Wide receiver Mike Evans returned to practice this Monday after missing about two weeks with a minor leg injury sustained early in training camp. That was certainly a welcome sight, with opening day of the regular season now just 19 days away. Evans has had such ailments relatively frequently in the offseason and in camp during his career, but it's worth noting that he has played at least 15 games in each of his eight seasons, and in the other one he played 13. He has that one ability that coaches prize: availability.
And, as Evans has obliterated every record in the Bucs' books for receivers, he got another back in 2020 that I didn't really notice at the time. Spoiled a fun little note I used to like to throw at people in the process, too, but I can't begrudge the man that. He's just doing his job. Did you know that, until Evans came along, Karl Williams was the only receiver in franchise history who had played in more than 100 regular season games for the franchise?
That's right, Karl 'The Truth' Williams. Not Mark Carrier, not Kevin House, not Vincent Jackson or Joey Galloway or Michael Clayton. Karl Williams. He played in 115; third on the list is Gerald Carter, with exactly 100. Evans eclipsed 100 games in 2020 and the passed Williams for the outright lead last year, getting up to 122 games played by season's end. And counting, obviously.
Which got me to thinking, who would qualify for the Bucs' Been There team? That is, what players at each position have simply been there the longest, or were there during their Tampa Bay tenures? Let's take a look!
I'm going to go a bit deeper than 22 starters. I'll list a total of 13 players on offense to account for changes in the game over the past half-century, as I am including a fullback position plus a third receiver and a second tight end. On defense I'll also have 13, adding one extra cornerback since the nickel position has become so prevalent and noting both three off-ball linebackers and three down linemen since the Bucs have used both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts prominently through the years. I'll finish it off with a punter, a kicker and a long-snapper. So here you go, the Buccaneers' franchise…
All-Been There Team
QB: Trent Dilfer (79)
RB: James Wilder (113)
FB: Mike Alstott (158)
WR: Mike Evans (122)
WR: Karl Williams (115)
WR: Gerald Carter (100)
TE: Dave Moore (190)
TE: Jimmie Giles (121)
T: Paul Gruber (183)
T: Demar Dotson (130)
G: Ian Beckles (101)
G: Ali Marpet (101)
C: Tony Mayberry (160)
DL/DT: Warren Sapp (140)
DL/DT: William Gholston (137)
DL/DT: Gerald McCoy (123)
DE/OLB: Chidi Ahanotu (121)
DE/OLB: Lee Roy Selmon (121)
LB: Derrick Brooks (224)
LB: Lavonte David (149)
LB: Shelton Quarles (148)
CB: Rondé Barber (241)
CB: Brian Kelly (130)
CB: Ricky Reynolds (105)
S: John Lynch (164)
S: Mark Cotney (113)
P: Josh Bidwell/Mark Royals (80)
K: Michael Husted (96)
LS: Andrew Economos (108)
There was one really tough case here, and that was John Cannon. Cannon played 122 games for the Buccaneers, which is one more than the two DE/OLB choices I listed above. But he's listed as a DE/DT in team archives and he most commonly played DE in a 3-4 front, which is really more like a DT. Think Will Gholston. I think he should be considered an interior defensive lineman, and in that category he doesn't make the top three, but I wouldn't fight you if you disagreed. At least I've put him in the conversation here.
Somewhat similarly, Steve Wilson and Randy Grimes played 126 and 118 Bucs games, respectively, and are both listed as hybrids, Wilson as a C/T/G and Grimes as a G/C. In reality, though, both spent the vast majority of their careers as starting centers, and in that regard neither can top Tony Mayberry. George Yarno, also listed as a G/C/T, played in 109 games but is difficult to classify in one position.
Linebacker Richard Wood, guard Davin Joseph and tackle Donald Penn were very near misses at their respective positions. I find it amusing that there are two punters tied for the top spot. And, of course, the most amazing part of the whole list is that it only took 79 games to put Trent Dilfer at the top of the list of quarterbacks. Vinny Testaverde (76) and Jameis Winston (72) were next. Maybe Tom Brady will stay with the Buccaneers and play until he's 47 to break that record, too.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who do you anticipate leading the team in interceptions?
