2015 NFC South Preview

The AFC South takes a lot of guff, but let’s not sleep on how bad the NFC South still is:

Atlanta Falcons 9-7
New Orleans Saints 8-8
Carolina Panthers 7-9
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-10

Atlanta Falcons

Expected Wins: 8.04
Scouting Wins: 7.95
DVOA Wins: 8.9
2014 Record: 6-10 (7.1 Pythagorean)

Two years ago, the Falcons were 13-3. They took a 17-0 lead on San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game, but fell 28-24. Since then, they’ve won ten games. It’s fair to ask what the heck happened? The Super Bowl run wasn’t a fluke. The Falcons went 36-12 from 2010 through 2012. The offense has been almost as good (5.2% DVOA vs. 6.7% DVOA), as have the special teams (1.5% DVOA vs. 1.7% DVOA). The major change was on defense, where the lack of a pass rush has led to two serious issues:

1. From 2010-2012, the Falcons were +35 in turnovers. They’ve been -2 since then. Matt Ryan is responsible for around 20% of that, but the defense is largely responsible.
2. The defensive DVOA dropped from -4.7% to 14.6% (Defensive DVOA is inverted. Like golf, negative numbers are good.)

The Falcons had a chance to win the NFC South in 2014. All they had to do was win a home game against Carolina, but they got destroyed, 34-3. That was the final straw for owner Arthur Blank. He fired Mike Smith and replaced him with Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Quinn has his work cut out for him, but he caught a remarkable break when Vic Beasley fell to him in the draft. The best pass-rusher in the draft went to the team with the biggest need. The Falcons understood that Beasley would need some help, so they signed free agent Adrian Clayborn. Clayborn has 5.5 sacks over the past three seasons, mostly because he’s missed 28 games over that time. Premier pass-rushers don’t sign for contracts like this:

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/atlanta-falcons/adrian-clayborn/

Tyson Jackson will play in the rotation with Clayborn, but he’s purely a run-stuffing tackle masquerading at end. Kroy Bierman is going to see his playing time decrease (4.5 sacks in 848 snaps will do that). He’ll see some playing time, if only because Beasley is going to need to rest and build up his stamina. Inside, Paul Soliai had good numbers against the run. He may be joined by 2014 second-round pick Ra’shede Hageman. Hageman played sparingly last season and is trying to adjust to a new role. He’s talented, so it is worth a shot.

I may have found a linebacker corps that makes the Giants’ group look good. Justin Durant, Paul Worrilow, and Brooks Reed would all be weak links on a normal roster. Reed is moving outside, which seems like an odd fit, as his best skill is run defense. Worrilow is also decent against the run, but he’s a clay pigeon in pass defense. Durant is rarely healthy and may not be the player he once was. All three of them are better against the run than the pass, which makes the lack of a pass rush from the defensive line a bit awkward.

It’s hard to judge the Falcons’ secondary given the weak pass rush. 2013 first-round pick Desmond Trufant certainly passed the eye test. 2013 second-round pick Robert Alford was clearly getting better before he broke his hand. Rookie second-round Jalen Collins has exceptional talent but couldn’t break into the starting lineup at LSU. The Falcons are certainly making an effort to upgrade their cornerbacks. Hopefully, it works out. The Falcons don’t know who their week one free safety will be. Ricardo Allen, Dezmen Southward, and Charles Godfrey are all possibilities. 2014 third-round pick Southward has the highest ceiling, but was clearly overmatched last season. Godfrey is the most versatile option, as he can play nickel or strong safety. Speaking of, William Moore currently holds that job. He played poorly before a shoulder injury ended his season. He’s currently dealing with a calf injury. This doesn’t look like a good situation.

