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Buccaneers’ decade of futility is almost over

With Jameis Winston entering his third year and a fast-improving defense, the Bucs’ rebuild might actually be ahead of schedule.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s certainly been trying times for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this decade. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2007 and are on their fifth head coach in nine seasons. If Dirk Koetter, who is headed into his second season as head coach, makes it to a third year, he’ll eclipse the tenures of his two predecessors, Lovie Smith and Greg Schiano.

It sounds like a dysfunctional mess, but things are looking up for the Bucs thanks to having the one thing that’s eluded this franchise for decades: a legitimate franchise quarterback. Jameis Winston took some noticeable steps forward as an NFL sophomore, and the Bucs were one of the league’s hotter teams once the second half of 2016 came around, winning five straight games to enter the NFC’s playoff race. They faded down the stretch but still finished 9-7, the team’s first winning record since 2010.

With Winston under center, a superstar wide receiver in Mike Evans, and rising talent on the defensive side, general manager Jason Licht has quietly built one of the most promising young teams in the NFL. The next challenge for the Bucs will be navigating a tricky NFC South, where the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and New Orleans Saints will all be tough opponents.

But despite the competition and some question marks left on the roster, there’s little doubt that the Bucs are heading in the right direction.

Winston looks like the franchise QB they’ve been searching for

Here’s how dismal Tampa’s quarterback history is: Jameis Winston played two seasons and is already seventh all-time in Bucs passing yards. He needs just 6,688 yards to pass Vinny Testaverde as the franchise’s all-time leader. Thankfully for the Bucs, Winston looks like he’s finally their long-term answer at quarterback.

There are still holes in Winston’s game, to be sure. He commits too many turnovers — he threw 18 interceptions and fumbled the ball 10 times, losing three, last season. His accuracy isn’t quite as high as you’d like to see (Winston’s 60.8 completion percentage ranked No. 23 out of qualified quarterbacks.) He’s not quite a finished product, but at age 23, Winston has plenty of time to get there.

And while Winston isn’t exactly known for his running prowess, he’s shifty in the pocket and has a knack for keeping plays alive even when protection breaks down.

Steadily improving under Koetter’s mentorship, it probably won’t be long before Winston joins the NFL’s upper tier of quarterbacks.

It helps that the team keeps surrounding Winston with good weapons, greatly taking some pressure off his plate.

Mike Evans is an ace who has a new wingman

The Bucs’ first-round pick in 2014, Evans is a beast who stands in at 6’5, 231 pounds and plays every bit like it. It’s almost unfair how much of a mismatch he is for most opponents.

Other than struggling with drops, Evans has mostly lived up to the hype since entering the league out of Texas A&M. He already has 27 touchdowns and 3,578 receiving yards in three years, using his body and route-running skills to become a massive game-breaking threat. The Bucs picked up his fifth-year option for 2018, and a long-term extension could come as soon as next spring.

So Evans is the real deal, but he needed more help — a solid No. 2 receiver was one of the Bucs’ biggest offseason needs. Vincent Jackson was clearly on the decline even before tearing his ACL last year, and the 34-year-old free agent remains unsigned. With no other serious in-house replacements, the Bucs signed DeSean Jackson, who’s almost the opposite of Evans in terms of skill set.

Jackson is small, fast, and can still take the lid off defenses even after turning 30 years old. He’s also a consistent injury risk, having not played 16 games since 2013, but the Bucs will take that risk as long as Jackson frees up Evans to do his thing on the field.

Tampa also added some muscle in the draft, selecting Alabama tight end O.J. Howard in the first round. At 6’6, 251 pounds, Howard is a physical specimen who ran a 4.51 40 time at the combine. He gives Winston yet another big-bodied target alongside fellow tight end Cameron Brate, who emerged as a red-zone threat with 57 catches, 660 yards, and eight touchdowns. The Bucs kept Brate on a restricted free agent tender, and he’ll likely be the Week 1 starter as Howard gets up to speed.

Although Howard might not earn the starting job right away, he’s already drawing rave reviews from his quarterback.

“What he’s going to do to this team is going to be amazing,” Winston said, via Buccaneers.com. “You guys are going to see it, just sit back and watch. This is the fastest, most athletic 6-foot-6 (and) 255-pound guy I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s unreal. He looks like he’s 230 but he’s about 260 or 255. It’s amazing.”

With so much receiving talent, it’d be easy to overlook the running game, which has more upside than it appears at first glance.

