S.S. Mailbag: 2020 Roster Concerns

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The 2019 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are trying to "win out," thereby producing a very encouraging second half to Bruce Arians' first season at the helm. That would be the next best thing to a playoff berth, which is now officially out of reach.

On our most recent Salty Dogs podcast, Jeff Ryan and I fielded a question from a fan about the Bucs' best season-ending runs, and what it meant for the following season. You can listen to it to hear what we said (and to get some pretty entertaining stories from wide receiver Justin Watson), but I thought I would lay out the answer here as well.

The questioner wanted to know, in part, what was the longest winning streak the Buccaneers have ever had to close out a season. The answer is somewhat surprising. Tampa Bay has had plenty of successful second-half runs – the Tony Dungy era, in particular, was known for them – but the most consecutive wins the team has ever had to end a season is three, way back in 1982. The current Bucs do not have a season-ending win streak, but if they could win out it would be six in a row and that would double the previous mark.

Furthermore, that '82 season was an anomaly. A players' strike wiped out the middle of the season and there were no games played between Weeks Two and 10. The Buccaneers lost their two games before the strike and their first one after it, and they were 2-4 on December 12. Three wins to close out the season allowed them to sneak into that year's "Super Bowl Tournament," which is what they renamed the playoffs, with eight teams making it in each conference. The next year, the Buccaneers cratered to 2-14 and didn't return to the playoffs for 15 years.

So it's not a great example, and there are no other streaks to end a season longer than two. However, we can look at some great finishes that were interrupted by one or two losses, which may be what the Bucs end up getting in 2019. Since hitting the halfway point at 2-6, the Buccaneers are 4-1, with one loss to the Saints. Thus, they could finish as strong as 7-1, though even 6-2 would be awfully encouraging.

So, presented chronologically, here are some of the best season-ending runs in team history and what happened the following year:

- The 1994 team won four of its last five, missing out on the five-game closing run with a loss to Green Bay. The 1995 Bucs started out hot – the famous "5-DASH-2" Sam Wyche final season – but then plummeted to a 7-9 finish.

- The 1996 team was Dungy's first. It won five of its last seven to finish 6-10, and the following season the Bucs opened with five straight wins on the way to their first playoff berth in 15 years.

- Dungy's 1998 team struggled in the first half after the previous year's breakthrough but won four of its last five, setting up a strong rebound in 1999, which ended in the NFC Championship Game.

- Speaking of that '99 team, it had what remains the strongest season-ending run in team history. After limping out to a 3-4 start, those Buccaneers won eight of their last nine, a streak strangely interrupted by a 45-0 loss at Oakland in Week 15. The 2000 team went 10-6 and made the playoffs.

- That 2000 team won seven of its last nine, too, and the 2001 squad went 9-7 and won the division. The 2002 team was good in the second half, of course, but was just as good in the first half so it doesn't really qualify.

- The 2005 team six of its last eight and the division title, but the 2006 team dropped to 4-12.

- Most recently, the 2016 team won six of its last eight under Dirk Koetter, but the resulting optimism didn't translate. After opening the 2017 season 2-1, that team trailed off to a 5-11 record.

So, clearly not every strong finish is a harbinger of something great the next season, but as the '96-97 Bucs demonstrated, a culture change brought on by such a streak definitely can stick. That's what Bruce Arians thinks is happening with his first Bucs team.

"I think it's a belief in your locker room," he said on Wednesday. "A shift in culture. If it's the same culture and nothing's changed, a lot of things don't change. I think just watching our guys and how hard they practiced today, in December, you really can't ask for more as a coach."

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.

If we can't keep JPP or Suh do we draft their replacements or draft o-line early?

- Tha_carter, via Instagram

This is going to be a major storyline in the 2020 offseason, which is rapidly approaching. To flesh out Tha_carter's question, the Buccaneers have a lot of players on their current defensive front headed for free agency if there are no new deals in the interim. Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh are two of them, as noted above, but that group also includes NFL sack leader Shaq Barrett as well as Carl Nassib, Beau Allen, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Sam Acho.

I would be surprised if all of those players depart. I would probably be more surprised if all of them return. Barrett would seem to me to be the top priority, but given his incredible breakout season he's sure to have plenty of suitors if he hits the open market. JPP and Suh are two different questions, really. Pierre-Paul plays outside linebacker, and virtually that entire group is on expiring contracts. Suh plays on the interior line, where the team at least has Vita Vea and Will Gholston under contract. That said, Suh has made a very big impact inside and I, for one, would love to have him stick around for at least another year.

But for the purposes of the question at hand, we'll assume that Pierre-Paul and Suh are not back in 2020. If that's the case, our questioner wants to know, should the Bucs use their early picks on that position or focus on the offensive line instead.

Well, first we must remember that free agency comes before the draft, which could be used to fill some lineup holes and change the Bucs' priorities at the top of the draft. But, again, for the purposes of this question we'll assume that Tampa Bay is still looking for help on both lines when the draft arrives.