On the plus side, Matt Ryan has been remarkably consistent. He’s ranked eighth, ninth, and eighth again in DVOA over the past three years. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, although not quite in the top tier. Poor offensive line play has caused him to take a lot of punishment. It hasn’t caught up with him yet…

It would help if Devonta Freeman and rookie third-round pick Tevin Coleman took some heat off of Ryan. Unfortunately:

Both have been dealing with hamstring injuries. The Falcons are hopeful at least one of them will be healthy to start the season. Coleman also has sickle cell, so the Falcons are going to have to be careful with his health. He’s a tremendously powerful back with great lower body control and good hands. I expect that if he can stay on the field, he will swiftly usurp the starting job from Freeman. Freeman struggled running the ball (-22.8% DVOA), but has good hands and is comfortable in the passing game, so he may make a living as a scatback.

The Falcons may have overpaid to draft him, but Julio Jones has been everything the Falcons could have hoped for. He’s coming off another excellent season (16.2% DVOA, 356 DYAR). He’s a workhorse (104 receptions, 1,593 yards). Still, the Falcons would prefer to have a capable #2WR to take some of the heat off Jones. Roddy White is getting up in years and put up a -1.3% DVOA last season. That’s not getting it done. He’s coming off of arthroscopic elbow surgery and is questionable to start the season. The #3WR positional battle is between incumbent Devin Hester (38 receptions, 504 yards, -4.3% DVOA), and free agent pickup Leonard Hankerson:

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/atlanta-falcons/leonard-hankerson/

Washington had no use for Handerson last season, so it’s a curious battle to say the least. Rookie fourth-round pick Justin Hardy is notably lacking in speed, but put together the best 3-cone drill time in the draft. He also was thought to have the best hands in the draft. He may work his way into the slot, where his speed will be less of an issue. As for tight ends, ugh. Jacob Tamme is bringing his -42.8% DVOA (-67 DYAR) skills over from Denver. He’s taking the job away from Levine Toilolo (-37.5% DVOA, -115 DYAR). They put up those numbers with Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan, respectively. They are also terrible blockers, Toilolo especially. Just awful all around here.

The offensive line is a work in progress. 2014 first-round Jake Matthews did his best at left tackle, and seemed to be getting the hang of it by the end of the season. Free agent pickup Chris Chester may start at left guard. He was played well enough for the Redskins last season to be considered an upgrade here. Mike Person is another option if Chester doesn’t work out. Joe Hawley is coming back from an ACL tear. His agility was his best trait, so it bears watching if he’s the same player he was before the injury. If not, James Stone will have to return to the lineup. Frankly, Stone played quite well last season. I graded him as the Falcons’ best offensive lineman, so I’m wondering if Hawley’s hold on the job is secure. Right guard Jon Asomoah was pretty good as well, which makes me wonder why Ryan took as many hits as he did last season. Heck, right tackle Ryan Schrader played well after getting thrown into the lineup. This is one of those weird situations where the line seems worse than the collective individual grades. Or… nope, just did a little research. Gabe Camini and Justin Blalock took 1,555 snaps for the Falcons between them last season. They were awful, particularly Camini. The line should be better simply by his absence.

Punter Matt Bosher handles kickoffs as well. He has one of the strongest legs in the NFL. Kicker Matt Bryant is getting up in years, but being a field goal specialist is still working out for him. Devin Hester handles both return jobs. While he’s not the terrifying force he was years ago, he’s still better than most. The coverage units are solid, so there really is nothing to complain about here.

The Falcons’ defense has a lot of holes, and only so many can be filled at a time. I’m sure Beasley and the young cornerbacks will make a difference. I’m not sure it will be enough. Offensively, I expect Ryan to have a bit more time to throw. After Jones, I’m not sure who he is going to throw to. Their schedule is Charmin Soft (it’s nice to face the AFC and NFC South). I’m going to err on the side of optimism. 9-7.

