Now that I’ve gone over the defense, it’s time to take a look at the offense. Luckily, that side of the ball is not in nearly as much trouble. However, there are some holes to be filled and some needs to be met so this part of my series will focus on two specific areas: the offensive line and the running back group. I may throw a surprise or two in as well, but first, let’s talk about the o-line.
The Bucs offensive line was an experiment from beginning to end last season. It started with 2016 starting right guard Ali Marpet being moved to starting center, 2016 free agent signing J.R. Sweezy being inserted in at starting right guard and reserve tackle Kevin Pamphile and reserve guard/center Evan Smith sharing duties at starting left guard (don’t ask me why). It ended with Marpet, Sweezy and starting right tackle Demar Dotson on injured reserve, Pamphile starting at left guard, reserve center Joe Hawley starting at center, Evan Smith at right guard and reserve lineman Caleb Benenoch starting at right tackle with left tackle Donovan Smith being the only Bucs player to start all 16 games. This injury-plagued group allowed 40 sacks and was ranked 27th in rushing with 1,450 yards. They have to get better and it starts in free agency.
This offseason for the o-line may start with a decision whether to leave Marpet at center or move him back to right guard. Sweezy was a bit of a disappointment in 2017, but he did miss the entire 2016 season due to a back injury. He’s due nearly $6 million in 2018 so the Bucs could decide to cut their losses and move on from him. If they do, it will be a $1.875 million hit towards the salary cap, but they’ll be saving another $4 million by releasing him. They also may have a big decision to make concerning right tackle Demar Dotson. He’s coming off of one of his best seasons, but it also ended with him on the injured reserve list. At 32 years old, it could be a challenge for him to return to form after a serious knee injury. He’s due $4.6 million for 2018. To complicate matters even worse guards Kevin Pamphile and Evan Smith are both unrestricted free agents. Smith is likely gone, but Pamphile could return if he doesn’t draw much interest in free agency and the Bucs can bring him back at the right price. The two of them accounted for just over $5 million worth of contracts for the 2017 season. There’s a possibility that the Buccaneers could be filling three of their five starting offensive linemen spots for 2018, so here are a few prospects that they could have their eyes on during free agency.
G Justin Pugh (27)- 6’5″/311lbs: Although he’s had some injury issues (missed 13 games in the last 2 seasons), he is one of the best guards in the NFL when healthy. He made $2 million with the Giants in 2017, but now has an estimated market value of $6 million as an unrestricted free agent. He could make a nice replacement for Sweezy for about the same money and the Bucs would be signing a slightly younger player with more upside.
G D.J. Fluker (27)- 6’5″/345lbs: Another Giants guard becoming an unrestricted free agent after earning $3 million missing 7 games in 2017. He did struggle a little bit in pass protection, but he’s an extremely strong run blocker which is where the Bucs need the most improvement up front. He wouldn’t be a candidate for the left guard spot, but he could make for a nice addition at right guard.
G Josh Kline (28)- 6’3″/300lbs: The oldest offensive lineman on my list is ranked as one of the top 50 free agents for 2018. He’s been a solid right guard for the Titans in the past 2 seasons after spending his first three years with the Pats. He made $2.375 million in 2017 and now has an estimated market value of $11 million, but I don’t think he’ll command that much money in a guard heavy free agency period. I think he’ll end up signing closer to the $8 million mark, which is still a high price for a right guard.
RT Byron Bell (28)- 6’5″/320lbs: After spending his first 4 seasons in Carolina where he only missed 2 games, he spent 2016 with the Titans and 2017 with the Cowboys. He saw some action at left tackle last year when starter Tyron Smith got injured so he’s got the versatility to play all across the line which adds some value. He made $1.775 million in 2017.
OL Chris Hubbard (26)- 6’4″/295lbs: He’s an athletic lineman who’s played all five positions across the offensive line for the Steelers over his first 4 seasons. He’s best suited to play guard but has experience at right tackle. If Pittsburgh doesn’t re-sign him, he could be a nice addition as a reserve for the Buccaneers. He made $1.8 million in 2017.
RT Cameron Fleming (25)- 6’6″/320lbs: He’s been a valuable swing tackle for the Patriots for his first 4 seasons, but has yet to earn a consistent starting role although he does have starts at both right and left tackle. He’s still young and has tremendous upside if or when he gets the right opportunity. He made $1.8 million in 2017.
RT Ja’Wuan James (25)- 6’6″/307lbs: He was excellent in pass protection and a strong run blocker for the Dolphins until he suffered a season-ending groin injury and missed the final 8 games of the year. He made $2.7 million in 2017, but is set to earn $9.3 million should the Fins pick up his 5th year option. If they don’t pick it up before March 14th, then he’ll become an unrestricted free agent. He could end up as a really solid replacement for Dotson on the right side.