How much can the Bucs trust Doug Martin?

Martin’s had a strange career, to say the least. He burst onto the scene as a 2012 rookie with 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns, only to devolve into an injury-prone mess over the next two years. In 2015, Martin stayed healthy and racked up 1,402 yards, just in time to sign a five-year, $35.75 million extension.

However, 2016 was a disaster in every way for Martin. He missed eight games and performed dismally when he was on the field (2.9 yards per carry on 144 attempts). Late in the season, he was handed a four-game suspension by the league, which will cost him the first three games of 2017.

It wouldn’t have been surprising if the Bucs simply cut their losses and moved on with Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers, and possibly a rookie draft pick. But instead, they supported him the whole time. Martin entered rehab, was a full participant in OTAs, and coaches couldn’t stop raving about him in the spring. Via Florida Football Insiders:

“We’ve been happy with the trajectory he’s on,’’ Licht said of Martin. “I’ve said that before but it’s the truth. He has the right mindset right now and he looks good physically.

“We still have some time there but just two years ago he was the second leading rusher in the NFL. Within the building here, we feel comfortable with our guys, and that includes Doug.’’

The Bucs showed their commitment to Martin by not bringing in any serious competition. Their only offseason moves at RB were re-signing Rodgers and drafting Jeremy McNichols in the fifth round. By all accounts, it sounds like Martin’s turned a new leaf, and if he’s back to dominating like we saw in 2012 and 2015, the Bucs’ offense suddenly looks a lot more dangerous than it would otherwise.

Even the defense showed real signs of growth

One of the more pleasant surprises from last season was how fast the Bucs’ defense made a leap. During the first half of the year, Tampa gave up at least 30 points four times, which contributed to the team’s slow 3-5 start. However, over the final eight games, the defense held opponents to 20 points or less five times and went 6-2 in that span. In the end, the Bucs finished a respectable 12th place in defensive DVOA.

Perhaps the team’s most important player on defense is defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, fresh off his fifth straight Pro Bowl selection. McCoy is a rock in the middle of the line and a talented pass rusher for a tackle — his 6.5 sacks tied for the team lead last season. Robert Ayers also had 6.5 sacks after joining the team as a free agent. Youth is one of the biggest things this line has going for it, with William Gholston (25 years old) and Noah Spence (23) both playing key roles. Spence in particular was impressive, recording 5.5 sacks as a rookie.

Lavonte David remains one of the best linebackers in the league, but Kwon Alexander (22 years old) is another rising young player on this defense. After missing four games to suspension his rookie year, Alexander played all 16 games in 2016 and led the team with 146 tackles, while putting up three sacks of his own.

If there are any glaring concerns left on defense, it’s in the secondary. Cornerback Brent Grimes is still producing at age 34, and Vernon Hargreaves showed promise as a rookie, but the safety positions have been a liability for a while now. Free agent signee J.J. Wilcox and second-round rookie Justin Evans are expected to challenge Chris Conte and Keith Tandy, who worked as the starting safeties in minicamp. Don’t expect this position to be settled until training camp is well underway.

Well, guess we have to talk about the kickers

Normally the kicking competition doesn’t get much ink, but when you trade up to draft a kicker in the second round like the Bucs did last year, you invite that kind of scrutiny. Roberto Aguayo entered the league with some hype as the most accurate kicker in college football history, but the second round was just too high and he didn’t come close living up to expectations.

Last season, Aguayo made just 22 of 31 field goals, a 71 percent conversion rate that was lowest in the NFL among qualified kickers. Under most circumstances that might be written off as rookie jitters, or the team might even just cut him without a second thought. Instead, the Bucs signed veteran Nick Folk to compete with Aguayo in camp.

With the Bucs starring on Hard Knocks this season, don’t expect this to be one of the top stories they focus on.

Is it ready to all come together?

Looking at the depth chart from top to bottom, there’s a ton to love about this Bucs team. It has the proper mix of young drafted players starting to come into their own and a handful of legitimate star talent still in their primes. Tampa came close last year, so it’s not hard to imagine the team fixing its glaring flaws and getting back into the postseason.

That said, the Bucs will have to get through a strong division that features the NFC’s last two Super Bowl representatives (Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers), so the Bucs won’t have much room for error. Still, this team has a bright future ahead, and if Winston fulfills his potential, the Bucs won’t just be playoff contenders this year. They will be for many more years to come.