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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers displayed signs of progress in the 2016 season, securing their first winning campaign in six years under the tenure of rookie head coach Dirk Koetter.
Sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston made a step forward in his development, one year removed from being selected in the first round of the 2015 Draft.
The 23-year-old threw 28 touchdowns over the course of the term and provided excellent leadership on the field, despite the absence of former All-Pro running back Doug Martin.
His connection with Mike Evans was an integral part of driving the club to their nine-win term, although they were to fall narrowly short of the playoffs.
Those two players alone give the Buccaneers hope for the future, and with savvy additions in the off-season there is no reason why they cannot improve in the next campaign.
We’ll now take a look back at the last campaign to see what went wrong for Tampa Bay and what they will need to do to compete for a place in the playoffs.
The Buccaneers put in arguably their best performance of the season in their opener against the Atlanta Falcons. Winston put on a clinic to carve apart their NFC South rivals’ defense throwing four strikes, with Evans catching five passes for 99 yards and a touchdown in a 31-24 victory on the road.
However, Koetter’s men were brought quickly back down to earth, receiving a hammering at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals. The Bucs defense had no answer for Carson Palmer’s passing attack, while Winston threw four interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown by Marcus Cooper.
Their defensive struggles continued against the Los Angeles Rams – in their worst performance on the season, losing to an inferior side. The Bucs looked to be on course for victory when Winston found Cameron Brate in the endzone to take a 10-point lead, only for the visitors to score 21-straight points to secure the victory.
It was the offense’s turn to misfire in week four of the campaign against the vaunted Denver Broncos’ defense. Winston and company put only seven points on the board as the Broncos successfully limited the threat of Evans and Brate, while the quarterback had another multiple- interception game in a 27-7 defeat.
Tampa Bay brought themselves back .500 in the campaign, with back-to-back wins. First they defeated their divisional rivals the Carolina Panthers thanks to a 38-yard field goal from Robert Aguayo with no time remaining on the clock. Winston then put on a clinic to guide his side past the San Francisco 49ers with relative ease, giving the Bucs momentum after their bye week.
The Buccaneers were to put their playoff mettle to the test against the Oakland Raiders. Two good offenses went score-for-score at Raymond James Stadium, but the Bucs’ defense was to crack in the fourth quarter, allowing a game-tying drive from Derek Carr as found Mychal Rivera in the endzone.
Carr carved apart the secondary again in overtime this time, winning the game with a throw downfield for Seth Roberts.
Atlanta were next on the schedule and by this point in the term the Falcons were hitting their peak form – which would later see them crowned NFC Champions. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones feasted on Tampa Bay’s defense, scoring 43 points to canter to victory, despite a solid outing from Winston.
That match proved to be a turning point for Koetter’s men as they reeled off five wins on the bounce to move into playoff contention, beginning with a thrashing of the Chicago Bears. The Bucs were even better the following week in a fierce battle with the Kansas City Chiefs on the road.
The boot of Aguayo kept Koetter’s side in the contest with a number of impressive kicks before a late strike to Alan Cross proved to be enough to take them over the line.
Tampa Bay’s defense them produced their best outing of the season to shut down the Seattle Seahawks, limiting Russell Wilson and his offense to just five points. Winston and Evans connected twice in the endzone to clinch the win, taking the Bucs to 6-5.
The defense then produced fine performances to fend off Philip Rivers and Drew Brees, allowing the club to claim back-to-back wins, but their surge for the post-season ended with two losses on the spin to the Dallas Cowboys and the New Orleans Saints.
The Bucs boast one of the best quarterback-wideout combinations in the NFL with Winston and Evans, with both players set to have extremely bright futures.
Winston may have to work on his tendency to throw interceptions, but with quality additions around him that may ease the burden and allow the 23-year-old to become more efficient.
DeSean Jackson should provide relief in abundance. The wideout will join Evans in the passing attack, providing the ability to stretch the field and open up a great deal of space. Teams will not be able just to key in on Evans anymore, which should allow him to thrive in 2017.
Chris Baker has also been added on defense following a fine season for the Washington Redskins. He should be a force against the run, while also being able to push the pocket on passing downs.
There are still a lot of decent players still available during free agency and a veteran running back could be needed to offset the loss of Martin, who will be suspended for the first four games of next season should he even return to the club.
However, the Bucs could also use one of their draft selections on a back due to the number of talented players present that are emerging from the college game.
The Buccaneers came extremely close to reaching the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season, and should be among the contenders to fill one of the six slots next term.
Winston has to take the next stage in his development to make it a possibility, but he will have enough talent around him to thrive due to the addition of Jackson, while the Bucs also have enough capital in the draft to bolster their options.
The defense was solid in spots last season and should they become a consistent unit – then they could drive their side into double digits in the win column.
Backing the Bucs at 18/1 19.00 +1800 18.00 18.00 -0.06 with TopBet sportsbook might seem a stretch, but the NFC Conference is competitive and teams can come out of nowhere – ala the Falcons last season – to win the championship.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers To Win NFC Conference
Odds: 18/1 19.00 +1800 18.00 18.00 -0.06