After two decades with the New England Patriots, Tom Brady has decided to move south and join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If that seems weird, it’s because it is, at least at first glance. Brady spent 20 years in New England and went on to make the Super Bowl in half of his 18 healthy seasons as a starter, including a record 6 victories. Brady won at least 11 games in 15 of those 18 seasons and overall had a record of 219-64 as a starter in New England, a ridiculous 77.9% winning percentage.
Part of that, of course, is attributable to Brady’s own performance, but even the greatest quarterback of all time couldn’t have that kind of consistent success without an organization that consistently built and coached up winning rosters around him, most notably head coach Bill Belichick, arguably the greatest of all time in his own right. Even last season, one of the most disappointing seasons of Brady’s time in New England, the Patriots won 12 games.
The Buccaneers, on the other hand, have been one of the worst teams in the league over the past decade plus. They haven’t made the post-season since 2007, the longest drought of any team other than the Browns, and since that last playoff appearance they have a 37.0% winning percentage (3rd worst in the NFL) and have cycled through 6 different head coaches. That being said, it’s definitely understandable why Brady would pick the Buccaneers over any of his other options besides New England.
Arguably the most important piece was put into place last off-season when the Buccaneers lured head coach Bruce Arians out of retirement. It’s a bit surprising they were able to get Arians, as the previous 4 Buccaneers coaches lasted an average of two and a half seasons and the Buccaneers were widely viewed as one of the least stable organizations in the league to work for, but Arians’ arrival not only led to better play on the field, it also legitimized the franchise to the point where getting a player like Tom Brady in free agency was even a possibility. Something tells me Brady would not have left the familiarity of Foxborough to play for Dirk Koetter or Raheem Morris. Arians isn’t Bill Belichick, but he’s still one of the most proven offensive minds in the league and has a track record of success with veteran quarterbacks.
Beyond Arians, there is reason to be excited about this up and coming young roster. The headliners are their dominant wide receiver duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, which I’ll get into later, but this is a team that finished 10th in first down rate differential at +2.22% last season, despite starting a quarterback all season that couldn’t get a starting job anywhere this off-season. They have plenty of talent on this roster around the quarterback, on both sides of the ball. The Patriots, meanwhile, were in a tough salary cap situation this off-season and would have had something resembling a rebuilding year (at least by their standards) even if Brady had been kept.
That quarterback who started for them last season was Jameis Winston, who ironically is one of the biggest reasons why Arians went to Tampa Bay in the first place, as the famously aggressive head coach was intrigued by the potential of the former 2015 #1 overall pick and his rocket arm in Arians’ downfield passing attack. The result was Winston setting a new career high in passing touchdowns (33) and yards per attempt (8.16) and leading the NFL in passing yards with 5,109, but at the same time becoming the first quarterback since 1988 to throw for 30 or more touchdowns in a season. To give you an idea of how rare that is in the modern era, since 2011, there is only one other instance of a quarterback throwing more than 25 interceptions in a season. Winston’s interception total could have been even higher too, as he also led the league with 13 dropped interceptions.
Winston was always turnover prone prior to Arians coming in, as his 3.0% interception rate in the first 4 seasons of his career was 2nd highest in the league over that stretch, but Arians’ offense, while it did lead to big plays, exposed Winston’s recklessness in a big way. Primarily driven by Winston, the Buccaneers finished 5th worst in the NFL with a -13 turnover margin, leading to them winning just 7 games despite having a first down rate differential that was comparable to playoff qualifiers.
Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis anyway, but it’s not hard to see how the Buccaneers could be significantly better in turnover margin given that they are switching from one of the most turnover prone quarterbacks in NFL history to one of the most careful. While Winston threw 30 interceptions just last season, Brady has thrown just 29 over the past four seasons and has a microscopic 1.8% interception rate in his career. Brady will likely be asked to push it downfield more than he’s used to in Arians’ offense, but it’s hard to imagine him suddenly becoming an interception machine.
The bigger question is how much of an upgrade, if at all, Brady will be than Winston on non-turnover snaps, as Winston’s 8.16 yards per attempt average was a big part of the reason why the Buccaneers finished 13th in first down rate at 36.92% and Brady has actually only ever topped that mark three times in his career. Brady may be more careful with the ball, but I wouldn’t expect the Buccaneers to be significantly better at picking up first downs than they were last year, as, when he wasn’t turning it over, Winston was pretty effective at that last season. This looks like a case where a team is going to have a significant improvement in win total without a significant improvement in first down rate differential.
