TAMPA, Fla. -- On his first day as new head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bruce Arians proclaimed, “We’re not rebuilding -- we’re reloading.” But at 2-6 halfway through the season, did they go about this the wrong way? Was a more thorough housecleaning in order? The belief was also that the cupboard wasn’t bare and this roster was capable of contending. A big part of it was also because at age 67 and having dealt with a number of serious health issues, Arians didn’t have the benefit of time.
But they have just one more win than the 1-7 Miami Dolphins, who gutted their entire roster under new head coach Brian Flores. They have the same number of wins as the 2-7 New York Giants, who traded away not just their best player, but arguably one of the most talented players of his generation in Odell Beckham Jr., and are starting a rookie quarterback in Daniel Jones.
Few roster changes were made when Arians took the helm. Gerald McCoy and DeSean Jackson were the two major cuts and those were salary-cap maneuvers. No veteran cornerback was signed to replace Brent Grimes. The most significant contract restructuring was for wide receiver Mike Evans, although later they restructured Jason Pierre-Paul’s contract due to an auto accident.
Should a roster overhaul be the direction the Bucs take this offseason, assuming they miss out on the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season? Should there be changes to their front office, considering that, aside from ownership, it’s been the one constant in a carousel of coaching changes that have produced just one winning season in the last eight years? Before the Bucs decide whether to reset, there are issues the organization must address, starting with the biggest:
What to do with Jameis Winston?
The Bucs aren’t any closer to making a decision on whether to extend the contract of the 2015 first-overall draft pick, who has thrown 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this season. While Arians has publicly supported Winston and stated on multiple occasions that his supporting cast has to play better, there is concern about inconsistent performances that have ranged from dazzling to disastrous.
The Bucs have considered giving him the franchise tag to buy some time, which would cost them an estimated $26.7 million next year. The team is also doing their due diligence on draft prospects, as they’re currently projected to select eighth overall. Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, LSU’s Joe Burrow, Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Utah State’s Jordan Love and Washington’s Jacob Eason are all intriguing names to watch.
“In my opinion, they are using this season as an audition for Jameis going forward,” one high-ranking league executive told ESPN. “It gives the coaches a chance to evaluate him in every situation to see how he responds and to see if his deficiencies are correctable. With the upcoming draft being loaded with quarterbacks -- if they all come out -- they have to know exactly how they feel about Jameis going forward.”
Major free-agent decisions loom
The Bucs will have big decisions to make this spring, with Pierre-Paul, linebacker Shaq Barrett, linebacker Carl Nassib and DL Ndamukong Suh all set to become free agents. Linebacker Lavonte David and center Ryan Jensen -- due to make $10.75 million and $10 million, respectively -- also have no guaranteed money remaining on their deals. Tight end Cameron Brate is due $6 million and defensive lineman William Gholston’s salary jumps to $4.75 million -- but neither of them have guaranteed money left on their deals, either (Brate’s $4 million does become guaranteed on March 22 of the new league year if he is to remain on the roster). Right tackle Demar Dotson is likely at the end of his career, but there isn't a viable replacement on the current roster, nor is a potential left tackle being groomed should Donovan Smith not work out (the extension he signed last year was only good for three years and the guaranteed money in his contract is up in 2021).
Re-signing Barrett now should be a no-brainer, especially if they let Pierre-Paul walk. Barrett will turn 27 this month and has a league-leading 10.5 sacks through eight games, becoming just the second Bucs player in 14 seasons to record double-digit sacks. He also has an arsenal of pass-rush moves and counter moves that should allow him to flourish over the next several years. Considering the deal agent Drew Rosenhaus was able to parlay for Kwon Alexander with the San Francisco 49ers -- torn ACL and all -- they can’t afford to let him hit the open market this spring.
What do they have in the young guys?
There are mixed feelings within the organization when it comes to tight end O.J. Howard, the 19th overall pick from the 2017 draft. Some wanted to trade him because Arians’ offense isn’t tight-end friendly. The front office went from telling inquiring teams that he “wasn’t available” to entertaining trade offers. He is expected to return this week from a hamstring injury, and considering the way Howard started off the year -- with the second-highest drop rate in the league of any position -- they need to see if they can make things work.
Cornerback remains just as much of a question mark now as it was in the spring, despite Arians declaring on the eve of training camp that “the secondary is fixed.”
“[I] totally [thought that], because of talent, but that talent isn’t showing up [and] playing that way,” Arians said Monday, acknowledging that he misjudged the group. "It’s playing on Sunday, not in shorts in spring. You get fooled sometimes in shorts in the spring, because [those are] the guys that are out there playing.”
M.J. Stewart, a second-round pick in 2018, went from being the starting nickelback to being a healthy scratch the last two weeks in favor of rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting, whom Arians feels has made the biggest jump of any of their rookie corners. After working exclusively at nickel this offseason, is Stewart a potential backup on the outside? Or will he suffer the same fate as 2016 second-rounder Noah Spence, who was released during final cuts before the season started?
Jamel Dean played just three defensive snaps prior to starting for injured Carlton Davis in Seattle and surrendered three touchdowns. While Arians is excited about his future, he needs more live reps. They need to cut down on Davis’ penalties -- his eight penalties are fourth-most in the league at any position. After serving a four-game suspension to start the season, Ryan Smith is being used exclusively on special teams and we have yet to see what he can do in his new role at nickel.
Getting on the same philosophical page
There was minimal turnover in the Bucs’ front office when Arians came aboard despite the fact that he has taken a large amount of control over draft and personnel decisions. While Arians and general manager Jason Licht have maintained a respectful working relationship -- Arians has said on multiple occasions that Licht was a big reason he came out of retirement and Licht was rewarded with a five-year extension through 2023 this offseason -- sources say there have been some differences in philosophy between the front office and coaching staff.
Some players aren't good fits for the current coaching staff's systems. They aren’t playing soft, Cover-2 defense like they were under Mike Smith anymore -- now they blitz heavily and need true press-man corners on the back end who can be trusted without much help. Tight ends aren’t a focal point of Arians' passing game -- they’re blockers first, meaning Howard and Brate's talents are a waste of resources unless they can adjust their scheme. And unlike defensive ends in 4-3 defenses like Smith ran, Todd Bowles’ pass-rushers have to be able to drop into coverage on zone blitzes.
This time should be spent establishing the kinds of players the Bucs need for their schemes while trying to get this current group understanding what it takes to win. Their five losses in games where they’ve held any sort of lead are second only to the Cincinnati Bengals for most blown leads this season.