The Buccaneers got a scare early in the off-season when Tom Brady shockingly announced his retirement in February, after he had helped bring the Buccaneers their best two-year stretch in franchise history, going 24-9 in the regular season and leading the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory in his first year, followed by a narrow 2nd round exit against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Rams last season. Normally it wouldn’t be shocking for a quarterback to hang them up ahead of his age 45 season, but Brady still played at an elite level in 2022, he had spoken of playing as long as he could, and he had given no indications that retirement was on his mind until he made his announcement, so the retirement came as a total surprise to many.
Theories ranged from Brady being forced to hang them up by his wife to Brady being likely to change his mind later in the off-season to Brady’s retirement being part of a power play to get out of Tampa Bay and go elsewhere. Those theories only intensified when Brady announced just a little bit more than a month later on the eve of free agency that he was not going to be retiring and would return to the Buccaneers, which was followed a couple weeks later by head coach Bruce Arians surprisingly retiring and joining the front office, leaving defensive coordinator and former Jets head coach Todd Bowles as the head coach in Arians’ absence.
It’s impossible to know what really happened behind the scenes and we may never know, but it’s not hard to put together that Brady retired with the intention of ultimately forcing the Buccaneers to trade him or to give him concessions for the 2022 season. When free agency was about to begin and the Buccaneers had yet to find a clear replacement for him, meaning forcing a trade later in the off-season would be an unlikely option, Brady then returned to Tampa Bay for the final season of his contract, under the condition that Arians, with whom Brady was rumored to not see eye-to-eye on some things, and who was likely planning on retiring in the next couple years anyway, step aside this off-season, leaving Brady and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich in charge of the offense and Todd Bowles’ duties not changing much from the head coach of the defense role he has served in over the past three seasons.
It was a tumultuous off-season, but the Buccaneers will happily take another year of Tom Brady at the end of it, after he completed 67.5% of his passes for an average of 7.40 YPA, 43 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions last season, while finishing as PFF’s #1 ranked quarterback, his 11th season in the top-5 among quarterbacks on PFF in 15 healthy seasons in PFF’s history. There’s always a possibility his abilities completely fall off and we’re in completely uncharted territory with a quarterback playing at this high of a level at this advanced of an age, but he really hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down physically and the mental aspect of his game seems to improve every year, so I would be surprised if he wasn’t again one of the better quarterbacks in the league, even if he’s not quite as good as he’s been at his best in his career.
The Buccaneers drafted Kyle Trask in the 2nd round in 2021 to potentially be Brady’s long-term replacement, but it’s unclear if the Buccaneers would have actually let him start in 2022 if Brady retired and it’s a concern he has yet to beat out veteran backup Blaine Gabbert (72.4 QB rating in 48 career starts) for the #2 quarterback job. Trask could do so with a strong training camp, but it seems likely he will spend his second straight season to begin his career as a 3rd string quarterback, inactive on game days, after not attempting a pass as a rookie.
Brady hasn’t missed a game with injury since his 2008 ACL tear, the only stretch of missed starts due to injury in his career, so it probably doesn’t matter who his backup is, but that doesn’t mean he’s invincible and the Buccaneers would obviously see a huge dropoff if either Gabbert or Trask had to start for an extended period of time this season. The Buccaneers aren’t without concerns at the quarterback position, but Brady also could just win another MVP at age 45.
In addition to his rumored rift with Bruce Arians, another reason why Brady might have wanted out of Tampa Bay is because the salary cap is making it increasingly difficult for them to keep all of the talent that attracted Brady to Tampa Bay to the first place, supporting talent that was the reason why Brady was able to win so quickly upon his arrival. The Buccaneers did a pretty good job keeping a high level team around Brady this off-season though, being aggressive in making moves around him after he announced he was returning. The result of that is the Buccaneers are already more than 50 million over next year’s salary cap, even with Brady not under contract beyond 2022, but if Brady extends his career beyond this season, it’s likely to be elsewhere, set to hit free agency next off-season without the option of a franchise tag, so their long-term cap concerns are not his problem.
