We all knew with the arrival of the biggest free agent in NFL history would come a share in the spotlight for players that Tampa Bay fans have long loved. Guys like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and yes Lavonte David might finally get the recognition and exposure they deserved for the their efforts.
But how many of us imagined that they'd get the exposure of tens of millions as the Bucs get set to take on the defending-champion Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV? Right here in Tampa at that?
If you called it, kudos to you. But the Bucs are about to get exactly what they asked for and more as all eyes are on Raymond James Stadium. Here are some Bucs players that you may want to watch when that happens, though there are no shortage of players and storylines to watch in a matchup like this.
1. QB Tom Brady
A quarterback matchup of the ages (and about the ages) like this game means this list has to start with… the quarterback. Brady, in just his first year with Tampa Bay, will be playing in his first Super Bowl representing the NFC. It's his 10th appearance in the 'Big Game' overall and could be his seventh championship.
This time, it's against the Kansas City Chiefs, who have their own bragging rights after winning the Super Bowl just last year. And while Brady will face off with an AFC foe for the first time in the Super Bowl, he's already taken a Mahomes-led Kansas City team on in a big game. Two years ago, Brady's Patriots and the Chiefs faced off for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIII. Brady won that battle and then the subsequent Lombardi trophy. This will be the first time in NFL history that the two most-recent Super Bowl winning quarterbacks will face off against one another.
There is one thing though that is different about the Chiefs that Brady is all too familiar with: Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnolo. "Spags," as he's known, played spoiler to Brady's hopes of capping off the Patriots' perfect 2008 season with a championship as the defensive coordinator of the Giants, who won Super Bowl XLII over New England. It was Brady's second-worst performance in a Super Bowl, thanks to the aggressiveness of Spags. And that aggressiveness showed up this season, too. Back in Week 12, when these two teams met the first time, the Chiefs' defense blitzed Brady on 48% of dropbacks. Brady still managed 345 yards with three touchdowns against two interceptions, though.
To combat the Chiefs' high-powered offense, the Bucs are going to need to come up with some points of their own. They've scored 30 or more points in every game this postseason and they'll likely need at least that to get the win over Kansas City. That all starts with Brady.
2. CB Carlton Davis
Davis will be the first to tell you things didn't go his way last time the Bucs and the Chiefs faced off. Kansas City wide receiver Tyreek Hill went off for 269 yards and three touchdowns, though a bulk of that work came in the first quarter before Tampa Bay figured him and the rest of the Chiefs' offense out. Davis talked about having a short memory when you play defensive back in the NFL, but he hasn't forgotten that and that's a good thing.
It'll be a one-on-one matchup that many will be watching with Davis hoping to even the score like he's done against other top receivers in the league. In the Divisional Round, he and the Buccaneer secondary held Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas to zero catches. In the NFC Championship, Packers wide receiver Davante Adams had just a 60% catch rate and only 67 yards on the day – a far cry from his career-high 98.1 receiving yards per game average this season. Now that Davis and the rest of the Buccaneer defense have seen Hill already, they should know how to play him better. There was evidence of that in the ensuing quarters of Week 12's matchup. After the first quarter, Hill had just 66 yards the rest of the game.
If the Bucs can pick up where they left off with Hill and start fast on defense, that'll go a long way in helping a complete effort to take home the Lombardi.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Super Bowl practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
3. OLB Jason Pierre-Paul
Pierre-Paul proved to be a media darling this week during Super Bowl media availability. He has no shortage of people pulling for him and why wouldn't they? Pierre-Paul is as joyously infectious as they come, bringing energy every day to practice, week in and week out. He's been through his fair share of adversity and maybe that's why he has such a wonderful outlook on life. He's just happy to be here. And the Bucs are happy he's here, too.
"The guy is the epitome of perseverance for the car wreck and the fireworks," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "JPP, he plays with a heart that is as big as a lion and high, high energy. Guys just love playing with him. He doesn't speak a lot because he lets his play do the talking, but when he speaks, everybody listens."
