Winning Nucleus — Or Just A Nucleus?

July 18th, 2018


Six years after Greg Schiano barked out “toes on the line” at One Buc Place, the motto has changed a bit.

Today, it’s “jobs on the line.”

We know 2018 could be the last year for Dirk Koetter and Jason Licht in Tampa, but they are far from alone when it comes to facing the challenge of a make-or-break season.

Big decisions must be made on the 2015 draft class and another 5-11 finish will surely impact the futures of Jameis Winston, Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet and Kwon Alexander.

Give Licht credit for drafting four starters in one swoop, but it’s also true that Tampa Bay is 20-28 during the past three seasons. Another year spent in the division basement would surely give the Glazers pause about whether to reward this quartet with lucrative contract extensions.

Dollar Signs

Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, Mike Evans and Cameron Brate have already passed the test. They got their money. It’s all part of an overall franchise philosophy, according to Buccaneers co-chairman Joel Glazer.

Bucs owner Joel Glazer talks to GM Jason Licht before a 2017 kickoff.

“I think one of the positive signs in any situation is re-signing your own players,” he says. “And when you start getting on a trend that you’re re-signing your own players, that means you are drafting well. If you’re drafting well, generally that means you’re going to start having success.

“So you saw Cameron Brate and Mike Evans re-signed. We got a couple of young guys with contracts that are coming up that we know we’re going to want to keep. So that to me is the most positive sign of, you know, what’s happening with the general manager.”

That sounds like good news for Licht, but Smith, Marpet and Alexander can become unrestricted free agents in 2019. In theory, they have some leverage, but all three have been uneven since turning pro.

Smith’s inconsistency after three seasons at left tackle is a bit maddening. He tends to play better against better competition, but he needs to be more dependable at a key position.

Marpet was developing into a solid right guard before last year’s ill-advised shift to center. Now, he’s being moved to left guard, so the entire left side of this offensive line faces a contract year.

Alexander’s intangibles are impressive, but he still needs to work on his communication skills and his technique. Right now, he’s the middle linebacker on a defense that allowed the most yards in the league.

Winston is in line to make $21 million next year — if the Bucs keep him. If he plays 13 games this season, if he plays well, and if the team wins, Winston figures to be back under center.

That’s a lot of ifs.

Next Class Up

Yes, jobs are on the line this fall. And how these players respond to the pressure of entering a potential final contract year could determine the direction of this entire organization.

The Glazers say they don’t mind reaching into their pockets.

“The road that leads to sustained success is drafting well, keeping those players and growing the team that way,” Joel Glazer says. “Big contracts come along with this formula because if you get it right, you’ve got to pay big salaries. We look forward to that.”

Did the Bucs get it right?

We’ll know soon enough. What we do know is this formula worked when the Bucs kept their defensive nucleus intact during the glory years. Two decades ago, here’s how ownership explained the decision to reward GM Rich McKay.

“Extending Rich’s contract fits in with the philosophy of this team, which is to identify your key personnel and keep them around.”

It’s your turn, Class of 2015.

Now in his 40th year covering the NFL , Ira Kaufman is the most revered sports personality and writer in the Tampa Bay area. He scored a full-time seat at world headquarters in July of 2016. Tampa Bay’s only Pro Football Hall of Fame voter, Ira busts out columns here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and his award winning podcasts fire Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can also hear Ira on SiriusXM Mad Dog Radio Wednesdays at 5 p.m. during football season. Also a TV start, see Ira now on Mondays at 10:30 p.m. on Spectrum Sports 360 (aka BayNews 9). Ira also is part of the FOX-13 Tailgate Sunday NFL show and enjoys beet salads, Riesling, Chiefs victories and needling Joe.

9 Responses to “Winning Nucleus — Or Just A Nucleus?”

  1. BrianBucs Says:

    Every team in the NFL has lots of good players and talent. However, the coaching staff needs to know how to use them and you have to have the right blend of players.
    When a GM has been with a team as long as Jason Licht has been here, and your team just went 5-11 something somewhere isn’t working.

