Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Basically since the inception of the franchise, the Buccaneers have been consistently among the worst teams in the league, most recently missing the post-season for 13 straight seasons from 2007-2019, the longest post-season drought of any team in the league aside from the Browns over that stretch. The Buccaneers won the Super Bowl after the 2002 season, but, even with that season included, they had an all-time winning percentage going into last season that was the worst in the entire NFL.

Last off-season, in need of a quarterback in free agency, the Buccaneers aggressively pursued former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who had won a record 6 Super Bowls, but was heading into an unprecedented age 43 season and on shaky long-term standing with the only team he had played for throughout the two decades of his career. To the surprise of many, Brady ended up in Tampa Bay on a fully guaranteed 2-year, 50 million deal contract that included a full no trade clause, the right to turn down a franchise tag, complete control over his future, and security through his age 44 season.

In his first season in Tampa Bay, Brady, whose winning percentage of 77.4% over 20 seasons in New England far exceeds that of any quarterback all-time, led the Buccaneers to an 11-5 season that not only snapped their playoff drought, but also culminated in the franchise’s second Super Bowl Championship, giving Brady his seventh, more than any single franchise in NFL history. A perennial loser had turned into a champion overnight and their new quarterback, the winningest of all time, seemed to be the natural pick to get the majority of the credit, and doing so at an age by which almost all NFL quarterbacks are long retired. 

That doesn’t tell the whole story, however. For starters, Brady ending up in Tampa Bay was no accident. The Patriots had won 12 games in 2019, but severely lacked offensive weapons around Brady. They had the league’s best defense, but they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in a decade and, in the long-term, the outlook for a veteran heavy defense with numerous key free agents was not overly promising.

Brady couldn’t have foreseen the Patriots also having a league most opt outs for the 2020 season, including key linebacker Dont’a Hightower and key safety Patrick Chung, but the Patriots fell all the way to 23rd in first down rate allowed in 2020 and likely would have seen a big drop off from 2019 even if Hightower and Chung had been available. The Patriots’ offense, which only ranked 21st in first down rate in 2019, continued to have problems, especially because of their lack of offensive weapons, culminating in a 7-9 season for New England in 2020. 

Had they brought Brady back, the Patriots might have won another game or two in 2020, but considering how much their offense underwhelmed in 2019 even with Brady, it’s hard to imagine them going on a deep playoff run even had Brady returned and Brady likely felt there was a good chance that would be the case, which influenced his decision to leave. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, were coming off of just a 7-9 season, but they finished 9th in the NFL in first down rate differential and their losing record was largely the result of a -13 turnover margin (5th worst in the NFL), primarily due to quarterback Jameis Winston having the first 30+ interception season by a quarterback since 1988. 

Merely by stabilizing the Buccaneers’ turnover margin, Brady likely saw he would be able to take an offense with a lot of talent, most notably two of the top wide receivers in the league in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and turn it into one of the more effective in the league, particularly if he could recruit his old friends Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown to join as well. 

The Buccaneers also had a budding young defense that was one of the best in the league in the second half of the 2019 season and a coaching staff led by veteran head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, two of the better coaches in the league in their respective roles. 

Brady himself played a part, of course, completing 65.7% of his passes for an average of 7.60 YPA, 40 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions while finishing as PFF’s 3rd ranked quarterback, which is remarkable considering his advanced age, but he’s not quite the quarterback he was in his prime and would not have been able to take this Buccaneers’ team on a long playoff run if he didn’t have a lot of talent around him, which is why the Buccaneers, who were truly a quarterback away from being a contender, were a perfect fit for him as a free agent last off-season. However surprising Brady’s decision to join the Buccaneers was, it made perfect sense given the circumstances, as did their ultimate ascension to Super Bowl Champions.

Now the big question, of course, becomes whether or not the Buccaneers can repeat. At first glance, they would seem to be an obvious candidate to do so after incredibly managing to retain every key player from last year’s team, dipping deep into future cap space to do so in a cap shrunken season, mortgaging their future to maximize a short-term Super Bowl window. Retaining all of those players doesn’t necessarily guarantee they will be as good, which I will get into more throughout this preview, but the other obvious concern is Tom Brady’s age, now in his age 44 season. 

Predictions that Tom Brady will one day see his abilities fall off a cliff have gotten tired at this point as Brady has continued to defy the odds year after year, but the fact that we’re in uncharted territory can’t be ignored. Even though it may seem like we can, we can’t just treat Tom Brady as a perpetual 30-year-old quarterback who will never decline. That’s not to say he will in 2021, but that’s an element of risk with this team that obviously needs to be included in this projection. Any noticeable decline from Brady, who will miss most of the off-season because of knee surgery, significantly hurts this team’s chances of repeating.

The Buccaneers’ don’t seem too concerned about Brady long-term, tacking on another fully guaranteed 25 million dollar for the 2022 season onto his original 2-year deal in a move that also helped the Buccaneers free up cap space to keep other key players, but they do have one eye on the future, using the 64th overall pick at the end of the second round on Florida’s Jeff Trask, who could be the Buccaneers’ quarterback of the future if Brady doesn’t just outlast yet another “quarterback of the future” as he did several times in New England. In the short-term Trask has a good chance to win the backup job even as a rookie because uninspiring journeyman Blaine Gabbert, who has a career 72.3 QB rating in 48 career starts, was their backup all last season. 

