Big seasons from Jameis Winston, D-line key to Bucs' hopes

The Bucs need first-round pick Vita Vea, right, to make an impact this season so Pro-Bowler Gerald McCoy, left, and newcomer Jason Pierre-Paul get some favorable matchups. Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

TAMPA, Fla. -- For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to contend for the playoffs this season, here are the five players who can help make that happen:

Jameis Winston/Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterback: With Winston to miss the first three games because of suspension, he and Fitzpatrick will play integral roles for the Bucs in 2018. They face one of the league's most challenging three-game stretches from the get-go -- on the road against the New Orleans Saints in Week 1, at home against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2 and on Monday Night Football against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3. That's three division champions and the reigning Super Bowl winner. In a division with three 10-win teams in 2017, the Bucs can't afford to fall into an 0-3 hole here.

Mike Evans, wide receiver: No Bucs receiver has been targeted more than Evans, who last season became just the third player in NFL history to record more than 1,000 yards receiving in each of his first four seasons. When the Bucs won nine games in 2017, Evans had seven touchdowns in the victories (he had 12 for the season). Even when he doesn't get the ball, the fact that Evans is on the field and drawing the majority of focus from opposing defenses (he is frequently shadowed by opposing teams' best cornerbacks or double-teamed), helps other targets such as DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. Plus, Evans is a very physical blocker in the run game and downfield.

Vita Vea, defensive tackle: The Bucs already know what they have in six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy. But Vea's punishing 6-foot-4, 347-pound frame and explosiveness could be their biggest asset. It can help free up McCoy to get into the backfield, and he can do his own share of the tormenting with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Wentz, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Jimmy Garoppolo and Dak Prescott on the schedule. The Bucs also face some of the league's top running backs -- Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Ezekiel Elliott, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive end: The Bucs traded away a third-round pick and swapped fourth-round picks with the New York Giants this offseason to land Pierre-Paul, who has amassed 58.5 sacks in his eight seasons. The Bucs are hoping he can be the force off the edge that they've so desperately needed since Simeon Rice; they haven't had a double-digit sack guy since 2005. When informed of this, Pierre-Paul even said, "We've just got to change that." His availability and consistent pressure alone will be huge for a defensive line that has been marred by injuries to its starters over the past two seasons and only produced 22 sacks last season. Pierre-Paul played more snaps (964) than any other defensive end in the league in 2017. "I think I played every snap," Pierre-Paul said. "That says a lot right there. That just tells you that no matter how tough the game is going or [if we're] winning, I want to be out there."

Vernon Hargreaves, cornerback: No one really knows what to expect from Hargreaves, who took several steps back in 2017. His confidence seemed to wane when he lined up outside and had to play off coverage. He also struggled with run fits against the Arizona Cardinals, but he improved when he lined up at nickelback and was able to use more of his physicality. The Bucs have had him play outside and inside this offseason. If Ryan Smith and Carlton Davis fail to beat him out on the outside, he's going to assume a large chunk of responsibility again opposite Brent Grimes, and he would likely continue moving inside during nickel situations. Can Hargreaves handle matching up against the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Michael Thomas, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Ted Ginn Jr., Antonio Brown, Nelson Agholor and JuJu Smith-Schuster?