The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will head into the 2021 season with a 44-year-old quarterback under center, which is essentially unprecedented. Consider that there have only been eight quarterback starts made by players age 44 or older in the history of the NFL. Of course, this particular quarterback in Tampa is the same one who at age 43 threw 50 touchdown passes, playoffs included, and led the Buccaneers to victory in Super Bowl LV.
This is Tom Brady, of course, and he is essentially his own collection of unprecedented achievements. The Buccaneers are betting that he's far from done adding to that list, which is why they renegotiated his contract after the Super Bowl to extend through the 2022 season (the move also created some valuable cap space as the Bucs worked hard to keep their Super Bowl team together). Earlier this month, General Manager Jason Licht suggested the "The Rich Eisen Show" that Brady could probably play to the age of 50 if he so desired.
Right now, however, the focus is on 2021 and Brady shows no signs of slowing down, either in the case of his physical tools or his legendary drive to win. Head Coach Bruce Arians said it was Brady's arrival last March that made a talented young roster believe it could go all the way. It didn't hurt that, when Brady and the offense fully jelled in the home stretch that the legendary quarterback played some of the best football of his career.
After the Buccaneers won the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay and were set to play the Super Bowl on their own home field, Arians was asked to sum up Brady's impact on the team. His short but memorable answer:
"The belief he gave to this organization that it could be done. It took only one man."
The Buccaneers are also returning their two reserve quarterbacks from last year in Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin, but for the second year in a row they are making a notable addition to that position room. It's an addition of an entirely different kind than the signing of Brady, but the selection of Florida's Kyle Trask in the second round could have notable implications for the organization's future. We'll take a look at those four players, how the Bucs' quarterback situation is shaping up in 2021 and some of the key questions surrounding the position below.
The 2021 NFL Draft is now in the rear view mirror and free agency has yielded just about all it's going to produce at this point. There will, of course, be some tweaks along the way as always but the Buccaneers will begin their OTA practices this week with a roster of 89 players, most of whom will still be around when the team heads to training camp in July. The Buccaneers notably were able to retain all 22 starters from the Super Bowl and most of their key reserves as well. But every spot on the depth chart has seen some turnover every year.
So, over the next six weeks we're going to go through the roster, position by position, and see how the Bucs' depth chart looks heading into the title defense campaign. Here's the schedule of those positional reviews:
- Tuesday, May 25: Quarterbacks
- Friday, May 28: Running Backs
- Tuesday, June 1: Wide Receivers
- Friday, June 4: Tight Ends
- Tuesday, June 8: Offensive Tackles
- Friday, June 11: Guards & Centers
- Tuesday, June 15: Defensive Linemen
- Friday, June 18: Outside Linebackers
- Tuesday, June 22: Inside Linebackers
- Friday, June 25: Cornerbacks
- Tuesday, June 29: Safeties
- Friday, July 2: Specialists
At one point, the 2021 Buccaneers only had one quarterback on the roster, so even though the position has not undergone much change since the Super Bowl, there was some work that needed to get done to get to this point.
It's clear that Arians prefers to have a backup to Brady who has NFL regular-season starting experience, which is why it was not a surprise to see Gabbert return, even if it came fairly late in the spring. Griffin, too, has been on the Bucs' active roster every year since 2015 and now has two years of learning Bruce Arians' system.
When the Buccaneers signed Brady last year and watched Jameis Winston walk in free agency, it was a rather dramatic change under center. The former first-overall draft pick in 2015, Winston put up some very prolific numbers over five seasons in Tampa and is the franchise's all-time leading passer. His big numbers were often balanced by a high total of turnovers, however, something the Buccaneers expected would be different under Brady. And, of course, it was. After Winston threw a team-record 33 touchdown passes but also 30 interceptions in 2019, Brady broke that record with 40 touchdown passes in 2020 and was picked off just 12 times.
This year, there is stability at the position and no doubt who will be running the offense. Brady underwent knee surgery after the Super Bowl but is expected to be fine by training camp as the Buccaneers' offense will get a better opportunity to hit the ground running in 2021. The biggest question this year at the Bucs' quarterback position is not what a difference changing starters will make but what the addition of Trask will eventually mean for the team's future.
- Tom Brady…Was headed into the second year of the two-year contract he originally signed with the Buccaneers in March of 2019 but signed an extension through the 2022 season earlier this offseason; Threw 50 touchdown passes in his first year with the Buccaneers, including the postseason, and was named Super Bowl LV MVP.
