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Sunday's Matchup Shows Value of Veteran QBs

Posted Nov 8, 2017

Notes: Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh McCown will do battle for a third season in a row…Plus, Vernon Hargreaves now adding versatility to Bucs' secondary and more

Ryan Fitzpatrick has been in the NFL for 13 years, has started 116 games and has played for seven different teams. Josh McCown has been employed by an NFL team 16 of the past 17 years, has made 69 starts and has worn eight different jerseys.

Until 36 months ago, however, Fitzpatrick and McCown had never even been in the same stadium on a regular season game day. That has changed in a big way since the start of the 2015 season.

McCown's New York Jets are coming to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday to face the Buccaneers, with Fitzpatrick making his first Tampa start in place of the injured Jameis Winston. The veteran passers are an obvious and entertaining part of the story because of their recent connections to the opposing team. McCown was the last player to start a game at quarterback for Tampa Bay other than Jameis Winston, at the end of the 2014 season; Fitzpatrick's most recent starting gig was in New York, where he opened 27 games for the Jets in 2015-16.

It was during that two-year run for Fitzpatrick that he finally crossed paths with McCown. The Jets opened their 2015 season at home against Cleveland, which was the both start for both quarterbacks with their respective teams. Fitzpatrick threw two touchdown passes in a 31-10 Jets win; McCown, unfortunately, left the game after one drive with a concussion after trying to scramble for a touchdown on third-and-14. The following October, the Jets went to Cleveland for a rematch and what proved to be a much closer game. Fitzpatrick's side won again, 31-28, and he threw for 228 yards and a touchdown while McCown aired it out 49 times and had 341 yards, two TDs and two picks.

Now the two quarterbacks will square off for the third time in as many seasons, but McCown would obviously be pleased if the Jets could make it a sweep. However, no matter which quarterback is celebrating after this third matchup, the pairing says a lot to Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter about the value of experienced and competent passers in the NFL.

"Those are both great examples," said Koetter. "It shows you what a starting quarterback in the NFL is. There are 32 teams and you make up your own number where you think the number is of teams that like their starter, let alone like their backup. Every year, media, fans, they always have their eye on the next five guys out of college or who's going to be a free agent, because every team wants that guy and they're searching."

The Buccaneers were searching in 2015 when they ended up with the first pick in the draft, and they landed on Jameis Winston. McCown was let go in February in anticipation of the team adding a rookie quarterback, but the Browns recognized his value and signed him less than a month later. The same thing happened this year with the Jets after they moved on from Fitzpatrick but wanted a veteran to start over young quarterbacks Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg.

Fitzpatrick has perhaps had the higher career peaks, as he's started all 16 games in a season three times and was 10-6 just two years ago with the Jets, barely missing the playoffs. He also has four seasons with 3,000-plus passing yards and he had a career-high 31 touchdown passes in 2015. But McCown has repeatedly shown his value to NFL teams and has had a late-career renaissance after a fantastic five-game run in place of an injured Jay Cutler in Chicago in 2013.

Koetter isn't surprised they're both still around to face off against each other again.

"Well, there just aren't that many of those guys, so guys that are smart, tough, can do it pretty good, can make a great living," he said. "There's a bunch of them. You named two, I could name a bunch more, because someone's going to fill those jobs. Guys that can learn a system, guys that can stand in a pocket or have the ability to scramble. Maybe that's their forte, but they can move the ball. They can hold up somewhere between one and pick-your-number of games, but teams are always going to be looking for somebody better."

* Last Sunday in New Orleans, Vernon Hargreaves wasn't in the starting lineup for the first time in his nascent NFL career. However, the second-year cornerback still played in an important role in the Bucs' defense, and he's now offering the team something new and valuable: versatility.

After a promising rookie season in which he started all 16 games and primarily played outside cornerback, Hargreaves struggled through the first five games of the 2017 campaign. In an attempt to get him on track and tighten up the secondary, the Buccaneers made a switch in Week Seven, moving Hargreaves into the slot and putting former nickel back Robert McClain on the outside. Hargreaves still technically started that game because Tampa Bay's defense opened in a nickel formation.

Hargreaves responded well to the move and broke up two passes. However, injuries to McClain and Brent Grimes in Buffalo reduced the Buccaneers' options the following weekend against Carolina and Hargreaves went back to starting on the outside. Again, he played well and broke up two passes. When McClain returned to face the Saints last weekend, Hargreaves moved back into the slot and played roughly half of the game's snaps. Though he wasn't credited with any passes defensed, Hargreaves once again had a solid performance, according to the Bucs' staff.

Grimes, who has missed the last two games of the season and three overall with a shoulder injury, could potentially return in Week 10 against the Jets; he was limited in practice on Wednesday. If Grimes, McClain, Hargreaves and Ryan Smith are all active, the team will have a decision to make at the three cornerback spots, especially with Smith showing rapid improvement.

Chances are, Hargreaves will be on the field somewhere. Now that the Bucs have seen him do well at two different spots in short order, they know they have options.

"I think that Vernon did a very nice job in the last two games, one playing outside and one playing inside," said Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. "I think he gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of how we want to match it up during the game. I think he's got really good skills and when he plays inside he's done a really nice job. We've been spending most of the time in practice getting him as many reps as we can at the nickel position. So I think he gives us flexibility and there's times where we might want him to be back outside, and there's going to be times where we feel like we need to play him inside, determined by the match.

"He definitely has had more production inside than he had outside, and then when he went back outside he had a good game. So those two games in that segment of the season that he played inside and outside I think he probably played his two best games. So hopefully he's feeling that we have a good understanding of what we need to do, whether he's lined up inside or outside."

* Second-year running back Peyton Barber got his largest dose of playing time this season in New Orleans and led the team with 11 carries and 34 rushing yards. He ended up playing 23 snaps to 18 for starter Doug Martin.

Barber's numbers weren't overwhelming in the end, but they don't reflect how well he ran the ball, hitting the hole with a head of steam and picking up yards after contact on multiple occasions. Martin ran the ball on the first two plays of the second half but Barber took over after that and the veteran back finished with just seven yards on eight carries.

However, while he was pleased with the play of Barber, Koetter cautioned against putting too much importance on Martin's numbers. The Bucs' failure to run the ball effectively against the Saints had much more to do than how well the backs performed.

"If you look at the tape, on multiple times in last week's games because of breakdowns somewhere else, Doug had a free runner in the hole," said Koetter. "I mean, like right across the line of scrimmage in the hole. Whereas, when Peyton got in there, he didn't have a free runner and he was able to use his size and his power to push the pile and we had a few more efficient runs. It's easy to blame the point guy – whether it's Doug in the running game or Jameis in the passing game, or whatever, it doesn't really matter who it is – it's almost never quite that simple."