- @foureverfree (via Instagram)
Look, I am all in on Antoine Winfield Jr. this season. I have snapped up all the Winfield stock I can buy. In this week's Salty Dogs podcast, Jeff Ryan and I were asked to make bold predictions, and mine regarding the Buccaneers is that Winfield would be a first-team Associated Press All-Pro selection this year. First team. I'm anticipating him being a big-play machine in 2022, and as such he would be my answer to this question.
I'm not going to get
too crazy with this prediction. I say Winfield leads the team with four interceptions, maybe five, and pairs that with enough sacks, forced fumbles, tackles for loss and just all-around momentum-swinging plays to be viewed as one of the very best safeties in the game. Think peak Tyrann Mathieu.
Buccaneers coaches haven't delineated exactly what their plans for Winfield are, and probably won't for strategic purposes, but it has been clear from his own press meetings that he anticipates being moved all over. We have certainly seen him getting work in the slot in nickel packages, and getting him up around the line of scrimmage is a way to get him more big-play chances, such as on blitzes. He is a very good blitzer.
Winfield might have a run for the title though. Like Winfield, Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean have both specifically noted that their focus this year is creating more turnovers, or more to the point taking more advantage of the takeaway opportunities that come along. If either one succeeds in that effort, he could easily get to five picks, as well. And let's not forget, on a snap-by-snap basis, Mike Edwards has been far and away the most prolific interceptor in the Bucs' secondary the last two seasons. Now that Edwards appears to be in an every-down role – finally, he would probably say – there will be more chances for him to get his hands on the football.
In fact, given that Edwards is the acknowledged to ball hawk in that secondary, the smart money as interception king would be on him. But my contrary selection just demonstrates how firmly I am on the Antoine Winfield Jr. train in 2022.
How will the wr rotation be handled? Or will we see a lot of 5 receiver sets?
- @marco_a_dieguez_jr (via Instagram)
I can't really give you a completely definitive answer right now, marco, because I don't believe even the coaching staff has fully fleshed out the plan yet. On Wednesday, play-caller Byron Leftwich noted that the team was still working out exactly what they were going to be on offense this year, and some of that may have to do with the fact that they haven't been able to get all of their star receivers healthy and on the field together at the same time. But that time is drawing close; as Leftwich also said, the Buccaneers are "trending in the right direction" in terms of wide receiver health.
"We'll see," said Leftwich. "We are still trying to develop what we are going to be. Right now we don't know what we're going to be. We'll know what we are going to be starting in Week 1, so we'll see."
But we can certainly make some guesses. I have yet to hear any dispute from any coaches when faced with questions that presuppose the top four wideouts to be Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage and Julio Jones. Assuming the Bucs go with six receivers on the 53-man roster, the other two will come from a group that includes Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Jaelon Darden, Breshad Perriman, Cyril Grayson, Devin Thompkins, Jerreth Sterns and Kaylon Geiger. Those fifth and sixth receivers will need to make contributions on special teams in order to be active on game day, but if the top four are all healthy there probably won't be a lot of snaps to go around.
I don't think you'll see a lot of five-receiver sets, no. Those are not particularly common in the NFL. By the way, I believed that to be the case just by general observation but I wanted to make sure I wasn't throwing disinformation out there. So I used NFL Next Gen Stats to check every team's list of offensive personnel groupings last season and how many plays they used each one. The team that ran the most snaps with five wide receivers on the field at the same time was Buffalo…with 10. The majority of the 32 teams never did it once.
But you could see a rise in four-receiver snaps for the Buccaneers. They only used that grouping on 27 snaps in 2021 but I could see it go up. With their volume receiving threat at tight end now in Gronkified retirement, the Buccaneers may become a more receiver-centric attack. And on a more basic level, if you have Evans, Godwin, Gage and Jones, don't you want to get them all on the field as much as possible?