That didn’t matter because Brady yet again played all 16 games, now not missing a game due to injury in 12 straight seasons, but injuries are a possibility for all players and, even though he may seem invincible, the possibility that Brady misses some time with injury is one that the Buccaneers need to account for. Trask gives them a better chance of continuing to play at an above average level offensively in the event of a Brady injury that the-tried-and-failed Gabbert. Regardless, the Buccaneers are obviously hoping that scenario doesn’t occur and that Brady continues playing at a level that this team can remain top Super Bowl contenders.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, the Buccaneers retained every key player from last season, and that is no small feat. Teams almost never return exactly the same group from one year to the next, let alone Super Bowl Champions, and it’s not as if the Buccaneers didn’t have pending free agents. Going into the off-season, 10 of the 31 players who played at least 200 snaps on either side of the ball for the Buccaneers last season were set to hit free agency. 

On top of that, the Buccaneers didn’t seem to have the financial flexibility to bring back all of their top free agents, let alone every key contributor. However, they got creative with their contract structure and used significant amounts of future cap, and while that will lead to problems for this franchise down the line, it’s the kind of aggressive win now approach that makes sense for a team with a 44-year-old quarterback.

One player the Buccaneers could have let walk this off-season was wide receiver Chris Godwin, not because he wasn’t an important part of this team, but because they already have one highly paid receiver in Mike Evans (82.5 million over 5 years) and could have brought back Antonio Brown as an every down receiver with promising third year wide receiver Scotty Miller taking over as the 3rd receiver. Instead, the Buccaneers tagged Godwin and will bring back arguably the league’s deepest and most talented receiving corps.

Evans and Godwin both topped 1000 yards in 2019 and that likely would have happened again in 2020 had Godwin not missed 4 games with injury, as Evans topped the 1000 yard mark at 70/1006/13, while Godwin finished with 65/840/7 slash line in 12 games. Godwin has only topped 1000 yards once in his 4-year career, but that’s really only because of the games he missed last season and the fact he was kind of buried on the depth chart in the first two seasons of his career prior to 2019. 

Godwin still averaged 1.93 yards per route run in those first two seasons, not far off of the 2.24 average he had in 2019 when he finished with 86/1333/9 and, though that dipped back to 1.94 in 2020, Godwin being at less than 100% for most of the season is likely to blame. He’s also finished in the top-24 among wide receivers on PFF in all 4 seasons in the league, including a pair of seasons in the top-10 and a top overall ranked finish in 2019. Still only going into his age 25 season, he should have several seasons left in his prime and should remain a high level receiver for the foreseeable future.

Evans, meanwhile, has actually topped 1000 yards in all 7 seasons in the league, since being selected 7th overall by the Buccaneers in 2014, and he’s still in his prime as well in his age 28 season. The 109 targets he saw last season were the fewest of his career, after averaging 135 per season over the first six seasons of his career, and I would expect that to be the case again in 2021, as there are just so many weapons in this passing game. 

In fact, with the Buccaneers expected to get a full season out of Antonio Brown after he missed the first 8 games of last season with suspension, both Evans and Godwin could see their usage rates drop even more, after falling from 17.7 targets per game combined in 2019 to 13.8 in 2020. Even if they don’t produce huge numbers though, the Buccaneers clearly have one of the best wide receiver duos in the league.

Brown was once one of the top, if not the top wide receiver in the league, but he’s had an interesting decline, to say the least. A top-5 wide receiver on PFF in 5 straight seasons with the Steelers from 2013-2017, Brown averaged 2.47 yards per route run over that stretch, but saw that number fall to 1.94 in 2018, worst since his 2012 season, and he finished just 26th at his position overall on PFF. In his age 30 season in that 2018 season, there was reason to be concerned about him long-term on the field, but he showed even more reasons to be concerned off the field, frequently getting into conflicts with his quarterback, head coach, and other teammates, before eventually demanding a trade out of town.

The Steelers eventually obliged, sending him to the Raiders, and, though they had to trade him at a discount because everyone knew he wanted out, the Steelers actually won the trade, getting a third round pick for a player who ultimately never played a regular season game for his new team, in a saga that included Brown missing significant training camp action due to a self inflicted foot injury and then refusing to suit up in protest of the NFL’s new helmet rules and that ended with Brown being suspended for conduct detrimental to the team, voiding his guaranteed money and leading shortly after to his release. 

Brown then made his way to New England but, while he did suit up for the team, his stay with the Patriots was even shorter than his stay with the Raiders, as allegations of improper conduct off-the-field and potential legal trouble led to Brown being released by the Patriots after just one game, not only ending his tenure with the Patriots, but effectively ending his season, as he remained unsigned for the remainder of the season, with more accusations piling up. Going into the 2020 off-season, Brown faced a very uncertain future, having to find a new team in the midst of ongoing legal proceedings and an impending suspension.

