Season grade: Below average. The Bucs won just one game in the NFC South. Their red zone woes continued for an offense that averaged just 18 points a game. Defensively, the Bucs took several steps back, going from the NFL’s best third-down defense in 2016 to the worst in 2017. They surrendered the second-most explosive plays in the league and had the 31st-ranked defense overall. Tampa Bay also went through yet another kicking change, cutting Roberto Aguayo in training camp and then replacing Nick Folk with Patrick Murray.
Season in review: The Bucs were billed as a team on the rise when they were featured on HBO’s "Hard Knocks" this summer, looking to build on their 9-7 record from 2016 and not only reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007, but win their division. Instead, things fell apart. Quarterback Jameis Winston suffered a shoulder injury, which sources say actually happened in Week 3 against the Minnesota Vikings and not Week 6 against the Arizona Cardinals. Reports surfaced of a rift between him and coach Dirk Koetter. The frustration of failed expectations weighed on Winston, who had to be restrained by several teammates and nearly knocked director of football operations Shelton Quarles to the ground after the Bucs’ 22-19 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 16. Although he had two three-interception games this season, Winston reminded what he can do when healthy, producing two of the better games of his three-year career in Weeks 15 and 16.
Biggest play of season: Folk's three field-goal misses in prime time against the New England Patriots in Week 5, including a 31-yard miss in the fourth quarter. The Bucs lost 19-14 to drop to 2-3 and never recovered. They went to Arizona the following week and at one point were trailing the Cardinals 31-0.
He said it: "We played 14 different coverages ... We played 14 different coverages and none of them worked. We had everything from the cornerback falling down to a linebacker running out of [his] zone to not getting pressure on the quarterback to double moves to them high-lowing us in a two-deep coverage and throwing over the corner’s head -- every way you can beat those different coverages, they all happened." -- Koetter, after the Bucs surrendered 253 yards and two touchdowns to Julio Jones in Week 12.
Key offseason questions:
Did the Bucs make the right move retaining Koetter? Bucs ownership felt that it was important to keep Koetter around to continue developing Winston. Despite five straight losses from Week 12 to Week 16, the Bucs were encouraged by what they saw, with four of those losses coming either by a field goal or in overtime. They also understood the toll a maddening number of injuries took. Still, Koetter’s offense has been stagnant in terms of scoring points, averaging no higher than 22.1 a game in his three years calling plays for the Bucs. They've generally moved the ball well, but they have to get better in the red zone, from a playcalling and execution standpoint. Koetter should give serious consideration to handing playcalling duties over to offensive coordinator Todd Monken or someone else, allowing him to focus on being a head coach. It was something he considered last offseason, and it needs to be revisited again. Defensively, they actually regressed under Mike Smith, going from a ninth-overall ranking in Lovie Smith’s final year (338.7 yards per game) to 26th (370.1 yards per game) in 2016 and 31st (381.7 yards per game) in 2017. Seeing this coaching staff return will be a hard sell for fans in 2018, but you also have to credit the Glazers for showing some patience, something they didn't do with Lovie Smith or Greg Schiano, who both were fired after two seasons.
What will Winston's status be for 2018? Winston is under investigation by the league for allegedly groping a female Uber driver. That investigation will carry over into 2018. If Winston is handed a six-game suspension like Ezekiel Elliott, that could cripple the Bucs. Then what? Wide receiver DeSean Jackson is also under investigation by the league after a vehicle belonging to him was found wrecked, abandoned and with marijuana and hollow-point bullets inside.
Biggest draft need: Edge rusher. The Bucs’ biggest mistake this offseason was neglecting their pass rush. They were banking on their two speed rushers, Noah Spence and Jacquies Smith, who both underwent surgery in the offseason, to get healthy. Smith isn’t even with the team anymore, and Spence wound up back on injured reserve. Robert Ayers also struggled with injuries, will be 33 by the start of next season and is set to make $5 million in the final year of his deal, which could easily make him a cap casualty. The No. 7 draft pick could certainly help here.
Free-agency targets: Cornerback. Brent Grimes, one of their top players on defense, is set to become a free agent. There was a huge drop-off in games when he was out with an injury this year. A lot of that was due to inexperience, so they need a veteran presence or find another Marshon Lattimore in the draft.
Running back: The Bucs chose to stick by Doug Martin despite his four-game suspension and admission into a drug treatment program. Martin failed to produce, averaging just 3.0 yards per carry, was benched for one game for violating an unspecified team rule and wound up being overtaken by Peyton Barber. Rookies Leonard Fournette, Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt dramatically changed their teams’ offenses this year, and the Bucs need that type of magic.