Two weeks ago, in a series that looked at potential "firsts" for the Buccaneers franchise that could occur in 2019, I noted that no Tampa Bay player has ever won the Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Frankly, on a team with a rich defensive history, three former defenders in the Hall of Fame and plenty of household names on that side of the ball, that was mildly surprising. Lee Roy Selmon, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, John Lynch and so on, all megastars, none deemed the best rookie defender in his debut year.
Could Devin White be the first? Judging only by talent level and a clear path to playing time at a position that should generate a lot of appealing numbers, White would at least seem like a good candidate.
That would sure be nice, but the Buccaneers don't need White to be that good in order to make a big difference in 2019. Tampa Bay's defense was near the bottom of the league in most categories last year, so there is plenty of room for improvement. The new scheme imported by Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles will likely help, but the Buccaneers also need some more impact players.
White will hopefully be exactly that, but will he make the biggest impact of any of the Buccaneers' new additions in 2019? That's what we'll be discussing today as we begin our annual Roundtable Week. The offseason program is over and training camp is still weeks away, so in this time between the action on the field, Team Reporter Casey Phillips, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I will be kicking around five 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?
It's certainly possible that all three of us would come to the same answer for this question independently. However, we are making a point not to duplicate picks during this Roundtable Week, so the order of selection may be relevant. Therefore, we'll be rotating the order all week, with Casey going first today, followed by Carmen and then me. Take us away, Casey: Which new addition will have the biggest impact on the Buccaneers' fortunes in 2019?
Casey Phillips: Devin White
When I consider the idea of a player making an "impact," I immediately think about what he does not only on the field but also in the locker room, and the totality of what he brings to the building. Stats and X's and O's are big, but I'm a big intangibles person. And the intangibles are why Devin White was the first name that came to mind.
Each year, I get to spend a good amount of time covering the rookie class as they go through the Rookie Club activities that help get them acclimated to NFL life. The nature of the activities, (i.e. cooking classes, Rays games, etiquette dinners) let me see a lot of their personalities and influence among their fellow teammates. Devin White's energy and passion are infectious. It's like he has his own gravitational pull.
When Kwon Alexander went down with an ACL tear last year and then left in free agency this spring, it was that fire and energy he brought that so many said would be missed. So Devin White's impact isn't just about what he brings, but about what he can help replace. I see Devin, even as a rookie, being capable of being that fiery leader the defense needs in a crucial third-down stop. He will have the steady influence of Lavonte David to keep him even, and the attack-ready Todd Bowles defense to tell him giddy up. (I had to make one horse reference.) And when he's unleashed, he's explosive, physical, and can go sideline-to-sideline. And I guarantee he's going to have fun while he's doing it.
Carmen Vitali: Ndamukong Suh
Yes, I could definitely have gone with a more obvious choice here in the hiring of Bruce Arians but we're sticking to players and I wanted to highlight just how the Bucs' new defensive tackle acquired as a free agent should have a major impact. By nature, the interior position on the defensive line is more a facilitator of sorts. Their job (whether in a three or four-down front) is to pressure the quarterback by either eating up blockers or penetrating the line themselves. The latter is self-explanatory: beat the man in front of you and get to the quarterback to either force him into an errant throw or knock him down or of course, get the ever-coveted sack.
The former, however, opens up opportunities for players at the levels behind the line, such as the linebackers. This comes in handy in a hybrid system that falls somewhere between a 4-3 and 3-4 like the Bucs will be deploying this year. It features the linebackers in a pressure role a lot more, meaning that yes, Lavonte David should end up with some pretty great stats (and sacks) this year if all goes to plan – more on that in a later discussion. The likelihood of that grows exponentially with a guy like Suh up front. He'll also be paving the way for rookie linebacker Devin White, who has been called on to more or less lead the defense even as a rookie. The better his line is up front, the more he can be effective. Suh is not only a powerful player with an established pedigree, he's a vet – a nine-year vet, to be exact. Pair him with second-year player Vita Vea on the inside and he can quite literally show younger players the way.
Having that veteran presence on both the front and middle levels of the defense will help out tremendously in the pass rush, an area where the Bucs were lacking in previous years. At the end of the day, this is a defense that gets creative with its blitzes. However, it can't get creative unless the guys up front, like Suh, do their job. So, while I expect a guy like Devin White to have a major role like Casey said and hopefully get to the quarterback more than we're used to seeing from a linebacker recently, it more or less happens because of Suh's power, toughness and experience up front.
Scott Smith: Matt Gay
In case the intro to this Roundtable didn't give it away, I would've taken White if I had the first choice. The Bucs are really counting on this rookie to deliver right away, and I think he's up for the task. Carmen's choice of Suh is a good one, too, especially given the Bucs need for help up front.
So, having those two off the board allows me to get a little bit cute and go with the rookie kicker, Matt Gay. To be clear, Gay first has to win what should be a pretty stiff competition with veteran Cairo Santos, and I'm not counting Santos out by any means. But somebody has to win that battle and for the purposes of this Roundtable I'm going with the big-legged rookie.
Gay has a chance to not only win the Buccaneers' kicking job but also stabilize the position that has given the team the most trouble this decade. Since Connor Barth tore an Achilles tendon in a charity basketball game right before training camp in 2013, the Buccaneers have had a different kicker to start each season. In that six-year span, they have made 75.1% of their field goals, and three-out-of-four might sound good but it's not up to NFL standards. Only the Chargers (74.6%) have been worse in that span, and the league average for those seasons combined was 84.7%. That's a big difference when even one missed kick can turn a game, and thus possibly a season.
So imagine how much of a difference it would make if somebody could get the Buccaneers back even to the league norm in this crucial part of the game. Imagine if Gay's kicking ended up being the (positive) difference in just two games this year. That could be the difference between the playoffs and another January on the golf course.
Then there's this: If, as his work on the practice field suggests, Gay can be a real weapon from long range, that too will make a big impact on the team in 2019. Having a guy you trust to try a 55-yarder can significantly alter your in-game strategy. To me, that's making a big impact.
In 2002, the Buccaneers won two games in which the only player who scored for them was Martin Gramatica. I'm not suggesting that the '19 Bucs are Super Bowl-bound (though it would be nice), but I think we've all seen what a difference a trusted kicker can make.