Eventually, Brown ended up in arguably the only place that made sense for him, in Tampa Bay with the quarterback who he made a quick bond with in his brief time in New England, with an organization willing to do anything and everything to win and keep their star quarterback healthy. Brown missed the first 8 games of the season with suspension and was only the third receiver with Evans and Godwin already in the fold, but his 2.07 yards per route run average was 19th in the NFL and actually surpassed his last full season in 2018. In total, Brown had a 53/564/6 slash line in 11 games with the Buccaneers, including the post-season, a slash line of 77/820/9 per 16 games that is pretty impressive when you consider his limited playing time behind two dominant wide receivers and his limited targets in a deep receiving corps.

Most importantly, Brown has stayed out of trouble off-the-field since arriving in Tampa Bay last off-season and, after once again finding a cold free agent market, Brown returned on a 1-year, 3.075 million dollar deal this off-season. Brown is still a hard player to depend on, especially as he now heads into his age 33 season and could further decline on the field, but, as long as he can stay on the field, there’s no denying he’s well over-qualified for a #3 receiver role even if he declines. In addition to seeing a significant role in 3 wide receiver sets, Brown also is great insurance in case either Evans or Godwin misses time.

Scotty Miller is set to be the 4th receiver and he too is good insurance, as he would slide into the #3 receiver job if someone ahead of him on the depth chart was injured. A 6th round pick in 2019, Miller saw his snaps increase from 177 as a rookie to 440 last season and also was more productive on a more route basis, going from 1.46 yards per route run to 1.62. Miller wasn’t a high pick and doesn’t have a huge ceiling, but he should be a solid player if needed. Justin Watson and Tyler Johnson, 5th round picks in 2018 and 2020 respectively, are also in the mix for reserve roles, but they have been underwhelming on 461 career snaps and 264 career snaps respectively.

The Buccaneers are also incredibly deep and talented at the tight end position, especially with OJ Howard set to return from a torn achilles that cost him all but 132 snaps in 4 games last season. Howard played well in those 4 games, posting a 11/146/2 slash line, 44/584/8 extrapolated over a full 16 game season, which is made more impressive by the fact that he didn’t play every down. In fact, on a per route run basis, Howard ranked 4th in the NFL among tight ends over the first 4 weeks of the season with 2.39 yards per route run.

This isn’t the first time the 2017 1st round pick Howard has shown a lot of potential, as he averaged 2.23 yards per route run and was on a 54/904/8 pace through 10 games in 2018 before that season ended with another injury. In between, Howard had a disappointing 2019 campaign in which he received a below average grade from PFF and managed just a 34/459/1 slash line in 14 games. Howard has never played all 16 games in a season and is coming off of a major injury, but he’s still only going into his age 27 season and the potential is obviously there if he can ever put it all together and stay healthy, especially with a quarterback like Brady throwing him the ball. Howard is also a capable blocker and, though he’s unlikely to see a massive workload because of the Buccaneers other tight ends, he has the ability to be an every down player if needed.

Howard’s presence early in the season last season largely made the Buccaneers’ other tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate, non-factors in the passing game. Brate barely played at all, totaling just 32 snaps in the 4 games Howard played and catching just 1 pass, while Gronkowski was mostly limited to blocking duties and caught just 9 passes. Howard’s injury opened up more targets for both players, who finished with slash lines of 28/282/2 and 45/623/7 respectively.

Gronkowski definitely wasn’t his prime self last season, but the future Hall of Famer still finished 12th among tight ends on PFF and might not necessarily just go back to a pure blocking role when Howard returns, having shown he can still play after a season away from the game. Perhaps most important from Gronkowski was that he played all 16 games last season for just the second time in his illustrious 10-year career. 

That’s certainly not a guarantee again in 2021 and he’s another year older now as well, but still only in his age 32 season, Gronkowski could have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. Despite his pledge to only ever catch passes from Tom Brady, Gronkowski reportedly considered Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills this off-season, which would have given him more playing time and a return home to upstate New York with a team that is also in contention, but he ultimately decided to stay with the Buccaneers, signing on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal that was likely more money than the Bills offered.

Cameron Brate’s return is more surprising, as they could have cut him to save 6.5 million in non-guaranteed pay, a significant amount for the release of a third tight end who figures to be little more than an insurance policy as long as Howard and Gronkowski are both healthy. Instead, they truly committed themselves to bringing everyone back and restructured Brate’s deal, guaranteeing some of his pay with a signing bonus that spread his cap hit out over future years and that reduced his expected pay for the 2021 season to 3.1 million.

