Bucs camp setup: Preparing to open without Winston

Tampa Bay will be without quarterback Jameis Winston for the first three games.Photo: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

QB Winston suspended three games for violating personal conduct policy

TAMPA, Fla. -- The biggest story of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2018 season has already occurred. Quarterback Jameis Winston was suspended three games by the NFL for violating the league's personal conduct policy after an eight-month investigation into allegations he groped a female Uber driver in Arizona in March 2016.

This is one of the Bucs' biggest fears come true. Winston was a risky pick out of Florida State, where he was accused of sexual assault and made several other bad decisions, one of which led to his suspension against Clemson.

The Bucs have a lot invested in the former No. 1 overall pick. Furthermore, they have picked up his one-year team option for 2019 of nearly $21 million that is guaranteed only against injury.

It's against this backdrop that the Bucs enter training camp, with rookies reporting July 23 and the full squad July 25.

Winston, 24, has apologized to his team and coaches. But the whole franchise has been placed in an impossible bind. Head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht already were on the hot seat after a disappointing 5-11 season in 2017. The Bucs haven't made the playoffs for a decade and this is Licht's fifth season.

Winston's personal issues may cost those men, and many others, their jobs. He also is undergoing evaluation for alcohol abuse, although he says he has stopped drinking.

So much will depend on how the Bucs navigate their first three games, one of the toughest starts in the NFL. The Bucs open at New Orleans Sept. 9. Then they host the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles Sept. 16 before the Pittsburgh Steelers come to Raymond James Stadium for Monday Night Football.

The Bucs re-signed 35-year-old veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who went 2-1 as a starter last season, beating the Jets and Dolphins and losing to the Falcons. Fitzpatrick has to keep the Bucs afloat until Winston returns Sept. 30 at Chicago.

By then, Winston will have missed a month of football, and if the Bucs are 0-3 at that point, they would have to win a lot of games just to get back to .500 in the tough NFC South. In fact, Winston will play only once at RJS in the first nine weeks of the season.

So what do the Bucs do?

They have to hope that Licht and his staff has done a good enough job in the offseason to win with defense, running the football and special teams.

The Bucs drafted Southern Cal running back Ronald Jones II in the second round and he will give them the home-run hitter from the backfield that Doug Martin rarely was. New center Ryan Jensen should provide more size and nastiness up front as Ali Marpet moves back to guard. There is no shortage of targets with receivers Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries, Chris Godwin and tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.

The defense, which was last in the NFL overall and in sacks, will have to lead the way. The Bucs rebuilt their defensive line, adding Giants free agents Beau Allen, Vinny Curry and trading for Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who played his college ball at South Florida in Tampa.

Somehow, the Bucs have to keep their head above water until Winston returns, then their franchise quarterback has to play lights out and prove he is worth moving forward with in 2019 and beyond.