This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The current Bucs regime is running out of time and excuses. Those in the skill positions should benefit from another season in the system, especially after running back and receiver were reinforced in the draft. Meanwhile, offseason additions on the defensive side of the ball should have instant impact.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
WINSTON'S AVAILABILITY A KEY TO SUCCESS
The Buccaneers' fortunes once again largely rest on their gifted quarterback and his ability to maintain the year-to-year improvement he's displayed thus far. However, there's some question about his durability, considering Jameis Winston missed the first three games of his career in 2017 due to an injury to his right throwing shoulder. Ryan Fitzpatrick was serviceable in his stead and returns as the backup this season, but the offense won't maximize its potential without Winston. The fourth-year pro finished his third campaign with a career-best six 300-yard efforts, along with high-water marks in completion percentage (63.8) and yards per attempt (7.9). Despite the impressive numbers, Winston's lackluster career completion percentage on throws of 20 or more air yards (31.1) leaves plenty of room for growth. That would include strengthening his connection with burner DeSean Jackson, who posted a career-low 13.4 yards per reception and came up empty on the seven throws of more than 40 yards directed his way last season. Winston will have to wait until Week 4 to do so, though, after the NFL levied a three-game suspension stemming from a November 2016 incident in which he allegedly touched a female Uber driver inappropriately. In the meantime, Fitzpatrick will run the offense.
HOW WILL YOUNG PIECES PUSH THE OFFENSE?
The Bucs continue to stockpile offensive firepower, namely 2018 second-rounder Ronald Jones II and second-year pass catchers O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin, who are set to fill important roles. Given his natural talent and draft pedigree, Jones should make a case for regular playing time as a rookie, but incumbent running backs Peyton Barber, Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims will challenge him for touches. Jones holds one trump card over the rest of the crew. With at least one run of 40-plus yards in 12 of 40 college games, he possesses a home-run dimension that's been absent from the backfield for some time. Another big-play threat, Howard, flashed such ability in the latter portion of last year. A first-round pick in 2017, he responded with 17.1 yards per catch and three touchdowns in his last four-plus appearances before suffering a Week 15 ankle injury that curtailed his rookie season. Although position mate Cameron Brate returns with a lucrative new contract in hand, Howard's elite physical skills likely will be deployed downfield more often in the coming campaign. Like Howard, Godwin has hurdles blocking his path to regular reps in the form of Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, but he flashed potential as a first-year player, compiling more than 80 percent of his 525 receiving yards in the final eight outings of 2017.
CAN OFFSEASON ADDITIONS TAKE DEFENSE TO NEW LEVEL?
On paper, the Bucs have added serious octane to their defensive engine in the form of trade acquisition Jason Pierre-Paul, free-agent pickup Vinny Curry and 2018 first-round selection Vita Vea. Pierre-Paul has put a 2015 fireworks-related injury behind him, accumulating a combined 15.5 sacks in the last two campaigns. Additionally, his versatility renders him an above-average run stuffer, as evidenced by the 121 tackles he mostly racked up from the end position during that same stretch. Curry has something to prove as a full-time starter, logging more than 50 percent of the defensive snaps in a given year just once in his career, but he too has been stout against the run while flashing serviceable pass-rushing upside over the last five seasons in Philly. As for the rookie, Vea is a matchup nightmare in the interior of the line at 6-4, 347 pounds, and playing next to perennial Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy could accelerate his learning curve and development. The uptick in pressure the trio is expected to bring will offer a meaningful lift to a defensive front that ended last season with a league-low 22 sacks. Of utmost importance is the influence the faction will have on a secondary that surrendered a league-worst 4,169 passing yards and returns most of the personnel responsible for that ineptitude.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Mike Evans
Evans' youth and upside were pivotal to the five-year, $82.5 million extension he earned on the heels of a down season – by his standards – in 2017. A near-lock for 1,000 yards on a yearly basis, he'll seek out a resurgent campaign on the receiving end of passes from Jameis Winston (post Week 3) and alongside speed merchant DeSean Jackson.
RISING: Chris Godwin
Godwin accrued 26 catches for 442 yards in the second half of 2017. The momentum is a positive heading into camp, when the gulf between his skill set and Adam Humphries' could secure Godwin the third receiver job.
