TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers players are taking the blame for their five-game losing streak. But look a little closer and you can see that moves made this offseason -- and a lack of moves in some areas -- have played a role in this 2-6 season. Granted, hindsight is 20/20, but there's no way to learn for the future without examining the past with a critical eye.
Not bringing in a healthy pass-rusher
The Bucs put all their eggs in the baskets of Jacquies Smith, who was coming off a torn ACL, and Noah Spence, who was coming off shoulder surgery. Both players missed the entire 2017 offseason program. Yes, both players rehabbed diligently, but those are tough injuries. And when competing in the NFC South -- arguably the best quarterback division in the league -- having an arsenal of healthy, productive pass-rushers is essential.
Former Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Calais Campbell should have been pursued extensively, with a private jet pickup. The Jacksonville Jaguars invested heavily in him, signing him to a four-year deal worth $60 million, with $30 million guaranteed. Lining up at defensive end, Campbell has helped turn the Jags into "Sacksonville," as he has 11 sacks already this season. It's understandable that general manager Jason Licht would be apprehensive about another high-priced free-agent defensive end after Michael Johnson's one-and-done season.
Campbell, however, is a player he saw every day in Arizona for three seasons. He knew his day-to-day work habits and what coaching style would work most effectively for him. How often do you get a chance to sign a 6-foot-8 player who can line up all across a defensive line? With a deal similar to what he got from the Jaguars, his guaranteed money would have been done after two years. By comparison, the Cardinals gave Chandler Jones a five-year deal worth $83 million.
If they weren't willing to fork over a lot of money in free agency, rookie Carl Lawson was a fourth-round draft pick and has 4.5 sacks already for the Bengals. He did have ACL and hip injuries in college, but in the fourth round it's low risk and high reward, and sometimes those players do pan out. Look at how Kendell Beckwith panned out for the Bucs. The Bucs didn't have a fourth-round draft pick because they traded it away, but trading down or out of the first round would have amended that, and they could have packaged their fifth-round pick, the one wasted on Jeremy McNichols, to move up.
Investing in the interior defensive line but not on the outside
This goes back to No. 1 and answers the question some might have with, "Well, how could they afford an edge rusher like Campbell because they're not exactly cheap?" They wouldn't have needed to sign Chris Baker if they had Campbell. They also could have restructured some of their other high-priced contracts, such as that of Gerald McCoy. (Hey, it only benefits McCoy and he's a team player, especially if it means helping him get to the playoffs for the first time.)
Clinton McDonald, who has been rotating with Baker, has been fine. He's played well, even if he did have a nagging hamstring injury last year. If the Bucs had concerns about getting more stout against the run, they had Sealver Siliga and they drafted Stevie Tu'ikolovatu. If they had signed Campbell, he could have lined up all over the defensive line. This isn't a knock against Baker. But he's a natural 3-4 defensive end and not a nose tackle, even if he might look like one. This just hasn't been a great fit.
Drafting O.J. Howard and not using him like a first-round pick
Tight end O.J. Howard was a heck of a steal at No. 19 in the draft. But he's been targeted just 22 times this year, with five targets coming over the middle. By comparison, fellow rookie tight end Evan Engram has been targeted 59 times. Yes, the New York Giants are also very limited with their receiving options, but three rookie tight ends have more targets than Howard even though he was the first one to come off the board at No. 19. Howard is about 25 pounds heavier than Mike Evans and ran a 4.51 in the 40-yard dash, which is actually faster than Evans' 40 time at the combine.
Howard was also the best run-blocker in the NFL rookie class of tight ends, but veteran Luke Stocker can handle that role too. There's no reason why Howard can't contribute more in the vertical passing game while lining up on the outside (he's caught 70 percent of passing attempts when targeted on the outside) or use his big body across the middle. The Bucs have completed just 40 percent of their passes between the hashes when targeting tight ends, 28th in the league.
Bottom line: Rob Gronkowski is a good run-blocker too. But that's not where he's most effective. He's most effective as a mismatch all over the field. Howard will probably be a good long-term investment. He might even pan out to be the next coming of Gronk, minus the shenanigans. But based on the way the Bucs are using Howard now, they could have traded down or out of the first round altogether to acquire more picks.
Not looking toward the future at cornerback
Veteran Brent Grimes is in the last year of his contract. The Bucs' secondary was exposed badly when he missed time in the preseason with a shin laceration and in the game he missed in Week 3 against the Minnesota Vikings. Trading down to grab a player like Tre'Davious White, who leads all rookies with 13 pass breakups, or grabbing 6-foot-2, 209-pound Rasul Douglas (second among rookies in pass breakups) wouldn't have been a bad move. Plus, Douglas would have given them the length they're lacking among their cornerbacks.
Getting the wrong kind of safety help for their system
Getting T.J. Ward at one year and $5 million (technically $4 million plus incentives) looked like a great move on paper. Safety was one of the weakest positions on the Bucs' roster in 2016 until their midseason turnaround. However, the Bucs have always believed in using interchangeable safeties. They don't have clearly defined "strong" and "free" roles. Ward is at his best in the box, however. The idea of him coming in and being a rotational player is also a disservice to a three-time Pro Bowl player.