1. S Jordan Whitehead
So far in 2019, safety Jordan Whitehead has stood out in Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles' aggressive system for, well, playing aggressive. It's Whitehead's specialty, in fact.
A hard-hitting safety that flings his entire body into his tackles, watching Whitehead come downhill will make you say 'ooh' more than once a game. Whitehead had six combined tackles in the Bucs' last game against the division-rival Panthers. He was one player that was also charged with containing running back Christian McCaffrey. The week before, he helped cover 49ers tight end George Kittle en route to having a team-high eight tackles. Granted, you don't usually want your secondary to be recording the most tackles on the team, but primarily being a box safety, his tackles mostly come in run defense.
Whitehead is on his second NFL system in two years. He's also only in his second year in the league, period. His effectiveness until this point is a testament to what he does off the field as much as what he does on it.
"Jordan is hungry for knowledge," Bowles said of Whitehead. "His thirst to learn and come in every day and try to be the best he can be is outstanding. He applies what you tell him and he works at it on the field. He just keeps grinding. He wants to be a great player. Having a young player that does that kind of work is outstanding, so he's just got to keep working, keep getting better and soaking up the knowledge of the game."
Head Coach Bruce Arians spoke about Whitehead's 14 tackles so far this season and his impact on the run game as well. Though he insists, Whitehead hasn't reached his ceiling.
"Jordan's productivity is really good right now," Arians said. "He can play better, but his productivity is off the charts."
2. DT Ndamukong Suh
You know by now that outside linebacker Shaq Barrett had 3.0 sacks last week against Carolina, enough to earn him NFC Defensive Player of the Week. And while Barrett's performance was impressive, he had some help. That help came from the interior of the line where Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh make their homes more often than not.
Both players are menacing for opposing offensive lines, commanding double-teams and thereby leaving guys like Barrett and outside linebacker Carl Nassib with one-on-one matchups. It's a numbers game and it's going to create mismatches somewhere.
"We're getting inside push from [Ndamukong] Suh and Vita," Coach Arians said. "So those outside guys are getting closer and closer."
Look for the pendulum to start swinging in the opposite direction now, with opposing offenses realizing they can't leave guys like Barrett to their own devices. It could take away a double team from Suh on occasion, and with how close he's been recently according to Coach Arians, he could take full advantage of one-on-one matchups.
"Hopefully, they'll start sliding to him," Arians said of sacks going to other players. "Carl [Nassib] has had a couple but he's let them go. Yeah, we'd like to get some more going and I think Carl's been really close. I think [Ndamukong] Suh got close a couple of times, so yeah – just finish the deal."
3. OLB Carl Nassib
Speaking of Carl Nassib, you may as well watch him, too. Barrett's performance could have a domino effect not only for the interior players, but for the guy that is usually mirroring him on the opposite side of the front. Nassib had the second-most sacks on the team last season with 6.5. But things didn't seem to click until Week Six last season when he played his former team in the Cleveland Browns. But if he wants to finish with a higher total than last year, Nassib will have to get going a little sooner.
Nassib was named a captain this year in part because of the sheer energy he brings to the team on a daily basis. It really should only be a matter of time before that energy translates into something that shows up on the stat sheet. And don't let sacks be confused for production. Nassib has still made his presence felt off the edge. He's had a couple quarterback hurries and pressures over the last couple games and is all but due for a big game. What better way to get going than against a rookie quarterback?
4. WR Mike Evans
Wide receiver Mike Evans caught a beautiful 41-yard pass from quarterback Jameis Winston in the Bucs win over Carolina last week. He's connected with Winston a few deep balls this season that have set the Buccaneers up in favorable positions. For instance, that aforementioned 41-yard pass happened on the first play of the Bucs' third drive of the second quarter. It culminated in a 20-yard touchdown pass to Chris Godwin just a few plays later with the bulk of the work done by Evans in that one play.
Now, Evans has an opportunity to go up against a New York secondary that has been struggling a bit this season. Overall, the Giants have just four pass breakups on the season. New York is also giving up the third-most passing yards per game so far in 2019, allowing an average of 321.0 yards per game.
Those are favorable conditions for a veteran receiver like Evans. His experience also affords him some familiarity with the corner he'll likely be matching up against.
"I am familiar with Janoris [Jenkins]," Evans said on Tuesday. "I've played against him a couple of times in my career. He is a really good corner – real savvy, athletic and he's always tough to go against. The rest of their guys – we are starting to feel them out – we just started watching film on them today. They don't look bad at all, so we are going to watch some more film on them. But like I've said before in the past, I'll take our receiver room over anyone."
5. The Running Back
Notice I didn't specify Peyton Barber, Ronald Jones or even Dare Ogunbowale for that matter. Through two games, the Bucs have had two different leading rushers. Week One against the 49ers it was second-year back Ronald Jones with 75 yards on the ground. Against Carolina on Thursday, it was Peyton Barber with 82 yards.
This coaching staff has shown it's not afraid to go with the 'hot hand' and it has faith in both running backs.
"That's the good thing when you have two guys like this – we don't have to [say], 'Whoever's rolling, we're going to turn around and hand that guy the ball,'" Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich said. "We're going to turn around and hand somebody the ball. Regardless of who's rolling, we don't really care. We're just trying to get the production out of that position and they did a great job of that Thursday night."
Ogunbowale is a special teams captain this year and his route-running has made him a trusted third-down back, as well. It's running back by committee and in order for the offense to be firing on all cylinders, a ground game will have to be established. The Giants rank 18th so far this season in rushing defense, allowing 120.0 yards on the ground. It could be a chance for the Bucs to get their first 100-yard solo rusher on Sunday.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 3 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.