Lavonte David had a perfectly good rookie season in 2012. In fact, I recently argued that his accomplishments for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that year weren't statistically dissimilar to what Luke Kuechly did for the Carolina Panthers on the way to a (well-deserved) NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year win.
David was good in 2012. He was great in 2013. In addition to his team-leading 145 tackles, David also racked up 7.0 sacks, five interceptions, nine passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, only four players have reached at least 100 tackles, at least five sacks and at least five interceptions in the same season. Wilber Marshall did it twice, Rodney Harrison and Brian Urlacher once each and David joined the group in 2013. No one has done it since.
That is a breakout season. In his second year, David went from a quality starter as a rookie to a first-team Associated Press All-Pro selection. One can find plenty of similar examples in the four-plus decades of Buccaneer football. James Wilder played fullback for three seasons and had a combined 1,334 rushing yards in that span before exploding for a (still-standing) team-record 1,544 yards in 1984, not to mention 85 catches. Ronde Barber barely played as a rookie in 1997, had three very strong seasons after that, including a total of six interceptions, then dominated in 2000, tying for the league lead with 10 picks and earning All-Pro and Pro Bowl status for the first time.
Others: Mark Carrier in 1989; Hardy Nickerson in 1993; Marcus Jones in 2000; Earnest Graham in 2007; and so on. There's usually at least one player each season who picks up his production by a large amount from the season(s) before. The closest the Buccaneers probably had to that last year was Chris Godwin, though if you read on you'll see that one of us thinks he's still waiting to truly take off.
That's our topic today as Casey Phillips, Carmen Vitali and I continue with our annual Roundtable Week. The challenge with this one is twofold. Each of us needs to pick a breakout candidate and justify that he qualifies to be a "breakout player" in 2019. In other words, if you pick a performer who has already set a pretty good standard for himself in recent years, you must explain what he's going to do this season that is significantly better.
This is the last of our five Roundtable discussions this week. 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?
One final rotation of the picking order, since we aren't allowed to duplicate picks, and we end up with Carmen first, followed by me and then Casey.
That means you're on the clock, Carmen: Who will be the Buccaneers' breakout player in 2019?
Carmen Vitali: Vita Vea
The rookie first-rounder had a slow start to 2018, battling a calf injury he suffered in training camp for the first part of the season. Once he got his footing a little bit though, Vea came on pretty strong towards the end of the year. The last eight games of the season, Vea registered 3.0 sacks, 26 total tackles (four for loss) and four quarterback hits. In case you need a little help there, double that to get to a full season and that’s a 6.0-sack, 52-tackle pace for an interior defensive lineman. Especially for a rookie, that’s not half bad.
Provided he stays healthy through camp, 2019 will be Vea’s first real chance to put his game together. He’ll have the opportunity to learn from one of the most aggressive defensive tackles in the game with Ndamukong Suh presumably lining up next to him. A veteran like Suh should be a tremendous asset for a second-year player trying to make that jump forward and with Vea, talent isn’t the issue. He’s one of the most athletic human beings I’ve ever seen – at nearly 350 pounds. If the game can slow down for him a little bit, which the tail end of last season seems to be evidence of, the influence from Suh should push Vea over the edge.
Plus, the system he is playing in will not only allow for, but rely on, pressure from the interior, making Vea a key component in its success. Even if the stats don’t necessarily show up this season, the impact Vea has the opportunity to make will make for a breakout season all on its own.
Scott Smith: O.J. Howard
Hey, Casey said in our Bold Predictions Roundtable that Howard would finish the season among the top three in touchdown catches in the NFL this year. If she's right, does that count as a breakout?
Maybe. I mean, if the NFL lead is, say, 13 or 14, then yes I would say a 13-touchdown season from Howard, which would absolutely demolish the Bucs' single-season record for a tight end, would qualify as a breakout. But if Howard is in the top three with more like eight scores, which is how many it took Cam Brate to tie for the league lead in 2016, then that's a tougher argument to break. Howard already has six and five-touchdown seasons under his belt, so that's not much of a stretch.
No, what I'm holding up as the criteria for this Howard breakout is that he is playing next year on January 26. That's the date of the next Pro Bowl, and I think there's a chance we see Howard in it, giving the Buccaneers their first all-star tight end since the days of Jimmie Giles.
Howard appeared to be headed in that direction of November of last year after he ran off a streak of five games in six weeks in which he had 53 or more receiving yards, with four touchdowns scored in that same span. He was working on a five-catch, 78-yard day against the Giants in Week 11 when he suffered an ankle injury while being tackled awkwardly from behind after a big gain. Howard has had two fluky season-ending ankle injuries in two years; that's not injury-prone, that's unlucky. Howard's next step to the Pro Bowl is simply better luck in 2019, giving him 16 games to match production with some of the league's best tight ends.
Howard has all the talent to be a seam-stretching, big-play pass-catcher, as evidenced by his 16.6 yards per catch last year, which was the best in the NFL among all qualifying tight ends. San Francisco's George Kittle averaged an excellent 15.6 yards per catch last year, but he also had nearly three times as many targets as Howard, which led to 54 more receptions and an incredible 1,377 yards. Howard isn't going to see that many targets in an offense that also includes Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Breshad Perriman and Cam Brate, but even a moderate bump could take him from 565 yards to 800 or 900. The two tight ends initially chosen for the NFC Pro Bowl squad last year were Kittle and Philly's Zach Ertz, both of whom cracked 1,000 yards. But when Ertz pulled out of the game he was replaced by Atlanta's Austin Hooper, who had 660 yards.
Much has been made of how little the tight ends were involved in the passing game in Arians' five years at the helm in Arizona, but that was pretty clearly due to personnel rather than a disdain for the position. Howard has the skills to be an excellent blocker, as well, which means he can be on the field for a large majority of the team's offensive plays, and I'm pretty certain Arians is going to find ways to get him the ball.
Casey Phillips: Chris Godwin
I’m going all in on Chris Godwin this year.
It’s not like Godwin didn’t have impressive seasons the last two years, so for me to pick him as the breakout player means I’m banking on him making another big jump. I think with the departures of DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries, Godwin is the perfect candidate to earn even more opportunities. Godwin’s more limited stats or his role at various points in his first two years wasn’t ever about his performance. It was about how incredibly deep that pass-catching group was and there only being so many footballs to go around.
Bruce Arians has been praising Godwin’s versatility, saying he could be a 100-catch guy since he can also play in the slot. Arians is basically saying Godwin would never have to come off the field. So while teams will be focusing on Mike Evans, O.J. Howard, and Cameron Brate, Godwin has shown an incredible ability to make catches in so many places on the field, through traffic, and out of almost any route that he can find the vulnerable spot and take advantage. Plus, he’s one of the most mature and level-headed players on the team. He was playing like a vet as a rookie, so now that he _is_ a veteran, the confidence in his ability should be sky high.
Also, Scott Smith turned me onto these stat comparisons between Godwin and Mark Carrier.
The Bucs drafted WR Mark Carrier in the third round in 1989. Here were his first three seasons (catches-yards-TDs):
Godwin was a third-round pick, too. Look how similar his first two seasons are to Carrier's:
While a jump to a 1,500 yard season is a tall order on a team with so many weapons, I definitely think Godwin has the tools to make a similar jump now that Arians is keen on using him more inside and out.