2017 NFL Preview: No excuses for Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

This is the season we’ll likely find out how good Jameis Winston can be.

The signs over the first two seasons have been very good for the 2015 first overall pick, but not without some nits to pick. He has thrown too many interceptions, partially due to a tendency to force passes. He has not been a consistent deep passer. His accuracy has a tendency to wane, and his completion percentage reflects that (though Dirk Koetter’s aggressive, vertical offense plays a big role in this completion percentage too).

What we know about Winston after two seasons is that he has a remarkable work ethic. He has fantastic physical tools, including a great arm … that he trusts too much at times. He has played well enough to believe the arrow is pointed up, and he’ll continue to develop and minimize the mistakes. If you had to bet right now, you’d probably bet on Winston becoming a top quarterback. However, almost all of that would have fit for Jay Cutler after two seasons, too. Cutler didn’t have a terrible NFL career, but presumably the Buccaneers are hoping for more out of Winston.

We should know way more about Winston after this season. Winston is in his third season, when things should start to come together, especially considering he has 32 career starts already. The Buccaneers also made two additions that should help Winston immensely. Tampa Bay wasn’t good on deep throws last season, mainly because they had no deep threats at receiver. So they signed DeSean Jackson, one of the best deep threats in NFL history. Then they somehow landed Alabama tight end O.J. Howard with the 19th overall pick. Howard was considered a top-10 talent due to his superior athleticism and there are a few teams that will regret passing on such a dynamic talent. Even third-round pick Chris Godwin, another fast receiver out of Penn State, drew rave reviews in OTAs. Add them to true No. 1 receiver Mike Evans and productive tight end Cameron Brate, and the Buccaneers are suddenly in great shape in the passing game.

Now it’s on Winston to make it happen.

After a surprising improvement to 9-7 and a fantastic offseason, a lot of people will be picking the Buccaneers to make the playoffs. Maybe that’s premature. The NFC South is really tough, and the Bucs aren’t a complete team yet. But Winston has the ability to carry them there. We’ve seen him play really well, often without an ideal set of targets. The supporting cast is much improved. He has some continuity in Koetter’s offense. If Winston makes a huge improvement – and I’m talking about “in the MVP conversation” improvement – it should not be a surprise.

There are factors outside of Winston. The running game is a mystery because of Doug Martin (suspended the first three games, coming off a really bad season). The defense is good but not great, and the secondary has some questions. The kicking game is still a potential issue, because the second-round pick of Roberto Aguayo hasn’t worked out yet.

All that said, there are worse stocks to buy than the Buccaneers. The most important piece in the NFL is a franchise quarterback, and it seems like the Buccaneers have one. We might know for sure by the end of the season.

Jameis Winston and Mike Evans will try to lead the Buccaneers back to the playoffs. (AP)

Tampa Bay had a great offseason. DeSean Jackson affects every pass play. Defenses have to respect his deep speed or they’ll pay for it. Stats don’t properly quantify his value. Defensive end Chris Baker, Jackson’s teammate in Washington, is good against the run and the pass and came at a reasonable price of three years for $15.75 million. Safety J.J. Wilcox, formerly of the Cowboys, should be an upgrade at a trouble spot. I’m not going to congratulate general manager Jason Licht for bringing in veteran kicker Nick Folk to compete with Roberto Aguayo, because over-drafting Aguayo was Licht’s fault, but it was a necessary move. Then O.J. Howard might have been the best value pick of the first round, and it might turn out to be one of the best picks of the entire draft. Many of their other picks – safety Justin Evans, receiver Chris Godwin, linebacker Kendell Beckwith, running back Jeremy McNichols – seem to be smart choices who can contribute early on. The Buccaneers’ roster was upgraded in a big way. Grade: A

The Buccaneers had some really good moments in 2016. They won 31-24 at the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1, which looked like a great win by the end of the season. They swept the Panthers, won at the Chiefs and Chargers and beat the Seahawks and Saints at home. Tampa Bay still needs some consistency – it’s tough to explain a 40-7 loss at Arizona, a home loss to the Rams, an ugly 215-yard game against the Broncos or a 4-4 home record when they went 5-3 on the road – but if you watch the 2016 Buccaneers’ best performances, you’ll be excited about what they’re capable of.

The Buccaneers ran the ball a lot, finishing seventh in rushing attempts. And they were terrible. Tampa Bay was 29th in rushing yards per attempt and 29th in rushing touchdowns. Here’s Doug Martin’s year-by-year rushing average in his NFL career: 4.6, 3.6, 3.7, 4.9, 2.9. Good luck figuring out what comes next in the pattern. It is almost impossible to have a full 2-yard drop in yards per carry from one season to the next, but Martin did it. He went from an All-Pro in 2015 to finishing last in the NFL in yards per carry (by 0.3 yards!) among those with at least 100 attempts. Now Martin is suspended for the first three games, leaving Jacquizz Rodgers or rookie Jeremy McNichols to hold down the job until Martin returns. Then the wholly unpredictable Martin comes back and … well, we have no idea what he’ll do. Any quarterback benefits from a good running game, but we don’t know if the Buccaneers have one.