  2. D-Rome Says:

    Well said BrianBucs. All that Jason Licht has proved so far is that he’s a good scout and good talent evaluator. Drafting well is only part of a GM’s job. GMs have to build a team and put all the pieces together to create a winner. Licht has failed in that regard. I think the 2017 off season was his best one but it’s probably too little too late.

  3. GhostofSchiano Says:

    BrianBucs Says: However, the coaching staff needs to know how to use them and you have to have the right blend of players.


  4. Destinjohnny Says:

    Hard to win with a marginal running game marginal offensive line and marginal secondary. Then add that Jamies when not suspended is about the 18th best qb

  5. Roy T. Buford Says:

    Great article as always from Ira. My take is no matter what, Kwon and Ali are locks. Smith is a question mark to me…maybe he gets a new deal but not a stud deal. Winston? Well, we know the factors on that. Yup, another 5-11 Bucs record, and any slip-ups off-field and lack of progresssion for Winston, or the fans don’t forget…and the would-be Winston cash can be spread around a bit elsewhere.

  6. Defense Rules Says:

    I second Roy’s comment Ira … another great article. Personally think that Licht has a real conundrum on his hands: I seriously doubt Bucs have the CAP space to give Winston his 5th yr option, PLUS re-sign Donovan, Ali AND Kwon (plus several others like Humphries & Fitz who’ll expect to be paid if they have a good 2018 season). That is, of course, without cutting some other high salaries.

    In terms of priorities, I think that Donovan & Ali are both ‘locks’ for 2019 (our RG & RT spots will need priority in FA & the draft … replacing our LT with someone better than Donovan would be REALLY big bucks). I also think Bucs will pick up Winston’s 5th yr option ($21 mil isn’t extravagant for a starting QB & the Bucs need time to figure out if Jameis is ‘THE FRANCHISE QB’ they thought he’d become when they drafted him).

    IMO, Kwon IS the dilemma. Whether the Bucs re-sign him will depend on how well he plays (and leads), as well as how well Beckwith & David play. If Kwon plays lousy this year or misses a bunch of time, he’s toast. If Beckwith plays lights out (with some time at MLB), he might well be Kwon’s replacement at MLB in 2019. David is the X-factor in all this IMO … a mediocre year & he could be history ($10 mil a year creates some high performance expectations). In that case, Kwon may get re-signed and be moved over to LVD’s slot, with Beckwith sliding to the middle. LOTS & LOTS of IF’s that Licht will have to work through. But not until AFTER the 2018 season finishes.

  7. Not there yet Says:

    Man I’m a Winston fan but he really annoyed me with this off field nonsense. I understand it happened 2 years ago but it’s out there now and he ruined what was a really good off-season. Now Everytime I read pro football talk they and the biggest haters I’ve ever met and they only talk about Winston if it’s negative because of all the clicks

    Dealing with the negativity if a losing season is more than enough without the drama. I hate that his status is on jeopardy but and all I can hope is he plays out of his mind like Kobe Bryant when he got caught in his sexual assault case

  8. Mike Johnson Says:

    Again..Koetter was not ready for head Coaching. Some coaches are Great when they..stay in their lanes. Koetter belongs to that mode where he’s good at doing just one thing. And DC Smitty? He’s seen his peak..his better coaching days. Why the hell do you guys think..ATL owner Arthur Blanks let them both go? He knew. Just like We..are finding out. We have some good players. All teams do. Ours..just don’t have that leadership to show them How to win.

  9. Jolly Bucs Fan Says:

    No matter what gotta keep Licht.

    had his rookie GM mistakes sure. but he has drafted really well and seems to only be getting better.

    Dont get rid of Licht now that he is at his best. Lots of good years and talent to come with Licht as GM