Carolina Panthers

Expected Wins: 7.87
Scouting Wins: 8.30
DVOA Wins: 8.0
2014 Record: 7-8-1 (7.0 Pythagorean)

Two years ago, the Panthers went 12-4 and lost at home to the 49ers in the Divisional Playoffs. Last year, things fell apart on offense (from 7.9% to -4.7%), defense (from -15.7% to -1.7%), and even special teams (1.0% to -5.5%). The Panthers ended up going 7-8-1, yet they won the NFC South. They then hosted and defeated the Arizona Cardinals, before falling at Seattle in the Divisional Playoffs. Football is a funny game.

Speaking of that, let’s look at the advanced stats of two Panthers quarterbacks:

Quarterback A: Average DVOA from 2012-2014: 32.0%, 301 DYAR, plus 17 rushing DYAR
Quarterback B: Average DVOA from 2012-2014: -3.4%, 738 DYAR, plus 397 rushing DYAR

Quarterback A is backup Derek Anderson. He’s been very good in limited usage. Quarterback B is Cam Newton. Newton played through numerous ailments last year:

I’ll cut him some slack for last season, but Newton needs to start developing as a passer. He will not be able to rely on his legs for a chunk of his value and expect to stay healthy in the long term. The best case scenario is he models his game after Jon Elway. The worst case scenario is that he doesn’t trust his arm and takes too many hits. We’ll see how it plays out.

It would help if the Panthers’ running game could get its butt in gear:

Rushing DYAR from Cam Newton: 146
Rushing DYAR from everyone else: 83

Jonathan Stewart has missed 20 games over the past three seasons. His average DVOA over that time? -6.2%. He’s been awful and I’m surprised he’s still the #1RB. Rookie fifth-round pick Cameron Artis-Payne doesn’t have the skills to be an every-down back. He isn’t a traditional scatback either, so perhaps the Panthers plan on using him in short yardage situations to save the wear and tear on Stewart. Fozzy Whittaker and Jordan Todman are nothing more than fungible bodies. You need a few of those for special teams.

2014 first-round pick Kevin Benjamin sat atop Carolina’s WR depth chart, but he’s going to miss the season with an ACL tear. It’s a huge blow, as he was Newton’s most trusted target. Rookie second-round pick Devin Funchess is similar physically, but doesn’t have Benjamin’s hands or athleticism. There was pre-draft talk of converting Funchess to tight end, but he made it clear in team interviews that he was lukewarm as to that plan. He’s also not a good blocker, so it would be an awkward transition. Ted Ginn is on his fourth team in four years. Somehow he’s found his way to #2 on the depth chart. That’s almost hard to believe. He’s competing with Corey Brown, a 2014 undrafted free agent who wasn’t even assured of a roster spot. The last few drafts have been tremendously deep with wide receivers. How the heck does a team run this thin? Oh, and Funchess is dealing with an injured hamstring. On the plus side, the Panthers can count on tight end Greg Olsen. He’s coming off his first 1,000-yard season (84 receptions, 1,008 yards, 14.7% DVOA, 178 DYAR). There is going to be a lot of pressure on him to repeat it. The drop-off to backup Ed Dickson is large. I guess the Panthers didn’t count on Benjamin getting hurt.

I’m very happy with 80% of Carolina’s offensive line. Left guard Andrew Norwell, center Ryan Kalil, right guard Trai Turner, and right tackle Mike Remmers all ranked in the top 10 in my rankings. Remmers in particular was dominant, but over a small sample. If you add the playoffs to that sample, he doesn’t look nearly as good. And then there was left tackle Byron Bell. He got demolished last season and has been replaced my Michael Oher. The thing is, Oher wasn’t much better. I have a feeling that at some point we are going to see Nate Chandler take over the job.

The Panthers have a genuinely unique defensive plan. They trust their linebackers to patrol a larger area of the field than any other team in the NFL. That means their secondary has less responsibility than any other. It’s an interesting gambit, but it’s only possible when you have the most athletic linebacker corps around. I’ll get to that in a moment though. Let’s first take a look at the defensive line.

