Next up on my looks on regular season opponents of the Saints focuses on the final NFC South challenger – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In this piece, I intend to grade (out of 5) the positional units of the Bucs to give you a better idea of the opponent. It’s important to note that this isn’t a preview, as many things can change between now and gameday. Also, the grades I give are entirely subjective. However, I’ll try to justify them as best as I can.
Quarterback – Josh McCown. (2/5)
Last year, McCown put up half a season’s worth of great performances which resulted in a 13-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. However, one incredible season from his 12-year pro career is not what you’d call an average haul. He certainly has the upside of being an above-average quarterback, and has the chance to prove that he’s a quality starter despite not having Marc Trestman whispering in his ear. Even if he does prove so, he’s still far inferior to Brees.
Running Backs – Doug Martin, Mike James, Bobby Rainey. (3/5)
The Bucs ground attack had a down year last season, but we’ve seen enough of both Martin and James to suggest they’re above average players. An improved offensive line means the running back numbers will undoubtedly improve. The Saints unit is similar, although I’d give a very slight edge to New Orleans.
Wide Receivers – Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans, Louis Murphy. (3/5)
This group is very top heavy and led by Vincent Jackson, the reliable and dangerous weapon. While he dropped the 4th-most catches of all receivers last year (12), he comes up big in clutch moments. Evans has the potential to be the Alshon Jeffery to Jackson’s Brandon Marshall, but potential is the key word – he’s only just a rookie. And Louis Murphy is… wait, who is Louis Murphy? At the end of the year, this group may be a top-10 WR corps in the league. For now, above average will do. The Saints are marginally better, thanks to better depth.
Tight End – Timothy Wright, Brandon Myers, Austin Seferian-Jenkins. (3/5)
Depth helps their grade here, with Myers and Wright both having been starters last year. I really liked Wright last season, despite Tampa’s reluctance to use him. He figures to be an intriguing pass-catching option over the middle. Seferian-Jenkins is someone we at Cover32 NOLA were quite high on entering the draft. Again though, it’s difficult to project rookies. Despite the depth the Buccaneers hold at the position, the Saints unit is the best in the NFL.
Offensive Line – Anthony Collins, Carl Nicks, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Patrick Omameh, Demar Dotson. (4/5)
It’s about time the Bucs let Donald Penn and his 12 sacks allowed in 2013 walk, and they replaced him with Anthony Collins, a guy who gave up no sacks or hits last year. A huge upgrade, in my opinion. Bringing back Carl Nicks will be big for this unit too, especially in the run game. His return, added to a line that features road-paving Demar Dotson, signals a likely better running game. New center Dietrich-Smith figures to be an upgrade over Jeremy Zuttah. The question mark comes in the form of RG Patrick Omameh. Last year, RG Davin Joseph was terrible in the run game – grading as the worst guard in run-blocking, according to Pro Football Focus – so Omameh can’t be worse. Overall, this unit looks to be even with that of the Saints. If pushed, I’d give the Bucs line a slight edge due to the inexperience of Terron Armstead and Tim Lelito.
Defensive Line – Adrian Clayborn, Gerald McCoy, Akeem Spence, Michael Johnson. (2/5)
Let’s start with the positives. Gerald McCoy is a freak at DT – his 10 sacks and 14 QB hits speak volumes about his ability. Free agency acquisition Michael Johnson may have had a down year in terms of sacks (5), but the he graded as the second-best run-stopping 4-3 DE last year. That sort of versatility is a major step up from one of the worst starting DEs in the league last year in Te’o-Nesheim. Now for the bad. Adrian Clayborn was ineffective at best, and a ghost at worst. Akeem Spence had the worst run-stop % of all DTs last year, which is worrying considering he plays alongside a pass-rushing DT in McCoy. Even as a pass-rusher though, Spence had the lowest productivity of all DTs. Altogether, the Bucs D-line falls short of the Saints unit.
Linebackers – Jonathan Casillas, Mason Foster, Lavonte David. (3/5)
Another case of a Jeckyl mixed up with some Hydes. Lavonte David is one of the best linebackers in the NFL and is consistently excellent in coverage, against the run and when rushing the passer. Dekoda Watson, who played opposite David last year, was a solid piece of the linebacking group. With Casillas replacing him, I can’t see the position improving. Mason Foster had a worse tackling efficiency (number of attempted tackles per missed one) than all ILBs except two last year. With that said, I do think the Buccaneer linebackers edge out the Saints ones at the position.
Secondary – Alterraun Verner, Johnthan Banks, D.J. Moore, Mark Barron, Dashon Goldson. (3/5)
The Bucs secondary is definitely the weakness of the team’s defence. While I really like Verner – only 3 other cornerbacks gave up a lower QB rating in their coverage – he’s the only one of the group that really excels at what he does. The others are fairly mediocre. Mark Barron flashed potential frequently, but was caught out of position far too often – only 6 safeties spent less snaps in coverage per reception allowed. In short, this unit is far from the elite one the Saints field.
Special Teams – Connor Barth, Michael Koenen, Eric Page. (2/5)
While Barth is a better kicker than Shayne Graham of the Saints, neither Koenen (7th most punt return yards allowed) nor Page (outside the top-10 in both average kick-return yards and average punt-return yards) are great. The Saints are superior at the specialist positions overall.
While the Buccaneers have taken many steps in the right direction, they still remain well short of the Saints in terms of talent. While they hold advantages over the Saints at both linebacker and offensive line, they are only marginal ones. How new head coach Lovie Smith works this defence will be the key to their season. For now, I see the Saints roster superior enough to the Bucs one to pick up the win in NOLA as well as in Tampa Bay.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know by commenting below. You can find me on Twitter at @neershah9 – I’m more than happy to talk Saints football. Also, feel free to check out the rest of my work here.