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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

5 Bucs to Watch Against the Vikings in Week 1

The Buccaneers kick off the 2023 regular season on the road and here are five players to watch

5 Bucs to Watch Wk 1

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2023 regular season will commence on Sunday, September 10 with a road game against the Minnesota Vikings. The matchup is slated for a 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Bucs enter a new era of football with Baker Mayfield at the helm. The team will unveil the reimagined Dave Canales offense against the Vikings' new-look defense under Brian Flores. Tampa Bay's defense will face an early litmus test against Kirk Cousins and company, a unit that finished with the sixth-most passing yards in 2022 and boasts one of the NFL's best receivers in Justin Jefferson. There are several matchups and individual performances that could weigh heavily on the outcome of the Bucs-Vikings showdown in the Week One. Here is an in-depth look at five Buccaneers to observe on Sunday afternoon. 

Jamel Dean 

The Bucs secondary faces a stiff challenge on Sunday and likely the most challenging of the 2023 slate. Justin Jefferson, Cousins' go-to-target, has cemented his place as one of the league's most prolific wideouts. He has accumulated more yards in his first three seasons in the league (4,825) than any receiver in NFL history. Last season, Jefferson led the league in targets (184), receptions (128) and receiving yards (1,809). Additionally, he eclipsed the 100-plus-yard marker in 11 of the Vikings' 17 games. Jefferson possesses a refined route tree and run-after-catch skills to make defenders miss in the open field. The slippery route runner continues to shatter records with elite body control, ball-tracking and vertical speed. Jefferson is an assassin over the middle of the field with short area burst and has a lethal release package. He wins seam-to-seam and on Sunday, both Bucs' starting corners Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis III will face Jefferson. Tampa Bay could opt to shadow Jefferson with Davis but based off their prototypical sides, Dean could face him more on the left side. Jefferson is proficient at stacking moves and selling routes, and Dean will have to be sticky in coverage. Dean has what most cornerbacks do not and that is 4.33-level makeup speed, to prevent the big play over the top, even closing from a trail position. In 2022, Dean allowed the fifth-fewest yards (386) as the nearest defender among all NFL cornerbacks (minimum 60 targets) per Next Gen Stats. Since he entered the NFL, Dean has allowed the fewest yards per target (5.7) among all NFL defensive backs (minimum 150 targets). Given Jefferson's ability to exploit off coverage, physicality at the line by Dean will play a critical role in Sunday's contest. 

Tristan Wirfs 

Tristan Wirfs solidified his status as one of the best tackles in the league on the right side for the first three seasons of his career and he will now protect Baker Mayfield's blind side in 2023. Wirfs possesses lateral quickness for move-blocking responsibilities and is a technician with footwork/hand placement. Wirfs will undergo an expected transition period to the left side of the formation and on Sunday, he will face Danielle Hunter, who spearheaded the Vikings' defensive effort in 2022 with 10.5 sacks. Hunter has rushed from both ends in Minnesota's system and concluded his 2022 campaign tied for eighth in the league with 70 pressures. The three-time Pro Bowler has posted double-digit sacks in each of the last three seasons and routinely collapses the pocket. With an advanced toolkit of pass-rush moves, Hunter consistently locks offensive linemen out at the point of attack to generate leverage. He put up 53 quarterback pressures last season and Wirfs will need a stout debut on the blind side against No. 99. 

Shaq Barrett 

The Bucs reloaded the outside linebacker corps during the offseason and the unit needs to demonstrate that the talent infusion has paid off with a formidable pass rush from the outside, after a 2022 season in which Tampa Bay's leading sack artist was nose tackle Vita Vea. Back from his Achilles tendon tear, Shaq Barrett is seemingly ready to return to peak form. Barrett concluded the 2022 season with 30 tackles, 3.0 sacks, six tackles for loss, six quarterback hits and a forced fumble, prior to the injury. He has a knack for making momentum-shifting plays with an explosive first step, speed-to-power conversion and the ability to knife through blockers. Barrett plays a relatively even number of snaps from both the right and left side, meaning he will go up against Minnesota's left tackle Christian Darrisaw on Sunday.  Darrisaw's combination of footwork and hand strength generate an imposing punch in pass pro. He holds his own against both speed and power moves, solidifying a wall around quarterback Kirk Cousins. Darrisaw earned an elite 91.1 overall blocking grade during his second season in the NFL, and this will be a pivotal matchup on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. 

Lavonte David 

The Bucs re-signed defensive cornerstone Lavonte David in March, the tone-setter of the unit. He is back for his 12th season in Tampa Bay and has cemented his status as one of the best off-ball linebackers in the league during his 11-year tenure. David has evolved with the league as pass-catching tight ends and running backs have become a focal point of modern-day offenses. David compiled 124 combined tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and five passes defensed last season. He is proficient at blowing up screens and covering tight ends over the middle of the field with elite change-of-direction skills, erasing the opposition's zone-beater.  In 2022, David's 88.5 coverage grade per PFF ranked second among off-ball linebackers. On Sunday, he will face Minnesota's T.J. Hockenson. Last season, the midseason addition of Hockenson took the Vikings' offense to new heights. He concluded his 2022 campaign with 60 catches for 519 yards and three touchdowns. He signed a lofty four-year, $68.5 million deal with Minnesota during the offseason, resetting the market with the largest tight end deal in NFL history. Hockenson finished fifth in the NFL last year in third down receptions, bolstering the Vikings' passing attack. As more opponents began using a two-high shell to limit Justin Jefferson from making an explosive play downfield, Hockenson exploited the underneath-intermediate area, methodically working the middle of the field. Hockenson was efficient at boxing out defenders and dialing up misleading chip-and-release routes to perfection, setting up blockers after the catch. This matchup will be prime viewing when David is placed in man or zone coverage versus Hockenson. 

Baker Mayfield

Baker Mayfield will be the 21st quarterback to make a Week One start in Bucs' franchise history. A new era begins on Sunday with Mayfield under center in Dave Canales' retooled offensive system. He will make his debut against a Vikings' defense that has completely revamped its secondary after allowing the second-most passing yards in 2022. The former Heisman Trophy winner and first-overall pick by the Browns in 2018 has completed 61.4% of his passes for 16,288 yards, 102 touchdowns and 64 interceptions during his NFL career. He will take command of a system in Tampa Bay with similarities to the one he led in Cleveland and in the college ranks at Oklahoma. The Bucs will no longer be a 60-plus passing team and instead, there will be an added emphasis on the run game. The renovated offense will build the ground game through outside/mid-zone to set up the drop-back passing game and play-action will help stimulate bootleg designs out of similar pre-snap looks. The addition of play-fakes and misdirection will work to generate confusion for the defense at all three levels. Mayfield has showcased his proficiency at taking shots from a non-traditional launch point on the move and his accuracy at all three levels. On Sunday, Mayfield will face a Minnesota defense that is undergoing a transitional period. After finishing 31st in total defense last year, the Vikings replaced coordinator Ed Donatell with former Miami Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores, who traditionally implements an aggressive style. Mayfield, in his first regular season start, will certainly garner attention on Sunday.

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