By Leo Haggerty

Well, we’ve hit the three-quarter pole of the season.  Time to take a serious look at each area on the Buccaneers and grade them out.  Also, I’m going to look at, in my opinion, in which direction that position group is trending heading to a possible playoff berth.

Remember, this is strictly my view of the Tampa Bay landscape and I could be completely wrong in my assessment.  Or I could be spot on.

Don’t be afraid to get back to me and comment on my evaluations.  Let me know if you think I hit the nail on the head or if I’m way off.



Trending Up

Yeah, I know.  The Bucs are 7-5 so how can you give the QB spot, or Jameuis Winston, an A- instead of a B.  Real simple answer.  With him, the Pewter Pirates are 7-5.  Without him, they would probably be worse.

The reason I say the QB position is Trending Up is because #3 has put together four really good games in a row.  He’s still a little rough around the edges.  Yes, at times, he still rushes his throws and they come out generally hot and high.  Yes, at times, he holds on to the football way too long trying to make a play.  Yes, at times, he takes unnecessary hits because he doesn’t like to slide.  For the most part, he’s starting to “get it” and turning the potential the Tampa Bay hierarch saw in him when they made him the first overall pick in the 2015 draft into consistently good overall play under center.

With all that said, we often forget that Winston has a grand total of 28 National Football League games under his belt.  In NFL years, he’s still wet behind the ears.  He’s a year and a half away from leading Florida State to a second consecutive trip to the National Championship Playoff.  Heck, he’s only less than a handful of year from riding the “yellow dog” to school in the morning.

What I am starting to see from Winston are things you cannot see because you’re not inside the locker room.  How he goes around the locker room and congratulates every player after a win.  How he is a “stand up guy” and takes the blame for a loss. How his teammates look to him to as the leader and now expect him to “make a play” that wins the game.

Whether you like on dislike “the face of the franchise”, he’s become the leader of the Bucs and that’s something you cannot teach or coach.  He has flourished under former OC and current HC Dirk Koetter’s tutelage.  He’s maturing, both on and off the field, and his decision-making is improving exponentially.  Barring injury, the Pewter Pirates have their franchise QB.

By the way, the guy backing up #3 and that’s Mike Glennon, ain’t a bad insurance policy.  He can win you a game or two in a pinch as well.



Trending Neutral

The only reason, and I emphasize the only reason, I have graded the running backs so low is because of the injury situation.  All three of their top RBs have missed valuable game time due to assorted ailments and, at one point, all three were on the shelf at the same time. For awhile, it wasn’t just next man up.  It was who Tampa Bay could find that can get to One Buc for practice on Wednesday so they can learn enough of the playbook to participate Sunday.

That’s the reason I say the Running Backs are Trending Neutral.  When this group is healthy, it’s a three-headed monster for opposing teams to deal with because each has his own unique skill set.

Doug Martin is a every bit the featured running back the Bucs have coveted since the years of the “WD40″ backfield of HB Warrick Dunn and FB Mike Alstott.  The five-year pro runs with authority and gets yards after contact as well as being a better-than-average pass blocker plus, and this is the big one, is an exceptional receiver.  When healthy, #22 is a top-tier NFL running back.  No question.

Backups Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers are both capable change-up to Martin.  An excellent route-runner and receiver, the Bucs like to maximize the abilities of #34 by getting him out in space as often as possible but has spent most of the season on Injured Reserve.  On the other hand, #32 is at his best running between the tackles.  At 5’7” at best, NFL defense have a hard time trying to find the Oregon State product in the seas of humanity at the point of attack.  He, also, has been unavailable for a few games due to injury.

Heading into the stretch run, the big question mark for the Running Backs is can they get healthy and stay health.  Only time will tell.



Trending Up

Different position, same MO.  The O-Line is usually the place where a lot of your injuries take place.  Also, it’s the toughest to find NFL caliber replacements and, according to former Buccaneers OC and OL Coach Bill Muir during the Super Bowl year, you cannot be a good offense without a good offensive line.

A positive example is the Dallas Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders.    Big as well as strong and, the most important statistic, relatively healthy.  A negative one is the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears. Bruised and battered along with being broken.  You get the picture.

Just look at the center spot for the Pewter Pirates.  Starter Joe Hawley goes down and his backup, Evan Smith, get banged up and he can’t answer the bell on Sunday.  That brings us to the third-team center and that’s Ben Gottschalk.  He does an more-than-adequate job but goes on the IR with his own injury a couple of weeks ago.  Luckily, Hawley is back and Smith can go as well.

