For a team coming off a 2-14 season, the Buccaneers did pretty well in 2015. A 6-10 record is finally just a 6-10 record, but they were in the wild card picture until late in the season. That might say more about the weak NFC than the Bucs' own worth, but it was an achievement all the same for a team that was so lost the year before.
With that four-win improvement under their belts, the Bucs promptly parted ways with head coach Lovie Smith, a decision that caused a lot of consternation. Tampa Bay's win count belies their weaknesses, though. Smith's run defense was fine, but his coverage schemes were fairly simple and contributed to a pass defense that never played well. Combine that with arch-conservative play-calling, and the Bucs had plenty of cause to move on.
Since Smith's firing there has been little noise filtering out of Tampa. That they somehow managed to lose a head coach and not create a lot of turnover on the team is fascinating in its own right.
Coach and Quarterback Confidence Rating: 6/10
Jameis Winston's rookie season was, like many rookie seasons, a roller coaster. There were games where it seemed like he could do no wrong, and games late in the season where fans had to be wondering what was happening. My read of his rookie season is that it was successful on balance. Much like Andrew Luck in his rookie year, Winston spent most of his time throwing at poor targets. Injuries decimated the receiving corps, and Mike Evans' legendary case of the dropsies lowered Winston's completion percentage all on its own.
At this point, I have no reason not to believe in Winston reaching his ceiling going forward. The Bucs were impressed enough by it that they decided to let Winston stay with his offensive coordinator, who has moved up to head coach.
Yes, that's right, it's time to discuss Dirk Koetter. Koetter was credited with getting the most out of the Atlanta offense in Matt Ryan's best years, and he has pledged to be more aggressive on offense as a head coach, although that can be filed under Something Every New Head Coach Has Said. Dirk also has 26 attack power, which is good for an early-game head coach.
The biggest shake-up involves another face from Atlanta: the resurfacing of former Falcons coach Mike Smith as defensive coordinator. Atlanta didn't field a good defense for most of the past three years. How will that change now that Smith is back to a defensive coordinator?
Key Offseason Decision: Where can this team expect to go with the ninth overall pick?
A lot of offseason strategy for Tampa could be focused on where they go with the No. 9 pick in the draft. The Bucs have the money to make a splash in free agency, but they probably don't want to invest a big-money contract and a top 10 pick at the same position.
The draft sets up pretty well for Tampa's needs. There's a lot of depth at cornerback, which is a position of need. Tackles Ronnie Stanley and Laremy Tunsil could solve issues in keeping Jameis Winston clean. Defensive end wasn't a problem area last year, but they could use an elite edge guy like Ohio State's Joey Bosa or Western Kentucky's Noah Spence.
Tampa should be spending a lot of time zeroing in on the position groups or guy that appeal to them. Then they can spend free agency bringing in immediate fixes to the other areas.
Major Free Agents: RB Doug Martin, S Chris Conte, DL Henry Melton, CB Sterling Moore, DE Larry English
The Bucs have a conundrum on their hands. Martin looked rejuvenated in 2015, bowling over opposing linebackers. He was the exact kind of back Lovie Smith rolls with. While his advanced stats aren't pretty (Martin finished 19th in DYAR), he did it behind a bad offensive line.
All the talk so far has been about the Bucs keeping Martin, but I'm not so sure that's the way to go. They definitely have the money to do that, but Martin isn't a foolproof option: as good as he was last season, he was ineffective in 2014 and 2013. The Bucs have a pretty talented back behind Martin in Charles Sims. And, as we learned from DeMarco Murray last offseason, big running back signings are hardly guaranteed.
The rest of this group are mostly Lovie Smith's guys. Chris Conte had a better year than you'd expect Chris Conte to have. Sterling Moore always seems to play better than his frequent free agent status would have you believe. Otherwise, I expect a lot of this depth to churn out.
Cap Situation: $44,852,453—sixth in the NFL
Like most teams with this much cap space, the Bucs have ways to generate even more of it. Guard Logan Mankins is debating retirement—that would save the Bucs $7 million in space. Lopping off tackle Gosder Cherilus and ineffective linebacker Bruce Carter would combine to save another $8.7 million. Short of an Eagles Dream Team-esque scenario, there's no way Tampa comes close to using all that cap space.
Unlike most of the teams we've previewed so far, the Bucs might present a promising-enough situation to attract free agents. Florida has no state income tax, and Tampa's a pleasant enough place to live. The Bucs have a franchise quarterback and more than a few building blocks on defense.
Last year's issues were about depth problems and massive holes. If Tampa can find the right free agents, they could find themselves in playoff contention in 2016, even without the aid of fumble luck or a nice schedule.