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Ranking the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offseason moves

Since DeSean Jackson entered the NFL in 2008, he has caught a league-high 57 passes that have resulted in gains of at least 40 yards. [ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times]

Since DeSean Jackson entered the NFL in 2008, he has caught a league-high 57 passes that have resulted in gains of at least 40 yards. [ANDRES LEIVA | Times]

1. Signing receiver DeSean Jackson

Jameis Winston can throw only so many screen passes to Adam Humphries. For coach Dirk Koetter's offense to reach its explosive potential, the Bucs needed a speedy deep threat, and over the past decade no player has played that role better than Jackson.

It didn't take long for Tampa Bay to feel the difference with him on the field.

"One thing I can promise you: We've had nobody on our team with that kind of speed," coach Dirk Koetter said after the team's first minicamp practice in June. "Those DBs — they are shocked every time at how much DeSean can run by them."

The Bucs executed 12 fewer explosive pass plays last season than in 2015 (Koetter defines explosive pass plays as gains of at least 16 yards). Jackson should erase that difference — and then some. He had 24 such gains last season with Washington.

RELATED STORY: Jackson's most memorable moments

• • •

2. Retaining defensive coordinator Mike Smith

Under Smith's leadership, the defense took a significant step forward in 2016. That turnaround caught the attention of the Jaguars and the Chargers, who interviewed Smith for their head coach vacancies.

Jacksonville opted to stick with interim coach Doug Marrone, and then Smith withdrew his name from consideration for the Los Angeles job, clearing the way for an extended stay in Tampa Bay.

Considering Smith's track record as a coordinator for the Jaguars and head coach for the Falcons, his retention is a major win for the Bucs. At both of his previous stops, his defense improved in each of his first four seasons, as measured by Football Outsiders' efficiency ratings. (DVOA, which stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, is expressed as a percentage. For defenses, the lower the percentage, the better. A defense with a -10 percent DVOA, for example, is 10 percent better than an average defense.)

Jaguars defensive coordinator, 2003-2007

Season Defensive DVOA
2003 -5.4%
2004 -5.8%
2005 -9.1%
2006 -16.1%
2007 -2.5%

Falcons head coach, 2008-2014

Season Defensive DVOA
2008 7.5%
2009 4.1%
2010 -2.1%
2011 -9.1%
2012 -2.9%
2013 13.5%
2014 15.7%

If Tampa Bay's progress continues, expect Smith's name to be atop many teams' wish lists again next offseason.

RELATED STORY: Smith: "I'm in an ideal situation here with the Buccaneers"

• • •

3. Signing defensive tackle Chris Baker

This signing didn't make the splash that the Jackson signing did, but it was a prudent, cost-effective move.

The Bucs were hunting for pass rush help in March and were linked to Calais Campbell. On the open market, however, the demand for quality edge rushers outpaces the supply, and players such as Campbell command a premium price. He followed the money to Jacksonville, where the Jaguars guaranteed him $30 million.

General manager Jason Licht landed Baker at a fraction of the cost ($6 million guaranteed). While he isn't a prototypical edge rusher — he played as a defensive end in Washington's 3-4 sets — he can get after the quarterback. He notched 42 pressures last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Gerald McCoy, the man he'll often be lining up next to, generated 49. He'll be force against the run, too, because it's kind of hard to move the football when there's a 320-pound lineman clogging lanes.

RELATED STORY: Baker brings lighthearted drive to win

• • •

4. Shuffling the offensive line

Winston has taken a beating in his first two seasons. Some of that is a byproduct of Koetter's scheme, which features long-developing routes. The quarterback's refusal to give up on plays until the last possible moment doesn't help.

The offensive line is responsible, too. Coaches have been steadfast in their support of tackle Donovan Smith and guard-turned-center Ali Marpet, but like Winston, they've only been in the league for a minute. Injuries to guard J.R. Sweezy, who missed all of last season, and tackle Demar Dotson, who missed three games, tested Tampa Bay's depth.