Brate posted 57/660/8 and 48/591/6 slash lines as a starter in 2016-2017, but he’s seen his playing time fall over the past 3 seasons and hasn’t topped 311 yards or 535 snaps played in any of those three seasons as a situational player. He’s now going into his age 30 season, so his best days are likely behind him and indeed his yards per route run have fallen over the past three seasons, in addition to his playing time, but it’s hard to argue that he’s overqualified for a #3 tight end role. This is as deep and talented of a receiving corps as you’ll find in the NFL.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

While the Buccaneers returned all of their key players from a year ago, there are a couple spots where they might not be as good in 2021 as they were in 2020. Quarterback is an obvious one, given Brady’s advanced age, but even if he doesn’t fall off, the Buccaneers aren’t guaranteed to be as good in front of him in 2021. As talented as they are on the offensive line, the Buccaneers also benefited from the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league on the offensive line last season and, though they did eventually lose right guard Alex Cappa for the season during their playoff run, the Buccaneers had just 4 regular season starts missed by their five starting offensive linemen in 2020, something that is unlikely to continue into 2021.

Three of those missed starts were by left guard Ali Marpet, who is arguably their best offensive lineman, so at least the Buccaneers can reasonably expect to get more snaps out of a player who is one of the best guards in the league when on the field. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Marpet has been one of the better guards in the league basically since day one, finishing 22nd among guards on PFF as a rookie and then finishing in the top-14 at his position in all 5 seasons since. He’s also played in all 16 games in half of his six career seasons and has missed just 11 total games overall in his career. Still in his prime in his age 28 season and coming off of a career best 3rd ranked finish among guards in 2020, there is no reason to expect any drop off from him in 2021.

As good as Marpet is, it wouldn’t be a surprise if right tackle Tristan Wirfs ended the season as the Buccaneers’ best offensive lineman. A first round pick in 2020, Wirfs proved to be the most important addition that the Buccaneers made last off-season aside from Brady, as Wirfs made all 16 starts and finished as PFF’s 12th ranked offensive tackle on the season. That’s not a guarantee that he’ll play all 16 games or even that he’ll play that well again, as progression of young players isn’t always linear, but either way, Wirfs looks like one of the best young offensive linemen in the league and should be at least an above average starter at the right tackle position for years to come. His addition was a huge boost for a team last off-season that had a hole at right tackle, but otherwise returned their starting offensive line from 2019.

Along with Marpet, left tackle Donovan Smith has been with this group the longest, also going in the 2nd round in 2015. Smith hasn’t developed into nearly the dominant player that Marpet has, but he’s made 94 of a possible 96 starts and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 6 seasons, including a career best 34th ranked season among offensive tackles in 2019 and a 38th ranked season in 2020. He doesn’t have a huge ceiling, but he’s been a consistently reliable player at the most important position on the offensive line and that shouldn’t change this season, still in his prime in his age 28 season.


While injuries may be a more of an issue for this group in 2021 than 2020, center Ryan Jensen is the only player whose age should be remotely a concern for this group and even he’s only going into his age 30 season. A free agent acquisition from the Ravens on a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago, Jensen’s tenure in Tampa Bay has been up and down, which is not what you want out of a player who is the 5th highest paid center in the league in average annual salary, but that’s not overly surprising from a player who had only had one full season as a starter when the Buccaneers had signed him, a 2017 contract season in which he finished 10th among centers on PFF. Jensen fell to 30th out of 38 eligible centers in his first season in Tampa Bay in 2018, before shooting up to 2nd in 2019, and then falling somewhere around the middle in a 21st ranked 2020 season. He should be expected to have a solid season, but his range of outcomes is larger than your typical solid starter.

Right guard Alex Cappa completes this offensive line, expected to make a full recovery from the injury that ended his season in the playoffs last year. Prior to that, Cappa had made all 16 starts and finished a career best 19th ranked among guards on PFF. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Cappa is still pretty inexperienced with just 29 career starts and only two full seasons as a starter under his belt, but he was solid in 2019 as well (37th) and seemed to take a step forward in 2020. That’s not a guarantee he continues improving or even matches the best season of his career, but he should remain a solid starting guard as long as he can return to form after the injury. 

Joe Haeg, a talented veteran reserve and their top backup offensive lineman last season, is no longer with the team, so the Buccaneers, who don’t have another proven reserve offensive lineman, could be in tough shape at any of their starting five offensive line spots if injuries strike. They used a 3rd round pick on Notre Dame’s Robert Hainsey, but he’s not a guarantee to be ready to contribute if needed as a rookie, while swing tackle Josh Wells has shown himself to be one of the worst offensive tackles in the league when depended on for extended playing time in his career. Injuries are really the only threat though, as this starting five is one of the best in the league on paper, a talented group whose oldest starter is 30 and who will benefit from the continuity of having the same starting five again. 

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Running back was one position where the Buccaneers seemed like they might try to find an upgrade this off-season, with Leonard Fournette set to hit free agency and other running backs available to replace him with through free agency and the draft, but instead the Buccaneers brought Fournette back on a one-year deal and will continue to use him in tandem with Ronald Jones. Jones, a 2nd round pick in 2018 by the Buccaneers, is heading into the final year of his rookie deal, so without either signed beyond this season, I was expecting the Buccaneers to at least add another running back through the draft, particularly one who could be more efficient in the passing game, with Jones and Fournette averaging a mere 4.47 yards per target through the air last season.

