As the NFL's leader in both touchdown passes and passing yards and the field general for a 6-2 team that is a prime Super Bowl contender, Tom Brady has to be on the short list of any 2021 MVP conversation. It's an award he has already won three times – which honestly seems a little low given what he has accomplished in his career – and also an award that has never been given to a player older than 37. Tom Brady, let's remember, is 44 years old. It's rather amazing.
All of which is to say, if you were to pick an MVP for the first half of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2021 season, you would have to tie your tongue in knots to name anyone but Brady. Similarly, you would be stretching it to put anyone but Brady at the top of the list when predicting who would be the team's most valuable player in the season's second half.
What we're concerned about today is the rest of that list. For our final Midseason Review Roundtable of the bye week, in which Team Reporter Casey Phillips and Staff Writer Carmen Vitali have joined me in debating a short series of questions, we wanted to predict who would be the Bucs' MVP down the stretch. Since Brady is the clear and obvious first choice, we've eliminated him from the discussion. As such, we will now each choose one player we think could be the key to another successful run to the postseason other than Brady.
Here's what we've discussed in our bye-week Roundtables this season:
Wednesday: Biggest Surprise of the Season's First Half
Friday: Predicting the Buccaneers' Second-Half MVP (Non-Brady Division)
We've rotated the order in each Roundtable so that each of us gets to go first once. That can matter, since we have chosen not to duplicate answers. Today it's my turn in the pole position.
Scott Smith: OLB Shaquil Barrett
In Thursday's Roundtable I wrote that getting the defense humming again like it was at the end of last season was a big second-half challenge for the team, and noted that the Bucs only ranked 26th in sack rate this year. They were seventh in 2020, and four different players finished with at least six sacks. This season, Shaq Barrett is the only Buc on pace to get six or more QB takedowns.
In fact, Barrett should blow by that threshold very soon. He leads the team with 5.5 sacks and is a good bet to hit double digits in that category for the second time in his three seasons in Tampa. He's also trending in the right direction. The NFL Next Gen Stats page for each player has a tab called "Insights" and most subsequent notes have a descriptive title before the actual numbers. In Week Five, the insight about Barrett was titled "Slow Start." In Week Six it was "Bounce Back." And in Week Seven it was "Heating Up." Yes indeed. Barrett's pressure rate in the Bucs fifth and sixth games was 22.7%, after it came in at just 8.5% through the first four games. This came shortly after Barrett declared that the Buccaneers' pass rush as a whole was about to shake off a slow start and get multiple sacks in every game going forward.
Barrett was right for four games but the loss in New Orleans broke the run, as the Bucs only got one sack against the Saints' Trevor Siemian, who replaced an injured Jameis Winston early in the contest. I think he will be right more often than not in the season's second half, and it will largely be due to his own efforts.
Barrett finished third in the NFL in quarterback pressures in both 2019 and 2020. He also got hot at the end of both of those seasons. He had 9.0 sacks in the last six games of 2019 on his way to an NFL-high and team-record 19.5. Last season, he was at his best in the postseason, with his 4.0 sacks in four games failing to illustrate how dominant he was as a pass rusher. He capped it all off with an incredible eight quarterback pressures in the Bucs' Super Bowl LV victory over Kansas City.
The Buccaneers' offense is already operating in high gear and, if it can avoid turnovers, is likely to keep scoring around 30 points per game. The Bucs' defense has been mostly quite good, too, but it can get to a higher level with more pressure on the quarterback. I'm saying that happens in the second half, and that Barrett leads the way.
Carmen Vitali: WR Chris Godwin
I'm not sure eliminating Brady made this any easier because there are still so many good options here. I like Scott's approach of picking a player that has a direct impact on an area you've identified could see an improvement, i.e. the pass rush. But I guess I'm going the opposite way here, picking a player from a unit that's already producing.
In my opinion, Godwin already started separating himself from his other receivers with this last game in which he caught eight passes for 140 yards and a touchdown. New Orleans was his second-straight game topping 100 receiving yards and third such game this season. I only see those kind of games becoming more frequent, too. Part of it is his versatility. According to Next Gen Stats, Godwin has gained 150 yards or more on nine different routes since 2019, which is the most in the NFL. And need I remind you the standard route tree is nine routes. His most productive are post routes – he's gained 441 yards on those, followed by outs at 394. And where he continues to shine is in yards after the catch. Brady completed a six-yard pass to Godwin that Godwin turned into a 44-yard gain, setting up the Bucs' seven-yard touchdown to running back Gio Bernard in their first drive of the third quarter. That was thanks to Godwin's sheer speed and elusiveness but his physicality can't go overlooked, either. He won Angry Run of the Week on Good Morning Football on Tuesday thanks to a stiff-arm of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson that sent the Saints defender practically into the stands.
Not to mention that play came on third down and six, which extended the Bucs' first drive of the game and ended with another third-down conversion by Godwin – this time in the end zone for a 12-yard score. Quite the nod to his former number, I'd say. The clutch performance of Godwin was a shining light in the Bucs' offensive performance and I see Godwin continuing to ride this momentum to a team MVP nod.
Casey Phillips: Vita Vea
I'm going with a bit of an unconventional approach here, especially since it's a much harder one to back up with stats. But I decided to interpret this with an emphasis on the idea of "value" in most valuable player. If you take Vita Vea out of this defense, all three levels suffer. He can single handedly blow up an offensive line to set up outside or inside linebackers for sacks. He can plug up huge holes to make running the ball nearly impossible, and he can get the kind of push up the middle that makes a quarterback unable to step into throws or have to get rid of the ball, which helps the secondary in their coverage. That last part played a huge role in choosing him for this award when we still don't know how long the secondary will be depleted from injuries, or how quickly the guys will return to 100% once they are playing. Making the secondary's job easier is important all the time in the NFL, but especially when there are injuries.
Do we have other very talented defensive linemen? Absolutely. And when Vita Vea was out last year, guys like Will Gholston, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, and Steve McLendon all stepped up. But I'm not sure there's another person in the entire NFL who can replicate what Vita gives you. That's what makes him an MVP candidate. He makes the entire defensive unit better, and he is almost impossible to replace.