Same thing at tackle.  Now eight-year pro Demar Dotson, the wise old sage of the guys in the trenches, is undergoing concussion protocol.  Hopefully, big #69 will make it back for the home tilt with the Saints this weekend but, if he doesn’t, look for OT Gosder Cherilus to move in on one side and Donovan Smith to stay at LT or move to the right side.

I have the OL Trending Up because of the progress they’ve made in protecting Tampa Bay’s most lucrative asset and that’s #3.  For the most part in the last four contest, Winston has been able to stand tall and step up in the pocket allowing him to throw on time.

Folks, the NFL is a passing league but, more so, a timing passing league.  If the Bucs QB can throw it when he wants to where he wants to then the Buccaneers will continue to win.  Plain and simple.



Trending Up

The TEs, like the WRs, has a lead dog in the pack and that’s Cameron Brate.  He is, far and away, having a monster year and that’s not bad from a guy the Bucs expected to be their 4th option on offense, at best, coming out of training camp.  No only has #84 picked up the slack when WR Vincent Jackson went down with a season-ending knee injury but has become a favorite red zone target of QB Jameis Winston.

The only negative is that the exemplary play of Brate has taken snaps away from backups Luke Stocker as well as Brandon Myers.  The only saving grace for them is that HC Dirk Koetter likes to us sets with multiple tight ends so the chances to “shine and make a splash play” are there for the taking.

Even rookie Alan Cross got to “play in the sandbox” and contributed his first NFL touchdown reception.  Lots of talent in this room at One Buc.

Now you can see why I’ve got the Tight Ends Trending Up.  And, from the looks of things, the sky is the limit.



Tending Down

Trending Down, you say.  Have you lost your mind.  How about if you give me a chance to explain myself on this one.

Remember, my job is to look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers objectively and not as a fan.

Right now, if he continues close to the pace he has set this season, Mike Evans is the Comeback Player of the Year.  After a sub-par second season, #13 has come back in 2016 with a vengeance.  Over the last four games, he’s catching almost everything he touches and is finding a way to get into the end zone.  His timing and anticipation with Winston is impeccable.  The Former Texas A&M Aggie is “the man” in crunch time for the Pewter Pirates and it doesn’t matter that the defense knows it.  Evans is finding a way to get open and catch the football.  You can take that to the bank.

Then why, pray tell, do I think the Bucs WRs are trending down.  It’s because they’re falling like flies.  First, 1A Vincent Jackson is lost for the season.  Now, his backup, Cecil Shorts is done.  Finally, slot receiver and punt returner Adam Humphries is in concussion protocol along with OT Demar Dotson.  Talk about Mutt and Jeff, right?

The “next man up” guys, especially Freddie Martino and Russell Shepard, have performed admirably but for how long can they continue at that level.

I expect defense to double Evans and blitz Winston unmercifully.  They’re betting that if they take Big Mike away from Jameis, the other guys aren’t going to find a way to get open quickly in a hot route.

The coach in me says this is what will happen.  The fan in me says the Bucs WRs will find a way to beat it.  Hope the fan is right.



Trending Up

Why just a C?  For the first eight games, the pass rush was non-existent.  That has been their downfall.  Teams, like the Broncos and the Raiders, would just have their QB sit back in the pocket and pick the Pewter Pirates apart.  It was like watching a Chinese water torture.  Slowly, but surely, teams would just wear the Bucs secondary down until Tampa Bay was out of time and on the wrong side of the scoreboard.

In the last four contests, the Bucs have been able to pressure the opposition QB with their four down lineman.  That, my friends, is huge.  DT Gerald McCoy and Company have made a concerted effort to “meet in the backfield and arrive at the quarterback in ill-humor” on numerous occasions.  Not only sacks but hurries and knockdowns are on the rise.  That’s brings the grade up along with the respect and fear factor of the guys in the different color jerseys.

Generally, the DL has been stout against the run.  Not too many teams, if any, have run roughshod over the Tampa Bay defense in 2016.  It wasn’t stopping the run and that was the problem.  It was stopping the pass.  Simple as that.

In my eyes, the D-Line is Trending Up.  How far up?  Can’t answer that one but, if it gets to the A range, this team will be tough to keep out of the playoffs.