The Buccaneers’ offensive line has been a big strength for them the past two seasons and they’ve essentially had the same five players start every game with minimal injuries (4 total starts missed by the five starters in two seasons combined), but it was a concern for them heading into the off-season, with center Ryan Jensen and right guard Alex Cappa both set to hit free agency, after finishing 13th among centers and 15th among guards on PFF respectively in 2021. Things then got even worse when left guard Ali Marpet, PFF’s 7th ranked guard last season, surprisingly retired in his prime, passing on the final 20.625 million over two years remaining on his contract to hang them up ahead of what would have been his age 29 season.
The Buccaneers were able to bring Jensen back on a 3-year, 39 million dollar deal though and, while Cappa signed in Cincinnati on a 4-year, 35 million dollar deal, the Buccaneers replaced him and arguably upgraded on him by acquiring veteran Shaq Mason from the Patriots for a 5th round pick. They didn’t replace Marpet and will likely get worse left guard play this season as a result, but the Buccaneers do have 2021 3rd round pick Robert Hainsey waiting in the wings as a starting option, as well as 2nd round rookie Luke Goedeke, and they also bring back their talented offensive tackle duo of Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs, so this could easily remain a well above average offensive line.
Jensen’s deal might have been a little bit of an overpay, making him the second highest paid center in the league in average annual salary, but it was an understandable move for a team with aspirations of winning another Super Bowl in 2022, before Brady leaves and their window shuts. Jensen hasn’t been a consistently high level center in his career, maxing out as PFF’s 2nd ranked center in 2019, but otherwise never finishing higher than 11th at his position for a season, and he now heads into his age 31 season and could start declining, but he’s been an average or better starter on PFF in four of five seasons as a starter in his career, while making all 81 starts over that stretch, and, even if he declines a little bit, I would expect him to remain at least an average starter again in 2022.
Mason, on the other hand, was a steal for just a 5th round pick and the remaining 16 million over 2 years remaining on his contract, after finishing 4th among guards on PFF last season and in the top-6 among guards on PFF in 5 of the past 6 seasons, while starting 88 of a possible 97 games over that stretch. Still only in his age 29 season, he has a good chance to be an upgrade on both Cappa and Marpet, though obviously the Buccaneers’ offensive line figures to take a hit from starting an inexperienced player at left guard, with Goedeke being a rookie and Hainsey playing just 31 rookie year snaps.
As good as the Buccaneers’ interior offensive line was last season, their offensive tackle duo of Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith were probably the biggest strength of this offensive line, as they finished last season 6th and 10th respectively among offensive tackles on PFF in 2021. Both have a chance to be just as good again this season, particularly Wirfs, a 2020 1st round pick (13th overall) who also finished 12th among offensive tackles as a rookie in 2020 and who is still only going into his age 23 season, with a sky high upside. He could easily be one of the best right tackles in the league for years to come.
Smith might have a harder time repeating last season’s performance, as it was the best season of the 7-year veteran’s career, with his previous best finish being 33rd among offensive tackles on PFF, but he’s still only in his age 29 season and has finished above average on PFF in five straight seasons (79 starts), including three straight finishes in the top-39. Smith might not be quite as good as he was in 2022 again in 2021, but he should remain at least an above average left tackle.
Overall, the Buccaneers’ starting five offensive linemen probably won’t be quite as good as they’ve been the past two seasons and depth is a concern if injuries strike because career backups Josh Wells, who has struggled in 17 career starts, Aaron Stinnie, who has struggled in 1 career start, and Fred Johnson, who has struggled in 8 career starts, are their only reserve options aside from the loser of the left guard battle, who will be inexperienced, but this offensive line still has a good chance to be one of the best in the league, as long as they don’t have too many injuries.
One of the reasons why the Buccaneers couldn’t return to the Super Bowl last season was their receiving corps, as they had a trio of talented wide receivers in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown, all #1 caliber receivers in their own right, when they won it all in 2020, but then last season they lost Godwin for the season to a torn ACL in week 15 and had to cut Brown for disciplinary reasons after week 17. That left them without a consistent wide receiver on the depth chart behind Evans. Brown won’t return and Godwin is questionable for the start of the season and might not be 100% in his first season back, so the Buccaneers had to be aggressive in free agency to get Brady another pass catcher, signing ex-Falcon Russell Gage to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal, their biggest external free agent signing this off-season.