The loss of Greg Hardy left a huge hole on the defensive line. 2014 second-round pick Kony Ealy is going to be asked to step up. He played well late last season, but he needs to become a complete player to hold down the starting job. For now, he’ll start across from Charles Johnson. Johnson provided a solid pass rush (8.5 sacks, 42.5 hits+hurries). It came at the expense of some horrific numbers against the run. Ealy has the same issue. Wes Horton doesn’t have the same pass-rush chops, and has made his living stopping the run. The Panthers would prefer to use him as a short-yardage specialist. Mario Addison had decent pass rush numbers, yet shared the same horrific run numbers. Is this a schematic problem? Or do the Panthers have a tendency to acquire one dimensional players? I’m honestly not sure and it is something I’m going to be watching for this season. Inside, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short form a strong pairing. Surprisingly, it is Short that has become the dominant defender while Lotulelei has struggled. That may be due to Lotulelei’s various ailments. The latest is a stress fracture in his foot that is slowing him down. Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole provide good depth here. Edwards in particular is coming off of a strong season, but at age 34 it’ll be tough for him to keep that up.

Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly are two of the best linebackers in the NFL. They are both comfortable attacking the line of scrimmage or sitting back in coverage. Davis might be the best coverage linebacker in the NFL. Kuechly is an acknowledged middle linebacker star. Rookie first-round pick Shaq Thompson is expected to take over on the weak side, but for now A.J. Klein will hold the job. Thompson is a safety-linebacker hybrid. When he is ready to start, we’ll be looking at one of the fastest and most athletic linebacker corps in the history of the NFL. As for Klein, he’s a versatile player and a more than acceptable stopgap.

The beauty of not having to cover a lot of area is that you don’t need to be a great cornerback to put up solid numbers in the Panthers’ system. Josh Norman played very well for the Panthers last season. He’ll be working with either Charles Tillman or Bene’ Benwikere. Tillman and Benwikere are fighting to see who’ll be the #2CB and who’ll be the nickel. Personally, I’m rooting for Benwikere, as he’s on the way up while Tillman is fading. Roman Harper and Tre Boston form as well-defined a safety pairing as you’ll find. Harper is a pure strong safety and effectively a fourth linebacker. Boston is a safety-cornerback hybrid. Neither has a firm grip on his job, as Harper is a bit slow, while Boston is still learning the position. Kurt Coleman is likely the first man off the bench.

Kicker Graham Geno is good. Return man Ted Ginn is okay. Punter Brad Norton is bad. The Panthers’ coverage units are terrible. Norton is facing a training camp battle from Matt Wile. I can only hope Wile is more impressive than Norton and that the coverage units are better prepared this season.

As with everyone else in the NFC South, the Panthers face a soft schedule. Unlike everyone else in the NFC South, they get to face Seattle and Green Bay. Outside of Newton, they are dangerously short on offensive weapons. That’s why I don’t see much improvement in their results this season. 7-9.

New Orleans Saints

Expected Wins: 8.60
Scouting Wins: 9.72
DVOA Wins: 8.7
2014 Record: 7-9 (7.4 Pythagorean)

I have a feeling people haven’t adjusted to just how much talent left the Saints’ offense this offseason. Jimmy Graham is the obvious loss, but Ben Grubbs and Kenny Stills were major contributors as well. Drew Brees still has Brandin Cooks amd Marques Colston, so it’s not like the cupboard is barren. Nonetheless, this was a bad offseason for a team with a 36-year-old quarterback. I understand that the Saints were up against the salary cap, but mediocrity is not rewarded in American sports. Either win, or lose as often as possible. Given the weakness of the NFC South, the Saints are contenders to win the division, so I suppose they did what they felt they must.

Drew Brees has begun his descent. His DVOA (15.7%) and DYAR (1,225) were still highly respectable, but how much of that was attributable to Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills? Also, doesn’t Graham & Stills sound like a folk music group? In any event, Brees is still smart and accurate. The arm strength just won’t be the same, and that is going to lead to some setbacks.

