Just how bold should a "bold prediction" be?
I could say that running back Ronald Jones is going to have a better sophomore campaign after a slow rookie season, but that's not exactly going out on a limb. Jones could conceivably eclipse his rookie totals in one game, if the offseason raving about his improvement from coaches and teammates is on point.
I could also say that Jones will have wrested away the starting job in the Buccaneers' backfield by the end of the season, and that would be bold. That job looks pretty secure for Peyton Barber, who is also well-regarded by the coaching staff. Still, that's a bold prediction that, if it were to prove true, wouldn't be completely shocking.
Now, what if I also said that Jones would rush for 1,500 yards in 2019. That is probably a little too bold, considering that it's only been done once in team history and 1,500-yard seasons have occurred less than twice per year around the entire NFL since the 1970 merger.
What we're looking for is that bowl of porridge that's not too hot and not too cold. And hopefully we'll get one of our two predictions right after striking out last year. Team Reporter Casey Phillips, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I all made bold predictions at this time last year, and in a nod to accountability, here's what we came up with:
1. I said that Jameis Winston would land in the top five in the NFL's passer rating category. The Bucs did have a quarterback crack the top 10, as Ryan Fitzpatrick threw enough passes for his 100.4 to qualify, but Winston came in at 90.2, with his interception rate the biggest issue.
2. Casey said the Bucs would have two players hit double digits in sacks, which at the time I would have probably put in the "too bold" category. As it turned out, she got the closest to hitting the mark, as Jason Pierre-Paul got to 12.5, breaking a drought the team had endured since 2005. Carl Nassib was second at 6.5, and while that's not particularly close to 10, you could say those two almost averaged 10 sacks combined.
3. Carmen suggested the Bucs would end up with two linebackers in the Pro Bowl, with both Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David getting the nod. Those two have both been Pro Bowlers before, but this was still bold because the team hadn't had two linebackers go together since Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles in the 2002 Super Bowl year. Alas, Alexander was knocked out early by a knee injury and David didn't get the all-star invite despite another very good year.
So, the pressure is on the three of us. As we continue our annual Roundtable Week, Casey, Carmen and I will try once again to hit on an appropriately bold prediction. That's the second of our five Roundtable topics regarding the Buccaneers' upcoming season. Here's the schedule:
Monday: Which new addition to the team will have the greatest impact?
Tuesday: What is your bold prediction for the 2019 season?
Wednesday: What will be the most interesting or important position battle in training camp?
Thursday: In what area will the Buccaneers make the biggest statistical improvement in 2019?
Friday: Who will be the Buccaneers' breakout player in 2019?
Again, the three of us are making a point of not duplicating answers, even if we might have the same first choice to any of these questions. Therefore, we're rotating the order of our selections throughout the week. Today, Carmen goes first, I'm second and Casey will finish it up.
So, Carmen: What is your bold prediction for the 2019 season?
Carmen Vitali: Lavonte David will make the Pro Bowl.
Ok, so I know I said he’d do it last year but, like, I really mean it this year.
There’s actually a very good reason for my confidence this season, too. The entire defensive scheme has changed to a hybrid that’s part 3-4, part 4-3 and ALL aggressive. It features the linebackers in a pressure-type role a lot more than the previous scheme did and before you start, allow me to present the counter-argument right away: Pro Bowl voting is already skewed towards outside linebackers in a 3-4 system and while David was an outside linebacker in last year’s 4-3, he’s been moved inside now. It’s like they’re purposely trying to stack the odds against him… or is it?
The amount of pressure created from the inside linebacker position is greatly increased with Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles’ system. As a matter of fact, blitzes from every level of the defense are greatly increased. While the defensive line is absolutely focused on penetration and not just occupying gaps, they essentially pave the way for players like David and first-round pick Devin White to get through to the backfield. Adding veteran defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh helps that out tremendously and if second-year player Vita Vea can have a breakout year (hint hint), it should translate into more tackles for loss and yes, more sacks for David. Good, bad or indifferent, sacks are apparently all people care about in Pro Bowl voting. Not saying it’s right, just saying how it is. If David can get those flashy stats, which seems much more likely this year given the system and guys around him, he’ll HAVE to make the Pro Bowl. HAVE TO.