Jameis Winston has a great arm but had a bad season throwing deep. That should be a strength of his game. Winston pushes the ball downfield a lot because Dirk Koetter’s offense wants to play vertically, but Winston completed just 23.5 percent of his deep passes according to Bucs Nation. That ranked 27th among NFL quarterbacks. It’s reasonable to blame the personnel. Evans is a good receiver but the drop to Tampa Bay’s second-best receiver last season was steep. Tampa Bay had just four passes of 40 yards or more last season, tied with the Texans, Jaguars and Bears for last in the NFL. None of those other three teams had a quarterback nearly as good as Winston. One would assume with the additions of DeSean Jackson, ultra-athletic tight end O.J. Howard and rookie receiver Chris Godwin, Winston’s deep passing will improve dramatically.

Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is one of the best interior linemen in the NFL, though he isn’t spoken of in those terms as often as he was in 2013, his best season. McCoy had 9.5 sacks that season and was named first-team All-Pro. In the three seasons since then McCoy’s sack numbers have been 8.5, 8.5 and 6.5 and his tackle numbers have dipped too. There’s much more that goes into playing defensive tackle than stats, and McCoy is tremendous (five straight Pro Bowls), but a return to his All-Pro form would be a big plus for the Buccaneers defense.

From Yahoo Sports’ Liz Loza: “O.J. Howard may be the future, but Cameron Brate is the NOW. Despite being uninspiring from a metrics standpoint, Brate owned the red area of the field in 2016. Catching eight balls (and then promptly falling over) in the end zone, Brate recorded the most touchdowns of any tight end in 2016. Given the additions of DeSean Jackson and pass-catching RB Jeremy McNichols, it’s unlikely the Harvard alum will top his last-season stats, but he’s clearly earned the trust of Jameis Winston near the goal line, and figures to work as the team’s TE1. Currently being drafted behind Howard in the 13th round of 12-team exercises, Brate is a value pick for managers wanting to wait on the position.” [Check out Yahoo’s Pressing Questions for the fantasy outlook on the Buccaneers.]

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In 2015, the Buccaneers allowed a terrible 102.5 passer rating, second worst in the NFL. That dropped all the way to 88.8 last season. The Buccaneers had six more interceptions and allowed seven fewer touchdowns. They allowed more long pass plays last season, but more aggressiveness was a plus in 2016 a year after rarely forcing the issue the year before. A big part of the improvement was defensive coordinator Mike Smith. The former Falcons coach immediately repaired his reputation in his first Buccaneers season and had some interest this offseason as a head-coaching candidate. The Buccaneers were lucky nobody hired Smith, because Smith obviously still can devise a defense. And there’s some talent on that side of the ball, like defensive linemen Gerald McCoy, Chris Baker and William Gholston, linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David, and cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves. Another improvement seems possible especially if there’s improvement from Hargreaves, the 11th overall pick of the 2016 draft.

IS THE BUCCANEERS’ OFFENSIVE LINE GOOD ENOUGH?

We’ve heard for a while how spread offenses in college haven’t done any favors for the NFL when it comes to finding offensive linemen. There appear to be fewer competent NFL-level offensive linemen than ever before. Many teams have offensive line concerns, and the Buccaneers are among them. Tampa Bay at least has some promising pieces, but they are shifting some things around. Most notably, the team is moving Ali Marpet to center. Marpet has done well at guard but has never played center before, so it’s a risky move. A lot of the move has to do with the hope that guard J.R. Sweezy can return from a back injury that cost him his entire 2016 season. Meanwhile the team continues to express confidence in tackles Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson, though they’ve had their issues. If the offensive line doesn’t play well, the offense might not make the improvements that everyone seems to expect. It’s hard to have a good deep passing game when you can’t protect the quarterback.

The Buccaneers should expect to win the division. The NFC South has a history of unexpected champions, and Tampa Bay fits the profile of a team that improves by a few wins and makes the playoffs. I don’t think it’s out of the question that Jameis Winston throws for about 5,000 yards and wins an MVP. That’s obviously a really optimistic outcome, but Winston has that type of talent. At least he could approach “Derek Carr, 2016” levels, and look what happened with the Oakland Raiders last season.

There’s a lot being put on Winston. The offensive line isn’t great and the running game is a complete mystery. The Buccaneers have put talent around him, but Winston isn’t without some rough edges to his game. Maybe Winston is just one of those players who is always going to be a little too reckless. There are a lot of expectations on the Buccaneers this season, and it would be disheartening if Winston struggles and Tampa Bay takes a step back.

The problem is finding a spot in the NFC playoffs for the Buccaneers. They play in a division with the last two NFC championship teams. The NFC East has four teams that could compete for the playoffs, and the North and West have multiple teams with playoff expectations. The NFC might not have a clear favorite but it’s a deep conference. If you’re picking the Buccaneers for the playoffs, that means you’re leaving a really good NFC team out of the postseason. The Bucs’ schedule is pretty tough, too. I like Tampa Bay. I think Jameis Winston is going to be a star. But I think they’re a year away from the playoffs.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
15. Cincinnati Bengals

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!