In the NFC Championship, both he and fellow outside linebacker Shaq Barrett combined for 5.0 sacks of Aaron Rodgers, who is one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the league. Pierre-Paul's length and bend are unrivaled and the ferocity in which he plays with make him a force to be reckoned with every time he's on the field. He's going to have to use every bit of that in the big game against the Chiefs to get to elusive signal caller Patrick Mahomes. But the good news is, Pierre-Paul has been in this game before – and won it. In fact, both he and Barrett have accomplished the feat, Pierre-Paul with the New York Giants and Barrett with the Denver Broncos.
They know what this game is like and that it will be their moment to shine – especially with a guy like nose tackle Vita Vea back. He should be able to occupy multiple blockers on the interior alongside defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and the rest of the Bucs' interior rotation. The most offensive lineman it takes to stop those guys, the more likely Pierre-Paul is to be left one-on-one on the edge and that's a matchup that I'd take JPP in any day of the week – and twice on Sundays.
4. WR Mike Evans
Speaking of a guy I'd take twice on Sundays, let's talk about wide receiver Mike Evans. Fresh off making history himself in the regular season becoming the first player in NFL history to start his career with seven-straight 1,000-yard campaigns, Evans went to work immediately in the postseason, amassing 119 receiving yards in Washington during the Wild Card round (on a hyperextended knee at that). New Orleans did all they could to take him out of the game during the Divisional Round and were, in large part, successful. Though he did have a touchdown. Evans then had 51 yards in Green Bay, also with a touchdown. Now, in his first Super Bowl after his first playoff run in a stadium where banners of him (usually) hang on the outside walls and the greatest quarterback of all time throwing him the football, I think Evans is one to watch.
Plus, Kansas City's corners (Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward) each surrendered a touchdown to Evans in Week 12, per NFL Media Research. Mixing up defenders will likely still be the plan again as the Chiefs don't usually assign a shadow to an opponents' top receivers. Both Ward and Breeland usually stay on their side of the field, with Ward taking 79.7% of his snaps at left cornerback and Breeland taking 90% of his snaps at right cornerback, according to NFL Media Research. They also employ the help of their two safeties in both Tyrann Mathieu and L'Jarius Sneed. Both players rank in the top seven in terms of passer rating allowed in coverage this season with Mathieu allowing a 69.2 passer rating and Sneed allowing a 59.7 passer rating, also according to NFL Media Research.
The group will have their work cut out for them though not only against Evans, but Chris Godwin, Scotty Miller, Rob Gronkowski and maybe Antonio Brown, who is officially listed as questionable for Sunday's game, among others on Tampa Bay's roster.
5. ILBs Lavonte David & Devin White
One more time for Lavonte David. I've had him on this list every week this season and the point remains: David will be a difference maker in this game. He certainly was last go-around in Week 12, when he largely helped mitigate the impact of Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, who had 82 yards and no touchdowns on the day. He's a big body even though he runs routes like a receiver. The Chiefs move Kelce around all over the field: out wide, in the slot and sometimes in the traditional tight alignment attached to the formation. That inside-underneath zone is David's bread and butter and he's as quick a coverage linebacker as you'll find, along with the guy next to him on the field. Watch that matchup with Kelce again should the Bucs see fit to deploy that method this time around, too.
Watch the defense at all and you'll likely see White. He missed the team's first playoff matchup while on the reserve/COVID list but came screaming back into action in New Orleans like a bat out of hell. In the Divisional Round, White had 11 combined tackles, an interception of quarterback Drew Brees and a fumble recovery.
He continued his tear in Green Bay with 15 combined tackles and another fumble recovery, which he returned 21 yards. Both White's fumble recoveries this postseason have resulted in Buccaneer touchdowns as the Bucs' continue to be one of the best teams in the league in terms of points off takeaways, with 231 since the beginning of 2019. White is going into this game with all the confidence he should, knowing that he's elevated his game this year especially in the second year under Todd Bowles.
"Over the last year, the way I feel like I elevated my game is I just feel like I became even more dynamic on the field," White said. "Whether it's leadership [or] making plays, I just feel like I took it a whole other step. A lot of my [focus] was game-changing plays – being able to take over games and being able to set the tempo for the defense and for the whole team. I feel like that was a major part of my game. That really just came from all heart. I worked on a lot of things – I worked on play recognition, etc., so I feel like they're still ways that I can improve, as well, but I feel like those are some of the key components I worked on this offseason."
And it's all paid off as the Bucs play just their second Super Bowl this Sunday at home.