2016 NFL Preview: Jameis Winston leads Buccaneers into new era

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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Many NFL offseason stories read the same. And a high percentage of them are straight hooey.

How many players could possibly be in the best shape of their lives, anyway? While I’m sure some players really did hit the offseason ready to work harder than they ever have, I get sick of reading those stories by May or so. Mix in those entirely predictable tales about how your new defensive coordinator plans to be more aggressive, and every NFL offseason sounds kind of the same.

Call me gullible then, but I’m buying the hype surrounding Jameis Winston this offseason.

Whatever was said about Winston before the draft, one has to assume the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are happy with the pick. After a tough debut that included a pick-six on his first NFL pass, Winston had a promising rookie season. He threw for 4,042 yards and 22 touchdowns. Then this offseason, the positive stories started rolling in. He was throwing with his receivers as early as March. He committed to losing weight and by late May he had dropped 18 pounds. There were stories early last season that he was spending countless hours watching film.

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Winston’s dedication was not among the pre-draft questions about him coming out of Florida State. But you also never know how a young player will react to suddenly becoming a millionaire and having instant success as a rookie. Last year, when Greg Cosell of NFL Films did a series of in-depth posts for Shutdown Corner, he talked to former NFL quarterback and current analyst Ron Jaworski about what’s most important when evaluating quarterbacks. This, from Jaworski, stuck with me:

“Being around the league as long as I have, I know we all talk about, ‘This guy is the first guy in and the last guy out!’ for every guy. I’ll tell you right now, that’s not true. Everyone tells you that, but if you drill down and talk to people —what time does the quarterback get in and leave? — you’ll get to the truth. There are guys who are the first ones in. Peyton Manning is one. Rich Gannon used to race to beat Jon Gruden into the building. If you want to be great at the position, that’s the commitment it takes. I’m convinced of that.

“Danny Kanell, a former NFL quarterback who I see a lot now and is a great guy, we were on the radio talking about it and he said, ‘I wish I could do it over again. I was not the guy that was in there at 6 a.m. I’d come in 15 minutes before the meeting. I didn’t get it at the time.’ I respected his honesty to say it. I like that he opened up and said he did do it over again, and maybe he needed someone in his face to tell him to be there at 6 a.m. every day.”

If you read Peter King’s story with Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer last year on The MMQB detailing Palmer’s preparation, you know being an NFL quarterback is not a 9-to-5 job. The willingness to put in crazy hours of preparation is probably the most overlooked attribute for a quarterback. We don’t think about it because it happens behind the scenes, and if someone isn’t preparing hard enough we rarely hear about it.

Winston, even at a very young age, apparently gets it. The Buccaneers have to love that.

Oh, and he’s really talented too. Everything that made him a Heisman Trophy winner at Florida State was on display last season with the Buccaneers. Winston is the main reason the Bucs are a somewhat popular pick to break out in 2016.

There are many pieces in place. Receiver Mike Evans should be fine after too many drops last season. Doug Martin, who finished behind only Adrian Peterson in rushing yards last year, was re-signed. Linebacker Lavonte David and tackle Gerald McCoy are two of the best defenders in the NFL. It’s a relatively young team that seems to be headed in the right direction.

And while it’s scary to believe everything you hear in the offseason, it seems like Winston might be the right quarterback to lead the Buccaneers forward.

Jameis Winston had 4,042 yards and 22 touchdowns as a rookie (AP)
Jameis Winston had 4,042 yards and 22 touchdowns as a rookie (AP)

I mostly liked the Buccaneers offseason. They added good, reliable veteran pieces to the defense like end Robert Ayers, linebacker Daryl Smith and cornerback Brent Grimes. They’re all on the back end of their careers and not all of them will pay off, but they were smart additions. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, Tampa Bay’s first-round selection, was a rare pick in which a strong need happens to also be the best player available. Losing guard Logan Mankins to retirement wasn’t great, but that was the Bucs’ only major loss this offseason. Grade: B

The Buccaneers were actually in the playoff race for a while last year. An 0-4 finish ended that dream, but plenty of good things happened in 2015. The Buccaneers were productive in many areas, including leading the league in rushing yards per attempt. It’s still a young team that should be on the uptick.

There’s a reason the Buccaneers invested in cornerbacks this offseason. They allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 70 percent of their passes with 31 touchdown passes last season. Only four teams allowed more TD passes. Vernon Hargreaves will help, but he’s a rookie. Brent Grimes has had a nice career but he’ll be 33 this season and the end could come fast (sorry, Miko). Tampa Bay’s safeties might be a real problem. The pass defense is a big worry in a division with Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan.

After one week last season, picking Jameis Winston over Marcus Mariota looked crazy. Mariota played circles around Winston and the Bucs in the opener. Ah, impatience. Though the debate is far from over, Winston arguably was leading the race after last season (though, I won’t argue if you want to say Mariota had the better rookie year — it will be a fascinating debate over the next decade). We don’t know what Winston will become in his second, fifth or tenth season, but if you asked the Buccaneers right now, they must be thrilled they selected Winston No. 1 overall last year.