Trending Up

Definitely, the cornerstone of DC Mike Smith’s defense.  We saw how important MLB Kwon Alexander was by looking at what happened to the Buccaneers last season.  After #58 was forced to sit out the last four games due to a positive test for Performance Enhancing Drugs, the 6-6 Bucs dropped their last four.  Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Along with Alexander and DT Gerald McCoy, OLB Lavonte David is the third cog in the Bucs defensive machine.  In my opinion, the Nebraska alum is just starting to really get a feel for what he can accomplish in this defensive scheme.  It seems, in ther last four games specifically, that #54 is in a much faster “read and react” mode as opposed to a “look and process” scenario.  He seems much quickier and more confident and that’s shouldn’t come as a surprise. 

Let’s take a quick look back at the Dungy era and the infancy of the Tampa Two.  The Yuks, as Chris Berman so named the Tampa Bay franchise, did not take too well to the new Dungy-DC Monte Kiffen style of defense.  It took them almost 10 weeks, sound familiar here, to “buy in” and we all know how that worked out.

This defense, I feel, has been going through that same type of learning curve.  I will tell you this.  I believe this defense will be as good as the Linebackers and, right now, that’s the strongest group on the defensive side of the ball.  Here’s the best part.  I see them Trending Up so don’t be surprised if the Pewter Pirates “turn it up a notch or two” the last four contests and put two LBs in the Pro Bowl.  



Trending Neutral

Yes, although it pains me to say this, the Bucs DBs are at the “fork in the road” so to speak.  Do they Trend Up and really give four solid performances to get Tampa Bay to double-digit wins for the first time in a long time.  Or do they Trend Down due to the fact that starting S Chris Conte is banged up and nickle CB Jude Adjei-Barimah has the dreaded four-game PED suspension.  S Keith Tandy and CB Alterran Verner are going to have to step up big time to keep the ship sailing on course.

For those reasons above, I believe the Bucs will be Trending Neutral. And here’s a few move for you if you need some further convincing.

First, Vernon Hargreaves is a rookie.  He’s never played a 16-game season plus a possible playoff jaunt.  His body is, as Captain James T. Kirk says, “is going where no man has gone before” or at least where #28 hasn’t gone.  They call it a “rookie wall” for a reason and that’s because every player reacts differently. Only time will tell how VHIII responds.

Second, the four QBs the Bucs will be facing is a formitable group to say the least.  The Saints Drew Brees at RayJay and then Cowboy rookie sensation Dak Prescott ay Jerry’s World followed by an encore by Bress in the Big Easy plus the finale in Tampa with Panthers Cam Newton will pose the opposition.  Not Murderers Row but you can’t “mail one in” with any of these guys under center in a different color jersey.

Finally, the Pewter Pirates secondary is going to see some big-time receivers, with the emophasis on big, the last four tilts.  New Orleans has two 6’6″ receivers in WR Brandon Coleman and TE Coby Fleener for Brees to target.  Dalls brings two 6’6″ giants in TEs Jason Whitten and Gavin Escobar along with 6’2″ Dez Bryant for Prescott to choose.  Carolina puts two more 6’5″ pass catchers in WR Kelvin Benjamin along with TE Greg Olsen for Newton to peruse.  The Pewter Pirates back end may think they’re playing basketball instead of football after these next four games.

So, I see the DBs Trending Neutral and, hey, that’s not a bad thing.  Splitting the next two gets you to 9-7 and that may just be good enough to get a ticket to the dance in mid-January.       



Trending Up

This was a D about six weeks ago.  Rookie K Roberto Aguayo couldn’t kick it straight.  That seems to have been corrected so that moved the grade up.  Also, it’s no coincidence that the Buccaneers four-game winning streak coincided with #19 figuring out his kicking woes.  Remember, he’s not kicking that old NCAA football that resembles a pillow.  He’s kicking the brand new right out of the box K-ball that resembles a rock.

There has been no question on the performance and importance of P Bryan Anger.  Some games, the Seattle one in particular comes to mind, #9 on numerous occasions pinned the Seahawks in the shadow of their own end zone.  Big points for the five-year pro there.

Kickoff and punt return are holding their own and, from a coaching standpoint, you can live with that.  Concerning punt and kickoff coverage units, no explosive plays add up to a job well done there.

Trending, up absolutely.  How far up may determine if this team is still playing after the New Year.