The Buccaneers decision not to draft a running back likely says something about 2020 3rd round pick Keshawn Vaughn, who theoretically has the upside to be the passing down back this offense needs. Vaughn was seen as a sleeper in this backfield when he was drafted because of the pass catching ability he flashed at the collegiate level, but he ultimately ended up with just 31 touches and 99 snaps played in a disappointing rookie season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a step forward and contribute in his second season in the league, but, barring injuries ahead of him on the depth chart, he’s unlikely to see more than a few carries per game, even if he can earn a passing down role.

Jones led the team in carries, actually by a pretty wide margin with 192 carries to Fournette’s 97, and he was the more effective back as well, averaging 5.09 yards per carry to Fournette’s 3.78. That changed in the post-season though, in part due to Jones dealing with an injury that caused him to miss the Buccaneers’ first playoff game. Even when Jones returned, Fournette had 45 carries to Jones’ 35 carries in the final 3 playoff games and he was more effective as well, with a post-season averaging of 4.69 YPC to Jones’ 3.97. It’s unclear whether that will continue into 2021 or whether Jones will revert to the lead back when healthy. 

Fournette has shown promise before, only to continue being wildly inconsistent. The 4th overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft by the Jaguars, Fournette topped 1000 yards in two of his first three seasons in the league, but largely did so on volume rather than effectiveness, rushing for 3.95 YPC with 17 touchdowns on 666 carries, and after multiple problems with the coaching staff, Fournette was let go ahead of the final year of his rookie deal last off-season, leading to him signing a cheap one-year deal with the Buccaneers in free agency. He’s never been an effective pass catcher either, with a career average of 5.62 yards per target. He’s only in his age 26 season, but running backs age differently and I wouldn’t expect him to suddenly have a mid-career breakout.

Jones has also been ineffective as a pass catcher throughout his career, averaging 5.58 yards per target, but he’s shown a lot of talent as a runner over the past two seasons as a starter, averaging 4.21 YPC on 172 carries in 2019 and then jumped up to 5.09 YPC on 192 carries on a better offense in 2020, after hardly playing as a rookie. Still only in his age 24 season with minimal injury history, I would expect him to be about the same in 2021, being the more effective part of a tandem with Fournette, however the split ends up being.

Regardless of the early down split, it seems highly likely that neither back will see the passing game usage they saw last season, when they struggled across a combined 89 targets. Not only could Keshawn Vaughn emerge in a passing down role, but the Buccaneers also signed veteran Giovani Bernard in free agency. Once an effective change of pace runner as well, Bernard has seen his averaged plummet to 3.42 YPC on 233 carries over the past three seasons and, while the lack of talent around him on the Bengals offense was part of the problem, he’s unlikely to improve significantly, now in his age 30 season. 

However, Bernard still added 47 catches last season and has caught an average of 43 catches per season as the Bengals’ primary passing down back. He’s unlikely to see more than a few carries per game and he’s not guaranteed a roster spot with only 850K guaranteed on his contract and three other backs who all seem like roster locks, but if he does make the roster, I would expect him to be utilized as a veteran passing down back and a reliable third down option for Tom Brady. This is a solid, if unspectacular group of running backs.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

While wide receiver Chris Godwin was probably their most talented free agent, edge defender Shaq Barrett might have been their most important free agent because they don’t have the same depth at the position as they do in the receiving corps. He also couldn’t have been kept as easily with the franchise tag because he had already been tagged last off-season and played the 2020 season on the 15.828 million dollar franchise tag, a number that would have increased by 20% with a subsequent tagging.

Originally an undrafted free agent by the Broncos in 2014, Barrett flashed a lot of potential early in his career as a reserve with the Broncos, never topping 664 snaps in a season and managing just 14 sacks, but adding 22 hits and a 12.2% pressure rate, while playing at a high level against the run. However, he was forced to settle for a one-year, 4 million dollar deal with the Buccaneers two off-seasons ago, which proved to be the steal of the off-season, with Barrett breaking out with a league leading 19.5 sacks, to go with 18 hits and a 14.1% pressure rate in an every down role for the first time in his career. 

Understandably skeptical, the Buccaneers tagged Barrett last off-season instead of extending him long-term, but Barrett proved himself again in 2020. His sack total fell to 8, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t an effective pass rusher, adding 8 hits and a 15.7% pressure rate, and overall he finished as PFF’s 30th ranked edge defender on the season. With concerns about Barrett possibly being a one-year wonder quelled, the Buccaneers committed to their talented edge defender with a 4-year, 68 million dollar extension this off-season. 

Barrett will continue starting opposite Jason Pierre-Paul, who is also heading into a contract year. Pierre-Paul is still performing well, but he seems a lot less likely than Barrett to get a long-term deal. Not only is he not quite as important of a player, but he’s also going into his age 32 season and the Buccaneers seemed to signal that he’s not in their long-term plans by using their first round pick in April’s draft on Washington edge defender Joe Tryon.