I think this is a big year for receiver Mike Evans. He was amazing at times as a rookie. Last season he put up solid numbers but his overall play slipped. He had five drops in a November game, the most for an NFL player in the last 10 seasons according to ESPN Stats and Info. SportingCharts.com marked Evans down for 11 drops last season, most in the NFL. Evans also saw his touchdowns drop from 12 to 3. Evans has immense talent and it’s a good bet he rebounds from his dip last season, but the Buccaneers will breathe easier when they see Evans back at his 2014 form. He’s a very important piece to the Buccaneers’ rebuild.

Cosell: “The issue for Jameis [Winston] was his lower body. Because he’s not a quick-footed athlete. People mistake the fact that he ran a few times for touchdowns to mean, ‘Oh no, he’s a lot quicker.’ Quickness in and around the pocket is totally different than the ability to run, and that’s what he wasn’t good at. And I talked to people and the explanation I got was really fascinating: He was a baseball player, so in the offseason he never worked on his lower body, so he didn’t have the necessary movement. There were times in training camp when they worked on pocket movement drills and he would fall down. Because his lower body wasn’t used to doing that. Apparently he has lost anywhere from 15-20 pounds and he’s worked really hard on his lower body, which is exactly what he should be doing. If that’s the case, and he’s much better, I think he’ll be a really solid player.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Buccaneers and the rest of the NFC South.]

From Yahoo’s Dalton Del Don: “After scoring 12 touchdowns his rookie season, Mike Evans hit pay dirt just three times last year despite seeing 148 targets over 15 games (including 17 in the red zone). Still just 22 years old, Evans is 6-foot-5, 230 pounds and will continue to see the bulk of targets with few alternatives in Tampa Bay. Moreover, Jameis Winston should show growth in his second year in the league, so Evans is in a perfect situation to finish as a top-10 fantasy wide receiver in 2016.”

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Doug Martin had 1,402 rushing yards last season. He had 950 yards the previous two seasons combined. There’s a reason the Buccaneers didn’t pick up his fifth-year option before last season. Martin was great as a rookie too, rushing for 1,454 yards. So which Martin will it be going forward? The 2013 and 2014 disappointments could have been due to poor offensive line play and injuries (Martin played in just 17 games both those seasons combined). We should probably assume Martin is really the back we saw in 2012 and 2015 and not the one who disappeared in between, but it’ll be worth watching now that he has a five-year contract worth more than $35 million.

DID THE BUCCANEERS MAKE A MISTAKE FIRING LOVIE SMITH?

The Bucs were criticized by some for firing Smith after the team’s four-win improvement last season. That fails to address that Smith did a terrible job leading Tampa Bay to a 2-14 record in 2014. He helped set the bar low. I don’t think any coach who goes 8-24 has too much to complain about if he gets fired, though I also understand that any coach needs time to build his program. Fair or not, the Smith question will be answered by how his replacement Dirk Koetter does.

It’s easy to speculate that the Bucs fired Smith because they were worried about losing Koetter, who did a fine job as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator last season. Koetter has never been an NFL head coach. Koetter was OK as a college coach, following up a 26-10 run at Boise State with a blah 40-34 record at Arizona State. There’s not much to read from that anyway, because being an NFL head coach is a much different job than coaching in college. Here’s what we know about Koetter: He’s a well-respected coordinator whose offenses have finished in the NFL’s top eight three of the last four seasons. Here’s what we don’t know: If he can be an NFL head coach. The Bucs knew tit was a gamble to dump Smith after just two seasons. It’s on Koetter to make the move look smart.

Every year an NFL team comes out of nowhere to make the playoffs. Why not the Bucs this year? It’s unlikely, but the Winston-Martin-Evans trio has a really high ceiling, and the defense has some stars. The NFC South isn’t very good outside of one team, so there are fewer hurdles for Tampa Bay than some other potential breakout teams. A postseason berth isn’t out of the question.

The term “sophomore slump” has become a cliché for a reason. It happens to plenty of players. It’s possible defenses adjust to Winston and he doesn’t have the linear improvement everyone expects after a fine rookie year. If Koetter proves to be miscast as a head coach, Evans hasn’t gotten over the dropsies, Martin looks like he did in 2013-14 and the cornerback problems haven’t been fixed, it could get bad. Don’t forget this team was 2-14 in 2014.

I like the Buccaneers to take a step forward. I don’t think that step will be big enough to get them in the playoffs, especially considering the schedule is a lot tougher than last season. It’s OK if the Buccaneers don’t find themselves in the playoffs this season. As long as Winston continues to improve (he will) and there are signs of progress elsewhere, the Buccaneers can feel good about their direction and continue to build around their young quarterback.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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