Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston, right (USA Today Sports)
Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston, right (USA Today Sports)

2018 win total (via Bovada): 6.5

2017 ATS record: 6-9-1

Optimist view: For a 4-12 team, the Buccaneers were pretty darned competitive last season. Seven of those losses came by six points or fewer. Yes, it was maddening to see the defense get gashed frequently, especially against teams such as the Cardinals, Bills and Brett Hundley-led Packers. But the Bucs were in a lot of games until the end only to collapse when it mattered most — several come to mind but few more than having the Patriots on the ropes in Week 4 and failing to seal the deal.

The defense was bad by just about every metric, most telling in their dead-last ranking in Football Outsiders’ highly respected DVOA number. But you’d be hard-pressed not to say that things look vastly better on that side of the ball with upgrades at nearly every spot. The defensive line received a heavy makeover with the additions of Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea and Vinny Curry, among others. The secondary might still be a body or two short, but the additions of draft picks MJ Stewart, Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead add talent and depth.

And let’s not forget that this is an offense with explosive potential. Say what you will about Jameis Winston, but he’s 24 years old with 45 starts under his belt. He might be too turnover-prone, and last year’s shoulder injury clearly took a toll on his play, but Winston’s 7.5 yards per attempt rank him eighth among active quarterbacks — the same as Tom Brady.

With Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin and two fine pass-catching tight ends, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard, there is tremendous big-play ability here. If the run game isn’t markedly better with rookie Ronald Jones adding burst to the backfield, we’d be shocked; he’s a Rookie of the Year candidate in this offense. Winston also has another clear upgrade in center Ryan Jensen, who could help bring that offensive line together. If Winston can put it all together in Year 4, the Bucs should be markedly improved.

Pessimist view: We still need to project major improvement on defense and with the offensive line, two major sore spots, to assume this team will win more games this season. Until we see tangible evidence those units are better, we’re just guessing. Other personnel questions: Can the thin-framed Jones handle the bulk of the load in the run game? Can Winston cut down on his 49 combined fumbles and interceptions in his past 32 games?

Situational football was a major ill for this team last season, and some of that could be reflected in coaching. The Bucs scored only four times in the final two minutes of the half on 23 such drives. Opponents outscored the Bucs 121-64 in second quarters, often putting them behind the eight ball entering second halves. (The offense went two months between second-quarter touchdowns, scoring five all season, and the defense allowed 13 TDs in that 15-minute period.)

They ranked dead last in the NFL in third-down defense and 24th in red-zone offense. The offense had big trouble on second-and-longs and third-and-shorts; the defense allowed opponents to average 4.3 yards per rush on first downs and 7.9 yards per pass on third downs. The Bucs also missed nine field-goal tries, second-most in the NFL.

Embattled head coach Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith must show they can make vast improvements soon, and first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken has never called plays full time in the NFL before. The special teams were a below-average unit as well, ranking 21st in Rock Gosselin’s ratings and 29th in Football Outsider’s DVOA marks.

On schedule: There’s often a notable variance in rating how tough a team’s schedule will be. The old, incomplete model is looking at the previous year’s winning percentage, in which case the Bucs face the fourth-toughest slate. But the model we like far better, one used by Sharp Football Stats, lines up opponents by expected handicapping win totals. In this case, too, the Bucs clearly face a brutal lineup: Sharp rates them with the second-toughest in the NFL entering this season.

Facing six of the top 10-rated teams (tied for the most) and only one of the bottom-five clubs (only the Cardinals have fewer), the Buccaneers clearly have their work cut out for them. And if you take it a step further, there’s this sobering statistic: Vegas currently has the Bucs favored in only three games in Weeks 1 through 16 — home contests against Cleveland, Washington and Carolina. Tampa currently is four-point dogs (or more) against six teams, including three of the first five games to kick off the season.

The Bucs open with four 2017 playoff teams and the upstart Bears in that five-game span, which includes an early bye; perhaps Tampa can use that Week 5 bye prior to battling the Falcons in Atlanta to steal a game. But it’s clear that the season could get off to a rough start if Tampa can’t win one of their first two home games, against the Eagles and Steelers.

Following the Week 6 game against the Falcons is where the Bucs will have a chance to make gains. They get the Browns (home), Bengals (road), Panthers (home and road), Washington (home), Giants (road) and 49ers (home) in the middle part of the season and probably need to finish above .500 over that stretch before a tough closing quartet of games if they have any hopes of going to the playoffs.

Prediction: Over

There’s quite a bit of projection here, but we think people are sleeping on the Bucs a bit. As we’ve outlined, the sum was lesser than the parts last season, but we think some of that will come together in 2018. Winston is better than what he showed, and he clearly has weapons and more balance. The defensive line should be far more effective this season, and that really could go a long way to take some burden off a talented but unproven secondary.

Don’t forget, this team was touted as a playoff contender entering last season for decent reason. There’s talent. The division — the best in football a year ago — will be a grind again, as the Saints and Falcons probably aren’t dropping too far off, if at all. Could the Panthers win fewer than the 11 games they did a year ago? Yes, we’re expecting that to be the case. But the Bucs won’t come close to surpassing 6.5 victories if they are not more like the 2016 Tampa team that went 4-2 vs. NFC South opponents than the 2017 version that went 1-5 in division games.

A 3-3 mark vs. South teams could get there somewhere in the range of seven to nine wins, we believe, which makes us feel surprisingly good about this "over" bet.

Previous projected win total breakdowns

Arizona Cardinals

Atlanta Falcons

Baltimore Ravens

Buffalo Bills

Carolina Panthers

Chicago Bears

Cincinnati Bengals

Dallas Cowboys

Denver Broncos

Detroit Lions

Green Bay Packers

Houston Texans

Indianapolis Colts

Jacksonville Jaguars

Los Angeles Chargers

Kansas City Chiefs

Los Angeles Rams

Miami Dolphins

Minnesota Vikings

New England Patriots

New Orleans Saints

New York Giants

New York Jets

Oakland Raiders

Philadelphia Eagles

Pittsburgh Steelers

San Francisco 49ers

Seattle Seahawks