NFL season preview 2017: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans and quarterback Jameis Winston celebrate after connecting on a touchdown pass. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the month leading up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 7. Today, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Head coach: Dirk Koetter
Last season’s record: 9-7
Playoff result: Did not qualify

Key free agent gains: DeSean Jackson gives Jameis Winston another option to stretch the field. He should also be able to attract enough attention from opposing defences that it’ll take some pressure off Mike Evans — something quality slot option Adam Humphries can’t do. Jackson reached the 1,000-yard plateau for the fifth time in his career in 2016 and now at 30 years old is relishing the veteran role he has with a new team.

“I have a lot of experience under my belt, so anything I can give back to these young guys, teach them, give them little pointers, that’s what I’m here to do,” Jackson said during training camp. “I’m not here to keep all the information to myself. I love to pass information down, and vice versa. These guys see anything in my game that they can pass to me, I’m always open ears and willing to learn.”

Another veteran addition on offence was Ryan Fitzpatrick. The thickly bearded, 34-year-old quarterback will back up Winston as he joins his fifth team in the past six years. He’s a nice safety net to have should the team’s third-year quarterback get hurt or struggle mightily.

Jackson’s former Redskins teammate Chris Baker might be the team’s best off-season signing. He is a huge presence on the defensive line (literally, he’s six-foot-two, 320 pounds) and an excellent run-stopper. The Bucs allowed 117.2 rushing yards per game (ranking 22nd in the NFL) and Baker should help shrink that number playing alongside Gerald McCoy.

J.J. Wilcox set a career high in passes defenced in 2016, which is impressive considering he made only four starts and played just 13 games with the Dallas Cowboys. He’ll be battling with Keith Tandy and Chris Conte for playing time, but Wilcox is expected to be used frequently at nickel, something he didn’t have the opportunity to do in Dallas.

Key free agent losses: Overall, the Bucs didn’t lose any players worth crying over. Cornerback Alterraun Verner was somewhat of a bust relative to the $25.75-million contract he signed in 2014. He was effective if a bit inconsistent when he saw the field but not a consistent starter.

Quarterback Mike Glennon signed a big deal with the Bears and good for him. There’s no way he was going to replace Winston anytime soon.

Defensive tackle Akeem Spence started 30 games for the Bucs since breaking into the league in 2013 as a fourth-round draft pick. He had some pop off the line of scrimmage but Baker is a clear upgrade in the interior of that D-line.

Vincent Jackson is also gone. The veteran wide receiver’s numbers declined in each of his five seasons in Tampa, although he did register 1,000-plus yards in his first three years with the team. In 2016 he was a non-factor on the field.

Key draft picks: The Bucs love targeting their tight ends — Cameron Brate ranked second only to Mike Evans in receptions and yards in 2016 — so having O.J. Howard fall to them at pick No. 18 in the first round was huge. Adding him to a stacked offence could pay huge dividends.

“We’re happy to have O.J. What he’s going to do to that team is going to be amazing,” Winston told reporters in early July. “This is the fastest, most athletic six-six, 255 guy I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s unreal.”

For a team fairly deep at safety, the team acquired more talent by selecting Justin Evans in the second round. Since defensive coordinator Mike Smith also has Tandy, Conte and Wilcox, there’s no pressure to rush Evans into a starting role, which should be a positive for his long-term development.

X-factor: The offensive line is the clear weak spot on this team. At least on paper. Ali Marpet, a 2015 second-rounder, is a fine piece to build around and guard J.R. Sweezy (who didn’t play in 2016 due to back surgery) is the type of rugged veteran every offensive line can benefit from having.

But there should be some concerns about left tackle Donovan Smith and the unit’s run-blocking ability as a whole. Improving on their 24th-ranked run offence is a must after only registering eight rushing touchdowns all season.

2017 will be a success if: The defence can slow down the high-powered NFC South offences and get into the playoffs. The Bucs are the NFC’s darling dark horse team, but equaling or improving on their 9-7 record will be no easy task in a division that includes reigning NFC champs Atlanta and a much-improved Panthers team.

It’s time Tampa takes that next step and make the playoffs — similar to what Oakland did last season.

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