Brady also comes with significant downside, considering he is entering truly uncharted territory going into his age 43 season. Brady’s whole career has largely been uncharted territory, so I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if he defied the odds again, but no quarterback has ever thrown more than 10 passes in their age 43 season and Brady seemed to finally be showing signs of decline last season. After a strong first 3 weeks of the season, Brady didn’t have a single game with a grade higher than 80 from Pro Football Focus the rest of the way and, from week 4 on, he was PFF’s 18th ranked quarterback, meaning he was close to being an ordinary starter for most of last season.
For a quarterback who prior to last season had 5 straight seasons with grades over 90 on PFF, including first place finishes at his position in 2015, 2016, and 2017, that’s a pretty big drop off. As we’ve seen with Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in recent years, quarterbacks can lose it quickly when they get up there in age. If that happens, the Buccaneers are not at all prepared as their only other option is Blaine Gabbert and his career 71.7 QB rating. There might not be a bigger drop off from starter to backup in the league, so even if he struggles mightily, it’s very hard to imagine him ever getting benched.
It’s also worth noting that the Patriots didn’t seem to try particularly hard to keep Brady this off-season. The contract that the Buccaneers gave Brady guarantees him 50 million over the next 2 seasons, has a no trade clause, and doesn’t give the Buccaneers the option to franchise tag him after the deal is done, giving him full control over his football future, which is a very generous offer for a player of Brady’s age, but if the Patriots felt confident Brady would remain a top level quarterback for the next two seasons, it’s the kind of contract the Patriots would have tried to match. The fact that Brady announced he was leaving the Patriots before he announced where he was going suggests the Patriots didn’t make the final cut and never gave him a competitive offer. Belichick has been as good as anyone at knowing the right time to move on from a player and could easily prove to be right in arguably his biggest gamble yet.
All that being said, Brady was a no brainer addition for a Buccaneers team that had the cap space, the need at the quarterback position, and the desire to be relevant for the first time in over a decade. Given that they were competitive in most of their games with a quarterback that was not viewed as a starter in free agency this off-season, you can definitely argue they entered this off-season a quarterback away from being legitimate contenders. Even if they had to “settle” for someone like Philip Rivers, I would have been excited about this team’s potential in 2020. Brady comes with some downside and he’s less of an upgrade over Winston than you’d think, given that Winston did regularly lead effective drives last season, but this team is undoubtedly better for the move they made at the game’s most important position this off-season.
As I mentioned, the Buccaneers have a dominant wide receiver duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, which, aside from head coach Bruce Arians, was likely the biggest factor in Brady’s decision. With slash lines of 67/1157/8 and 86/1333/9 respectively, Evans and Godwin were one of three wide receiver duos to have more than 1,100 receiving yards each last season, even though Evans played in just 13 games and Godwin played in just 14. In terms of yards per route run, they ranked 7th and 9th respectively with 2.30 and 2.24 yards per route run and they also finished 5th and 1st respectively among wide receivers in Pro Football Focus, making them the only duo in the league to both finish in the top-9 in either metric.
Evans has been doing this kind of thing since entering the league, as the 7th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft topped 1000 yards as a rookie and hasn’t gone under that mark since, making him the second wide receiver in NFL history to exceed 1000 yards receiving in each of his first 6 seasons in the league, topping out with a 86/1524/8 slash line in 2018. As consistently dominant as they come, Evans is still somehow only going into his age 27 season, so there’s no reason to expect anything different from him this season.
Godwin, meanwhile, broke out last season in his third year in the league, although it was hardly a surprise based on his performance in more limited action in his first 2 seasons in the league. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Godwin put up a 34/525/1 slash line as a rookie and a 59/842/7 slash line in his 2nd season, despite never being higher than 3rd on the depth chart behind Evans and former Buccaneer DeSean Jackson. Given that he averaged 1.93 yards per route in his limited playing time in his first 2 seasons in the league, Godwin seemed likely to break out whenever he got a shot to be an every down player and playing in Arians’ wide receiver friendly offense didn’t hurt matters. Godwin is technically a one-year wonder as a top tier wide receiver, but his history suggests he’s been just waiting for an opportunity to explode and, going into his age 24 season, it’s possible he’s still only scratching the surface on his potential. He could easily be one of the best wide receivers in the league for the foreseeable future, barring fluke injuries.
