It’s all but certain that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will select Jameis Winston #1 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. There are talent evaluators who think he’s the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck while there are others who don’t have him on the their draft board at all because of the off-field issues. I personally think he’s the best quarterback in the 2015 class but I do have concerns regarding his gunslinger mentality and the drop off in efficiency from his freshman season to his sophomore year at Florida State. But in the absence of a no-brainer, franchise left tackle in this draft and the failed experiment that was Josh McCown, the coach/GM battery of Lovie Smith and Jason Licht are making the right decision to take Winston with the first pick. Obviously an overwhelming trade offer should always be considered but the likelihood that any team is willing to mortgage the farm for Winston considering his baggage is remote. But as pivotal as the first overall pick is, the Buccaneers’ front office and coaching staff had better nail at least a few of there remaining seven picks if they hope to turn the franchise around.
Aside from landing Mike Evans, the Bucs’ 2014 first round pick, Smith, Licht and the Buccaneers’ organization as a whole failed miserably. After cleaning house following a 4-12 performance in 2013 Smith and Licht were brought in to change the fortunes of an organization that has drafted poorly and missed on free agent after free agent for over a decade. They promptly steered the Buccaneers to a 2-14 record, the franchise’s worst record since 1986. Their first order of business was to acquire career back-up and journeyman Josh McCown to be the bridge to….Mike Glennon!?! It was a unmitigated disaster, particularly when newly hired offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford had health issues and play-calling duties fell to the quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo who was clearly in over his head. The result was a second consecutive year of ranking 30th in the NFL in points per game. Poor offensive play-calling wasn’t the only culprit for the Bucs’ dismal 2014 season. The Bucs’ defense ranked 25th in points allowed per game last year compared to 17th in 2013. This under the leadership of Lovie Smith a ball-control, defense first, head coach.
Frankly, I wasn’t a fan of the hire of Lovie Smith and by extension Jason Licht. Licht was hand-picked by Smith for all intensive purposes. After experimenting with first time NFL head coaches Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano on the heels of Jon Gruden’s decimation of the Bucs’ roster the Glazers opted for a head coach with previous head coaching experience at the NFL level. Enter Lovie Smith, a former assistant coach of the Bucs, a Tony Dungy disciple and former Super Bowl (losing) coach of the Chicago Bears. While many Buccaneers’ fans rejoiced in the hiring I didn’t think (still don’t) he was the man for the job. Smith has always struck me as a great manager of people and personalities, providing an even keel, calming presence in what otherwise is a testosterone driven, media frenzy of an industry. Certainly not bad trait to have, but unfortunately it is his most redeeming quality as a coach. I was (still am) of the impression that Tampa Bay needed a head coach (and GM) that can evaluate talent more so than anything else.
Consider the Buccaneers’ success or lack thereof in identifying talent via the draft over the last 10 years. In 81 selections from 2005-2014 only six of those selections were regular starters last season and are currently on the roster. Additionally, there is only one player drafted by the Bucs from 2000-2004 that is currently still in the NFL, defensive back Will Allen, who has not played a down for Tampa Bay since 2009. You don’t have to look much further than talent acquisition via the draft to understand why the Bucs haven’t had a winning season since 2010. Comparatively speaking, were the Bears more successful during the same time frame in evaluating and drafting talent via the draft? Eh….I suppose. Keep in mind that Lovie Smith was not a member the Chicago Bears’ organization when the Bears drafted Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles “Peanut” Tillman and even Rex Grossman the starting quarterback for the 2006 NFC Champion Chicago Bears. Nor did he have a hand in drafting any of the five starting offensive lineman during the Bears’ 2006 run. Which brings me to my next point of contention with the Lovie Smith hire.
Lovie apparently has an aversion to building an offensive line. He and Licht dismantled what was a below average offensive line in 2013 only to field a deplorable unit in 2014. The pair ousted Donald Penn, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah in favor of the likes of Anthony Collins (released after one season), Logan Mankins (an older Davin Joseph) and Evan Detrich-Smith (a less versatile version of Jeremy Zuttah). As bad as both Josh McCown and Mike Glennon were it was the offensive line collectively that didn’t create a push for running lanes in the ground attack and failed time and again to protect the quarterback on passing downs. Will a legitimate offensive coordinator (Dirk Koetter) improve the offensive efficiency? Probably. Will a more talented quarterback move the offense more effectively? Certainly. But to what degree? I think it will be minimal unless Lovie and Licht substantially improve the talent along the offensive line. And to that point they have gotten off to a slow start this offseason.