I’ve never understood the respect Mark Ingram continues to receive. You know what he’s amounted to over the past three seasons? 145 DYAR with a -1.7% DVOA. That’s with defenses keyed to stop Brees. He’ll be competing with C.J. Spiller for playing time. Spiller was terrible the last two years in Buffalo (-126 DYAR). He was excellent in 2012 (392 DYAR), and still has elite speed. I understand what the Saints are hoping for. I’m just not sure they’re going to get it. Spiller is missing the preseason with a knee injury, though the Saints seem confident he’ll be available for the regular season.

As with Brees, Marques Colston has begun to decline. Not many seventh-round picks end up leading their franchise in receptions, yards receiving, and touchdowns. He’s seen his receptions, DVOA, and DYAR decline for the past few seasons, and while Brees may target him more this season, it’ll be due to a lack of other options. Colston is the #2WR. 2014 first-round pick Brandin Cooks will be the #1WR this season. He’s coming back from a thumb injury and should be 100%. Cooks impressed last season. He’s got the speed and finesse to complement Colston’s size and power. Nick Toon might end up as the third option. He was a small part of the Saints’ offense last season (17 receptions, 215 yards, 15.7% DVOA, 52 DYAR). His biggest competition is… big. Brandon Coleman is a 6-6, 225 potential gamebreaker. Training camp reports gave Coleman the edge. As for replacing the departed Jimmy Graham, Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill have their work cut for them. Watson has been lousy in New Orleans (-7 DYAR), and is long past his prime. Hill is a much more intriguing option. The 2013 undrafted free agent has 20 career receptions (16.4% DVOA, 51 DYAR). He’s capable of outrunning linebackers and is a size mismatch vs. most safeties. I’d expect him to eventually win the starting job this season.

I’m guessing the Saints were pretty frustrated by how the first twelve picks of the draft went. It was a surprise when they took Andrus Peat, and I have to think it was because he was the top player left on their draft board, by a decent margin. Otherwise, taking a tackle would be quite odd given starters Terron Armstead and Zach Strief. Armstead is an above-average left tackle still on his rookie contract. I had Strief #2, behind only Ricky Wagner last season. And now they have a very talented backup if one of them gets hurt. Tim Letito appears to be winning the left guard job to replace the departed Ben Grubbs. There is going to be a noticable drop-off here. Center Max Unger came over in the Jimmy Graham trade. If he’s healthy, he’s an upgrade. If not, things could get ugly inside. Jahri Evans is a solid right guard. This line looks fine if Unger and Letito can be trusted to perform. Those are the major question marks, and if something happens to one of their tackles, Peat provides great insurance.

The Saints appear to be considering playing a hybrid defense. Some 3-4, some 4-3, and some base nickel. I suppose their indecision makes sense, as they don’t have the defensive line talent to play a 3-4, nor do the have the quality defensive ends to take advantage of a 4-3. Clearly, I cannot choose the defense in front of you…

Whether they go with a 3-4, 4-3, or some blend of both, this is an awful front-seven. For sake of discussion I am going to presume they go with a 4-3. Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks are their best options at end. Hicks isn’t a true pass-rusher, so there will be significant pressure on Jordan. That pressure is exacerbated by a lack of pass-rush talent in the linebacker corps, but I’ll get to that in a second. John Jenkins and Kevin Williams are an underwhelming pair in the middle. Williams has been reduced to being a space-eater, and that might be Jenkins’s peak.

The Saints best pass-rusher for the last two seasons was Junior Gallette. He picked up 22.5 sacks over that time. He’s gone, and has been replaced by Hau’oli Kikaha. Kikaha was a prolific sack artist at Utah. He fell in the draft due to concerns that he wasn’t a true defensive end or outside linebacker. He was also an injury red flag candidate due to multiple ACL tears. Kikaha is a much easier fit in a 3-4, but he may have to adjust to a new set of responsibilities. Dannelle Ellerby and David Hawthorne can form a solid unit with Kikaha, although they both have recently missed time with injuries. Another advantage of the 3-4 is that it would allow rookie first-round pick Stephone Anthony to start alongside Hawthorne. Both are of the genus “tackling” and species “machine.”