Assuming both stay healthier than they did last season down the stretch, Evans and Godwin could easily exceed last year’s total numbers, though it’s fair to wonder if they’ll be as productive on a per game basis for a few reasons. For one, while they’re getting an obvious upgrade at the quarterback position, they’re switching to a quarterback who is much less willing to throw one up for grabs and hope the receiver can come down with it. The quarterback situation should lead to more wins, but it won’t necessarily lead to more yards, especially if the Buccaneers play with more leads and establish the run more than they did last season. They also could play fewer snaps as an offense than they did last season when they ranked 5th in offensive snaps, due in large part to allowing a league leading seven return touchdowns.
Godwin seems to be the better fit with Brady given that he’s the primary slot receiver when the team uses 3+ wideouts, so I would expect him to lead this team in catches and yards again, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if both players had their roles scaled back somewhat on a more balanced offense. Evans and Godwin will also have to compete for targets with off-season addition Rob Gronkowski, who is returning to the league after a year off to rest his body and will reunite with his long-time quarterback Tom Brady in a new city.
In Gronkowski’s prime, the Brady/Gronkowski combination was the deadliest in the NFL. From 2011-2017, Brady had a ridiculous 129.7 QB rating when targeting Gronkowski and Gronkowski averaged a 80/1234/12 slash line per 16 games from the tight end spot. Also a punishing blocker, Gronkowski earned PFF’s top overall tight end grade in an incredible 7 seasons in a row during that stretch. Even though he’s had a short career so far, he was at least in the conversation for greatest tight end of all-time while he was retired and now, returning at only 31 years of age, he has an opportunity to add to that legacy.
Gronkowski also comes with a good deal of risk, however. Not only did he not play at all last season, but he seemed to be a significantly diminished player in his most recent season in 2018. He remained a strong blocker, but had just a 47/682/3 slash line and finished as PFF’s 11th ranked tight end overall, good, but not what we’re used to from him. Gronkowski’s career has been marred by numerous injuries, including knee, back, and arm injuries that seem to have all piled up to slow him down and eventually led him to step away from the game for a period of time. His age isn’t a major concern, but a year off might not have improved his football ability and, while the rest may make him less susceptible to injury going forward, he should still be considered an injury risk. Gronkowski should help this football team, especially as a blocker, but Buccaneers fans shouldn’t be expecting prime Gronk.
Gronkowski probably won’t be an every down player either, which will reduce his injury risk, but also will cap his potential upside. The reason he won’t be an every down player is because the Buccaneers are very deep at the tight end position, with a pair of players with starting experience in OJ Howard and Cameron Brate behind Gronkowski on the depth chart. Both had underwhelming slash lines last season, 34/459/1 and 36/311/4 respectively, but that was in part because they cancelled each other out and in part because this offense is more focused throwing to wide receivers than tight ends.
A first round pick in 2017, Howard was on pace for a 54/904/8 slash line in 2018 before getting hurt and missing the final 6 games of the season. Howard won’t have a big pass catching role with Evans, Godwin, and Gronkowski around, but he’s still a plus blocker and could easily elevate his level of play in only his age 26 season, even if it doesn’t translate to increased production. Brate, meanwhile, had 57/660/8 and 48/591/6 slash lines in 2016 and 2017 respectively, but has taken a back seat to Howard over the past 2 seasons, totalling 30/289/6 and 36/311/4 respectively. Gronkowski being added won’t increase his passing game role and his inability to block makes him a liability on run plays.
With Gronkowski and Howard being primarily inline tight ends, Brate will likely be limited to a situational role as a move tight end or a big slot receiver. His 4.25 million dollar salary for 2020 is guaranteed, but he’s not cost prohibitive for a team that wants to upgrade the tight end position, so the Buccaneers may be able to move him for a late round draft pick before the season if they want to go that route. Howard’s name was also thrown around in trade talks during the draft, but the Buccaneers had a much higher asking price for him and don’t seem to be in a hurry to move a player like Howard for a draft pick when the team is trying to win a Super Bowl right now with a 43-year-old quarterback.