Pierre-Paul led the team with 9.5 sacks last season, but his peripheral pass rush numbers (5 sacks, 8.4% pressure rate) aren’t as impressive. He was one of the better edge defenders in the league in his prime, but he hasn’t finished higher than 40th among edge defenders on PFF since 2016, so his best days are almost definitely behind him at this point in his career. He’s continued to earn middling grades from PFF and he could continue doing that in 2021, but he is a declining player regardless.

Tryon might not see a ton of action as a rookie, but his addition could lead to the Buccaneers spelling their starters more often, after Barrett averaged 54.9 snaps per game and Pierre-Paul averaged 58.9 snaps per game last season. Pierre-Paul, in particular, would seem to be at risk of having his snaps decreased, given that he’s the less effective of the two. Less playing time could allow the veteran to be fresher and more effective on a per snap basis though. Regardless of how much he plays, Tryon should be an upgrade on the underwhelming Anthony Nelson, who was their only significant reserve last season, seeing just 324 snaps. With Barrett being re-signed and Tryon being added in the draft, this is a strong group that is even stronger than last season.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Buccaneers had a trio of contributors at the interior defender position set to hit the open market in Ndamukong Suh, Steve McLendon, and Rakeem Nunes-Roches, but all three were retained, and the Buccaneers will also get Vita Vea back from injury after he was limited to 224 snaps in 5 games last season, giving them a deep group at this position group as well. Vea actually returned for the NFC Championship and Super Bowl and played 63 snaps across the two games, but he wasn’t 100%. Prior to the injury, Vea seemed on his way to a dominant Pro-Bowl caliber season, as he was PFF’s #2 ranked interior defender at the time he went down. 

A first round pick in 2018 and a rare athlete at 6-4 347, Vea totaled 2 sacks, 1 hit, and a 11.6% pressure rate in those 5 games, and also expectedly dominated against the run as well. In 2019, he played all 16 games and finished as PFF’s 15th ranked interior defender, and he showed a lot of promise as a rookie as well. He earned PFF’s 11th highest grade among interior defenders from week 12 on, after dealing with an injury early in the season, and, over that 6-game stretch to end the season, he played 46.8 snaps per game while totaling 2 sacks, 1 hit, and a 12.8% pressure rate and playing at a high level against the run. Injuries have been a concern for him in his career, but, only in his age 26 season, he still has a lot of football left ahead of him and it’s obvious he has the potential to be one of the top interior defenders in the league.

Ndamukong Suh was the most significant of the trio that the Buccaneers returned, re-signing on a one-year, 9 million dollar deal, after playing 788 snaps last season to lead the position group for the Buccaneers. Suh was one of the best at his position in his prime, but he’s seen his effectiveness steadily drop off the past four seasons, from a 14th ranked season among interior defenders on PFF in 2017, to 27th in 2018, 48th in 2019, and a career worst 71st last season, as he was largely a snap eater more than an impact player across his playing time last season. With Vea returning and Suh now going into his age 34 season, Suh could easily see his snaps reduced. I would still expect him to start and finish 2nd in this group in snaps played, but he’s clearly not the player he once was and the Buccaneers have enough depth and talent that Suh doesn’t need to play 40-50 snaps per game again.

William Gholston figures to be the third starter on this 3-man defensive line in base packages, after finishing 2nd in the position group with 606 snaps played last season, but he too could see his role scaled back by Vea’s return. Gholston’s 2020 snap total was the 2nd highest of his 8-year career and, now going into his age 30 season, having never earned more than a middling grade from PFF, he would probably be better in a smaller role. 

Gholston was one of the worst defensive linemen in the league as recently as 2018, but he’s found a good fit over the past two seasons in Todd Bowles scheme, especially impressing as a pass rusher, with 4 sacks, 24 hits, and a 10.5% pressure rate overall in 32 games. He figures to continue to see a significant role on passing downs, as well as early downs, though it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him decline a little as he enters his 30s.

Steve McLendon should also see a significant role on early downs in base packages, as that is his area of expertise. McLendon is going into his age 35 season and saw his effectiveness fall off significantly last season, split across the Jets and then the Buccaneers after a mid-season trade, but he still earned an above average grade against the run on 443 regular season snaps. He’s never played more than 488 snaps in a season though and is a pass rush liability with a career 5.2% pressure rate, including no sacks or hits and a 3.5% pressure rate last season, so he is not a candidate to play in sub packages, but he could still be a useful contributor on early downs.

Rakeem Nunez-Roches also doesn’t get much pass rush, with a career 4.2% pressure rate, but the difference is, he hasn’t played well against the run either, never earning more than a middling grade from PFF and finishing 123rd out of 138 eligible interior defenders on 483 snaps last season, which also happened to be in career high in snaps. He was brought back almost entirely for insurance and depth purposes, so I wouldn’t expect more than a dozen snaps out of him unless injuries strike. The Buccaneers have a few players in this group who are getting up there in age, but they have solid depth at the position overall and Vita Vea leads the position group as one of the better defensive tackles in the league in the prime of his career.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Linebacker Lavonte David was also a key free agent retention, as he was one of the best off ball linebackers in the league last season, finishing 5th on PFF among off ball linebackers, and, beyond that, he’s been one of the Buccaneers’ best players and one of the best off ball linebackers in the league for years. Originally a 2nd round selection by the Buccaneers in 2012, He’s been a little inconsistent throughout his 9-year career, but he’s earned at least an average grade from PFF in every season in the league, including 6 finishes in the top-18 among off ball linebackers and 4 finishes in the top-6, especially excelling in pass coverage. His age is a concern, now heading into his age 31 season, but he didn’t show any signs of decline in 2020 and, even if he starts to decline in 2021, I would still expect an above average season from him.