The Saints’ secondary got torched last season. Seeing as the pass-rush looks to be even worse this season, they have their work cut out for them. Keenan Lewis was slowed by injuries last season. When healthy, he’s viewed as a solid #1CB. Free agent pickup Brandon Browner is the new #2CB. He’s a press-coverage specialist, which means that the Saints might want to consider shading free safety Jairus Byrd to Browner’s side of the field. Byrd is coming off of a miserable season where he sucked for four games and then got hurt. His level of play might be a major issue for the Saints. Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro had 113 tackles last year, but he was benched due to over-aggressiveness. The nickel job is an open competition, with Kyle Wilson and Delvin Breaux as the favorites. It’s difficult to judge this secondary due to the degree of difficulty they’ve faced. If Vaccaro matures, and Lewis and Byrd stay healthy… they might still get torched again.

Punter Thomas Morstead is one of the best in the NFL. The Saints would be happy if the winner of the Dustin Hopkins-Zach Hocker kicker competition was merely average. The kick coverage units could stand some improvement, but overall the Saints’ special teams are fine. C.J. Spiller looks to be taking over both return jobs, which should provide some excitement.

The Saints’ schedule is soft, Their offense took some major hits and their defense lost their best player. I can see their secondary improving due to better health, but the linebacker corps is bad. The problem is that the pass rush looks painfully weak. There are a lot of flawed teams in the NFL, though, and most of them don’t have Drew Brees. Let’s call it a draw. 8-8.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Expected Wins: 5.97
Scouting Wins: 5.71
DVOA Wins: 6.4
2014 Record: 2-14 (4.4 Pythagorean)

Step 1. Suck so badly that you get the first overall pick in the draft.
Step 2. Draft a franchise quarterback.
Step 3. Draft multiple offensive linemen to protect said quarterback.
Step 4: Watch in horror as said quarterback steals underpants.
Step 5: Profit?

This is what I wrote about Jameis Winston before the draft:

“It’s become quite clear that Jameis Winston is going to be selected first overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The logic behind that pick is fairly straightforward. He is the most talented quarterback in the draft. He’s also quite intelligent, but he’s shown a propensity for doing incredibly stupid things off the field. Hey, Richard Nixon was a bright guy too. Winston has been subject to comparisons with JaMarcus Russell, albeit some of those are perhaps based on aesthetics. In purely football terms I’m concerned about his lack of leg strength and willingness to take huge risks. In the NFL that is going to lead to an excessive number of interceptions until he fixes some of the flaws in game. I’m not privy to all the data NFL teams have on him, but my prediction is that Winston is going to disappoint the Buccaneers and this pick will eventually lead to regime change.”

So far, Winston has been impressive. Word out of Tampa Bay is that he has a passion for film that rivals Peyton Manning’s. He’s very talented, but I’m standing by my prediction. I think the Bucs took the wrong guy. Full disclosure: In 1998, I was on team Leaf. Knowing what I know now about football, I’d have been highly skeptical of both Leaf and Manning, albeit for highly different reasons. In Manning’s case, I had reason to doubt his ability to transition to the NFL. In Leaf’s case, a short college career plus serious off-field incidents were larger red flags than I realized. However, Winston is neither Leaf nor Manning. He’s his own man and will have a chance to write his own future.

About step 3… Ugh. I don’t like starting either of the two offensive linemen the Bucs grabbed in the second round. Ali Marpet is making a huge jump from Division III, while Donovan Smith is much better prepared to run block than pass protect. Smith is slated to start at left tackle. Marpet is likely to win the starting right guard job. Recent free agent pickup Gosder Cherilus is penciled in at right tackle. He was very good in 2013 but struggled badly last season. Injuries were a part of it, but if the Colts thought he was healthy, why would they have cut him? This will be an interesting test of adverse selection. That leaves two below-average holdovers: left guard Logan Mankins and center Evan Smith. The Bucs have no shortage of warm bodies to play along the offensive line, just not many good ones.

