Buccaneers miss playoffs, but winning record marks reason for optimism

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended the season with a 17-16 victory over the Carolina Panthers to finish 9-7. Here is a look at the season and what's next:

Grade: B

Season summary: The Bucs went from starting the season 1-3 and 3-5 to putting together an impressive five-game win streak that nearly culminated in a playoff berth. But as quarterback Jameis Winston said, "I am trying to get away from that standard of just being OK. We want to be great." The Bucs have work to do this offseason to truly take the next step. Winston made noticeable improvements against the blitz, under pressure, outside the pocket and in the red zone. He engineered two fourth-quarter comebacks – against the Carolina Panthers on Monday Night Football and against the San Diego Chargers. But he also fell short in comeback attempts against the Saints, Cowboys and the Rams. You could see much improved chemistry between Winston and Mike Evans as well as Cameron Brate. The difference between where Winston is now and where he wants to be is on the deep ball and in clinching more of those game winners. If Winston is going to continue to make plays outside the pocket, he has to demonstrate better awareness and better ball security. Against the Cowboys and the Panthers in Week 17, Winston was caught from behind and coughed up the ball.

Biggest draft need: The Bucs' biggest draft need is wide receiver. They could use a true playmaker to line up opposite Evans and take some of the burden off their No. 1 receiver. They would certainly enjoy having another big body such as Evans and Vincent Jackson, but they really need speed to complement Evans and stretch the field. That is something this offense has lacked for a long time. Having a big-play threat downfield could also do wonders for the ground game.

Key offseason questions

What do the Bucs do about Doug Martin and the running back position?

Last offseason, the Bucs re-signed the two-time Pro Bowl running back and fan favorite to a five-year contract worth $35.75 million with $15 million guaranteed. With the admission that he'll be entering a drug treatment program and will have to serve a three-game suspension next year (he began serving his suspension in Week 17 of this year), the Bucs will have to decide if they want to stick by Martin or sever ties. The fact that they now no longer owe him $7 million guaranteed for 2017 means they can have a clean break, if they choose.

When he was healthy in 2016, he rushed for 2.9 yards per carry, compared to 4.9 the previous year, when he was second in the NFL with 1,402 yards rushing. Regardless of what happens with Martin, the Bucs would be wise to re-sign Jacquizz Rodgers, the most versatile back they have and their only player who rushed for 100 yards in a game this season. They likely could do so for a little bit above the veteran minimum, which is what he made in 2016. They can also draft a running back, as this 2017 class looks particularly good.

Which free agents do they bring back? On offense, it's hard to imagine Jackson returning. The veteran receiver struggled quite a bit before a knee injury landed him on injured reserve. Against the Saints and Cowboys, when Demar Dotson was out, backup right tackle Gosder Cherilus showed that his best days are behind him. Multiple starters on defense will become unrestricted free agents, including left defensive end William Gholston, a former fourth-round pick who started 14 games this season and emerged as one of the Bucs' best run-stoppers. His presence was sorely missed against the Saints in Week 16. How much will the market command for him? How attached are the Bucs to backup defensive tackle Akeem Spence, a home-grown player like Gholston? The Bucs also have to make decisions at safety, a group that really struggled early in the season, before the defense showed substantial improvement. Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald are both set to become unrestricted free agents. Conte has longed for a long-term contract and might not want to do yet another "prove it" deal.

Where are the weapons for Jameis Winston? There's a big drop-off from Evans and tight end Cameron Brate to the rest of Winston's receiving weapons. The Bucs need to keep surrounding him with bona fide talent, and that includes more protection from the offensive line and bigger holes for running backs. J.R. Sweezy's back injury proved to be more substantial than anyone realized when he signed last offseason, and the Bucs have not had a good track record under general manager Jason Licht with many of their high-priced free agents. They will have to balance filling their needs and surrounding Winston with talent without going overboard on spending.