Gage has flown under the radar in his career with the Falcons, with his playing time and targets often being limited by the presence of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, but the 2018 6th round pick has had slash lines of 72/786/4 and 66/770/4 respectively over the past two seasons in larger roles and he has a solid 1.57 yards per route run average for his career, including 1.71 over the past two seasons. He figures to have a significant role in the Buccaneers’ offense and, now playing with an elite quarterback, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he surpassed his career high in receiving yardage.
Godwin’s status is a little up in the air for the start of the season and might not be at his best when he returns, but even at less than his best, he should be an asset for this team whenever he returns. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Godwin has averaged 2.02 yards per route run for his career with a 99/1310/8 slash line per 16 games over the past three seasons, while finishing in the top-22 among wide receivers on PFF in all five seasons in the league, maxing out at #1 in 2019. The Buccaneers clearly are still confident in him long-term, making him the 9th highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary on a 3-year, 60 million dollar deal this off-season, after franchise tagging him for the 2021 season and, with Godwin still only going into his age 26 season, he should still have a very bright future, despite the injury.
Evans is the longest tenured member of this wide receiver group, with 8 seasons in the league since being drafted with the 7th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, and he’s impressively topped 1,000 yards receiving in all 8 seasons, by far the longest consecutive streak like that to begin a career. Not only has he played at a consistently high level, despite differing quarterback play, but he’s remained remarkably healthy as well, never missing more than 3 games in a season and only missing 7 games total in his career.
Evans’ production has actually dropped the past two seasons since Brady came to town, because he’s more of a deep threat, while Brady prefers shorter to immediate routes, so they have been using Evans more often as a decoy downfield to open things up for Godwin and Brown, leading to Evans’ yards per route run average dropping to 1.72 over the past 2 seasons with Brady, from 2.18 in his first 6 seasons, but that’s still an impressive average. Still only going into his age 29 season, with Godwin coming off injury and Brown no longer with the team, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Evans saw a slight uptick in targets this season and, even if he doesn’t, he still has a good chance at a 9th straight 1,000 yard season, barring a fluke injury.
Depth is still a concern for the Buccaneers outside of their top-3 receivers though, which is a problem because Godwin has a good chance to miss at least some time this season. Tyler Johnson, a 2020 5th round pick, played a significant role last season due to injuries ahead of him on the depth chart (612 snaps), but he managed just a 0.92 yards per route run average, 9th worst among eligible wide receivers, after a 1.04 yards per route run average in a limited role as a rookie in 2020.
Scott Miller, a 2019 6th round pick, has seen some action as a reserve in three seasons in the league, but he’s been underwhelming with a career 1.35 yards per route run average and probably doesn’t have much untapped upside. They took Jaelon Darden in the 4th round in last year’s draft, but he played just 89 rookie year snaps and is almost a complete mystery at the NFL level. Their best reserve receiver might be veteran Breshad Perriman, who they signed late last season and re-signed this off-season.
Perriman was a member of the Buccaneers in 2019 and posted a 36/645/6 slash line, but that was a career best for the 7-year veteran and he averaged just 1.44 yards per route run that season, only slightly ahead of his 1.39 career yards per route run. Perriman is still only in his age 29 season and was decent in limited action down the stretch for the Buccaneers last season, after bouncing from the Lions to the Bears without catching a pass for either team earlier in the season, but he’s been very inconsistent in his career and would be an underwhelming option in the somewhat likely scenario he’ll be forced into action as the 3rd receiver in place of an injured Godwin early in the season.
The Buccaneers could run more two-tight end sets early in the season to take some pressure off the wide receiver group, but that assumes that expected starting tight end Rob Gronkowski returns to the team for his age 33 season, not a guarantee, considering he’s been mulling a second retirement this off-season and remains a free agent (note: this was written before Gronkowski announced his second retirement in mid-June, a significant loss for this team, unless he happens to unretire and return mid-season, as his agent suggested he might). If he does play in 2022, it almost definitely will be for the Buccaneers, but he’s at least making the Buccaneers wait and probably has a price in mind for his return, which the Buccaneers will likely ultimately end up paying, at the expense of more future cap space.
Gronkowski won’t be what he once was even if he does return, averaging 2.44 yards per route run and finishing in the top-3 among tight ends on PFF in each of his first 8 seasons in the league after being selected in the 2nd round in 2010, including 7 straight seasons as PFF’s #1 overall tight end from 2011-2017, dominating as Tom Brady’s most deadly weapon in New England. However, Gronkowski’s 1.79 yards per route run average in three seasons since then is still well above average and he remains a solid blocker as well.
