Tampa Bay Buccaneers

New Season, New Team | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Bucs fans have questions about 2020-2021 comparisons, the defensive line depth chart, Tom Brady and more

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There is an oddity on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' current 2021 roster that I am not even close to the first person to point out. With the May signing of former Green Bay safety Raven Greene, the Buccaneers now have three players on their roster who played their college football at James Madison University. The other two are offensive linemen Aaron Stinnie and Josh Wells.

Why is this odd? Well, JMU isn't exactly an NFL player factory. Of the 25 former Dukes to play n the NFL, the most famous by far are former Washington receiver Gary Clark and former Cowboys/49ers pass rusher Charles Haley. The average NFL fan probably wouldn't recognize the vast majority of the rest of the list. (Well, Bills fans will definitely recognize the name Scott Norwood on the list.) Not only do the Buccaneers employ three of the eight former JMU players who played in the NFL last season but in recent years they've also given helmets to former Dukes Earl Watford and Ishmael Hyman. If you're the agent of a former James Madison player who is cut by an NFL team, you're next call should be to Tampa.

Furthermore, the JMU contingent at Bucs headquarters is among the largest for any school at the moment. The Buccaneers have as many James Madison products right now as they do from Alabama, Florida, Florida State and Clemson combined. For the record, South Carolina currently leads the way with five while Washington and LSU are both at four. Matching James Madison for its odd Buc representation is North Texas, which went from zero to three in the span of 13 days in May.

Which got me to thinking about other seasons in which one unexpected school or another might have been heavily represented on Tampa Bay's roster. So I went back and looked at them all. In this case, I dealt with regular-season rosters, not offseason ones, and, using Pro Football Reference as a quick and handy source, I considered the roster to be defined as all players who appeared in at least one regular-season game that year. I also skipped 1987 because that was the year of the strike and replacement games and all the replacement players are mixed in with the real roster. It's all out of whack.

So, anything unusual, beyond James Madison tying LSU for the lead in 2019 with four Buccaneers? Well, Rutgers looks like a strange leader with six Bucs in 2013 and four in 2012 until you remember who the head coach was at the time. There were four Vanderbilt players on the Bucs' roster in 2000 and 2001, which led that first year and tied with Florida State the next. In case you were wondering, those four were starting linebackers Shelton Quarles and Jamie Duncan, rookie tight end Todd Yoder and reserve safety Eric Vance.

Four schools tied for the Buc lead in 1999, and three were unsurprising: Cal, Florida State and Florida. But the fourth was Texas A&M Kingsville. You likely remember ace return man Karl "The Truth" Williams but he was joined by former Kingsville teammates Jorge Diaz and Kevin Dogins on the O-Line as well as cornerback Floyd Young.

Mostly, though, the schools with the biggest blocks of Buccaneers in any given year were the ones you would expect. USC took the early lead because Tampa Bay's first head coach, John McKay, came directly from the Trojans to the Bucs in 1976 and made a habit of importing his former players. USC has led or tied for the lead on the Bucs' roster seven times, including each of the team's first five years.

Florida beats that, having led or tied for the team lead nine times. But the undisputed king of schools for the Bucs is Florida State, which has had the largest Tampa Bay contingent (or tied for the largest) in 16 different seasons. Which is why it's so surprising that the number of current Seminoles residing at the AdventHealth Training Center is currently zero.

You know, three less than James Madison.

Now on to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

What is the biggest difference going into this season vs going into last season?

- @askelton2010 (via Instagram)

I would suspect it's confidence.

One of the lasting stories to be attached to the Buccaneers' magical Super Bowl run was first voiced by Bruce Arians, who said that Tom Brady's arrival gave a young and talented team the belief that it could win a championship. Arians actually made the comment before the Super Bowl, but after the team had won the NFC Championship Game to get to the final contest.

