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+

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.

Prediction: TBD

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Kansas City Chiefs: Super Bowl LV Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14-5) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (16-2) in Super Bowl LV

Tom Brady will be appearing in his 10th ever Super Bowl in Super Bowl 55, an incredible number that is double the next highest total and that is more than all of Brady’s Hall-of-Fame contemporaries combined. This one will be unique from all the others because he’ll be doing it with a new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in his first season with the team after two record breaking decades in New England. Brady is being given most of the credit, understandable if you just pay attention to team’s records, as the Buccaneers improved from 7 wins to 11 wins and a Super Bowl appearance, while New England fell from 12 wins to out of the playoffs with 7 wins, after Brady had made the post-season in 16 straight healthy seasons in New England. 

However, that is far from the whole story and ignores the reasons why Brady headed south in the first place. The Patriots won 12 games last year, but Brady and the offense weren’t the primary reason they won those games, as the Patriots had a dominant defense, but an offensive supporting cast that left a lot to be desired, especially in the receiving corps and especially down the stretch as injuries mounted. The Patriots’ defense led the league in first down rate allowed by a mile, but their offense ranked just 21st in first down rate, their lowest finish since before Brady arrived.

The Patriots didn’t make any major upgrades to their receiving corps last off-season, so it’s likely the Patriots’ 2020 offense would have resembled their 2019 offense if they had kept Brady, rather than the 2020 Buccaneers’ offense, which has a much better receiving corps. That still would have been enough for the Patriots to make the post-season had their defense continued playing at a high level like in 2019, but the Patriots’ defense is where they had by far their biggest dropoff from 2019 to 2020, finishing the 2020 season ranked 23rd in first down rate allowed. 

Given how much their defense fell off, it’s very likely the Patriots would not have made the playoffs even if they had kept Brady and, by some metrics, the Patriots were better offensively in 2020 with Cam Newton leading a run based attack than they were in 2019 when they relied primarily on an ineffective aerial attack with Brady throwing to arguably the worst receiving corps in the league. The 2019 Patriots ran a league leading 1,126 plays because their defense kept getting them the ball back so often, 115 more plays than they ran in 2020, but the 2019 Patriots only managed 6 more first downs than the 2020 Patriots and they averaged fewer yards per play as well, 5.3 vs. 5.2. 

The Patriots have gotten a lot of criticism for not bringing back Brady, but that would have required at least matching a fully guaranteed 2-year, 50 million dollar contract for a 43-44 year old quarterback who might not have even gotten them back to the post-season in the first year of the deal. For a team that needs to rebuild and reload, that kind of contract could have set them back a year or two. The contract obviously has worked out for the Buccaneers, but it’s kind of comparing apples to oranges, because the Buccaneers are built to win now much more than the Patriots and were right to be aggressive to try to capitalize on that.

Brady, of course, likely recognized the two teams were heading into opposite directions, which is why he made the decision he did. For all the talk about how Tom Brady is back in the Super Bowl because of what he did as a player this season, what Brady did this off-season as a scout probably has more to do with him being back here than anything. The Buccaneers were not widely discussed as a potential destination for Brady last off-season, but I put them at the top of my list for Brady last February and, while I wasn’t expecting Brady to actually leave New England, it was easy for me to see why he picked the Buccaneers when he picked them. 

The Buccaneers won just 7 games in 2019, but they finished 9th in first down rate differential, suggesting they were better than their record. They also had a massive need at quarterback after years of subpar play from Jameis Winston, they were well coached, going into the second season of the Bruce Arians regime, and they got a lot better down the stretch in 2019, particularly on defense, leading to the Buccaneers winning 6 of their last 9 games, with the exceptions being a loss to the division leading Saints and two losses by less than a score in games in which Winston threw at least one pick six. Tampa Bay’s loaded receiving corps was the main draw, but this was a talented roster overall, beyond their pass catchers and, after Brady brought his friends Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski along for the ride, Tampa Bay suddenly became legitimate contenders.

Brady, for his part, played at an above average level and was obviously a massive upgrade over the backup caliber Jameis Winston, but Brady is not the same player he was in his prime or even a few years ago when he could single handedly elevate a team with an underwhelming supporting cast to the league’s highest stage, likely part of the reason why Brady looked for a better football situation to spend the twilight of his career last off-season. Focusing too much on Brady overlooks the talented players and coaches (including defensive coordinator Todd Bowles) that the Buccaneers have throughout their roster and throughout their staff, which is a huge part of the reason why the Buccaneers are where they are.