Devin White will continue starting next to David, now going into his third season in the league since being drafted 5th overall by the Buccaneers in 2019. With David excelling in coverage, that freed up White to blitz more than your average off ball linebackers and White excelled as a blitzer, totaling 9 sacks, 8 hits, and 14 hurries on just 109 blitzes, a ridiculous 28.4% pressure rate. White also finished with 140 total tackles, 5th in the NFL, but his traditional stats are a little misleading, as he also missed 16 tackles, 4th most among off ball linebackers, and allowed a position leading 86 receptions on just 98 targets. A similar thing happened as a rookie in 2019, when he missed 13 tackles in 13 games and allowed 40 of 49 completion. He has the tools to develop into one of the better all-around off ball linebackers in the league, but he’s a little overrated if you only look at his sack and tackle totals.

The Buccaneers also retained veteran free agent Kevin Minter this off-season, keeping a player who plays at a high level on special teams and provides valuable insurance at the inside linebacker position. Minter made 37 starts with the Cardinals from 2014-2016, but he was underwhelming in his extended action and he’s been limited to just 586 total defensive snaps as a reserve in 4 seasons since, including just 93 snaps last season. Now going into his age 31 season, his days of being a starting caliber player are well behind him, but you could do worse in a top reserve. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him capably hold down the fort for a few games if needed. He gives a good position group needed insurance.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Like the rest of the defense, the Buccaneers should get good play from their secondary, who retained their only significant free agent Ross Cockrell. Cockrell only played 238 snaps last season, but he earned an above average grade from PFF for his play and made enough of an impression on the Buccaneers to be brought back with everyone else, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him play a more significant role in 2021. Cockrell was a solid starter from 2015-2017 (32 starts) before a badly broken leg cost him all of 2018 and likely led to a down 2019 season in which he finished 94th among 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. 

Cockrell’s down 2019 season led to him having to settle for a practice squad role with the Buccaneers last off-season, but he was called up in the second half of the season and showed his pre-injury form in his limited action. His age isn’t ideal in his age 30 season, but now 3 years removed from his injury, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue to be a serviceable player. That would likely him make an upgrade on #3 cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who was the weak point of this defense last season, finishing 83rd among 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. Murphy-Bunting was a second round pick in 2019 and he played better as a rookie, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cockrell beat him out for the primary slot cornerback job, which is where Cockrell is at his best.

Starters Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis are also young, going in the 3rd round in 2019 and the 2nd round in 2018 respectively, but they’ve developed a lot better than Murphy-Bunting has, combining to be one of the better starting cornerback duos in the league in 2020, finishing 11th and 41st respectively among cornerbacks on PFF. Davis is the more proven of the two, making 40 career starts and earning average or better grades in all 3 seasons in the league, but Dean has shown a higher upside and especially played well down the stretch last season, when he was the clearly better of these two cornerbacks. That might not necessarily continue in 2021, but either way, they should remain a solid starting cornerback duo.

The Buccaneers also have good young players at safety, with 2018 4th round pick Jordan Whitehead actually being the most experienced player the Buccaneers have at the position. Whitehead has made 41 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but prior to last season, he had struggled, finishing 66th among 99 eligible safeties on PFF on 660 snaps as a rookie and then 97th out of 98 eligible safeties on PFF on 919 snaps in 2019, but he made a big leap forward in 2020 and finished 37th at his position. He’s a one-year wonder and not a guarantee to play that well again, but it’s also possible he’s turned a corner and will remain a solid starter going forward.

Antoine Winfield, a 2nd round pick in 2020, was the Buccaneers’ best safety last season, despite being a rookie, finishing 33rd among safeties on PFF. He should remain at least a solid starter and has the upside to take a big step forward in his second season in the league. Winfield is locked in as a starter, but Whitehead may have to compete for his role because 2019 3rd round pick Mike Edwards could also be in the mix. 

Edwards struggled as a rookie, finishing 80th among 98 eligible safeties on PFF across 614 snaps, but he flashed a lot of potential on 189 snaps last season, suggesting he may deserve another shot at a bigger role. Even if he doesn’t, he is well qualified as a third safety. This is a deep and talented young group overall. Their youth may give them more variance and potential downside than a comparable veteran unit, but they also have a much higher upside.

Grade: B+

Kicker/Punter

Special teams was the Buccaneers’ achilles heel last season and likely led to at least a couple of their close regular season losses. Not only did they rank 26th in special teams DVOA, but they were one of four teams to all finish below average in all special teams DVOA aspects. Kicker Ryan Succop went 28/31 on field goals, but he went 52/57 on extra points and only attempted twice from 50+ yards, so he was part of the problem.