If there’s one nit to pick with this receiving corps, it’s their lack of proven depth at the wide receiver position, with 2019 6th round pick Scott Miller and his 177 career snaps currently penciled into that role, and 2018 5th round pick Justin Watson (303 career snaps) and 5th round rookie Tyler Johnson providing competition. Bruce Arians’ offenses have never targeted the tight end in the passing game much, but you have to figure they’re going to use a lot more two-tight end sets and even three-tight end sets than a traditional Bruce Arians offense because their depth is so much better at that position. Whoever wins the 3rd receiver job would likely be no higher than 5th in the pecking order for targets, so it’s not a significant flaw in an otherwise dominant group.
In addition to all of the weapons the Buccaneers have at wide receiver and tight end, the Buccaneers could also get passing game production out of their running backs, given Brady’s history of checking down to running backs. The Buccaneers lacked a good passing down back last season, so they used a 3rd round draft pick on Vanderbilt Ke’Shawn Vaughn to potentially fill that important role for their new quarterback.
Vaughn will ideally serve two purposes: being an upgrade over incumbent passing down back Dare Ogunbowale, who caught just 35 passes last season and did nothing on the few occasions he was asked to carry the ball (17 yards on 11 carries), and replacing free agent departure Peyton Barber, who had a stagnant 3.05 YPC on 154 carries last season and ranked 43rd out of 45 qualifying running backs with a 40% carry success rate.
It’s asking a lot of a rookie to be Brady’s primary passing down back, especially since he’ll also need to learn blitz pickup as well to earn Brady’s trust, but running back is one of the easier positions to contribute at statistically as a rookie and it’s not hard to see how Vaughn could be an upgrade over the running backs who he’s replacing. The 29 passes he caught last season suggest he can contribute as a pass catcher immediately, which is primarily why he was added, but he should have a significant role as a runner as well.
Ronald Jones was the lead back last season and, barring a strong off-season from Vaughn, it’s likely that Jones remains in that role and possibly even that the 2018 2nd round pick sees an uptick on the 172 carries he had last season with Barber gone and Jones now going into his third season in the league. Jones has looked lost in passing situations thus far in his career, however, especially in blitz pickup, so his snaps will be limited unless he improves significantly in those aspects. As a runner, he showed significant improvement from his rookie year last season, going from a 1.91 YPC on 23 carries to a 4.21 YPC on 172 carries, and, not even turning 23 until right before the season starts, he could easily take another step forward in 2020. It’s an underwhelming backfield, especially with Ogunbowale likely still the third back, but there’s some upside here.
The Buccaneers also added to their offensive line during the draft, moving up one pick to secure Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs with the 13th overall pick. Wirfs will start immediately at right tackle, replacing long-time veteran DeMar Dotson, who finished 30th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus last season, but was not brought back for his age 35 season in 2020. It may be difficult for Wirfs to be an upgrade as a rookie, but he should at least be a solid starter and obviously has a much higher upside long-term than Dotson.
The long-term plan could be to move Wirfs to the left side, but for now, Donovan Smith remains there for his 6th season as a starter, after making 79 of 80 starts in his first 5 seasons. A second round pick in 2015, Smith’s best ability has been availability, but he did finish a career best 32nd among offensive tackles on PFF last season and, still only going into his age 27 season, he should remain in his prime for at least another couple seasons. The 3-year, 41.25 million dollar extension the Buccaneers gave him last off-season was a little rich for his talent level, but it wouldn’t have been easy for the Buccaneers to find a replacement or upgrade.
Aside from Wirfs replacing Dotson, the rest of the Buccaneers’ starting offensive line remains from last season, with guards Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa and center Ryan Jensen locked in as starters on the interior. Marpet is probably the best of the bunch, making 72 starts since entering the league as a 2nd round pick in 2015 and finishing in the top-23 at his position on PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, including 3 seasons in the top-10. In the prime of his career in his age 27 season, there is no reason to expect any dropoff from him in 2020.
Jensen is also coming off of a strong season, finishing 2nd among centers last season. A 6th round pick in 2013, Jensen became a full-time starter for the first time in 2017 with the Ravens, finishing 11th among centers that season, which led to the Buccaneers giving him a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal in free agency. He was not worth that contract in his first year in Tampa Bay, finishing 30th among 39 qualifying centers, but he bounced back in a big way with the best year of his career in 2019. Still only going into his age 29 season, he could easily have another strong season in 2020, but his inconsistent history is definitely worth noting. It’s probably unrealistic to expect him to repeat the best season of his career, but it’s a possibility.