When Godwin is fully cleared to play, which I'm hoping will be Week One but it might be a week or two after that, I think you're going to see a lot of three receiver sets with those two and Russell Gage (assuming he is also back from the hamstring injury currently keeping him out). Godwin has played a ton in the slot in those sets in recent years, and probably will continue to do so, but since Gage is also very productive from that spot I could see those two switching back and forth a bit. Still, Godwin is the Bucs' best blocking receiver and best move receiver, so he should still get plenty of slot work.
Jones is an obvious candidate to spell the two outside receivers and might get more work in the red zone. Depending upon who the fifth and sixth receivers are, there could be some packages to utilize the specific talents of say, the very speedy Scotty Miller or the very shifty Jaelon Darden.
Again, the Buccaneers haven't yet decided in full how they're going to run the offense, but I would expect a lot of three-receiver sets with Tom Brady getting rid of the football quickly. And maybe some more spread formations with four pass-catchers. That will depend somewhat on how much of an impact in the passing game rookie running back Rachaad White makes from the get-go, because if both he and Fournette are getting a lot of attention from Brady you probably wouldn't have as much need for four-receiver sets.
Who is the dark horse to make the team that people aren't talking about?
@remie0403 (via Instagram)
Honestly, I don't think there is one. As Vice President of Player Personnel John Spytek noted on Wednesday, this is a pretty difficult roster to crack right now. Team architects think they've done a good job at building depth up and down the roster, though some of it has been tested of late, particularly on the offensive line. There aren't a lot of weak spots for an unheralded player to slip through to the 53-man roster.
Take undrafted wideout Deven Thompkins. He has been thoroughly impressive from OTAs through training camp and into the preseason games. He could even help in the return game. I personally love watching him play – he makes acrobatic catches on the regular and plays much bigger than his size – and am rooting for him, but even with his good showing it's still an uphill battle to make it through the cut to 53. To keep Thompkins you have to choose another receiver to cut, and who are you going to go with? Miller? Johnson? Darden? It's not easy.
I can name a couple possibilities but I'm not fully sold on any of them. The Bucs seem to have a pretty obvious top four at both cornerback (Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Zyon McCollum) and safety (Antoine Winfield Jr., Mike Edwards, Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal) but generally carry at least nine defensive backs. That leaves a likely spot for either another corner or another safety, and I think the dark horse with a shot in that group is undrafted rookie safety Nolan Turner. Turner is the type of player coaches love because he just does everything right. If he makes a compelling case on special teams this Saturday in Indy, he could wrap up a spot.
"He's a very smart player," said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "He rarely makes the same mistakes twice. You don't call his name a lot because he is always in position. A heady guy like that can do a lot of things. We want to see him on special teams this week, take a good look at him and we will go from there."
First-year offensive lineman Brandon Walton appears to have a shot, too. Walton is a former undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic who spent some time in Buffalo and Pittsburgh before coming to the Bucs last year on a waiver claim after a bunch of other linemen got hurt in training camp. He stuck on the practice squad and stayed there all year and now is showing off some value as a versatile backup. He looks more like a tackle at 6-4 and 311 pounds, and that's where he played in college, but he's been in the mix at left guard in this year's camp. When you only keep eight offensive linemen active on game day you need one or two of them to have positional versatility and Walton could be that guy as someone who could handle both tackle and guard in a pinch. The season-ending injury to Aaron Stinnie opens up another spot for some young player to slide in, and it could be Walton.
Finally, I'd point to undrafted rookie inside linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi. The Rutgers product has been very productive during the preseason and if the Buccaneers decide to keep five inside linebackers, as they generally do, he's probably the leading candidate after Lavonte David, Devin White, K.J. Britt and Grant Stuard. In addition, Stuard has missed time recently with a leg injury so the Bucs might have more motivation to go deeper at that spot.
Again, I'm not saying any of those guys is close to a sure thing, but I do think they're the best dark horse candidates on the current roster.