Jameis Winston has a new body with improved throwing techniques to go along with his natural talent that enabled him last year to have one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history for a quarterback.
But if the Bucs hope to have their first winning season since 2010 and make the playoffs for the first time in eight years, they are going to need more from the 6-foot-5, 230-pound second-year pro.
The Bucs appear to be an improved team, but far from flawless and there is a lack of quality depth, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. New head coach Dirk Koetter hired his old boss in Atlanta, Mike Smith, to be his defensive coordinator, but if this team is to improve record wise it’s going to fall on Winston’s shoulders.
To his credit Winston has shed most of the question marks that accompanied him when he arrived from FSU and has proven to be a person who is smart and dedicated to his craft. During preseason camp he was often the first person in the building arriving in the pre-dawn hours and worked diligently. He is a team-first guy who puts the offensive problems on his shoulders and spreads the compliments around to his teammates when things go well.
“You never have arrived and I know that coach Koetter is going to pull that out of us every single time,” Winston said. “I have to stay focused I can't think about ‘What was it like being a rookie last year? I feel like I made a lot of strides in everything that I did.”
To make things easier for Winston, the Glazer family, which owns the team, fired head coach Lovie Smith and promoted Koetter from offensive coordinator to head coach. The move didn’t sit well with all the players, but ownership has shown little patience with its last three head coaches.
Winston worked hard to make things easier and is glad that the Bucs will be basically running the same scheme on offense. His familiarity with Koetter should help, but if anyone is on the hot seat, it’s the coach.
“The purpose for me in my off season, was to get better in every way that I can,” Winston said. “I feel like I did, but it's never too bad to keep getting better, so I got to continue to get better. I’m not where I need to be and I’m never going to be where I need to be.”
Winston’s passion for the game has become infectious and spread throughout the roster, particularly among the players who see how he is not afraid to sacrifice his body and throw a block to get his teammates that extra yard or dive into the end zone to put points on the board.
“Jameis is the motivator for our whole team. Heck, he motivates me,” Koetter said. “Jameis, he’s a passionate guy about football. And that passion, he tries to get it to rub off on guys around him. I think if you ask the other guys, it does rub off on them.”
Winston is the unquestioned leader of the team and if Tampa Bay is not a contender in the second year of the Koetter regime there could be wholesale changes in the coaching staff.
“Jameis sets the tone for our team. We have a lot of good players on our team, but from a leadership standpoint Jameis sets the tone,” Koetter said.
The Bucs ranked fifth overall in total yards last year (375.9 per game) and gave up only 27 sacks compared to 52 the previous season when Josh McCown was turned into a human pinata and Mike Glennon struggled.
Lovie Smith, who lobbied hard to draft Winston and then brought in Koetter to be his offensive coordinator, took the hit when the Bucs’ defense failed in a four-game losing streak that coincided with rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander’s four-game suspension.
With reports that Koetter was being considered for his first NFL head job, the Glazers didn’t hesitate and signed him.
Koetter spent eight years as offensive coordinator in the NFL with Jacksonville (5 years) and then Atlanta under Mike Smith. He is given a lot of credit for the development of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and in two of his years in Atlanta the Falcons ranked eighth in total offense.
Koetter will try to stretch the pass game and take longer shots down field to take advantage of Winston’s strong arm, which still lacks the accuracy you want out of an elite NFL quarterback.
One of his big jobs will be trying to improve the Bucs’ red zone offense. The Bucs were 20th in points per game last season (21.4 points per game) and scored touchdowns on only 52.9 percent of its trips inside the red zone .
During the off season Winston worked hard to change what he called his “college body,” which looked a little flabby, aiming to get a muscular physique by shedding 20 pounds and putting himself in a position to take less hits and improve his durability.
While Winston is expected to be a catalyst for an offense that is looking to significantly improve on last year’s numbers, the question is how much help can he expect from his teammates.
He threw for 4,042 yards with 22 touchdowns and rushed for six touchdowns. That surprised those who criticized his lack of mobility.
The Bucs have a quartet of big pass catchers in receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson and tight ends Cameron Brate and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but they come with question marks.
Evans led the league in drops last year with 11 and there is a concern that it’s a mental thing that could have a lingering effect. He caught only three touchdown passes last season after getting 12 his rookie year. A healthy Jackson can take a lot of the pressure off Evans. But at 33, he saw his streak of four consecutive 1,000 yard seasons end last year when he was limited to 10 games because of knee injuries. The rest of the receiving corps is questionable with Adam Humphries holding down the third receiving spot heading into the season.
Jenkins has been a disappointment both in attitude and skill level, but Brate has been a pleasant surprise and moved into the starting spot on the tight end depth chart.
A big boost to Winston and the offense last season was Doug Martin, who returned to his rookie form with a 1,402-yard season averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Charles Sims was effective in a backup role giving the Bucs one of the better running-back tandems in the league. The question is whether Martin can stay healthy and turn in a repeat performance, which is vital to taking the pressure off Winston.
The Bucs offensive line produced better than expected last season with rookies Ali Marpet (guard) and Donovan Smith (left tackle) earning starting spots. They ‘ve added former Seattle guard J.R. Sweezy, who is injured and center should be in decent hands with either Joe Hawley or Evan Smith. A healthy Demar Dotson at tackle is a key.
The Bucs had problems all over its defense last year when it allowed quarterbacks to complete 70 percent of their passes for 31 touchdowns and a 102.5 passer rating. Tampa’s biggest needs are a pass rushing defensive end and a shutdown corner, which don’t appear to be on this roster though there are better parts.
The secondary was extremely bad and the cornerbacks only had two interceptions last season. Tampa tried to address those needs by acquiring cornerback Brent Grimes from Miami and drafting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves from Florida.