Anyway, I'm certain that Arians knows what he's talking about and has his finger on the pulse of the team. It's undeniable that Brady was the single biggest change between the team that went 7-9 in 2019 and the one that stormed all the way to the top in 2020. And I think it's very well-established that Brady is a very effective and committed leader; that's beyond hyperbole at this point.

But I do wonder how gradual that process was. Brady officially signed with the Buccaneers on March 20; did all of his teammates wake up on March 21 suddenly imbued with total confidence that they were Super Bowl bound? When the season started out a bit shaky – understandably so, given how little time Brady and the offense had to prepare – was the belief already there and unshakeable? Maybe, but I would guess that it developed over time. As the team, and especially the offense, started to jell and as Brady's leadership skills become more and more evident, that belief began to take root. And by the time the Bucs hit the playoffs, even with a daunting task of three road games ahead of it, there was a true confidence that carried the team through.

Now that confidence is there right from the beginning. The Bucs don't need to convince themselves they are a championship caliber team any longer; they have the Lombardi Trophy right over there to prove it. They'll soon have big diamond-encrusted rings on their fingers as a reminder, too.

As Brady himself recently said, the Buccaneers had some razor-thin margins along the way to their championship, and most games come down to a handful of pivotal plays. The 2021 Buccaneers will start the season fully confident that they will be able to make those plays when they matter most. That's got to make some kind of difference.

I know went with an answer to your question that isn't really quantifiable, but other than that and the equally unquantifiable notion that Brady will be much more comfortable in the playbook to start the season, there really isn't much different. Both the roster and the coaching staff return almost completely intact, including every starter and virtually all of the key reserves and part-time starters. I could see the offense looking different if Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard play closer to a full season and if Giovani Bernard has a role of some significance, but we won't know if those things happen until we're into the season.

Dear Mr. Scott, this question may not even rate to be in your column, but I am curious...was the recent surgery on Brady's knee on the one he tore up years ago, or on the healthy one.

Thank you,

Fernando von Rossum, Ensenada, Mexico (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Fernando, my man, any question about Tom Brady rates being in this column. Brady moves the needle, always.

And it's a simple answer: Yes, it's the same knee, though I don't think there's any reason to believe the injuries are related. In 2008, Brady tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in the Patriots' season opener against the Chiefs, causing him to spend the rest of that season on injured reserve. Those 15 games remain the only ones he has missed due to injury in his remarkable 21-year career. (Twenty-one years so far, that is.)

This year, after the Super Bowl, Brady had what Head Coach Bruce Arians described as "minor" surgery to his left knee. No matter how minor or major it was, Brady has already recovered to the point where he participated in last week's mini-camp at the AdventHealth Training Center with only a sleeve on that knee. Arians originally was leaning towards giving Brady a very limited number of reps in mini-camp before he showed up and started practicing "full speed," in the coach's description. Arians didn't let Brady take part in blitz drills, for obvious reasons, but otherwise he was cleared to do everything else.

So, I don't know if your question was motivated by simple curiosity or worry about Brady's health for 2021, Fernando. If it was the former, then there you go. If it was the latter, it doesn't look like Brady's left knee is going to be a concern this year. In fact, he may end up being a bit more mobile in his age-44 season than he was at 43.

What was the biggest takeaway from mandatory minicamp?

- @liptak_elliot (via Instagram)

I mean, it has to be what we were just talking about in the last question, right? Tom Brady had knee surgery of enough consequence to require several months of recovery, which at the very least are words that make you very eager for the next update. So when he shows up at mini-camp and seems to be moving around just fine, without the need for a brace, that's real news.

It gets even better if Brady's surgically-repaired knee is significantly better than what he played on last year. Brady is already going to be more comfortable in the playbook than he was a year ago, but he could also be more comfortable moving around. That certainly can't hurt his game, and it was already pretty great in 2020.

Other than that, I think my top takeaway is that Bruce Arians felt like about 90% of the players on the roster were right where they needed to be, physically. It was a weird and disjointed offseason – although better than last year's complete lack thereof – so it wouldn't have been surprising if the team looked a little ragged the first time it fully got back together again. Instead, it looks like the Buccaneers will be in very good shape headed into training camp. And that 10% of guys who aren't quite where they should be in terms of conditioning? Well, you can bet that they have been specifically identified and now they have about five or six weeks to correct that issue.

Oh, one more thing: This is a largely healthy team heading into training camp. There were only six players not practicing when the Buccaneers started their mini-camp last week, and Arians said none of those six would be in doubt for the start of training camp. Veteran safety Curtis Riley, a May addition to the roster, subsequently sustained an Achilles tendon injury, for which Arians wasn't sure as of last Thursday if surgery would be required. Riley thus appears to be the one and only injury question mark for the upcoming camp.

Who will make the team on the d-line? Do you see us cutting any of the returning players?

- @andyphillipsks (via Instagram)

The answer to this question is complicated a bit by the fact that the defensive line position swelled a little bit at the end of last season. (Also, I'm going to assume Andy is referring to interior defensive linemen like Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea, which the Buccaneers refer to as "DL," and not edge rushers, which are referred to as "OLB.")

The Buccaneers spent the first three quarters of the 2020 regular season with six defensive linemen on the 53-man roster, with Steve McLendon taking Vita Vea's spot after Vea's Week 5 ankle fracture and the Bucs' trade for the former Jet. However, Jeremiah Ledbetter got promoted from the practice squad at the start of Week 14 (and the Buccaneers never lost again…hmm), which came in handy when McLendon landed on the COVID list for two weeks.

Then came the unexpected return of Vea from his injury in time to play in the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl. When Vea was activated from injured reserve, the Buccaneers did not counter that by cutting Ledbetter or any other interior linemen. They did this by going very light on the offensive line, with only Josh Wells and Joe Haeg in reserve and no backup interior linemen. The Bucs were able to do this by using the "elevate-from-the-practice-squad" option to bring up guard Ted Larsen, but that's not likely how they would handle it during the regular season, and certainly not for an extended period of time.

I'm going to assume that the Buccaneers will go back to carrying six interior linemen during the 2021 regular season, though I suppose they could go with seven. I doubt that, though, because the team has added intriguing players at both outside and inside linebacker, two spots at which they went light for most of 2020. If they end up with five OLBs and/or five ILBs, the chances of having room for a seventh DL are slim.

So we're already having to reduce the DL crew by two from the Super Bowl roster. The eight DL on the team then were Suh, Vea, McLendon, Ledbetter, Will Gholston, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Khalil Davis and Patrick O'Connor. Davis and Ledbetter were inactive for the actual game. The Buccaneers also had defensive linemen Kobe Smith and Benning Potoa'e on the practice squad at the time.

That's a total of 10 DL, which has since swelled to 12 with the additions of first-year player Sam Renner and undrafted rookie Elijah Ponder.

Let's assume for the moment that none of the Smith-Potoa'e-Renner-Ponder foursome unseats one of the veterans ahead of them on the depth chart. They will certainly get a chance to do so, and good luck to all of them, but for now we'll go with the returning eight from the Super Bowl.

It's hard to imagine Suh, Vea, Gholston or Nunez-Roches not making the team and the coaching staff was thrilled with what the veteran McLendon brought to the table after the trade. In addition, Khalil Davis is a 2020 sixth-round draft pick who has shown some ability to get pressure up the middle and seems likely to get another look in 2021. O'Connor is a very good special teams player, which helps him when it's time to make tough depth chart decisions. And Ledbetter got his first sack as a Buccaneer after his promotion in December.

So, to summarize, I think it's likely that the Bucs will have to cut an interior linemen or two, and the competition would seem to come down to McLendon, Davis, O'Connor and Ledbetter. I think it's too early to make the call as to who will be on the 53-man roster to start the season. It's also very possible that with practice squads potentially supersized again this year that all of those players will still be on the team one way or another and eventually get their shot on Sundays during the course of a very long season.

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