Succop hasn’t been great in the past, making 83.9% of his field goals in his career and 93.1% of his extra points since the rule change that moved the extra point back, and he’s just one season removed from his worst season in 2019, when he made 24/25 extra points, but just 1/6 field goals, leading to him finishing 38th among 39 eligible kickers on PFF and eventually getting cut. He’ll face competition from rookie undrafted free agent Jose Borregales, who made 80.5% of his collegiate field goals, including 90.9% in 2020, and 6/8 on 50+ yards (including a made 57-yarder). He could easily take Succop’s job with a strong training camp and could also prove to be an upgrade, though that’s not a guarantee.

Punter Bradley Pinion was not the problem, as not only did he rank 2nd in punting grade on PFF, but he also handled kickoffs and ranked 1st in kickoff grade. The Buccaneers still finished below average in punting and kickoff DVOA, but that was due to poor play around Pinion. Pinion has traditionally handled kickoffs in his career, finishing 2nd, 9th, and 1st in kickoff grade on PFF in 2017-2019 respectively, and, while he hasn’t been quite as good as a punter, he has still finished above average on PFF in four straight seasons, so if the Buccaneers can get better play around Pinion, we could see the Buccaneers’ kickoff and punting units become a strength. That’s unlikely to happen with their place kicking, even if the rookie Borregales can win the job, but they could still get better play from their kicker even if it doesn’t become a strength.

Grade: B+

Return Specialists

The Buccaneers struggled in both return games, averaging 5.9 yards per punt return (24th in the NFL), 21.8 yards per kickoff return (19th in the NFL), and finishing below average in both kickoff and punt return DVOA. The problem was equal parts the returners and the supporting cast. Jaydon Mickens led the team in both kickoff returns and punt returns, averaging 24.3 per kickoff return across 14 attempts and 6.2 per punt return across 16 attempts.

He seems likely to be their primary option on both kickoffs and punts again in 2021 as well, as Kenjon Barner, who returned 7 kickoffs and 13 punts last season, is no longer with the team and was not replaced, leaving Justin Watson (3 kickoffs returns) as the only Buccaneer to return more than one kick or punt last season. Watson also returned 2 punts in 2019, but is not likely to be a serious candidate for either job, even with Mickens being as underwhelming as he was last season. Mickens does have decent averages of 24.2 yards per kickoff return and 8.1 yards per punt return in his career, but he will need better play from his supporting cast to reach those numbers in 2021, as he’s not explosive enough to make up for poor play around him.

Grade: B-

Special Teamers

The Buccaneers’ had just three supporting special teams finish above average on PFF and none who finished in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF. Making matters worse, the Buccaneers let one of those three, Andrew Adams (295 snaps), leave in free agency, along with Ryan Smith (358 snaps), who isn’t as big of a loss. The Buccaneers did add reinforcements though, adding Joe Jones (349 snaps) a capable, but unspectacular special teamer, and Antonio Hamilton (328 snaps), a consistently above average special teamer.

Patrick O’Connor (352 snaps) and Justin Watson (172 snaps) are their top returning special teamers and should be among their best special teamers again in 2021, along with Hamilton, but neither one of them has a history of consistently being as good as they were in 2020. The rest of the Buccaneers’ returning special teamers, Kevin Minter (309 snaps), Cam Gill (226 snaps), Anthony Nelson (208 snaps), Mike Edwards (176 snaps), and Ross Cockrell (155 snaps) all struggled last season and don’t have a history of being better than average in a season. The Buccaneers are well coached on special teams by long-time NFL special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, but the lack of talent remains a concern.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

Super Bowl winners historically have a hard time repeating, doing so just 7 out of 55 times, with many defending champions not even coming close to making it back. The Buccaneers have brought back every key member of this team in an unprecedented attempt to try to avoid the usual pitfalls of defending Super Bowl Champions, but there are still some concerns for a team with a quarterback who is playing very much in uncharted territory in his age 44 season, and that likely won’t have as good of injury luck as last season, particularly on the offensive line, which had the fewest games lost to injury of any offensive line in the league. The Buccaneers will definitely be in the mix to repeat, but the potential downside is there as well. I will have a final prediction for the Buccaneers at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

8/8/21 Update: The Buccaneers’ special teams are a concern again this season, which is more predictive than I originally thought, but this team is still talented enough to be high level contenders even with below average special teams play, as they were in 2021. There is some downside here if they can’t stay as healthy as a year ago or if Tom Brady starts to show his age, but they should be considered one of the top favorites to win it all.

9/4/21 Update: The Buccaneers might be a little overrated because, while they did bring back all their starters from a Super Bowl winner, they are unlikely to be as healthy as they were last season, when they lost five games in the regular season. Most of their losses were against good teams, but projections having them win 14-16 games seem a little high. Still, this should be one of the best teams in the league.

Prediction: 13-4 1st in NFC South

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