Mike Evans was a monster last season. Very few receivers could have put up an 11.4% DVOA (222 DYAR) with the Bucs last season. I expect great things from him. As for Vincent Jackson, he’s already done great things, but that was years ago. Louis Murphy is as poor a #3WR as you’ll find in the NFL. The Bucs drafted a pair of wide receivers in the fifth and sixth rounds, so they may see dividends there in a year or two. 2014 second-round pick Austin Seferian-Jenkins had a rough rookie season. Injuries played a large part in that; the Bucs are hoping he’ll be able to compliment Evans and Jackson. Well, if Evans can get on the field. He’s currently dealing with a potentially serious hamstring injury and is questionable to start the season.

Doug Martin’s rookie year: 221 DYAR. The two years since then: -132 DYAR. The 2012 first-round pick may be the #1RB due to his draft status, but he’s in serious danger of falling off the roster and out of the NFL if he doesn’t show he still has the skills that made him great. He’s missed 15 games with injuries over the past two seasons and he may be on the RG3 trajectory. 2014 third-round pick Charles Sims is a scatback with limited upside in the running game. Bobby Rainey was the best back on the Bucs last season, although there is a slight fumbling issue he needs to correct. He’s also 5-7, 205 pounds, so he’s probably not built to be an every-down back. He’s slated to return punts if you want to see him in the open field.

Oddly, Tampa Bay is one of the few rosters with better interior pass rushers than outside. Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald, and Henry Melton can all push the pocket. McCoy in particular is an underrated star. He’s never quite been as good as the player drafted immediately before him (N. Suh), but that’s an unrealistic standard. However, the Bucs’ defensive line problems aren’t at tackle. Starting defensive ends Jacquies Smith and George Johnson accumulated 12.5 sacks and 36.5 hits+hurries. Smith was impressive in limited usage. He hasn’t shown he’s a complete player, and last year was a career year for him. Johnson has historically been a bench player, and last year was an aberration for him as well. Backups Larry English and William Gholston have great potential. They’ve had it for years.

I’m much happier with the Bucs’ linebacker corps. Lavonte David is one of the best Will linebackers in the NFL. Danny Lansanah came out of nowhere to start on the strongside. He earned rave reviews and
will reprise his role this season. The interesting battle is at middle linebacker, where free agent pickup Bruce Carter is surprisingly losing the battle for the starting job to rookie fourth-round pick Kwon Alexander. Alexander was viewed as a potential option at strong safety. He brings great straight line speed to the position, but this is a pretty big promotion for a guy some scouts viewed as a just a special teams ace.

Alterraun Verner is better than he looked last season. I expect something a little closer to his 2013 performance this season. He’ll play across from 2013 second-round pick Johnthan Banks. Banks was more effective than Verner last season and should be entering his prime. Free agent pickup Sterling Moore appears to have the leg up on incumbent nickel Michael Jenkins. There is solid depth here. Major Wright and Bradley McDougald appear likely to start at safety. McDougald worked his way up from the bottom of the depth chart last season. He’s impressed the Bucs’ coaching staff with his potential. Wright is being asked to stop the bleeding after Dashon Goldson got undressed last season. Wright finished last season on IR due to injured ribs, but should be fine to start the season.

The Bucs recently signed kicker Connor Barth to kick for them. There had been a training camp battle between Patrick Murray and Brandon Bogotay, but apparently they both lost it. Punter Michael Koenen is currently competing against Karl Schmitz. The Bucs have decent coverage and return units. In fact, they’d probably need 3-4 injuries before they had to start digging to find capable return men.

The Bucs aren’t nearly as bad as they looked last season. Even though he’s just a rookie, Jameis Winston should spark a Tampa Bay offense that still has a decent amount of talent. And of course, their schedule is quite reasonable. 6-10.

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