The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished the first quarter of the season, which is…okay. After a 2-0 start, the Buccaneers envisioned heading into their bye week with a winning record and at least a share of first place in the NFC South. As it is, they are one game behind the New Orleans Saints, the team they beat in a wild Week One shootout, and they have a few extra days to figure out what went wrong in Chicago before returning to action in Atlanta in Week Six.
As the Buccaneers enjoy this week off, we here at Buccaneers.com are going to dust off the Roundtable premise and evaluate a couple of the developments from that up-and-down first quarter of the season. Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and Team Reporter Casey Phillips are going to join me in answering these two questions: Who was the Buccaneers' most outstanding player in the season's first quarter, and what is the most pressing issue the team must address in order to have a winning record in the second quarter?
Well start with the Most Outstanding Player today. Clearly, had we been answering this question after two games instead of four, the only choice would have been quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Heck, Fitzpatrick might have been the MVP of the entire league at that point. And, even with all four games considered, Fitzpatrick was still one of the Bucs' most productive and important players in the first quarter. However, the Buccaneers have had a lot of strong performers on offense, leading to the team ranking first in passing offense through four weeks, and Fitzpatrick is now ceding the starting job back to Jameis Winston. I mention Fitzpatrick here because he was not chosen by any of the three of us below but he clearly deserves some serious recognition, and he definitely has our admiration. I think I can speak for all three of us on that.
Okay, now on to our picks. The three of us are making a point not to duplicate picks in these Roundtables, so the order of selection is relevant. Today, Casey goes first, followed by Carmen and then me. Casey?
Casey Phillips: DeSean Jackson
Whenever you hear about a "most outstanding player" or "most valuable player" award, there's always a debate about what factors should be taken into consideration for the award. Is it stats? Is it in comparison to other players at their position? Do you include leadership and off-field contributions? Thankfully, I don't have to worry about all those debates because I would pick DeSean Jackson regardless of the award criteria.
I could pick him based on stats alone since he is on pace for a 1,600-yard season, is averaging nearly 25 yards per catch, and has three touchdowns in four games. Even with the offense struggling to produce against Chicago, he caught five of eight targets for 112 yards. Jackson ranks seventh in the league in receiving yards, and that's with him having to share targets with the player ranking sixth! I could also pick DeSean based on the number of game-changing plays he has produced, like the 58-yard bomb in New Orleans, the 75-yard touchdown on the very first play of the Eagles game, or the punt return that would have gone for a touchdown if not for a flag.
DeSean has made the kind of plays that silence a road crowd, ignite the home fans, and demoralize a defense. I could even pick him for what he's brought to the team off the field, like the now-famous Fitz press conference wardrobe or his work in the community serving on the board of the Buccaneers new Social Justice Initiative. Taking all of that into consideration, he easily wins my vote for most outstanding player of the first quarter of the season.
Carmen Vitali: Jason Pierre-Paul
Even with sacks in three straight games and four on the season, I still think defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is flying a bit under the radar. Forget all the other things he's done so far this season for a moment, people are supposed to at least notice sacks. Four sacks through the first four games technically puts him on pace for 16 by year's end. That's nuts. Do you know the last time the Bucs had a double-digit sack guy? It was defensive end Simeon Rice with 14.0 in 2005 and the Bucs won the NFC South that season. Pierre-Paul has nearly half his yearly total of 8.5 from a season ago with the New York Giants, indicating something the defensive line is doing here in Tampa Bay is working. On top of his sack numbers, JPP has nine quarterback hits, tying him for the league lead and putting him ahead of players like the resurgent J.J. Watt in Houston and defensive phenom Von Miller in Denver.
While sacks and quarterback hits are largely individual stats, they usually don't happen as the result of just one man's effort so I'd be remiss not to acknowledge the role other guys on the defensive line have played in Pierre-Paul's performance. Take his sack in Chicago of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky as an example. On third-and-seven, Pierre-Paul came up huge on third down to force the punt by sacking the signal-caller for a loss of 10 yards. It was a great play by Pierre-Paul, but it started before the ball was even snapped. Defensive end Carl Nassib created some confusion inside as he jumped from defensive tackle Gerald McCoy's right to his left as a stand-up rusher. Further pressure from Trubisky's right side, as defensive end Vinny Curry beat the Bears' right tackle, forced Trubisky to try and escape to his left… where Pierre-Paul was waiting to wrap him up.
The others guys on the front line deserve some of the credit as well, but at the end of the day Pierre-Paul had to beat his man and make the play, which he did and has done consistently game-in and game-out. He's not just the MVP on the field so far, either. He was given the players' Community MVP award for all of his work off the field in the Tampa Bay community since he got here. So much like Casey's case with DeSean, whatever measure you're using to determine most outstanding player, Pierre-Paul hits all of them.
Scott Smith: Mike Evans
Picking a defensive player on a team that ranks third in offense and 31st in defense is a bold move, but Pierre-Paul is indeed off to a fine start. At the very least, I think he's been the Buccaneers' defensive MVP to this point. That said, I'm going to join Casey in highlighting a key figure in Tampa Bay's top-ranked passing attack.
That would be Mike Evans, who I'm sure would have been a common prediction for 2018 team MVP before the start of the season. He has not only lived up to expectations through the first quarter of the season, he's exceeded them. Hey, did you know that Evans, already only the third player in NFL history to open his career with four consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons, is off to his best start yet? It's true! Here are Evans's stat lines (receptions-yards-touchdowns) through the Bucs' first four games of each of his five seasons:
* Missed one of four games due to injury
View the top photos of the first quarter of the Buccaneers 2018 season from Team Photographer Kyle Zedaker.
Could this be the year that Evans breaks Mark Carrier's long-standing team record of 1,422 receiving yards in a single season (set in 1989)? Evans got fairly close with 1,321 yards in 2016, in what is to date his best overall season so far? This campaign is shaping up as a new personal best.
Of course, the debate here is over who has been the Bucs' most outstanding player, not who is having his own career-best season. If Evans is taking his game to a new level but still not out-performing, for instance, DeSean Jackson, then he isn't necessarily the Bucs' first quarter M.O.P. Let me be clear: Jackson is a fine pick, too, and an understandable choice by Casey, but I think Evans is the better choice.
For one thing, Evans is on the field a lot more. He's played 213 snaps to 136 for Jackson, and more than anyone on offense except for Fitzpatrick (barely) and the offensive linemen. We have heard from teammates and analysts on several occasions how Evans's presence is helping create opportunities for other big-play makers on offense. For instance, Jackson himself said that the deep post route he ran on the first play of the Philadelphia game – referenced by Casey above – was open because the safety in the middle of the field went to cover Evans.
The Buccaneers are simply better when Evans is on the field then when he's not. The NFL's stat-collecting service (NFL GSIS) has a metric they call "Net Yards Over Average," which is similar to plus-minus in hockey. After two weeks, Evans was first in the entire league in that measurement, and he still ranks 12th (the top 11 players are all members of the 4-0 Rams), just ahead of the Saints' phenomenal running back, Alvin Kamara. Jackson fares well in this category, too, but Evans is the Bucs' leader by a good margin. Ryan Fitzpatrick is next after Evans, and as I noted above, a valid M.O.P. candidate even if he is about to go back to reserve status. But nobody does more to make the Bucs better than Evans does.