NFL

Three Florida NFL Teams Are Set Up For Big Improvement In 2016

on

It’s been quite a while since any of the three NFL teams in the state of Florida were actually good. So long, in fact that Jacksonville (yes the Jacksonville Jaguars) were the last team that hails from the Sunshine State to win a playoff game and that came nine years ago.

Tight end Marcedes Lewis is the only player from that team that remains on the roster.  Since then he’s had to endure losing season after losing season, totaling a record of 39-89.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the last team from the state to capture the Lombardi Trophy, but that occurred back in the 2002 season when current quarterback Jameis Winston was just nine years old.

The Miami Dolphins have been the most consistent Florida team of late, posting a pair of .500 seasons in the past seven years, but they’ve been little more than an afterthought in the New England Patriots dominated AFC East.

Things could be changing in the land of tourism and humidity, as each of the three Florida teams have had stellar offseasons.

Now we know that roughly half of all big free agency moves work, and half of them don’t, and those who are lauded for their draft classes are often proven wrong.  With that said, each of the three teams looks significantly better today than they did at season’s end.

The Jacksonville Jaguars had the farthest way to go as they put the finishing touches on another 5-11 campaign in 2015.  With the front office given one more chance to succeed and an open checkbook, the team went to work on rebuilding their roster.

Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell signed defensive tackle Malik Jackson away from the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, added the best safety in free agency in former Cleveland Brown Tashaun Gipson, signed depth at cornerback with former New York Giant Prince Amukamara and made their rushing attack a two-headed one with former New York Jet Chris Ivory.  Late in the free agency market, the team came to terms with former Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who will likely be the starter at a position the team has been deficient in.

The team doubled down two weeks ago by having what could be one of the best draft classes in recent NFL history.

It’s understood that was a big statement, but Jacksonville pounced on a player who many had as the best in the class in Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey, who is as athletic as any draft prospect ever at the safety position, and Myles Jack in Round 2, who was thought of as a Top 5 talent.

They acquired both by only trading up once, which cost them a fifth-round pick.

“Everybody feels good today and tomorrow, but the truth of the matter is, it’s all on paper,” Caldwell said. “They have to come together as a team. Like I said, we have a great coaching staff. I think our personnel staff did a great job with identifying players that fit what we like to do. Our goal was to affect the passing game and we did that, really on both sides of the ball. All the guys – to get faster. To get faster, younger, more athletic and to help us on third down. I think every player we took, we had that in mind. In some way, shape or form – that come third and thirteen, in the next couple of years, hopefully they make a difference.”

There are still plenty of questions in Jacksonville, mostly on the defensive side of the ball with first time defensive coordinator Todd Wash, but the talent level is there to have at the very least a mediocre unit, which coupled with their explosive offense might be enough to win the AFC South.

“I always say this, when you have to count on rookies to come in and make a difference, I think you’re going to be in trouble,” Caldwell explained. “I think the body of work of what we did in the offseason, some of the veterans we brought in, these rookies always make their biggest jump from year one to year two. So we’re going to bring them along slowly and we hope for the best, but I think we have enough good veteran leadership on this team right now where we should be able to compete in the AFC South.”

The Tampa Bay Bucs had a plan to get better that went all the way back to the 2014 season, when they were miserable.  Tampa embraced losing and tanked in the final game of the season, taking their best players off the field in the second half of a game in New Orleans to lose and secure the No. 1 overall pick which would become Jameis Winston.

After a 2015 campaign which saw the team triple their win total, they fired head coach Lovie Smith and elevated offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to Smith’s position.  The team added a pass rusher in former New York Giant Robert Ayers, a guard with former Seattle Seahawk J.R. Sweezy, a cornerback in Brent Grimes, formerly of the Miami Dolphins, as well as a veteran leader in linebacker Daryl Smith.

“We’ve followed Robert throughout his career and have some coaches who know him, maybe not coached him but on visits have known him and have done a lot of research,” general manager Jason Licht said. “He’s a great person and has had a couple of good years, the last three years.

“He brings a lot of versatility to our defense on what we plan on doing.  He was the right kind of guy and right kind of fit.”

They addressed many of the positions where they were deficient.

In the draft, the Bucs moved back and selected former University of Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, then grabbed one of the best pass rushers in the draft in Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence.  They even traded up to fill a need at kicker, getting Florida State’s Roberto Aguayo, one of the most decorated specialists in NCAA history.

“First I’ll start with Noah [Spence], there with our first pick [in the second round]. We think we got – we felt like he was one of the, if not the, best pure pass rusher in the draft. We’ve scouted him all the way back to Ohio State, when he played there and had success there two years ago, three years ago, and then this year at Eastern Kentucky,” Licht explained. “He’s going to bring what we’ve missed here: an extra rusher, another rusher. We feel like he’s going to eventually make an impact for us there. And then, taking Roberto [Aguayo] – the importance of special teams is paramount. When you get a chance to get the best kicker in the history of college football, I didn’t want to risk it. I wanted to take him. I have a lot of confidence in him; I like the way he’s wired. I like the body of work that he’s put out there, obviously. A great kicker can be the difference in several games. I’ve been around some great ones: Adam Vinatieri, [Stephen] Gostkowski. Those guys are invaluable. We obviously took him, we used a pick to go up and get him, so we feel very confident about it. We needed to be bold there and we were.”

The Miami Dolphins only made one big move in the free agency period, signing former No. 1 overall pick, defensive end Mario Williams when he was released from the Buffalo Bills.  Williams signing allowed to team to rescind the franchise tag from Olivier Vernon, a player that they weren’t going to be able to realistically afford to keep.

It’s a boom or bust pick-up, as Williams will play opposite Cameron Wake, who they team just inked to a two-year contract extension, and next to Ndamukong Suh, last year’s biggest free agency fish.

“We are pleased that we were able to reach an extension with Cam,” said Mike Tannenbaum, the Dolphins’ executive VP of football operations. “He sets the right example both on and off the field, working his way up from an undrafted college free agent to a four-time Pro Bowl selection. We are excited how he will fit in this new defense and continue to be a key contributor.”

While the team was relatively quiet in free agency, they were aggressive when they needed to be in the draft.  Miami did a spectacular job of addressing needs while maximizing value and that started with their first-round pick, former Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil.  Just about a month ago, many had Tunsil pegged as the No. 1 pick in the draft, but a few trades and a very untimely weed smoking video caused his fall, all the way to pick No. 13.

“He’s such a good player,” Dolphins offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said. “I don’t think my wildest dreams that we had a chance of him falling that far and us having a chance to get him. Especially after going from No. 8 to No. 13, I just didn’t see him as a possibility.”

Miami then grabbed what figures to be a starting cornerback in former Baylor Bear Xavien Howard, strengthened their backfield with former Alabama running back Kenyon Drake, then grabbed a pair of polished receivers in former Rutgers Scarlet Knight Leonte Caroo and Texas Tech’s Jakeem Grant.

Of course not all of those picks will become stars, but they all address positions of need and have a chance to be very good.

It’s more than likely that not all of the three Florida teams will make the playoffs in 2016.  What is likely is that we’ll see at least two of them show significant improvement due to some smart moves this offseason.

 


About Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein is the managing football editor for Football Insiders and has covered the NFL for over a decade.  Charlie has hosted drive time radio for NBC and ESPN affiliates in different markets around the country, along with being an NFL correspondent for ESPN Radio and WFAN.  He has been featured on the NFL Network as well as Sirius/XM NFL Radio and has been published on Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, ESPN as well as numerous other publications.