Koetter has talked about putting the best five linemen on the field, and to that end, the team has moved Marpet to center. Smith and Dotson will remain at left and right tackle, respectively, while Kevin Pamphile is the projected starter at left guard and Sweezy is the projected start at right guard.

As the Bucs transition to this configuration, one thing that could help: Defenses should be wary of stuffing the box. If they aren't, they'll risk getting burned deep by Mike Evans, Jackson or a certain draft pick …

RELATED STORY: Oh, snap! Marpet moves to center

• • •

5. Drafting tight end O.J. Howard

The most unexpected development of Tampa Bay's offseason came April 27. That's the day Howard slid down the first round of the NFL draft to the Bucs at No. 19. Even though tight end wasn't their most pressing need, the pick was a no-brainer. They could not pass on the Alabama star, one of the best all-around talents in the draft.

In choosing Howard, Tampa Bay immediately upgraded its run game without even taking a ball carrier. An effective run blocker, he'll put his hand in the ground and take on whatever big body is in front of him before moving on to the next level and mauling someone else. That's rare in today's NFL. He could torment NFC South defenses the way the Panthers' Greg Olsen has for years.

In the pass game, he can be a nuisance in the flats but also possesses the speed to draw attention down the field. Alabama's quarterbacks posted a 129.2 rating last season when targeting him on deep routes, according to Pro Football Focus.

When Evans, Jackson and Howard are on the field at the same time this season, there might not be enough defensive backs in the world to stop them.

RELATED STORY: The people you meet on O.J. Howard Lane

• • •

6. Retaining running back Doug Martin

After Martin's violated the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy last season, the Bucs could have walked away from his contract. By holding onto him, though, they've given themselves options.

They could keep him, under the current terms of his contract, even though he is suspended for the first three games of the season. He'll be due about $6 million, but that's not a burden for a team that has plenty of cap space. They also could restructure his deal.

Either way, at this stage, there's no such thing as a team having too many running backs. What seems like a logjam now might not be come Week 4. A quarter of the way through last season, Tampa Bay had lost the top two backs on its depth chart — Martin and Charles Sims — to injury.

Don't rule out a trade, either. There might not be much demand now for a suspended running back coming off a poor season, but valuations can change suddenly. Sam Bradford, for example, wasn't worth a first round pick to the Vikings last summer until Teddy Bridgewater suffered a gruesome season-ending knee injury.

RELATED STORY: Martin relying on strength from drug rehab to power his return

• • •

7. Signing kicker Nick Folk

The Roberto Aguayo Insurance Policy. At this point, Folk's chances of making the team are a coin flip, but the Bucs are protected in the event Aguayo melts down or an exasperated Koetter puts his hands around the former second-round pick's neck, whichever comes first.

On one hand, Licht deserves credit for thinking beyond what he's already invested in Aguayo. On the other, he risks compounding his original error. Kicker performance can be volatile, meaning that even if Folk wins the job, there's no guarantee that he'll be better than Aguayo would have been.

RELATED STORY: Can a kicker make the Bucs a winner? The numbers are clear.

• • •

8. Drafting receiver Chris Godwin and safety Justin Evans

Jackson, who turns 31 in December, can't put defenses to shame forever. Godwin doesn't have the same kind of speed and probably won't ever get the separation that Jackson does, but he has shown promise that he can one day be an outside receiver for Tampa Bay. At Penn State last season, he caught seven touchdowns on passes thrown at least 20 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

In Evans, the Bucs gained sorely needed defensive back depth. He'll bring range and aggressiveness to a defense that allowed a league-high 96 plays of at least 16 yards last season. Even if he doesn't step in as a starter right away — Tampa Bay also has Chris Conte, Keith Tandy and J.J. Wilcox — he might be able to give the team's kick return game a boost. He averaged 28.5 yards per return on 15 kickoffs last season for Texas A&M.

RELATED STORY: Godwin wastes no time impressing

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

Ranking the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offseason moves 07/07/17 [Last modified: Friday, July 7, 2017 12:20pm]
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