Gronkowski will be another year older in 2022 and his history of injuries is well noted, costing him 34 games in 11 seasons and causing his first retirement, costing him the 2019 season, but he should still be an asset when he likely returns to this team. The Buccaneers did not retain OJ Howard (365 snaps), but he struggled mightily, finishing 57th out of 58 eligible tight ends on PFF and averaging just 0.92 yards per route run, so he won’t be missed, and they still have veteran Cameron Brate, an experienced starter who will be the #2 tight end if Gronkowski returns and Gronkowski’s replacement if he ultimately does not return.
Brate would be a good #2 tight end, but he would probably be overmatched as the starter. He had slash lines of 57/660/8 and 48/591/6 as the starter in 2016 and 2017 respectively, but he’s taken a backseat with Gronkowski and Howard being added over the past few seasons and has just a career 1.23 yards per route run average overall. Heading into his age 31 season in 2022, he’s unlikely to get any better at this point and his best days are almost definitely behind him. The Buccaneers are probably hoping he doesn’t have to play a significantly expanded role this season.
The Buccaneers also used a 4th round pick on University of Washington tight end Cade Otton, who won’t see much action as a rookie unless Gronkowski doesn’t return, but he gives them some insurance for that scenario and a long-term option, with both Gronkowski and Brate being on the wrong side of 30. Gronkowski still is not on the roster, Chris Godwin is a bit of a question mark coming off of a significant injury, and Antonio Brown is gone, but Brown missed most of last season with injury, they’ve added a solid option in Russell Gage, Gronkowski is likely to return, and, with Mike Evans also still around, this looks likely to be one of the best receiving corps in the league again in 2022.
The Buccaneers also figure to continue using their running backs in the passing game regularly, something Tom Brady has done throughout his career. The Buccaneers used a 3rd round pick in 2020 on potential passing down back Ke’Shawn Vaughn (29 catches in his final collegiate season) and then signed veteran passing down back Giovani Bernard (1.42 career yards per route run) as a free agent last off-season, but it was still lead back Leonard Fournette who was their primary passing down back last season.
Fournette was unspectacular in that role, averaging just 1.26 yards per route run, but he still finished with a 69/454/2 slash line because of the volume he got. He also had 812 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground on 180 carries (4.51 YPC), leading the team in all three categories. Ronald Jones was their #2 back last season, rushing for 428 yards and 4 touchdowns on 101 carries (4.34 YPC), but he did very little in the passing game and was not retained as a free agent this off-season.
Jones’ departure could open up more carries for Fournette, but the Buccaneers still have Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who could have untapped upside, despite just 71 career offensive touches, and they added another good collegiate receiving back Rachaad White (43 catches in his final collegiate season) in the 3rd round of this year’s draft, who, like Vaughn, is an options for carries and a threat to Fournette’s passing game work. Even though they utilized him heavily in that capacity last season, Fournette has never been a particularly effective or efficient passing down option, averaging 1.23 yards per route run for his 5-year career, so he could be upgraded.
Fournette also only has a career 4.04 YPC average on 943 carries, although a lot of that is because he had poor blocking early in his career in Jacksonville. Fournette’s 24th ranked finish overall among running backs on PFF in 2021 was the best of his career and led to him getting a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal from the Buccaneers this off-season to stay in town, but he’s been inconsistent in the past and might not repeat the best season of his career. He has a path to a big role in this offense, but it’s unclear how many of the touches he’ll get exactly, with White and Vaughn around as young options and Bernard still around as a veteran passing down back, albeit in his age 31 season. This isn’t a bad backfield, but it’s a little bit of an unsettled group.
From their Super Bowl winner in 2020 to their 2021 team, the Buccaneers were amazingly able to retain all 22 starters, leading to them having another strong season, finishing 2nd in efficiency in the regular season, actually a slight improvement from the year before when they were 4th in efficiency in the regular season. That was impossible for the Buccaneers to pull off in two straight years though. I already got into some of their offensive losses and how they tried to replace them, but they had defensive losses as well. Fortunately, most of the players they lost on that side of the ball are pretty easily replaceable and, in fact, the Buccaneers could easily have found upgrades for them.
