Three seasons after finishing with an abysmal 2-14 record, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are finally in a position to make the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade. After finishing 2014 with the worst record in the NFL, Tampa Bay drafted Jameis Winston with the first overall pick. Ever since then, the Bucs have grown steadily, building their roster around Winston.
Last season, the Bucs finished one win away from the playoffs, with a 9-7 record. In order to take the final step in becoming a playoff-caliber team, Tampa made some major transactions this off-season, bringing in DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard, Chris Baker, and J.J. Wilcox. The Buccaneers have one of the most improved rosters in the league, at least on paper. If the Bucs want to make a playoff run, some of their younger players will need to step up. Here are four players that will breakout in 2017, and help lead Tampa to the post-season.
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III
Vernon Hargreaves was relied on heavily in his first season, starting all 16 games for the Buccaneers. Although Tampa was successful at forcing turnovers (28) last season, Hargreaves was able to record only one interception over the entire year. Hargreaves was also thrown at more than any other cornerback in the league, allowing 1,069 passing yards, which was over 200 yards more than the next player. Opposing quarterbacks completed a combined 80 passes out of 113 attempts (70.7 percent). While Hargreaves stats at the end of the year were disappointing, he was able to improve towards the end of the season. Hargreaves gained some invaluable experience as a rookie, and should continue to develop into the team’s top defensive back. Look for Hargreaves to lead Tampa’s secondary this season.
Running back Jeremy McNichols
The Buccaneers had an awful ground attack last season. They ranked 28th in total rushing yards with 1,616 yards, despite finishing with the seventh most rushing attempts (453). They were extremely inefficient running the football, averaging 3.6 yards per attempt, and contributing only eight of the teams 37 offensive touchdowns. Doug Martin is suspended for the first three games of the season, and is not guaranteed the starting job when he returns. McNichols hasn’t gotten many first-team reps during training camp, but is already impressing the coaching staff. McNichols is the most complete back on the Bucs roster, and should get every opportunity to showcase his skill set. He probably won’t get much work early in the year, but if Rodgers and Martin struggle, McNichols will get a chance to take over the starting role.
Wide receiver Chris Godwin
The Buccaneers already have one of the league’s best wide receiver duos, in Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, but still drafted Chris Godwin in the third round of the NFL draft. For the past two seasons, the Buccaneers have had difficulty finding someone to pair with Mike Evans. In 2015, Charles Sims finished as Tampa’s second leading receiver (second in yards, receptions, and targets), even though he was only used as a situational running back. In 2016, Cameron Brate finished with the second most receiving yards and receiving touchdowns on the team. In the each of Jameis’ first two seasons as Tampa’s quarterback, the best pass catchers behind Mike Evans have been non wide receivers. Part of this is due to former Bucs WR Vincent Jackson‘s inability to stay healthy. DeSean Jackson might be the team’s second best receiver, but Godwin offers the skill-set to be a reliable passing option for Winston. Jackson will be the team’s primary deep threat, where as Godwin should be the team’s second most reliable receiver behind Mike Evans.
Defensive end Noah Spence
Noah Spence was quietly impressive last season, in a limited role. He appeared in just over half of the team’s defensive plays, starting three games and appearing in all 16. In limited playing time, Spence recorded 5.5 sacks, 16 tackles, and forced two fumbles. Spence was primarily used as a pass rusher for the Buccaneers, and struggled to stop the run. If Spence is able to evolve into a better run stopper, than he will be one of the key pieces on the Bucs defense. He should see more playing time this season, and could find himself in a starting job before the season ends.
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