Why am I harping on the offensive line? More often than not games are decided in the trenches and without quality quarterback play you won’t win consistently. The Bucs have their choice at quarterback but if they put him behind a porous o-line you can expect the wins to continue to be scarce and you run the risk of stunting the growth of your young signal caller. To this point the Bucs have done virtually nothing to improve their offensive line from a year ago, so it’s safe to assume they will focus on adding depth/talent to the offensive line during the draft right? No, not necessarily. During Smith’s nine year tenure in Chicago the Bears selected nine offensive lineman (two in the first round), none of which have become accomplished starters or were elected to a Pro Bowl. Incidentally, in only one of those nine years did the Bears finish better than 14th in the NFL in points. The 2006 outlier marks the only season the Bears under Smith ranked higher than 23rd in total offense, they were 15th that season. Some may argue that the Smith/Licht duo wasn’t brought in to turn Tampa Bay in to an offensive juggernaut. Could have fooled me, all six of their 2014 draft selections were on the offensive side of the ball. Both of their fifth round picks were offensive lineman but they spent most of last season on the inactive list on game day. In other words, those draft selections were not good enough to play on an awful offensive line.
Best case scenario the Buccaneers land an interior offensive lineman that can start immediately, there is quality and depth at the offensive guard position in the 2015 class and negating pressure up the middle is the first step to protect the quarterback. The top tier of offensive tackles in this draft all have question marks but it is unlikely that any of them will be on the board at pick #33. But the Bucs have question marks throughout their roster in addition to the o-line. Is Doug Martin/Charles Sims the answer at running back (a running game is a QB’s best friend)? Can Austin Sefarian-Jenkins become a legitimate tight end? Who plays in the slot, flanked by Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans? Where is the edge rush going to come from? Can Bruce Carter hold up at “Mike” linebacker? Are the safeties capable of playing Lovie’s cover two?
I don’t trust Jason Licht going into his second season as a general manager to provide the talent evaluation complement to Lovie’s people skills. Frankly, talent evaluation should be the lion’s share of the equation but Smith has final say on the 53-man roster. I expect coordinators Dirk Koetter and Leslie Fraizer to handle the X’s and O’s but its hard to have faith in this brain trust after cutting three highly priced free agent acquisitions (Josh McCown, Anthony Collins, Michael Johnson) after one season. Understandably, they were awful, but it was Licht who decided to pay them in the first place. The most egregious decision was attempting to re-create the eight games of success McCown had in Chicago during the 2013 season in relief of Jay Cutler. I admit Vincent Jackson – Mike Evans – Austin Sefarian-Jenkins are comparable to Brandon Marshall – Alshon Jeffrey – Michael Bennett but the Bucs’ triumvirate isn’t nearly as accomplished as the Bears’ trio. Nor is Charles Sims, Matt Forte. And while Lovie’s replacement in Chicago, Mark Trestman, knew nothing of defense he understood the importance of a functional offensive line and has an excellent offensive mind. The Bears finished 2nd in points scored and 8th in yardage with Jay Cutler and McCown at the controls in 2013.
I understand the excitement a potential franchise quarterback can bring to an organization and fan base. I appreciate how that QB can be the lynchpin to creating a dynasty. And despite my reservations Jameis Winston is the right choice if the Bucs stay at #1. But I seriously doubt the combination of Smith and Licht will be the head coach/GM combination that ushers this organization into its next wave of success. Smith’s track record and Licht’s first crack at GM do not invoke confidence regarding identifying talent. All drafts are important but the 2015 draft is pivotal for these two. We’re talking a net of 3-4 starters who can play well immediately. Otherwise, Lovie and Licht may be out of work and the young quarterback will likely have to learn a new offense under a new coaching staff further retarding his development. Call me a pessimist but I just don’t see them getting it done. Especially with a non-existent offensive line and a marginally improved defense.