One of those players is interior defender Ndamukong Suh, who has been one of the best players in the league at his position for years and who led this position group with 718 snaps played last season, but who struggled mightily in that significant action, finishing 107th out of 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF. The Buccaneers opting not to retain him for his age 35 season could prove to be addition by subtraction, especially since they did a good job replacing him, using the 33rd overall pick at the top of the second round on interior defender Logan Hall and then signing veteran Akiem Hicks.
Hicks is getting up there in age as well, but he’s a couple years younger than Suh, going into his age 33 season, and seemed to have more left in the tank last season, finishing in the 85th percentile among interior defenders on PFF, albeit across just 304 snaps in 9 games in an injury plagued season. Hicks also finished in the 57th percentile among interior defenders across 795 snaps in a healthier season in 2020 though. He did miss 11 games with injury in 2019 too and while he’s highly unlikely to bounce back to his prime form, when he finished in the 73rd percentile among interior defenders on PFF in three straight seasons as healthy every down player from 2016-2018, he could easily still remain a starting caliber player for the Buccaneers in 2022 and an upgrade on Suh, who appeared to have almost nothing left in the tank last season.
Hall’s addition is good because Hicks is aging and only on a one-year deal, but Hall could also have a big rookie year role too. He can at least take over the 252 snaps vacated by veteran base package run stuffer Steve McLendon, but he could also push middling rotational players William Gholston (507 snaps) and Rakeem Nunez-Roches (415 snaps) for their snaps. Both are plenty experienced, going into their 10th season and 8th season in the league respectively, but both have also never been more than a solid rotational player and both are getting up there in age, going into their age 31 and age 29 seasons respectively. Both should still have roles, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the rookie Hall finished with more snaps played than them.
With Suh gone, 2018 1st round pick Vita Vea is likely to lead this group in snaps played and could see a slight uptick from the 608 snaps he played last season, which should be a further boost for this team, as Vea is one of the best players in the league at his position, finishing 42nd, 15th, and 17th among interior defenders on PFF in 2018, 2019, and 2021 respectively, while ranking 2nd among interior defenders through 5 games in 2020 before missing the rest of the regular season with injury.
Not just a big run stuffer at 6-4 347, Vea is a freakish athlete for his size and has added 11.5 sacks, 20 hits, and a 10.7% pressure rate in 50 career games. His best full season came in 2019, when he played 749 snaps, played the run at a high level, and added 2.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he had a season like that again in 2022. With Hall and Hicks replacing the struggling Suh, an already solid position group should be even better this season.
Like Suh on the interior, the Buccaneers also let go of veteran Jason Pierre-Paul on the edge this off-season, after he played 601 snaps in 2021, but finished as PFF’s 121st ranked edge defender out of 129 eligible. Like Suh, Pierre-Paul being gone could be addition by subtraction, ahead of what would have been his age 33 season, but, unlike Suh, they didn’t do anything to replace him. They did prepare for this by using a first round pick on Joe Tryon-Shoyinka in the 2021 NFL Draft and he figures to take over Pierre-Paul’s starting role, albeit after struggling as a rookie, finishing 114th out of 129 eligible edge defenders on PFF across 560 snaps (9.6% pressure rate), but, even if Tryon-Shoyinka is significantly better in year two, depth will be a concern behind him and fellow starter Shaq Barrett.
Anthony Nelson (359 snaps) is their top returning reserve and the 2019 4th round pick figures to have a bigger role in 2022. He’s a good run defender, finishing in the 87th percentile or higher among edge defenders in run defender in all three seasons in the league, and he should be effective an early down role, but he’s also never played more snaps in a season than the limited role he saw last season, so he’s a projection to a larger reserve role, and, as good as he’s been as a run defender, he’s struggled mightily as a pass rusher, with just a 8.3% career pressure rate. The Buccaneers also don’t have much depth behind Nelson, making them likely to turn to either 2020 undrafted free agent Cam Gill (123 career snaps) or rookie 7th round pick Andre Anthony for deep reserve snaps.
Fortunately, top edge defender Shaq Barrett is one of the better players in the league at his position and doesn’t need to come off the field much, averaging 53.9 snaps per game in 46 games over the past three seasons since joining the Buccaneers as a free agent. In those three seasons, Barrett has totalled 37.5 sacks, 40 hits, and a 15.0% pressure rate and he’s coming off of a season in which he was PFF’s 11th ranked edge defender overall across 768 snaps.