Ok, I’m just going to keep making this my bold prediction until it comes true. But 2019 is the year.
Scott Smith: Tampa Bay's defense will double its interception total from a year ago.
On my Goldilocks scale from the intro, I think this one is just right. If we were writing this for the Bears, who picked off 27 (!) passes last year, that would be a ridiculous claim. The single-season team record for interceptions is 49, by the 1961 San Diego Chargers, and the most any team has had since the 1970 merger is 39, by the '86 San Francisco 49ers. Speaking of the 49ers, if we were writing this for them, it would actually be an insulting prediction. Double San Francisco's picks from last year and you still only get four.
But the Buccaneers had nine interceptions last year, which is well below their own franchise standards but not so low that doubling it is a foregone conclusion. Nine picks actually tied for the lowest the Bucs have ever had in a season, but 18 (that's nine doubled, for anyone who is math averse) would also be the highest the team has finished with since 2013.
Interceptions have declined across the NFL this decade as passing offenses have become increasingly accurate. NFL teams combined for more than 500 interceptions in every season from 2001-10, but they haven't hit the 500 mark once this decade. Last year, the league's combined total was 420, and the two teams that got 18 (Super Bowl foes New England and the L.A. Rams) ranked third in that category.
All of which is to say that doubling the Buccaneers' pick total from nine to 18 would be a rather significant improvement. And I think it can be done. For one thing, the Bucs will apparently be playing a much more aggressive style of defense under new coordinator Todd Bowles. Presumably, that will lead to more big plays, potentially both ways. In the two years that Bowles was Bruce Arians' defensive coordinator in Arizona, the Cardinals ranked fourth and tied for seventh in interceptions, respectively, with 20 in 2013 and 18 in 2014. There's that number again.
Hopefully, the Buccaneers have also adequately addressed their talent issue in the secondary. It is certainly Arians' opinion that they did, declaring that the issue had been "fixed" as the offseason program was winding down. The Bucs drafted three more defensive backs in the top three rounds this spring, and two of them (Sean Murphy-Bunting and Mike Edwards) had impressive takeaway totals in college.
I'm also banking on an improved pass rush this season, though that is admittedly a shakier prediction. At the absolute zenith of the franchise's defensive prowess – 1999 through 2002 – the Bucs had a great pass rush and they picked off between 21 and 31 passes each season, with an average of 26. I doubt this year's squad will approach that number, but I'm predicting they get to the target of 18.
Casey Phillips: O.J. Howard will finish among the top three in touchdown receptions among NFL tight ends.
O.J. tied for seventh in tight end touchdown receptions last season with five despite only playing in 10 games. Of course, one of the people in front of him was teammate Cam Brate, who had six. The only reason picking O.J. to finish third in the league in this category in 2019 even feels like a bold prediction for me is because of Cam's presence. Either of them easily has the skills to be top three by himself – Cam, in fact, tied for the NFL lead in 2016 – but splitting it between the two of them obviously limits the stat possibilities. Had one or the other of them logged all 11 of those tight end touchdowns last year, he would have ranked second in the NFL to the Colts' Eric Ebron (13).
The reason I felt like I could still go with this as my bold prediction is I believe this new coaching staff and its aggressive downfield play-calling will only increase the amount of shots in the end zone that could give more stats to both Cam and O.J. The two years OJ has been in the league, the Bucs red zone scoring was not a strong suit in an otherwise productive offense, producing touchdowns on 49% and 60% of their red zone attempts. But even with those lower half of the league numbers, if you combined Cam and OJ’s touchdowns into one player, it would have been enough for second in the league. If OJ can stay healthy this year and come into his prime as a year-three vet with even more chemistry with Jameis, I think the sky is the limit.