The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a popular pick going into the 2017 season to take that next step and be a legit contender in the NFC. Tampa Bay snapped a streak of 5 straight years with a losing record by going 9-7 in 2016 and were featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks leading up to the 2017 season.

Needless to say, it didn’t go as planned. The Bucs wound up in the basement of the NFC South at 5-11. Marking the 6th time in the last 7 years that they ended the season last in their own division. It’s also worth noting Tampa Bay hasn’t been to the postseason in 10 years, which is the second longest drought in the league behind only the Browns.

The pressure is on 3rd-year head coach Dirk Koetter to get this team on the same page as their three division rivals in the Panthers, Saints and Falcons, who are all legit Super Bowl contenders.

Whether or not that happens, will come down to starting quarterback Jameis Winston, who hasn’t exactly lived up to the hype of being the No. 1 overall pick (2015). Winston has shown flashes, but the offense was atrocious in the red-zone last year and he continues to struggle to take care of the football.

There’s a good chance the Bucs will have to make due without Winston to start the season, as he’s facing a likely 3-game suspension from the league. That’s going to put a lot of pressure on veteran backup Ryan Fitzpatrick to keep Tampa Bay from starting out in a 0-3 hole.

There’s no shortage of weapons for whoever the starting quarterback is. The Bucs have one of the top young talents in the game in wide out Mike Evans, who has recorded a 1,000 yard season in each of his first 4 years in the league. They also have a legit game-changer in DeSean Jackson, though he struggled to get on the same page with Winston last year. Chris Godwin showed flashes as a rookie and Adam Humphries is another reliable target. Tampa also has two talented young tight ends in Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard.

The biggest problem with the Bucs offense a year ago was the lack of balance. Tampa Bay ranked 4th in passing (272.9 ypg) but were a mere 27th in rushing (90.6 ypg). Doug Martin is no longer in the picture, so there’s going to be a battle in training camp for the starting spot. Peyton Barber showed some potential late last year and the team drafted USC running back Ronald Jones II with one of their three 2nd round picks. Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Simms both return, but are more of a change of pace/3rd down specialist.

There’s hope that the running game will improve given the upgrade that was made up front with the free agent signing of center Ryan Jensen. The addition of Jensen will allow Ali Marpet to move back to his more natural position of left guard. That should give the Bucs a solid 1-2 punch on the left side of the line with dependable left tackle Donovan Smith. Demar Dotson is back at right tackle. The only real battle is at right guard, where holdover J.R. Sweezy will need to beat out rookie Alex Cappa, who the Bucs took in the 3rd round out of Humboldt State.

While all the attention in the offseason will be on Winston and the offense, the Bucs are really excited about the improvements they made on the defensive side of the ball, most notably the defensive line.

Last year Tampa Bay ranked dead last in the NFL with a mere 22 sacks. That number has the potential to go way up in 2018. The Bucs landed star defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul in a trade and used their first round pick (No. 12 overall) on talented Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea. They also signed two key members off the Eagles defensive line rotation in Vinny Curry and Beau Allen. Not to mention they bring back starting defensive end William Gholston and one of the best defensive tackles in the game in Gerald McCoy. They are also still high on 3rd-year defensive end Noah Spence.

The improvements up front should have a positive impact on the rest of the defense. Starting with the Bucs talented trio of Kwon Alexander, Lavonte David and Kendall Beckwith at linebacker

A better pass rush should really help out the secondary, which gave up a league-worst 260.6 yards/game last year. There’s certainly no shortage of options at corner. The Bucs return their top three corners from last year in Brent Grimes, Ryan Smith and Vernon Hargreaves III. They also bring in a couple of 2nd round picks ┬áin North Carolina’s M.J. Stewart and Auburn’s Carlton Davis. They are really excited about 2nd-year safety Justin Evans, but could definitely use an upgrade over Chris Conte at the other safety spot.

It certainly feels like the Bucs are headed in the right direction, but have they done enough to catch the other 3 powerhouses in the NFC South? Either way, this team is expected to be a lot better than the one that won just 5-games a season ago.

2018 Buccaneers Schedule & Projected Odds

Below you will find the early odds released by Vegas for Weeks 1-16, as well as my projected number for Week 17. Using the lines we are able to give a game-by-game win probability, which we used to come up an expected win total.

WeekOpponentEst. OddsWins
1at Saints+70.25
3Steelers MNF+40.34
4at Bears+2.50.46
6at Falcons+70.25
8at Bengals+1.50.48
9at Panthers+5.50.31
11at Giants+30.41
15at Ravens+60.29
16at Cowboys+60.29

Projected Wins: 6.63

Over/Under Wins Prediction: UNDER 6.5

This was one of the more difficult win total predictions I had to make. I really like what Tampa Bay has done this offseason, most notably improving where it really matters the most on the offensive and defensive line. The reason I would lean towards the UNDER is I still think there’s a significant gap between the Bucs and the other 3 teams in the NFC South. Having to play 6 games in your own division against legit Super Bowl contenders really puts your team behind the 8-ball.

You also have to factor in the looming 3-game suspension of Winston, which could lead to a disastrous start to the season. Tampa Bay opens with a road game at New Orleans, before hosting the Eagles and Steelers. After that they have to play 4 of their next 5 games on the road and this is a team that was a mere 1-7 away from home a season ago.

I think best case is 2-6 maybe 3-5 to start the season and I just wonder if that won’t take the fight out of this team. It’s not like the schedule gets overwhelmingly easier after the brutal start. While the Bucs play 5 of their final 8 games at home, they come against the likes of the Redskins, 49ers, Panthers, Saints and Falcons. The 3 road games are against the Giants, Ravens and Cowboys. There’s a good chance the Bucs field a better team in 2018, but don’t see any improvement in the win column.

Odds to Win the Super Bowl: +7000

I just don’t see a scenario where the Bucs make the kind of jump needed to even make the playoffs, so there’s no way I’m going to gamble on them to win the Super Bowl.

Odds to Win the NFC: +2500

Only the Bears (+4000) and Cardinals (+4500) have worse odds to win the NFC, so that right there tells you just how difficult it’s going to be for this team to exceed expectations. The other big thing to consider is how poorly this team played on the road. If by some chance they were to make the playoffs, they would almost certainly be a Wild Card, which means they would have to win 3 straight road games to just make the Super Bowl.

Odds to Win the NFC South: +600

Crazier things have happened in the NFC South, but I just think it would take a miracle for Tampa Bay to overtake the Panthers, Falcons and Saints. All of which won 10 or more games in 2017.