The Arizona Cardinals take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their second game of the season.
Sanders Phillip from Bucs Nation answered some questions on the upcoming season.
Jameis Winston started his career with a Pro Bowl and 84.2 passer rating as a rookie. Expectations are sky high for him in his second season, but are they realistic?
I would say so, if only because I haven’t seen any out of control expectations this offseason. Mostly, people seem impressed with his rookie season and expect gradual improvement this year, which seems entirely reasonable. Winston won’t suddenly turn into a top three quarterback, but he should put in a top ten performance. The Bucs have focused on improving his footwork, which has always been erratic, his deep ball and his pocket movement, and that appears to be paying dividends -- he certainly looked a little more accurate in his first preseason game than he did last year.
The defense had some problems in 2015, particularly at cornerback. Are the additions of Vernon Hargreaves and Brent Grimes enough or is the secondary still the big concern in 2016?
That will depend largely on the impact of new defensive coordinator Mike Smith. The Bucs overhauled their entire defensive coaching staff, and they hope that the accompanying changes to scheme, techniques and coaching will help a few players find their pre-Lovie Smith heights of performance -- especially Alterraun Verner, who made a Pro Bowl in 2013 but has had two lackluster years in Tampa since then. Verner’s currently the starter opposite Grimes, and has had a promising offseason, so things appear to be on track there. The major concern should be safety, though. The Bucs are set to start Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald again, two players who have played some okay football at best, but who have never been difference makers. Drafting Ryan Smith in the fourth round may not be enough to get that unit playing up to snuff.
Will a tougher schedule keep the Buccaneers from being a contender in 2016?
I certainly hope not, and I expect the Bucs to at least be competitive in almost every game they play this offseason. But most third-party analysis certainly suggests that the tougher schedule will still keep an improved Bucs team stuck at 8-8 or worse. The team is set to have one of the toughest schedules this year, while it had one of the very weakest last year. However, it also underwent a bit of a transformation on defense, which was by far their weakest spot last year. If that transformation is thorough enough, the schedule shouldn’t present an insurmountable problem.
Doug Martin had a big rookie year and a strong 2015, but lackluster seasons in between. Which player is the real Doug Martin?
I’d say both players are the real Doug Martin. He struggled with injuries in 2013 and 2014, which contributed to the mediocre performance, but he also just played some poor football. He wasn’t seeing holes in the defense, wasn’t making anybody miss, wasn’t running away from anybody. That was something he did do in 2012 and 2015, and it’s nearly impossible to predict whether he’ll be able to do that this year. Two promising notes: he’s had a very good offseason, and he looked like Good Doug Martin in his first preseason game.
Fan opinions aside, a lot of Tampa Bay players seemed very unhappy with the firing of Lovie Smith. Does that put Dirk Koetter in a tougher spot in 2016 with players who didn’t want a coaching change?
Not really. Most players were disappointed with Lovie Smith’s firing, but they also lobbied general manager Jason Licht to hire Koetter after Smith was fired. Koetter’s a very popular coach among Bucs players, and they know that he isn’t responsible for firing Smith, so resentment shouldn’t really play much of a role this year.
Koetter said he will have a game management coach. What does that mean and how will it matter?
It basically means he’ll have one of his assistants figure out when to go for it on fourth down, when to call timeouts, when to go for two, and then he’ll listen to that advice. It should give Koetter a little more time to focus on calling offensive plays, a power he’s keeping for himself, and focus on things other than those important but routine decisions. Of course, that’s just the theory -- whether it’ll actually play out like that in practice remains to be seen.
Who's the fan favorite player, the cult hero [think how John Kuhn used to be in Green Bay] and why?
That’s a tough question to answer, really, because there’s a lot of players who are popular with different parts of the fanbase. Some like Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate, unspectacular pass-catchers who do at least routinely catch the ball, rather than dropping it. Others would go for Kwon Alexander, last year’s fourth-round rookie who made a ton of plays at middle linebacker. But most would say Jameis Winston. The quarterback is really popular among Bucs fans, and most everyone he’s convinced he’s the real deal -- which is extremely uncommon in Tampa Bay history.
How does the first month of the season go for the Buccaneers? The last month of the season? What's the final record going to be?
The first month of the season should be pretty promising. Of the first four teams they play, the Arizona Cardinals are the only really tough out. There may be no such thing as an easy win in the NFL, but if the Bucs are as improved as they think they are, starting with a 3-1 record shouldn’t be out of the question. The last month of the season is going to be key, though: three of the last four games are in-division matchups, and the fourth is in-conference. They’re likely to enter that month as a playoff contender -- and I think they’re going to exit as a playoff team. Maybe not with overwhelming force, but a 9-7 or 10-6 record should get them in in the end.