Barrett was a reserve earlier in his career in Denver prior to joining the Buccaneers three years ago, but he always showed promise in limited action, finishing in the 73rd percentile or higher in all four seasons with the Broncos from 2015-2018 on an average of 30.4 snaps per game in 63 games, totaling 14 sacks, 23 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate, while playing the run at a high level as well. Barrett is now going into his age 30 season so he will start to decline soon, but he hasn’t shown any signs yet and he’s proven himself over many years as a highly effective edge defender, regardless of his role. He’ll almost definitely remain an above average every down player in 2022 and elevates an otherwise underwhelming position group.
The Buccaneers do bring back both of their starting off ball linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David. White has been among the league leaders in tackles over the past three seasons, since entering the league as the 5th overall pick in 2019, but he’s also struggled mightily in coverage, he’s missed among the most tackles in the league, and he has a below average depth of tackle. As a result, he has earned a below average grade from PFF both in run defense and in coverage grade in each of his first three seasons in the league.
The one aspect he has been above average in is blitzing, totaling 15 sacks, 25 hits, and a 14.0% pressure rate in his career. Last season, he blitzed on 21.6% of his pass defense snaps and he could see a similar rate again in 2022, given how much this defense likes to blitz and given how much better White is at blitzing than he is in any other aspect of his game. He’s also still only in his age 24 season, so it’s possible his run defense and pass coverage could improve going forward, though that’s not a guarantee.
David, on the other hand, is probably on the way down, heading into his age 32 season, but he hasn’t really shown many signs of decline yet, still finishing the 2021 season as PFF’s 8th ranked off ball linebacker, his 5th straight season in the top-11 at the position and 6th in 10 seasons in the league since being drafted by the Buccaneers in the 2nd round in 2012. He could easily start to decline this year though, which would be a blow to this defense, even if he would probably still be at least a solid every down player even at less than his best.
Depth is a concern at this position group because veteran backup Kevin Minter (331 snaps) wasn’t retained this off-season. That’s not that important unless White or David get hurt because they hardly come off the field when healthy, but their top reserves are a pair of inexperienced second year players, 2021 5th round pick KJ Britt (28 rookie year defensive snaps) and 2021 7th round pick Grant Stuard (26 rookie year defensive snaps). White has a lot of room for improvement and David could easily decline in a significant way, so there are concerns here beyond their lack of depth, but David could hold off Father Time for another year and White has the upside to take a significant step forward, so there is upside here as well.
The most important player the Buccaneers lost on defense this off-season was safety Jordan Whitehead, who was PFF’s 17th ranked safety on 795 snaps last season, prior to signing a 2-year, 14.5 million dollar deal with the Jets this off-season, but the Buccaneers have a good internal replacement in Mike Edwards, a 2019 3rd round pick who has flashed in limited action in his career, including a 22nd ranked finish among safeties on PFF across 532 snaps in 2021, and the Buccaneers also signed a pair of veteran starters in free agency, Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal, to give them depth and another option in case Edwards struggles in his first season as a full-time starter.
Edwards is a projection to a larger role, having never played more than 614 snaps in a season, but he could easily be at least a solid starter, with the upside to be a consistently above average option for years to come, still only in his age 26 season. Ryan is an experienced player with 115 starts in 140 games in 9 seasons in the league, seeing action at both cornerback and safety, and, though he’s going into his age 31 season, he still earned an average grade from PFF as a 15-game starter at safety, so he gives them a great depth option, especially when you consider his versatility.
Neal is also versatile, spending last season at linebacker after spending the first 5 seasons of his career at safety with the Falcons, but he struggled mightily at his new position in 2021, finishing 86th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF across 579 snaps in his lone season as a full-time linebacker in Dallas, and he will be moved back to safety in Tampa Bay. Neal was a first round pick in 2016 and looked on his way to a great career, finishing 21st and 17th among safeties in his first two seasons in the league, before leg injuries cost him almost all of the next two seasons (203 snaps total) and seemed to sap his athleticism upon his return.