G Andrew Norwell (26)- 6’6″/325lbs: He’s one of the best guards in the NFL and he plays for the Panthers. He’s also durable playing in all 32 games over the past 2 seasons. He’s the #7 free agent of 2018 and for good reason. He was the 8th ranked guard in run blocking and the 2nd ranked guard in pass protection allowing only 13 hurries in 564 passing snaps. He was also the ONLY offensive lineman in the entire league with over 500 passing snaps who didn’t allow a sack or even a QB hit. Carolina doesn’t have the cap space to re-sign him so he’s likely to hit the open market. After making just $2.75 million in 2017, he has an estimated market value of $11.7 million. He likely won’t get that much, but it won’t be far off. If the Bucs are smart, they’ll pay the man. He would help out left tackle Donovan Smith a ton over there. How much is Jameis Winston’s blindside worth? We may find out pretty soon. And bonus, they’d be stealing a valuable asset away from a division rival.
G Zach Fulton (26)- 6’5″/316lbs: He has been a rock for the Chiefs at right guard, missing only one game in his first 4 seasons. He only made $1.8 million in 2017 and will likely be in for a hefty pay raise with an estimated market value of around $7 million as an unrestricted free agent. He showed some serious versatility in 2017 playing 846 snaps (634 at center, 150 at left guard, 62 at right guard) while only allowing 12 pressures (1 hit, 11 hurries). He’s top notch in pass protection and displays brute power in his run blocking. He would be a solid replacement for Sweezy at right guard for just a little more money as he was going to be due nearly $6 million for 2018.
I know what you’re thinking. That’s a shit ton of money, right? Not really. When you consider that the Bucs were going to spend almost $10 million on Sweezy and Dotson and paid Pamphile and Evan Smith almost $5 million in 2017, it’s not that bad. I’m talking about seriously upgrading the offensive line and getting younger across the board by spending an extra $10 million a year or so. They have the cap space. Why not use some of it on the weakest area of the offense? How much is Winston’s health worth? How much are the Bucs willing to spend on a productive run game? We’ll find out here soon enough.
This is the other area of concern for the Bucs offense. Doug Martin will not be returning next season. Charles Sims is an unrestricted free agent after making nearly $800k in 2017. Peyton Barber is an exclusive rights free agent. The only Buccaneers running back currently still under contract is Jacquizz Rodgers. The good news is that they can re-sign Barber for nearly nothing as an ERFA and Rodgers is only set to make $1.6 million for 2018. The team is also saving $6.75 million with the release of Martin. My point is that the Bucs have a little money to spend on a free agent running back. If they follow my plan for free agency so far, then they can use their 7th overall pick on Penn State RB Saquon Barkley (if he’s still there). Even then, they would still need to replace third down back Charles Sims in free agency. So here are a few players that the Bucs could be considering come March.
RB Jeremy Hill (25)- 6’1″/230lbs: He’s been a versatile back for the Bengals since being picked in the 2nd round of the 2014 draft. He totaled 2,757 rushing yards, averaged 4.2 ypc and had 29 touchdowns while only missing one game in his first 3 seasons. In 2017, he missed 9 games due to an ankle injury and is most likely done in Cincy after making $1.2 million. He’d be a good compliment to Barber and Rodgers who have different body types and running styles.
RB Isaiah Crowell (25)- 5’11″/225lbs: He has been fairly productive despite where he’s played and who he’s played with in Cleveland. Even without a decent o-line, he’s managed to total 3,118 rushing yards, 4.2 ypc and 21 touchdowns in his first 4 seasons while either playing or starting in all 16 games of each. He made $2.7 million in 2017 while producing 853 yards on 206 carries for 4.1 ypc and 2 touchdowns. Perhaps his most impressive stat is that he’s only had 5 fumbles in 737 career carries. There will likely be a market out there for his services which could drive his value up, but if the Bucs are looking for a new feature back then he could be their man.
RB Carlos Hyde (27)- 6’/235lbs: He’s spent his first 4 seasons in San Francisco where he’s earned a reputation of being “injury prone”. That’s not quite accurate. He was a backup to Frank Gore as a rookie but still managed to produce 333 yards on 83 carries for a 4.0 ypc average and 4 touchdowns in his 14 games played. His 2015 season was cut short after just 7 games after breaking a bone in his foot but not before he totaled 470 yards on 115 carries for a 4.1 ypc average and 3 touchdowns. He did miss 3 games in 2016, but still managed 988 yards on 217 carries for a 4.6 ypc average and 6 touchdowns. He also averaged 12.5 yards per reception and had 3 receiving touchdowns. In 2017, he played all 16 games and finished with 240 carries for 938 yards and 3.9 ypc with 8 touchdowns while catching 59 passes for 350 yards for 21.9 yards per reception. In all, he’s missed 14 games out of 48 possible contests and 9 of them were in one season. He made $1.2 million in 2017 and has an estimated market value of about $5.5 million as an unrestricted free agent.