- Blaine Gabbert…For the third offseason in a row, signed a one-year deal with the Buccaneers, this time on May 10; Spent 2020 season as primary backup to Brady and threw 16 passes, most of it in the second half of a Week 16 blowout in Detroit.
- Ryan Griffin…After the two-year contract he signed in 2019 expired, signed a new one-year deal for 2021 on April 20; Spent sixth straight season on Bucs' active roster but was inactive for each game as the third quarterback.
- Drew Stanton…Was on the Bucs' practice squad for the last six weeks of the season, including playoffs, but was not re-signed and is not currently on an NFL roster.
- Kyle Trask…Selected with the final pick of the second round in the 2021 NFL Draft; Was a Heisman Trophy finalist at Florida in 2020 after leading the nation with 43 touchdown passes.
Brady's stunning decision to move into a new chapter in his career after 20 years and six Super Bowl championships in New England changed the course of the franchise in Tampa, but a year ago there were skeptics as to how well his style of play would mesh with Arians' offense. That proved to be no issue, though it did take a while for Brady to have full control of the playbook and a strong connection with his talented group of pass-catchers. More on that below.
Gabbert had first come to Tampa in 2019, reuniting with Arians, for whom he had started a handful of games in Arizona. However, his first year with the Buccaneers was lost to a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason so Griffin was Winston's primary reserve throughout that season. In 2020, the same two competed to be Brady's top reserve and the job went to Gabbert, who was rarely called on as Brady stayed in the lineup and grew more and more productive along the way.
Griffin has had an unusual year in that he has held a roster spot in Tampa for six solid years and has repeatedly drawn praise from various coaching staffs for his work on the practice field, but he has seen virtually no regular-season action. Still, he clearly has value to the Bucs' current staff, which has re-signed him for a second time.
Trask was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2020 after leading the nation with 43 touchdown passes. His is a story of perseverance, which will likely help him in his current situation. A backup in high school to D'Eriq King, now the starter at the University of Miami, Trask still managed to work his way onto the Florida roster, where he once again had to wait his time. When he did finally get his chance, he threw 68 touchdown passes against just 15 interception over the past two seasons. Trask is a big, strong-armed pocket passer with good accuracy and Arians is excited by how he can fit into the Bucs' offense.
Taken in total, Brady's first year directing the Buccaneers' offense was a great success. He set single-season team records for touchdown passes (40) and passer rating (102.2) and never slowed down in the postseason, adding 10 more TDs with a passer rating of 98.8. Brady completed roughly two-thirds of his passes and did indeed erase the turnover problems that had plagued the Bucs' offense in Arians' first year as head coach.
Those numbers are even more remarkable with the backdrop of the pandemic-altered season, in which Brady had no offseason program, no preseason games and a whirlwind training camp to try to learn the offense and get on the same page with Mike Evans and company. Brady was still using a wristband with a play list and trying to visualize what was going to happen halfway through the season. That didn't stop him from throwing for 369 yards and five touchdowns against the Chargers in Week Four or 369 yards and four touchdowns against the Raiders in Week Seven.
Still, Brady and Arians frequently cautioned that the offense was still a work in progress, and according to Arians it didn't really click into place until nearly three fourths of the season were past.
"Probably the Kansas City game," said Arians on the moment when Brady seem to seize full control of the offense. "The second, third and fourth quarters we started playing really, really well. From there on, we attacked. We took that attack-mode philosophy and I think we were on the same page from there on out."
That was Week 12, and though Brady and the Bucs did generate 378 yards and 24 points from the second quarter on they still lost to the Chiefs, 27-24. A well-time bye week followed, and then Tampa Bay's offense caught fire upon returning to action. No one was hotter than Brady, who completed 94 of 136 passes for 1,333 yards, 12 touchdowns, one interception and a 126.6 passer rating over the final four games of the regular season, leading an offense that averaged 37 points and 448 yards per game.
Brady's only interception over the last four weeks was a fluky play in which the ball bounced off the hands of a diving Scotty Miller and straight up to safety Ricardo Allen. In the playoffs, he was picked off three times in the second half of the game at Green Bay as he aggressively tried to push the ball downfield but otherwise committed no turnovers in the other three postseason contests. In the final contest of the NFL's 2020 season, Brady was an ultra-efficient 21 of 29 for 201 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions as he won his fifth Super Bowl MVP award. His passer rating of 125.8 was the highest he had put up in his 10 Super Bowl appearances.
