Bucs, Winston face a pivotal football season

The Tampa Bay Bucs will open the season at home against the San Francisco 49’ers.

The 2019 NFL season will be a pivotal one for the Tampa Bay Bucs and quarterback Jameis Winston as the team begins its first year under new head coach Bruce Arians.   

Coming off a season where Winston was suspended for the first three games, the Bucs jumped out to a surprising 2-0 start behind journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick. But the “Fitzmagic” quickly wore off. When Winston returned, he flashed moments of brilliance and moments of head scratching play, which resulted in then head coach Dirk Koetter switching back and forth between Winston and Fitzpatrick for the remainder of the season.

The end result was a 5-11, fourth place finish in the division and led to the dismissal of Koetter and the hiring of Arians.

The question now remains whether Arians can reverse the fortunes of the Bucs, who have not had a winning season since 2016 and have not made the playoffs since 2010.  It is also an important year for Winston, who enters his fifth and final year of his rookie contract. This will be the year that the Bucs must decide whether Winston is a franchise quarterback and worthy of a new deal or whether they need to go back to the drawing board and start over.

Winston enters the new season needing just a few yards to become Tampa Bay’s all-time leading passer. The fact that he has accomplished that in just four seasons may say more about the team’s dismal overall play at quarterback through the years compared Winston’s actual ability. The Bucs led the NFL in passing offense last year and Winston has thrown 88 touchdown passes in 56 career games and has a respectable 64 percent completion percentage over his last two years.  

Still leading the league in passing yards also has to be taken with a grain of salt as the Bucs played from behind most of the season and were throwing the ball a lot.  Winston’s main problem has been his tendency to try to extend plays and force the issue when he is placed under duress. Winston has thrown 58 interceptions in his career and his percentage of interceptions against passes thrown went from 2.5 percent in 2017 to 3.7 percent last year.

It would help Winston immensely if the Bucs could develop some sort of a running game.  Tampa Bay was 29th (of 32 teams) in league rushing last year. Peyton Barber received the bulk of the carries last year and gained 871 yards and scored five touchdowns. But his 3.7 yards per carry average was hardly elite.  Second-year player Ronald Jones will compete for playing time with Barber. There is doubt Arians and the Bucs are hoping Jones, who gained just 44 yards on 23 carries last season, will start to show some of the form he did at USC – where he gained 1,700 yards and scored 20 touchdowns in his junior season.

On a positive note, Winston will be helped once again by his receiving corps.  Mike Evans (86 catches for 1524 yards) is a becoming a superstar and with the departure of DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin should improve on his 2018 numbers of 59 catches, 842 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Bucs will have weapons galore at tight end as OJ Howard (34-565-5 TD) and Cameron Brate (30-289-8 TD) give Tampa Bay one of the best pass catching duos in the league.

The offensive line most show significant improvement for the Bucs to succeed. On the bright side, the offensive line returns four of five starters in LT Donovan Smith, LG Ali Marpet, C Ryan Jensen and RT Demar Dotson, who made 63 of a possible 64 starts.  They will be joined by first-time starter Alex Cappa at right guard. The bad news was as a group the Bucs offensive line allowed 41 quarterback sacks and did not provide much help in blocking for the run game.

The real determining factor for the Bucs success (or lack thereof) will come on the defensive side of the ball.  The Bucs ranked 27th in total defense (383 ypg), 31ST in scoring defense (29.0), 24th in rushing defense (123.9 YPG) and 26th in pass defense (259.4 ypg) last season.

If the Bucs are to have any chance of a winning record and a chance at the playoffs, the defensive unit must improve dramatically. They will have to do so without Gerald McCoy, their best defensive lineman with a massive contract who was released after last season in a salary cap move.

Tampa Bay will play a 3-4 base defense in 2019, relying on second year nose tackle Vita Vea, veteran nose tackle Ndamukong Suh (56 career sacks) and William Gholston up front.  

Starting linebackers will be Carl Nessib, Devin White, David Lavonte and Shaquil Barrett; while the starting secondary will include former Florida Gator Vernon Hargreaves III, Mike Edwards, Jordan Whitehead and Carlton Davis.

Nassib and Lavonte are experienced linebackers; with White earning a starting position as a rookie. The secondary is extremely young, with Edwards being a rookie and Davis and Whitehead are just in their second year.

There is some young talent on the defensive side of the ball but how quickly they must gel quickly as a unit.

For special teams, the Bucs will rely on veteran punter Bradley Pinion and rookie placekicker Matt Gay.

As a member of the Southern Division, the Bucs will play New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina three times.  The non-conference schedule also includes games with the LA Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans.

Overall, given the personnel changes, a new coach and a softer schedule the Bucs should be able to better their five wins from a season ago.  But give a division where New Orleans almost went to the Super Bowl last year and explosive Atlanta is looking to return to the postseason, it is doubtful that the Bucs would be looking at much more than a .500 record this season.