RB Jerick McKinnon (26)- 5’9″/205lbs: He wants to be a feature back which makes it unlikely that he stays in Minnesota to play second fiddle to Dalvin Cook. He has totaled 1,918 rushing yards, 984 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns over his first 4 seasons. In 2017, he finished with a career-best 570 rushing yards, 421 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns while making about $830k. Thanks to his successful year, he now has an estimated market value of $4 million as an unrestricted free agent and would be the perfect candidate to replace Sims as the Bucs new third down back. The question is can they sell him on the role?
And now for the “surprises”…you ready?
The Bucs are clearly sitting pretty when it comes to their wide receiver group. Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin make for a formidable trio. Adam Humphries is a restricted free agent. After them, there’s Freddie Martino and Bobo Wilson. My thought is, what if they end up losing Hump to free agency? It could happen. If some team out there, oh let’s say the Patriots, decide that he is worth more than the Bucs are willing to pay then it could happen. Then what? Do the Bucs trust Martino or Wilson enough to step up and fill the role of such a productive and beloved player? Should they? Here are a couple of interesting, maybe even controversial possibilities for the Bucs in free agency.
WR Terrelle Pryor (28)- 6’4″/228lbs: He was on my free agent wish list last year too. Unfortunately, for him maybe, he went to the Redskins instead. After somehow managing 77 catches for 1,007 yards and 4 touchdowns with whoever the QB was in Cleveland for 2016, he only totaled 20 catches for 240 yards and a touchdown in 9 games with Kirk Cousins before being sent to Injured Reserve with an ankle injury. He made $6 million in 2017 but won’t likely get anything near that as an unrestricted free agent after last season. It sure would be nice to have another big bodied wide receiver to pair up with Evans, but the rumor is that he’ll end up back with the Browns opposite Josh Gordon, so we shall see.
WR Josh Gordon (26)- 6’3″/225lbs: Speak of the devil. Yep, I said it…but hear me out because this one is a real longshot. As of right now, he’s considered an exclusive rights free agent which means that the Browns are the only team that can make him an offer and for the third year player (which is what he’s considered despite being drafted in 2012) would be around the $700k mark. However, even though it would be a really stupid decision, the Browns could elect not to make him an offer at all. If that happens, then as of 4pm on March 14th, he would automatically become an unrestricted free agent and be able to sign with whichever team he chooses. You’re probably asking “Why?” in your head, aren’t you? Let me explain why. He has a career average of 16.6 yards per catch. In 2013, he had 87 catches for 1,646 yards, 18.9 ypc and 9 touchdowns…in 14 games! In just 5 games in 2017, he had 18 catches for 335 yards and 18.6 ypc. The dude is a beast…when he’s on the field. I know he’s had a rocky past, but if he has actually straightened his life out and grown up, then watch out NFL.
My other “surprise”. I like Patrick Murray. I really do. He’s a great kid. That being said, he has a weak leg. For evidence of that just take a look at his stats. With field goals under 50-yards, he’s golden. In 2017, he hit 17 of his 18 kicks from that distance as well as 21 of his 22 extra point attempts. However, beyond that 50-yard mark, he was only 2 for 5 and 7 of 12 for his career. That’s not the only downfall to his lack of leg strength. Out of his 59 kickoff attempts, only 14 of them were touchbacks. That’s a huge problem. He is now an exclusive rights free agent, which means the Bucs are the only ones who can make him an offer until March 14th. If they don’t, then he becomes an unrestricted free agent and can sign with any team. Should they decide to go that route, I have a viable candidate to replace him.
K Chris Boswell (26)- 6’2″/185lbs: The clutch kicker from the Steelers is now a restricted free agent, which means other teams can make him offers and Pittsburgh has first dibs to match any offers that come in. Should they decide not to match the highest offer, then the offering team gets him. He made $615k in 2017 and will surely make more than that with his new contract. During his short 3 year career, he’s hit 90% of his field goals, including 6 of 8 from 50+ yards and had 121 touchbacks in 244 kickoff attempts. He’s also made 99 of his 102 extra point attempts. Between Murray and Nick Folk’s guaranteed contract, the Bucs paid nearly $2.5 million for kickers last season. I say throw that number at Boswell and see if the Steelers have the balls to match it.
Well, that’s it. That’s my take on the offensive side of free agency. My winning strategy only cost the team about $15 million in actual cap space once it’s all said and done. They get a revamped offensive line with Norwell, James and Fulton. They get a new backfield with Barkley and McKinnon. They get a big bodied receiver in either Gordon or Pryor. And they get a mule for a new kicker in Boswell. That seems like $15 million well spent if you ask me. I can’t wait for 4pm on March 14th when the proverbial shit hits the fan and the free agency frenzy begins. But until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!