For Brady, being in the Super Bowl is nothing new, but what is relatively new is that he won’t be favored, with the Buccaneers listed as 3.5 point underdogs. Brady led the historic upset as massive underdogs in his first Super Bowl appearance back in Super Bowl 36, but he’s been favored in each of the past 8, covering in just 3 of them. Brady and the Buccaneers being underdogs has everything to do with the team on the other side, as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are defending Super Bowl Champions and have been presumptive Super Bowl favorites all season, having lost just one meaningful game. 

For Mahomes, this is his second straight Super Bowl appearance and, in 3 seasons as the starter, he’s lost just once in the post-season, in 8 appearances. His one loss was to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the 2018 AFC Championship, one of four matchups between these two quarterbacks in just the 3 seasons that Mahomes has been the starter. The 4th matchup was earlier this season when the Chiefs won by a field goal in Tampa Bay in a matchup that previewed the Super Bowl, both in matchup and in location, with the Buccaneers being fortunate enough to be the first team ever to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. 

The common narrative is that the Chiefs dominated that game and the Buccaneers came back in garbage time, but the Buccaneers’ score to cut it to a field goal came with over four minutes left on the clock and two timeouts left for Tampa Bay, so those were hardly meaningless possessions. A better way to think of that game is that both teams dominated a single quarter (the Chiefs in the 1st jumping out to a 17-0 lead and the Buccaneers in the 4th cutting it from 27-10 to 27-24), but that the Chiefs played slightly better overall. How much better overall may be very slight though, as the Chiefs only won the first down rate battle by just 0.66% and actually had slightly fewer yards per play (7.6 vs. 7.5). 

Winning close games was a big part of the story of the Chiefs’ season this year, as they snuck out 8 of their 14 wins by 6 points or fewer, including several against teams much worse than the Buccaneers. Overall, the Buccaneers actually had the edge in point differential (+137 vs. +111), DVOA (33.7% vs. 25.2%), and schedule adjusted first down rate differential (4.25% vs. 3.36%) on the season and, even though they won 3 fewer games, they had significantly more double digit wins (8 vs. 5). Wins by larger totals tend to be predictive of future winning at a much higher rate than close victories. 

Some ignore that most of the Chiefs wins have been close because the Chiefs have Mahomes and they assume that quarterbacks of his caliber can consistently win close games. Even ignoring the obvious fact that even the most elite quarterbacks couldn’t consistently win 88.9% of their one score games like Mahomes did this season, there isn’t much evidence of elite quarterbacks even consistently winning close games at a significantly higher than average rate. Entering this season, Mahomes was just 9-8 in one score games in his career, as dominant as he was in his first two seasons in the league. In fact, the only quarterback who has seemed to be able to consistently win close games is the quarterback on the other sideline, who is a remarkable 94-44 in his career in one score games. 

In addition to his dominance in one score games, Brady has somehow been even more dominant in tough games like this. Not only is Brady 33-11 in the post-season, but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win. Overall in his career, Brady is 56-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 44-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 42-13 straight up record in those games. 

As an underdog, Brady is 28-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 21 of 30 games. Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers went 4-1 ATS as underdogs and against teams with a better record than theirs this season, including their 3-point loss as 3.5-point underdogs against the Chiefs earlier this season and their wins over the Saints and Packers in their past two games. 

It will take a lot more than just Tom Brady to win this game, but the Buccaneers have it, with arguably the most well-rounded roster in the league and a better overall team than the Chiefs, who may have the passing game stars, but have questions on defense and on the offensive line, particularly with the Chiefs now being without both of their starting offensive tackles, Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, who are one of the best duos in the league when healthy. This offensive line was already not the same since losing Schwartz in week 8, a 11-game stretch in which they’ve won by more than 6 points just twice and Fisher going down in the Chiefs’ last game in the AFC Championship makes things much worse. 

The Chiefs have done a good job of rebuilding their offensive line on the fly this season, but they figure to be overmatched against a tough Tampa Bay front. I like the Buccaneers to pull the upset straight up and, even if they can’t, they should be able to keep it close, especially in what will be something of a home game for the Buccaneers. About 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or fewer and the Chiefs haven’t blown out most of their opponents this season. The Buccaneers seem like a relatively safe bet against the spread and a great value on the money line.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30 Kansas City Chiefs 27 Upset Pick +150

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3.5

Confidence: High

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers: 2020 NFC Championship Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-5) at Green Bay Packers (14-3)

The Packers led the NFL in points per game this season, but in terms of first down rate over expected, the Packers ranked “just” 4th at +2.48%. The reason I prefer first down rate as a stat is because it treats all snaps the same and minimizes the impact of outlier plays and of teams being good in unsustainable ways. With the Packers, the difference is their ridiculous 78.46% red zone conversion percentage, which not only led the league, but set a record. 

The Packers are always going to be good in the red zone with Aaron Rodgers under center, but the Packers were 10%+ better in the red zone this season than any season in the Aaron Rodgers era and teams that overperform in the red zone tend not to keep that up long-term. Even with their ridiculous red zone conversion percentage, the Packers still scored just 8 more points than the Buffalo Bills, even though the Bills ranked just 12th with a 62.50% red zone conversion percentage, so it’s not as if this was some all-time great offense overall.

The Packers still have a better offense than the Buccaneers, who rank 6th in first down rate over expected at +1.90% and are missing talented wide receiver Antonio Brown with injury, but the Buccaneers have the edge on defense, where they rank 6th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.48% and, with stud defensive lineman Vita Vea back from injury for the first time since week 5, the Buccaneers’ defense is healthier than it’s been since the beginning of the season, when they were a dominant unit. 

The Packers aren’t bad on defense and are overall the most complete and talented team left in the playoffs, but there isn’t much separating the final four teams this season and the Buccaneers are my second ranked remaining team, so we’re getting good line value with the Buccaneers as 3.5 point underdogs in Green Bay. The Packers will have the benefit of some fans in the stands in this game at home and, in a playoff atmosphere, the Packers could have something resembling normal home field advantage, but they still shouldn’t be any higher than field goal favorites over the Buccaneers in this game. The difference between 3 and 3.5 might not seem like much, but 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, so it’s a very significant half point.

This is also the kind of spot where Tom Brady has done well historically. Not only is Brady 32-11 in the post-season (as opposed to 11-8 for Aaron Rodgers), but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win. Overall in his career, Brady is 55-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 43-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 41-13 straight up record in those games. As an underdog, Brady is 27-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 20 of 29 games. 

Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers went 3-1 ATS as underdogs and against teams with a better record than theirs this season, including last week’s win in New Orleans and the Buccaneers’ blowout win over the Packers earlier this season. That lopsided result is an outlier and, like the Buccaneers’ blowout loss to the Saints earlier this season, it’s not a guarantee that the Buccaneers will win this game again, but they should at least keep this game close, so I love getting more than a field goal with them. 

I was hesitant to bet the Buccaneers last week in a similar situation in New Orleans last week, but that was primarily because of the Buccaneers’ struggles against the Saints in two games this season and, even still, I would have bet the Buccaneers had they been 3.5-point underdogs like they are this week, rather than the 3-point underdogs they were last season. At +3.5 in Green Bay, I am much more confident in the Buccaneers this week.

Green Bay Packers 24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3.5

Confidence: High

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5) at New Orleans Saints (13-4)

This was the toughest call of the week for me and the only one of the four games I didn’t lock in with a bet earlier this week. There is a lot of history that suggests Tom Brady and the Buccaneers should have the edge over Drew Brees and the Saints. Not only does Brady have the obvious edge in post-season success, 31-11 with 9 Super Bowl appearances vs. 9-8 with 1 appearance, but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win.

Overall in his career, Brady is 54-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 42-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 40-13 straight up record in those games. As an underdog, Brady is 22-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 19 of 28 games. Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers did go 2-1 ATS as underdogs this year.

That one loss was week 1 against the Saints in New Orleans, when the Saints won 34-23 as 3.5-point favorites, but that was the Buccaneers’ first game of the season and they actually won the first down rate battle by +6.31%, with the Saints largely winning because of a +3 turnover margin and a return touchdown, which is not predictive week-to-week. The Saints beat the Buccaneers more convincingly week 9, winning the game 38-3 and the first down rate battle by +9.96%, but that game looks like an outlier for two teams that were largely equal this season overall, with the Saints ranking 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.59% and the Buccaneers ranking 3rd at +4.45%. 

All that being said, we’re not getting the line value needed to bet the Buccaneers confidently, especially with Tom Brady now being 43 and away from New England, facing off with a team that has played him well this season. The Buccaneers are only field goal underdogs, which is exactly where I have them calculated, with the Saints having slight homefield advantage with some fans in the stands and having a slight edge on the field as well. Even though these two teams were about even this season, the Saints did that at much less than 100% throughout due to injury. 

Brees (4 games missed), feature back Alvin Kamara (1 game), top wide receiver Michael Thomas (9 games), stud left tackle Terron Armstead (2 games), talented defensive linemen Marcus Davenport (5 games), Trey Hendrickson (1 game), and David Onyemata (1 game), stud safety Marcus Williams (2 games), and starting cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins (3 games) and Marshon Lattimore (2 games), among other minor players, all missed time with injury this season and are expected to play this week. 

The Saints entered the season atop my roster rankings and are only slightly behind the Packers right now, ahead about 1.5 points ahead of the Buccaneers. I’m taking the Buccaneers for pick ‘em purposes purely because of Brady’s history in these kinds of games, but I wouldn’t bet them at this number. If the line moves off of 3, I would reconsider, as a field goal Saints win is probably the most likely outcome of this game, but this is a low confidence pick for now.

New Orleans Saints 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team: 2020 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) at Washington Football Team (7-9)

The Washington Football Team has made the post-season at 7-9, just the third time in NFL history a team with a losing record has made the playoffs. Washington’s record and the fact that they only qualified for the playoffs because they’re in a terrible division in the NFC East has caused them to be seen as an illegitimate playoff team by some, but Washington actually could have had 9 or 10 wins fairly easily, as their went 0-3 in games decided by 3 points or fewer, including a pair of games against the Giants in which they lost by 4 points combined, despite winning the first down rate battle by a combined +4.60%, as a result of a combined -6 turnover margin in those 2 games. 

Turnover margin is highly inconsistent week-to-week and Washington was +2 in turnovers other than those 2 games, so it’s not hard to see how Washington could easily be 9-7 right now (not even including a near victory against Detroit). If Washington was 9-7, I think they would be getting a little bit more respect going into the post-season, especially since they are 5-1 in games started by Alex Smith, with the one loss being that loss to Detroit. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, Washington ranks 10th at +1.57%, which is also in line with roughly a 9-7 team.

Washington is led by their defense, which ranks 3rd in the NFL in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.36%. That’s somewhat of a concern because defensive play is much more inconsistent week-to-week than offensive play and Washington’s offense ranks just 27th in first down rate over expected at -2.79%, but Washington’s offense has been better in recent weeks. Not only because Alex Smith has been their best starting quarterback this season, but also because their offensive line is at full strength and playing at a high level in recent weeks. That helped them stay competitive even in the two games Alex Smith missed with injury down the stretch.

Unfortunately, Smith’s injury situation seems to be getting worse, not better, with Washington looking likely to rotate Smith and Taylor Heinicke at quarterback in this one, to keep Smith fresh. Heinicke even took most of the first team reps in practice on Thursday, though Smith is still expected to be able to go in a limited capacity. Heinicke is probably better than either Kyle Allen or Dwayne Haskins, Washington’s other quarterbacks besides Smith this season, and Washington’s offensive line should be a big help for him, but, of further concern, their feature back Antonio Gibson and top wide receiver Terry McLaurin are also playing at less than 100% through injuries, though they’re both in better shape than Smith. The injury uncertainty of their three most important offensive skill position players makes it tough to be confident in Washington.

What also makes it tough to be confident in Washington is that their opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are legitimately one of the best teams in the league and, while they might not quite justify being 8-point favorites over a capable Washington team, they come close to it, so we’re not getting the kind of line value with Washington that we could need to bet them in their current injury situation. Like Washington was better than their 7-9 record, Tampa Bay was also better than their 11-5 record, as their 5 losses all came against playoff qualifiers, including 3 losses by 3 points or fewer. 

Overall, Tampa Bay finished 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.46% and they were one of just two teams in the league (New Orleans) to finish in the top-10 in both first down rate over expected and first down rate allowed over expected. Their defense carried them early in the season and, though they had some expected regression on that side of the ball, they still finished 5th at -2.77%, while their offense improved as the season went on and Tom Brady got more familiarity in this offense and more consistency from his receiving corps, leading to them finishing 9th at +1.69%. My roster rankings also support the Buccaneers being seen as a top contender, ranking Tampa Bay 3rd among playoff qualifiers. We’re still getting some line value with Washington (my calculated line is Tampa Bay -6.5, with Washington’s injury uncertainty factored in), but not nearly enough to be confident in them in their current injury situation.

Update: Smith has been ruled out and this line has jumped to 10 in response. I don’t think Heinicke is a big downgrade from a banged up Smith and he’s played better than all of Washington’s other non-Alex Smith quarterbacks, so I like Washington against the spread little more at the new line, though not nearly enough to bet on them.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 Washington Football Team 16

Pick against the spread: Washington +10

Confidence: Low

Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-11) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-5)

With the playoffs around the corner, the Buccaneers are one of the most balanced teams in the league, joining division rival New Orleans as the only two teams in the league to rank in the top-10 in both first down rate over expected and first down rate allowed over expected. Their defense carried them in the early part of the season and, even as they suffered some predictable regression, they still rank 4th in the league in first down rate allowed over expected on the season at -3.06%, while their offense more than made up for any decline on defense, improving significantly as the season went on, with players like Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown being integrated into the offense after missing time earlier in the season, leading to them ranking 9th in first down rate over expected at +1.26%. 

Overall, the Buccaneers rank 3rd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.33% and don’t have any glaring weaknesses as they prepare for what they hope will be a long playoff run. Their defense might not be quite as good this week, with talented cornerback Carlton Davis, starting linebacker Devin White, top edge defender Shaq Barrett, and rotational defensive lineman Steve McLendon joining long-term injured Vita Vea (out since week 5) on the sidelines this week, giving the Buccaneers their thinnest defense of any week this season, but they still rank 5th in my roster rankings, even with those key absences.

This line is lower than I would have expected, shifting from Tampa Bay -7 last week on the early line to Tampa Bay -6.5 this week, even with the Buccaneers playing probably their best game of the season last week in a 47-7 win in Detroit. Tampa Bay isn’t at full strength and the Falcons played a close game with the Chiefs last week, but the Chiefs haven’t won by more than a single score in a couple months, even against inferior teams like the Panthers, Raiders, and Broncos, and it’s rare to see a line drop even a little bit when a team plays as well as the Buccaneers did last week.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to be betting on the Buccaneers though, as the Falcons play a lot of close games (eight one-score losses, including a 31-27 loss to the Buccaneers in week 15) and have overall been much better than their 4-11 record, with a -1 point differential and an 18th ranked -0.30% schedule adjusted first down rate differential. My calculated line is still Tampa Bay -8, but the Falcons are also in a better spot, as road underdogs against a team divisional opponent who beat them earlier this season. 

Teams cover at a 54.8% rate as road underdogs in a regular season rematch against a divisional opponent who beat them earlier in the season, as it tends to be tough to bring your best effort against an underdog who you’ve already beaten once. I’m still taking the Buccaneers for pick ‘em purposes, but it’s hard to be confident in them at all if they’re not getting significant line value in a bad spot.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 Atlanta Falcons 24

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -6.5

Confidence: None

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit Lions: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) at Detroit Lions (5-9)

The Buccaneers’ 9-5 record doesn’t jump off the page, but they’ve been one of the better teams in the league this season. They’ve faced one of the toughest schedules in the league, with their five losses coming against opponents who are a combined 49-21. On top of that, three of those losses came by 3 points or fewer, as opposed to just one win all season by 3 points or fewer. In total, the Buccaneers are 8-2 in games decided by more than a field goal. They rank 6th in point differential at +80, despite a tough schedule, and, in terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, they rank 2nd at +3.75%.

That’s more or less where the Buccaneers have ranked all season, but how they’ve been successful has shifted. Earlier in the year, they were very reliant on their defense, which ranked first in first down rate allowed over expected for most of the early part of the season, but dominant defenses tend to regress to the mean as the season goes on, especially as injuries pile up. 

The Buccaneers have not been an exception and they are missing key players like defensive tackle Vita Vea and cornerback Carlton Davis, but they have made up for their declining defense by improving on offense, as Tom Brady has gotten more comfort in this offense, with wide receivers Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown being integrated after missing significant time earlier this season due to injury and suspension respectively. 

In addition to ranking 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, they are also the only team in the league to currently be in the top-10 on both sides of the ball (9th on offense and 4th on defense). They could continue regressing defensively going forward, but their offense should be able to continue compensating. My roster rankings also back them up as a top level team, as they rank 3rd currently, so I would expect them to continue to play at a high level going forward.

The Buccaneers’ schedule gets a lot easier this week in Detroit, as not only are the Lions 5-9, but they’re far from full strength. The Lions have been one of the most injury plagued teams in the league in recent weeks, missing key players on both sides of the ball, but, beyond that, they will also be without interim head coach Darrell Bevell due to COVID protocols, so they will essentially have a head coach by committee this week. 

The Lions rank 28th in my roster rankings and would plummet to dead last without quarterback Matt Stafford, who will play through rib and hand injuries, but is a candidate for an in-game setback that would cause him to be pulled for backup Chase Daniel, who would be a massive downgrade even from a less than 100% Stafford. This is only a low confidence pick on the Buccaneers for now because this line is pretty high at 9.5, but, depending on the status of several questionable players for the Lions (left tackle Taylor Decker, center Frank Ragnow, and linebacker Jamie Collins), I may end up placing a bet on Tampa Bay. The gap between these two teams is massive.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 Detroit Lions 20

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -9.5

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) at Atlanta Falcons (4-9)

The Falcons are just 4-9, but they’ve been competitive in most of their games, losing just three times by more than one score and losing three games in which they had a 95% chance of winning late. None of their losses have been decided by more than 15 points, while two of their wins have featured margins of victory larger than 15. They have a positive point differential at +6 and, despite a relatively easy schedule overall, they still rank 21st in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.70%. 

The Buccaneers, meanwhile, rank 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate at +3.99%, but they’ve been slipping a little in recent weeks. They’re led by their defense, which ranks 5th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.99%, but defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance and their defense hasn’t been as good recently as it was earlier in the season.

That was expected, but I would have also expected to see their offense improve as their defense declined, as Tom Brady got more familiarity in this system and with his new receiving corps, particularly Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, who missed significant time earlier this season with injury and suspension respectively. That hasn’t happened though, in part because Brady seems to be slowing down at age 43. We’re not getting much line value with the Falcons (my calculated line is Tampa Bay -5.5), but they’re the pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 Atlanta Falcons 19

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +6

Confidence: None

Minnesota Vikings at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (6-6) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5)

The Vikings have jumped to 6-6 after their 1-5 start, but I still think they’re a little underrated, as a lot of the metrics that suggested they’d be better after their 1-5 start still suggest they can be better going forward. They have a net -18.2% fourth down conversion rate, a 38.71% fumble recovery rate (30th in the NFL), a 3.31% interception rate (28th in the NFL) that is nearly double quarterback Kirk Cousins’ average from the past 5 seasons (1.90%), and -4 return touchdown margin, all metrics that tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. 

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, which is a much more consistent metric, the Vikings rank 8th in at +2.13%, and, while their defense will have a big absence this week with top linebacker Eric Kendricks injured, they still rank a respectable 13th in my roster rankings, suggesting that, even without one of their best defensive players, the Vikings still are a little better than their .500 record.

The Buccaneers also have been better statistically than their record would suggest, ranking 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.33%. They’re “just” 7-5, but three of their five losses came by one score or less and four of their five losses came against other teams in the top-4 in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (The Saints twice, the Chiefs, and the Rams). However, they have been led by their defense more than the Vikings, which is a concern because defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance. 

The Buccaneers’ defense, which ranks 5th in first down rate allowed over expected at -3.25%, has somewhat covered for an offense that has been inconsistent and ranks 11th in first down rate over expected at +1.08%, but their defense might not be able to do that going forward, not just due to the inherent unpredictability of defensive performance, but also because the injuries are starting to pile up, with talented starting cornerback Jamel Dean joining stud defensive tackle Vita Vea on the sidelines. The Vikings, meanwhile, rank 7th in first down rate over expected at +1.76%, so they’ve been the more efficient of these two offenses this season. 