FALLING: Adam Humphries
Humphries has far outpaced his undrafted status but may not hold off Godwin from his previous role. Godwin's impressive finish as a rookie and a plethora of offensive options project to shrink Humphries' targets.
SLEEPER: O.J. Howard
Howard underwhelmed in his first year, but late-season improvement hints at a leap forward in 2018. The towering tight end has the capacity to force a significant bump in targets and the talent to maximize them.
KEY JOB BATTLE – STARTING RUNNING BACK
As was the case last season, there's opportunity to be had in the Buccaneers backfield. Doug Martin is gone, leaving the solid but unspectacular Peyton Barber as the default lead back coming into training camp. However, rookie Ronald Jones II isn't far behind, and he could close that gap in a hurry once the Bucs hit the field later this month. The dynamic second-round pick's 2,633 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns over his last two college seasons speak for themselves in terms of his playmaking ability, and coaches have already been talking him up as a three-down back this offseason despite his modest pass-catching resume (32 career receptions) at USC. Incumbents Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims are serviceable, but neither is a threat to the primary back role. Thus, the battle essentially comes down to Barber and Jones. The two may split reps fairly evenly to start with, but Jones' pedigree could eventually push him into a greater share of the workload, with Barber potentially handling a couple of drives per game and most short-yardage scenarios due to his 225-pound frame.
Ronald Jones II – RB (Rd. 2, No. 38 – USC)
Speed and playmaking ability give backfield a much-needed boost.
Jason Pierre-Paul – DE (from Giants)
Prolific pass rusher aids entire defense, including suspect secondary.
Vinny Curry – DE (from Eagles)
Productive vet could flourish with starting opportunity opposite JPP.
Vita Vea – DT (Rd. 1, No. 12 – Washington)
Monstrous presence should firm up run defense and free linebackers.
Justin Watson – WR (Rd. 5, No. 144 – Penn)
Superior size, speed and hands could make him steal of Bucs draft.
Chandler Catanzaro – K (from Jets)
Solid but unspectacular place-kicker will supplement offense.
Doug Martin – RB (to Raiders)
Provided valuable experience despite inconsistency.
Clinton McDonald – DT (to Broncos)
Departure leaves void in run defense, pass rush and leadership.
THE INJURY FRONT
Jameis Winston, QB – As was the case heading into training camp last year, a non-injury absence by a prominent offensive player heads this list. In 2017, it was then-primary running back Doug Martin who was slated to miss the first three games of the regular season while finishing out a suspension. This time around, it's an exponentially more critical piece in Jameis Winston, who will be away from the team until late September as he serves a three-game ban for a violation of the personal conduct policy. That said, he'll have a chance to put in a full training camp and preseason with the Bucs, and backup Ryan Fitzpatrick proved serviceable in three starts last season, allaying concerns to an extent.
DeSean Jackson, WR – Jackson's disappointing first season in Tampa fittingly concluded with him sitting out Week 17 hobbled by an ankle injury. It was that kind of year for the veteran speedster, who also fought through forearm and foot issues while averaging a career-low 13.4 yards per reception and seeing drops in his numbers across the board when compared with his final Redskins campaign in 2016. However, Jackson has been back at full health for quite some time, and he even made a few appearances in OTAs this offseason instead of training exclusively in his home state of California. Naturally, his prospects to open the season are now somewhat dampened by Winston's absence for the first three games, but hopes are high that Jackson will be much more productive after a full year of playing in Dirk Koetter's offensive system.
O.J. Howard, TE – Howard finished his rookie campaign on injured reserve with an ankle issue of his own, one that he sustained in a Week 15 loss to the Falcons. Although the Alabama product fell short of overall fantasy expectations in 2017 while logging only 26 receptions, there was plenty of reason for optimism due to 16.6 YPC and six touchdowns. Nine of Howard's catches went for 20 yards or more, and he confirmed in early May that his ankle was fully rehabbed. The Bucs have made it known they plan to get Howard more involved in the offense this season, although he'll still split some reps with the highly capable Cameron Brate at tight end.