Neal still earned an average grade from PFF in his first season back from injury in 2020 as a 14-game starter at safety, before being moved to linebacker in 2021, so he could bounce back and be a solid safety option in 2022, still only in his age 27 season, another year removed from the injury. He and Ryan will probably just be versatile depth behind Edwards, but they’re both good enough to start for some teams around the league, so this is a very deep position group.
The Buccaneers also still have Antoine Winfield as the other starting safety and he was their best safety a year ago. In fact, he was one of the best safeties in the league, finishing 2nd at the position on PFF, despite only being in his second season in the league. The 2020 2nd round pick was also a solid starter as a rookie and, while he might not quite be as good again in 2022 as he was in 2021, given that he’s still unproven as a consistent player at that level, he’s also still only in his age 24 season and looks like he could be on his way to being one of the best safeties in the league for years to come long-term, even if development is not always linear and a little regression this season is possible.
The Buccaneers also bring back their top-4 in terms of snaps played at the cornerback position from a year ago, Carlton Davis (639 snaps), Jamel Dean (685 snaps), Sean Murphy-Bunting (462 snaps), and Ross Cockrell (475 snaps), and will hope to have better health, with Dean, Davis, and Murphy-Bunting missing 2 games, 7 games, and 8 games respectively last season, forcing the veteran Cockrell into a much larger role than expected as the #4 cornerback. Dean and Davis staying healthy is most important, as they are their two best cornerbacks and their two starters outside.
Dean was a 3rd round pick in 2019 and has finished in the 85th percentile or higher among cornerbacks on PFF in all three seasons in the league, but he really just became a full-time starter last season and still has just 23 career starts, so he’s a little unproven. He’s also still only in his age 26 season though and could easily remain an above average starter across a full season, if he can manage to make it through a full season without missing time with injury for the first time in his career (7 games missed in 3 seasons).
Davis has also missed time with injury in every season in the league (13 games missed in 4 seasons in the league), but the 2018 2nd round pick has also developed into a consistently above average player, finishing in the 70th percentile or higher among cornerbacks on PFF in each of the past three seasons, while making 38 starts over the past three seasons. The Buccaneers kept him on a 3-year, 44.5 million dollar deal this off-season, a reasonable value for a player still in his prime in his age 26 season.
Murphy-Bunting was a 2nd round pick in 2019 and should be a slot specialist when everyone is healthy, but he hasn’t been nearly as good as Davis or Dean, never earning more than a middling grade from PFF thus far in three seasons in the league. He may still have untapped upside in his age 25 season, but it’s also possible he remains a marginal slot option at best. It’s also possible he could face competition for his primary slot cornerback role from Logan Ryan, as the Buccaneers could use three safety sets more frequently in 2022, given their depth at the position.
Still the #4 cornerback, Ross Cockrell is another experienced veteran who has mostly been a solid player across 49 starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s also going into his age 31 season, so his best days are probably behind him and he’s probably best as a depth option at this stage of his career, having not started more than 4 games in a season since 2019. The Buccaneers also used a 5th round pick on cornerback Zyon McCollum, though he probably won’t see much action as a rookie, in a deep secondary with a lot of talent.
Special teams was the Buccaneers’ Achilles heel last season, as they ranked 2nd in offensive efficiency and 7th in defensive efficiency, but just 27th in special teams DVOA. I don’t expect them to be significantly better this season. They added a new punter in the 4th round of the draft, taking University of Georgia’s Jake Camarda, but incumbent punter Bradley Pinion was not the weakness in this group, Camarda is no guarantee to be an upgrade as a rookie, and not much else has changed in this special teams unit.
The return unit could get more out of second year returner Jaelon Darden, after he struggled mightily as a rookie, but, if they don’t, they don’t seem to have a better option. Kicker Ryan Succop will also likely continue to struggle, and no additions were made to their core special team group, which didn’t have a player finish in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF in 2021 and could easily not have one in 2022 either. They might not be quite as bad as a year ago, but this still figures to be a weakness for this team.
The Buccaneers are starting to lose talent from their Super Bowl winner, but they have done a good job of keeping most of their key players and replacing key players who have departed, giving them a roster that is still among the league’s best. This is probably their final year in contention, with Tom Brady unlikely to return as a free agent next off-season and the Buccaneers already more than 50 million over the 2023 cap, and there is always the risk that Brady gets hurt or drops off significantly, now in his age 45 season, but this is also a team that could easily contend for another Super Bowl. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC South