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Buccaneers' Unsung Heroes in 2015

Posted Feb 10, 2016

Beyond the obvious heroics of players like Jameis Winston and Doug Martin, there were some lesser-known Buccaneers who made names for themselves last season, including TE Cameron Brate.

Jameis Winston was the first rookie quarterback to make the Pro Bowl in franchise history. Doug Martin was perhaps the NFL's most dynamic big-play running back. The offensive line had the most dramatic turnaround of any position on the depth chart. And Kwon Alexander may prove to be the team's biggest fourth-round steal in four decades.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers did not return to the playoffs in 2015, but they did get a number of individual efforts that bode well for the near future. Since the end of the season, we have taken "A Closer Look" at some of those players, including Winston, Martin, Alexander and such O-Linemen as Pro Bowler Logan Mankins and impressive rookies Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet. As we begin to turn our attention to 2016, we also want to recognize some of the Buccaneers who succeeded in 2015 under a lesser spotlight. These are not your franchise quarterback or your Pro Bowl running back. These are players who exceeded expectations in 2015 and put themselves in a position to earn a bigger role next fall.

These are, to put it simply, some of the Buccaneers' unsung heroes in 2015. Let's take a look at three of them: tight end Cameron Brate, offensive lineman Kevin Pamphile and defensive end Howard Jones.

**

Brate was the one that almost got away.

The Harvard product signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent in 2014, showed enough to grab a practice squad and got an eventual promotion to the active roster for the final four games of the regular season. He went to camp with the Buccaneers again this past summer and made the original cut-down to 53 players before being released a day later when the team claimed four other players off waivers.

Brate went back to the Bucs' practice squad but was released the next week and signed by the Saints' to their practice squad. However, he ended up following the team back from New Orleans after less than a week in Louisiana. After the Buccaneers finished off a Week Two win in the Superdome but saw tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins sustain a shoulder injury in the process, they quickly signed Brate back to their active roster. His job was never in jeopardy again.

That's because Seferian-Jenkins' injury absence stretched to 10 weeks and Brate emerged as the Bucs' top pass-catching option at tight end in the interim. He ended up with 23 receptions for 288 yards and three touchdowns, falling just one shy of the team's TD reception lead.

As he saw more and more playing time, Brate rapidly gained confidence and showed off an impressive pair of hands, as well as an ability to get open down the seams. He averaged 12.5 yards per catch, which ranked 10th among all NFL tight ends with at least 20 receptions.

Seferian-Jenkins was second on that same list, averaging 16.1 yards per catch on 21 grabs. The 2014 second-round draft pick opened his second season in promising fashion, with 110 yards and two touchdowns on five catches in Week One but lost significant time to injury for the second year in a row. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, Brate was there to make sure the tight end position didn't become a black hole in the offense.

**

Pamphile's second NFL season made a strong effort by General Manager Jason Licht in his first Tampa Bay draft look even better.

The Buccaneers opened their 2014 draft with wide receiver Mike Evans, Seferian-Jenkins and running back Charles Sims in the first three rounds. In 2015, all three looked as if they will be key contributors to the Bucs' emerging offense for years to come. Due to a couple previous trades, the Bucs made just three other selections that spring, getting offensive linemen Kadeem Edwards and Kevin Pamphile in the fifth round and wide receiver Robert Herron in the sixth.

Neither Edwards nor Herron is still with the team, but that's not terribly unusual for third-day selections. Pamphile, who was acquired after Licht traded a 2014 seventh-round pick and a 2015 fifth-rounder in order to get another choice in the fifth round in '14, didn't see much action until late in his rookie season, when he began filling in as an extra blocker on jumbo packages.

That role expanded for Pamphile in 2015 but he also showed that he may have a future as a starter on the Buccaneers' front line. That was most prominently on display in a Week Five win over Jacksonville for which Mankins was unavailable due to injury. Though he spent the season listed as the Bucs' backup left tackle – the position he played at Purdue – Pamphile may have found his future on the interior of the line. He had a strong game against the Jaguars, helping the Bucs run for 183 yards in a 38-31 victory.

Tampa Bay's offensive line was outstanding throughout the 2015 season, as the Buccaneers ranked fifth in rushing yards per game, second in yards per carry and eighth in sacks allowed per pass play. The largest share of the credit goes to the five men who played the most snaps on that line – Mankins, Smith, Marpet, Joe Hawley and Gosder Cherilus – though Demar Dotson and Evan Smith started several games as well. Pamphile made just one start with the starting five (and a second when the Bucs opened in a jumbo set) but his contributions were important as well. And they just may have put him on a path to a starting job in the future.

**

In 2014, the Buccaneers happened across an out-of-nowhere pass-rusher by the name of Smith. In 2015, they found another one by the name of Jones.

Following in the footsteps of '14 breakout player Jacquies Smith, Howard Jones arrived in Tampa in the days before the opening game, bearing virtually no NFL playing experience, and quickly turned into an important part of the team's pass-rushing efforts. Smith, an undrafted player out of Mizzou who had spent a couple years trying to make it Miami, New York and Buffalo, did so with a 6.5-sack season for the Buccaneers. Jones, an undrafted player out of Shepherd who went to two Steeler camps, produced a 5.0-sack campaign.

Jones spent his first month in Tampa on the practice squad but the Buccaneers had persistent injury issues up front on defense – including several mishaps suffered by Smith himself – and he got a promotion to the active roster in early October. Like Pamphile, Jones got his first big opportunity in Week Five against Jacksonville – his first NFL regular-season appearance, actually – and immediately produced a two-sack game. He would eventually start five games at right end and not only collect those five sacks but also score his first NFL touchdown on a 43-yard fumble return against Washington in Week Seven.

Those were his first two NFL games. In his third, Jones sacked QB Matt Ryan and forced a fumble in overtime that, while not recovered by the Bucs' defense, was critical in the final stop at midfield that preserved a 23-20 win for Tampa Bay. Those first three outings proved to be the best run in Jones's debut season, but his body of work as a whole was enough to make him an intriguing prospect heading into next summer's training camp.