Cappa, meanwhile, is going into his second season as a starter, as the 2018 3rd round pick made the first 13 starts of his career last season. He’s still inexperienced, but he earned an above average grade from PFF as their 39th ranked guard last season and could easily continue developing going forward. Assuming he doesn’t regress significantly, the Buccaneers don’t have an obvious weak point on this offensive line. They also have decent depth, led by 6th offensive lineman Joe Haeg, an experienced starter who can play both inside and outside if needed.
In addition to the talent around the quarterback they have on offense, the Buccaneers also have an up and coming young defense. That’s a big improvement from a year ago, when they were coming off of a 2018 season in which they were one of the worst defenses in the league, allowing a 40.98% first down rate that ranked 30th in the NFL. There are many reasons for their sudden improvement, including off-season additions and big improvements by individual players, but one central reason was the addition of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Bowles was underwhelming as head coach of the Jets, but the reason he got the top job in New York in the first place is because he’s a great defensive mind, most notably during his 2 years as Bruce Arians’ defensive coordinator in Arizona (2013-2014), so it’s unsurprising that Bruce Arians wanted to with reunite him and that Bowles was able to make an immediate impact.
Probably the Buccaneers’ biggest addition last off-season was edge defender Shaq Barrett, who signed with the Buccaneers on an under the radar 1-year, 4 million dollar deal and promptly broke out with a league leading 19.5 sacks. In some ways, a breakout year from Barrett isn’t overly surprising, as he had a 12.1% pressure rate in a rotational role with the Broncos in his first 4 years in the league and played the run well to boot. In fact, Barrett’s 14.1% pressure rate in 2019 isn’t much above his career high; he just finally got an opportunity. He’s a one-year wonder as an every down player, so it makes sense that the Buccaneers would franchise tag him and make him prove it again, but if he does, they won’t have a choice but to give him a big contract to try to keep him. In the meantime, he’ll get a big pay increase to 15.828 million while franchise tagged.
The Buccaneers also kept fellow edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul in free agency this off-season, re-signing him to a 2-year, 25 million dollar deal, and he’ll remain the starter opposite Barrett. Pierre-Paul missed the first 6 games of last season with a neck injury, but provided a big boost to this defense upon his return. Without him for the first 6 weeks of the season, the Buccaneers had a first down rate allowed of 36.97%, which was certainly better than their 2018 defense, but still just 19th in the NFL. In the 10 games he did play, the Buccaneers allowed a 33.33% first down rate, good for 9th in the NFL over that stretch.
Injuries have been a problem for JPP in recent years, as he’s missed at least 5 games with injury in 4 of his last 7 seasons, but he also has 6 seasons of 16 games played in his 10 years in the league, so he’s been pretty durable aside from some freak injuries, including a pair of off-the-field accidents. Now going into his age 31 season, his best days are likely behind him, but he still earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus last season for the 9th time in 10 seasons in the league and he had a 10.8% pressure rate, so he hasn’t lost much ability yet.
Along with Barrett and Pierre-Paul, Carl Nassib, the Buccaneers’ 3rd edge defender last season, was also set to hit free agency this off-season and, unlike Barrett and JPP, Nassib was not brought back, instead signing with the Raiders on a 3-year, 25.25 million dollar deal. Nassib played capably on 630 snaps last season and the Buccaneers didn’t do anything to replace him, so that’s a bigger loss than you’d think.
Second year player Anthony Nelson seems to be in line to take over Nassib’s role. A 4th round pick, Nelson played 152 snaps as a rookie and flashed against the run, but barely breathed on the quarterback, with 2 hurries on 85 pass rush snaps. He has some upside, but he’s a projection to a larger role. Without another real option, Nelson is likely to play significant snaps as a reserve and rotational player. The Buccaneers’ lack of depth at the position means that both JPP and Barrett will have to play a big snap count and that if either player gets hurt they’d be in big trouble. That hurts their overall evaluation at this position.