Gabbert got a few mop-up snaps in three games during the regular season before getting a more extended opportunity to play in Detroit in Week 16. After Brady had led the Bucs to five touchdowns in six first-half possessions he got to take the second half off and Gabbert came in to complete nine of 15 passes for 143 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Griffin was inactive for all 20 games, including the postseason.
Three Key Questions:
· With a season to fully absorb Bruce Arians' offense, will Brady and the Buccaneers be as prolific in 2021 as they were for the final eight weeks of last season?
Is it unreasonable to think the Buccaneers' offense can maintain the 37-point, 448-yard per-game pace it settled into in the final month of the 2020 regular season? Probably a little bit, yes. For one thing, the Buccaneers did not face any playoff teams in that stretch and were up against notably poor – and in Detroit's case, depleted – defenses for the last three. Still, against much stiffer competition in the postseason the Buccaneers still scored 30-plus points in all four games. The Buccaneers ranked third in the league with 30.8 points per game in 2020, so that average or perhaps a bit higher seems well within reach.
Other than some tougher opponents and a possible slight regression to the mean, everything else points to the Bucs' offensive momentum continuing in 2021. The team has returned virtually every offensive starter and key contributor from last year's team, and other than Brady and perhaps the 32-year-old Rob Gronkowski this is still a group of players mostly in or about to hit third primes. Despite being the first player in NFL history to start his career with seven straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, Evans is still only 27 (turns 28 in August). Chris Godwin is 25. O.J. Howard is 26. Scotty Miller is soon to turn 24. Running backs Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette and Ke'Shawn Vaughn will be 24, 26 and 24, respectively, in training camp.
More importantly, Brady won't be winging it with a wrist band strong visualization skills during the first half of the season this time. And given his incredible level of competitiveness, he's likely out to prove that last year was just the beginning and he can still produce at the same level as the other MVP-caliber quarterbacks in the NFL.
· Will Kyle Trask have a chance to unseat Blaine Gabbert or Ryan Griffin for the primary reserve role behind Brady?
Arians and Licht had been waiting for a couple of years for the right intersection of player and pick to get them to pull a trigger on a developmental quarterback in the draft. With the Bucs heading into this year's draft with no glaring needs on the roster, it was the perfect opportunity to use a pick of significant value on that position, with an eye towards the eventual transition to a new starter in the post-Brady era.
With Brady now signed through 2022, it's clear that the Buccaneers are going to continue to seek Super Bowls with their veteran at the helm for at least the next two seasons. That's actually a pretty good situation for Trask, who obviously knows how to be patient and can build on his relative lack of experience for some time before being thrown into high-leverage NFL action.
But the question is, even if he's not expected to compete for the starting job any time soon, can Trask make a move up the depth chart as a rookie? One obvious set up for the Buccaneers in 2021 would be to keep three quarterbacks, with one of the two veteran reserves again servign as Brady's primary backup and Trask getting the third, inactive spot for the balance of his rookie season. That would be an unsurprising outcome for 2021.
That is, unless Trask accelerates the timetable. If he is impressive enough on the practice field, would the Buccaneers consider making him the primary backup? That would presumably give him more of a chance to run Tampa Bay's offense instead of the scout-team attack in practice. There's no rush to move Trask up the depth chart but the competition for jobs never ceases and the rookie could do well enough to force the issue.
· Will the Buccaneers rely on Brady to produce two-thirds of the offense again or will the Bucs' attack be more balanced in 2021?
Clearly, there's nothing to complain about regarding Tampa Bay's offense in 2020, given that it ranked seventh in yards and third in points during the regular season and kept right on lighting up the scoreboard in the playoffs. And in today's NFL, there's less hand-wringing about a very pass-heavy offense.
Still, the Buccaneers had the NFL's third-lowest rush percentage, running on 36.3% of its plays, and Arians has said on more than one occasion that he would prefer a balanced offense. He is of the opinion that a good rushing attack opens up more possibilities in the play-action passing game, for instance. Notably, with Fournette getting into a groove in the postseason and providing a consistent rushing attack, the Buccaneers ran on 45.7% of their plays on the way to the championship.
If the Buccaneers have to rely on Brady to throw another 610 passes in 2021, chances are it will work out fine. But with Fournette returning and possibly sharing more of the backfield duties with Ronald Jones this year, the Bucs may seek a bit more balance.