became immediate starters, four of them (Winston, LT Donovan Smith, RG Ali Marpet, LB Kwon Alexander) from the 2015 class.
COME ON IN: Winston is eager to meet and greet his help. "I can’t wait. … I’m going to be like, ‘Bro, be yourself. That’s the easiest way that you can have success quickly in this league," the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner said.