The Buccaneers’ offense has the talent to be a lot better offensively than they’ve been, but they’ve underachieved thus far, in large part due to the fact that quarterback Tom Brady seems to be slowing down after all these years. He’s still a capable quarterback, even at age 43, but if you look at his performance over the past three seasons, you can see a steady decline and he should be producing a lot more with the talent he has around him in this offense. 

Given all of this, there are reasons to be tempted to bet the Vikings, as we’re getting seven points with a team who has statistically been more efficient on offense this season, but I’m going to keep this as a low confidence pick only because of the chance that Tom Brady and this offense live up to their potential, at least for a week, as they’ll be rested coming out of their bye week, which also likely gave them some extra time to build needed chemistry on this offense. 

With the bye included, the Buccaneers haven’t won a game in close to a calendar month (November 15th) and Tom Brady’s history off of a loss (46-22 ATS) is well noted at this point, so he should be as fully focused as possible. That doesn’t matter if Brady continues to be far from the quarterback he used to be, especially against an underrated Vikings team, and he hasn’t been as good at covering the spread after a loss when he’s favored by this many points, but the possibility that this offense has their best week of the season after a bye against a defense missing it’s top linebacker is enough for me to keep this as just a low confidence pick.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 Minnesota Vikings 23

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +7

Confidence: Low

Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (9-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-4)

The Buccaneers lost at home to the Rams on Monday Night Football last week and the general opinion seems to be that the sky is falling in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers were already home field goal underdogs against the Chiefs on the early line last week, but their loss to the Rams has pushed this line to 3.5, which is significant, given that 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, including 1 in 6 games by exactly a field goal.

That seems to be an overreaction, as the Buccaneers were in a terrible spot last week and still were competitive with a Rams team that is a borderline Super Bowl contender. The Buccaneers were in a look ahead spot ahead of this huge game against the Chiefs and were also an east coast team playing a west coast team at night, which is a very tough spot. I expect much better focus and effort this week from a Buccaneers team that is still one of the top teams in the league.

The Buccaneers’ defense hasn’t been quite as good since losing Vita Vea for the season and they’ll also be without starting cornerback Jamel Dean for the first time this season this week, but they’re still one of the best defenses in the league, while their offense has improved since getting Chris Godwin (4 games missed to injury) and Antonio Brown (8 games missed to suspended) into the mix. Overall, they still rank first in the NFL in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +5.13%, with three of their four losses coming to fellow top-3 ranked teams (Saints x2 and Rams), and they rank 3rd in my roster rankings as well.

The Buccaneers could be without left tackle Donovan Smith this week due to injury, but that isn’t a big deal because they can slide talented rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs to the left side and because they are likely getting back guard Ali Marpet from a 3-game absence and he’s a higher caliber offensive lineman. Tom Brady isn’t playing quite as well as he did in his prime, but he’s playing well enough and has enough talent around him for this to be a high level team. They shouldn’t be 3.5-point home underdogs against anyone, even against another high level team like the Chiefs.

Speaking of Brady, I would especially expect a much better performance from him this week, as this is the kind of spot where he has always played his best historically. His record off of a loss is famous at this point, but his ATS record off of a loss is even more incredible at 45-22 ATS and that becomes 21-3 ATS if you look only at instances where Brady is an underdog or favorite of fewer than 3 points, which is the case here. Brady is also a ridiculous 39-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including 28-9 ATS in week 5 or later (when records are more likely to be indicative of talent level). 

Those numbers were primarily accumulated in New England with Bill Belichick and Brady is now in his age 43 season, but it stands to reason that Brady still will be at his best when his back is up against the wall (he’s 3-0 ATS off a loss this season and 1-0 ATS against a team with a better record), even if that best isn’t quite what it was in his prime. I would expect this to be a close game either way, even if the Buccaneers can’t pull the upset, so I love getting +3.5. I locked this at +3.5 earlier this week, but that number is still available as the sharps haven’t pounded this game like I expected they would, so you can still get this number if you missed it. This is my Pick of the Week.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 33 Kansas City Chiefs 31 Upset Pick +160

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week