Another big reason for the Buccaneers’ defensive improvement last season was the emergence of defensive tackle Vita Vea, the 12th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Vea’s career got off to a tough start as he suffered a calf strain in training camp of his rookie year that kept him out until week 4 and limited him early in the season, but after he shook that injury off he showed why he was drafted so high, posting a 12.8% pressure rate in his final 6 games as a 6-4 347 pound nose tackle. Vea also saw his snaps per game go up to 46.8 in the final 6 games of his rookie year, after averaging 30.3 snaps per game in his first 7 games.
In his 2nd year in the league in 2019, Vea picked up where he left off, averaging 47.4 snaps per game, pressuring the quarterback at a 11.1% rate, stuffing the run like you’d expect someone his size to do, and earning Pro Football Focus’ 15th highest overall grade among interior defenders. Still only in his 3rd season in the league in 2020, he could obviously keep getting better and develop into one of the top few players at his position over the next few years.
The Buccaneers also added interior defender Ndamukong Suh in free agency last off-season, although he was replacing Gerald McCoy, probably their best defensive player in 2018, so he wasn’t really an upgrade. Still, he had a solid season on the interior, actually seeing more playing time than Vea with 54.6 snaps per game and earning PFF’s 49th highest grade among interior defenders, his 8th straight season with an above average grade. Suh is going into his age 33 season, so he’s past his prime and could continue declining, but he was one of the best interior defenders in the league in his prime, so he could easily remain an effective player for another couple seasons even if he’s not what he was.
William Gholston was their 3rd starter on this 3-man defensive line in 3-4 base packages and should remain in that role in 2020. Gholston benefited significantly from the scheme change, as he had the highest PFF grade of his career in his first year in a 3-4 defense. He still only got a middling grade, but prior to last season he had just 11 sacks, 23 hits, and a 7.2% pressure rate in 6 seasons in the league and wasn’t much better against the run, miscast as a 4-3 defensive end. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued to be a solid player, especially since he primarily is a base package run stuffer who comes off the field in obvious passing situations, with Vea and Suh as the primary sub package interior rushers.
Like on the edge, the Buccaneers lack proven depth on the interior. Beau Allen signed with the Patriots this off-season and, even though he played just 179 snaps last season, he was a proven rotational player and they didn’t replace him. Rakeem Nunez-Roches played the most snaps among reserve interior defenders last season with 293, but he was pretty underwhelming and has struggled throughout his 5-year career (214 snaps per game). They also used a 6th round pick on Khalil Davis, but it’s unclear how much he’ll be able to contribute as a rookie. The Buccaneers will have to hope to continue to stay healthy, far from a given, even for a team that had the 4th fewest games lost to injury on defense of any team in the league last season. Their top-3 have a lot of upside if they can all stay healthy though.
The Buccaneers also added to their defense high in the draft last off-season, taking linebacker Devin White with the 5th overall pick. White stuffed the stat sheet with 3 fumble recoveries, 4 forced fumbles, 2.5 sacks, and 1 interception, but was actually pretty up and down overall. He led this team with 13 missed tackles despite missing 3 games with injury and looked overmatched in his coverage assignment frequently, and earned Pro Football Focus’ 79th ranked overall grade among 100 qualifying off ball linebackers overall. White was pretty beat up last year playing with injuries and a late season illness and he still has a sky high upside, so a big improvement in his 2nd year in the league certainly wouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s not a given.
With White being up and down, it instead was a dominant year from fellow starting linebacker Lavonte David that elevated this linebacking corps and contributed to this improved defense. David has been with the Buccaneers for 8 seasons and has been one of the better off ball linebackers in the league over that time, but last season was arguably the best of his career, as he finished a career best 2nd among off ball linebackers on PFF.
David has also finished in the top-4 at his position in 2013 and 2017 and has consistently been at least an above average starter, something I don’t expect to suddenly change, even in his age 30 season. He may find it difficult to repeat arguably his career year, but he remains one of the best all-around off ball linebackers in the NFL and any regression from him could easily be compensated for by an improvement from White. The Buccaneers also have pretty solid depth at the position with Kevin Minter (46 career starts) as the top reserve. He only played 275 snaps last season as an injury replacement and a highly situational run stuffer, but he’s still only in his age 30 season and there are worse options to have to turn to if an injury happens.
As I mentioned earlier, the Buccaneers’ defense got significantly better when they got Jason Pierre-Paul back after he missed the first six games of the season. They were actually even better down the stretch, ranking 4th in first down rate allowed at 30.27% from week 10 on and 3rd in first down rate allowed at 28.96% from week 12 on. That was partially because of JPP, but their cornerback play also significantly improved down the stretch, after the Buccaneers had one of the worst secondaries in the league throughout the previous season and a half.
The Buccaneers’ most improved cornerback was definitely Carlton Davis, who showed why he was a 2018 2nd round pick with his play in the second half of last season. Davis was about average on 718 rookie year snaps, but was pretty underwhelming in the first half of last season, in part due to injuries that cost him two games. Roughly coinciding with the Buccaneers’ second half defensive surge, Davis returned to the lineup week 11 and was PFF’s 11th ranked cornerback from that point on. Not even 24 until this December, Davis has the upside to breakout as a legitimate #1 cornerback, if not this season, then in the short-term future, though it’s worth noting his strong start streak is still just 7 games long.
Aside from Davis returning to play and taking a step forward, the other big difference at cornerback was a couple personnel changes. Slot cornerback and former first round pick bust Vernon Hargreaves was cut after week 10 and starting outside cornerback MJ Stewart suffered an injury during week 6 that limited him to 78 snaps the rest of the way, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Hargreaves and Stewart finished as Pro Football Focus’ 127th and 79th ranked cornerbacks out of 135 qualifiers last season and they were replaced by a pair of promising rookies, second round pick Sean Murphy-Bunting and third round pick Jamel Dean.
Murphy-Bunting primarily played on the slot and earned middling grades from PFF on 686 snaps, while Dean was PFF’s 12th ranked cornerback from week 9 on, when he played 368 snaps and made 5 starts. Both Dean and Murphy-Bunting are relatively unproven and could suffer sophomore slumps, but along with Carlton Davis, the Buccaneers top-3 cornerbacks have a ton of upside. MJ Stewart also remains and, while he hasn’t shown much on 615 career snaps, he was a 2nd round pick in 2018 with Davis and could easily still have untapped potential if he needed to step into a significant role again. He allows them to go four deep at the cornerback position and all four cornerbacks are very young.
The Buccaneers are also very young at the safety position. Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards led the position in snaps played with 919 and 616 last season and they were drafted in the 4th round in 2018 and the 3rd round in 2019 respectively. Whitehead has finished 66th out of 100 qualifying safeties and 99th out of 100 qualifying safeties in two years in the league though, while Edwards finished 81st out of 100 last season, so the Buccaneers didn’t get nearly as good of play at safety last season as they did at cornerback. Neither player is locked into a starting role in 2020.
The Buccaneers get 2017 2nd round pick Justin Evans back from a torn achilles that cost him all of 2019 and, if he’s back to full strength, he could be an asset, as he earned middling grades on an average of 660 snaps per season in his first 2 seasons in the league. And just to add another young defensive back to the mix, the Buccaneers also drafted hybrid cornerback/safety Antoine Winfield in the 2nd round this year. He would seem to have an easier path to playing time at safety, but he could see some work on the slot as well.
Relatively speaking, the veteran of this group is Andrew Adams, a 2016 undrafted free agent who was about average on 614 snaps as a rotational safety and occasional starter last season. Adams has been about replacement level on an average of 503 snaps per season in 4 years in the league and could find himself buried on the depth chart a little bit at a deep position, with Winfield coming in and Evans returning, but he could still earn a situational role and see limited snaps. This is a very deep and young secondary with a lot of upside, but I do worry about their consistency without any real proven veteran players. I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to play as well as they did down the stretch last season all season, even if the upside is there.
The Buccaneers entered the off-season an upgrade at quarterback away from becoming a legitimate contender and they found one with arguably the greatest of all-time. They’re getting him at his twilight and at an unprecedented age, but Brady doesn’t need to be prime Brady for this team to be competitive, given the rest of the roster. They’re likely still behind the Saints in the division, but with 3 wild card spots available this year, they still have a good chance to qualify for the post-season, and they won’t be an easy out once they get there, at the very least. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.
Final Update: The Buccaneers added more options at running back in LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette, though it’s unclear how much they can get from either and if either would be an upgrade on Ronald Jones. Regardless of their running back situation, this team has the talent to make a deep run unless Tom Brady’s abilities fall off drastically. They have arguably the best team in the league atop the division ahead of them, but the Buccaneers could still make noise as a wild card.
Projection: 12-4 (2nd in NFC South)