If the draft were to be held today, the Buccaneers would be picking 16th. Draft order is determined by the inverse order of the previous year's overall standings, and there are 12 teams with a worse record than the Bucs' 6-7 right now. Tampa Bay is one of five teams that would be in a tied segment at 6-7, and the order within such segments is determined by strength of schedule. At the moment, the Bucs have the second-highest strength of schedule in that group and so would be placed fourth among those five, which would be the 16th spot.

That can, and to some extent almost surely will, change between now and the end of the season, but the Bucs can't drop any lower than 20th and it doesn't look likely they would rise any higher than ninth or 10th, so 16th is a nice middle ground. We'll go with that.

This is a very good point at which to pause and remind readers that any opinions about what position or which players the Bucs should draft that you see here are mine alone. They are not meant to reflect, nor are they informed by any knowledge of, the actual draft strategies of Jason Licht, Bruce Arians and their teams. Also many of the top prospects at all positions are juniors and I'm making assumptions that they'll declare for the draft.

So, anyway, at that point I think I would favor the offensive lineman. Edge rushers are the more glamorous pick, for sure, and if I thought there was going to be a sure-bet edge-rushing star at that spot, I would probably take him. But looking at this year's field of prospects it looks more likely that there will be a blue-chip prospect at offensive tackle at pick number 16.

Demar Dotson, the Bucs' starting right tackle for most of this decade and the longest-tenured player on the team, is also a pending free agent. Even if the Buccaneers re-sign Dotson, I don't think that would make them hesitate to pick an offensive tackle. It's probably time to start planning for the future at that spot, one way or another.

On the defensive side, the Bucs are not going to be in position to take the one player that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, Ohio State's Chase Young, barring a very dramatic trade up. That hasn't been Licht's style in the first round. There's a good chance Iowa's A.J. Epenesa will also be gone. So do you like Penn State's Yetur Gross-Matos, Boise State's Curtis Weaver, Alabama's Terrell Lewis or LSU's K'Lavon Chaisson enough to pull the trigger at 16? There's a good number of interesting interior linemen that could be available there, too, but as I said earlier, that will probably be less of a need than players on the edge.

In my mind, the value will be better at offensive tackle. The Bucs probably won't be in position to get Georgia's Andrew Thomas and may be priced out of USC's Austin Jackson, as well, but that still leaves such possibilities as Alabama's Jedrick Wills and Alex Leatherwood, Iowa's Tristan Wirfs, Washington's Trey Adams and Wisconsin's Tyler Biadasz. The draft is deep in tackles this year; might be the perfect time for the Buccaneers to take one in the first round for the first time since – get this – Kenyatta Walker in 2001!

Do you think both Evans and Godwin will be back next year? Who do you think will be the 2020 QB?

- Jastone36, via Instagram

The first part of this question is easy. Of course I think that both Chris Godwin and Mike Evans will be back in 2020. They're both still under contract! Why would the Buccaneers not have them both back? They're awesome, and they clearly have no trouble co-existing and putting up huge numbers together.

You might be hearing talk about the Bucs needing to re-sign Godwin, but that's not because he's a pending free agent this year. Like all non-first-round draft picks under the current CBA, he got a four-year deal as a rookie, which runs from 2017 through 2020. The reason people are talking about a new deal is that, with players on these four-year rookie deals, the first time they can negotiate an extension or a new contract is after their third season. That's the point we are arriving at with Godwin in this coming offseason. It absolutely make sense for the Buccaneers to think about the long-term future with their rising-star receiver this offseason.

But for now, don't worry about 2020. The Godwin-Evans show will roll on.

The second part of your question, Jastone, is much harder. It is, in fact, the single biggest question the franchise is facing over the next three months. There really are three options: Let Winston walk in free agency and start over at quarterback; work out a new long-term deal and continue to develop him as a franchise quarterback; use the franchise tag to push the decision down the road one more year.

We don't know which way the team is leaning because Arians in the last two weeks has pointedly said that he won't address the will they-won't they issue with Winston until after the season. This is what Arians said last Wednesday:

"I'm going to pass on that one. I'm going to wait until the end of December. There's been really, really, really good and there's been really, really bad but I'll pass until it's over and then we will make a decision."

Sometimes in cases like these I think a decision by the franchise has already been made but there is no value in making it public until the right time. I think in this case the decision truly has not been made yet, and it's not an easy one. I'm not sure it amounts to much, but if you want my guess I'd say I think Winston will be back in 2020.

Do you think the Bucs will do an upgrade at running back this off season?

- Donbreezy1292, via Instagram

This coaching staff seems to really like Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones, and it has certainly managed to get much more out of Jones than the previous staff. Third-down back Dare Ogunbowale is also the kind of player coaches appreciate because he's smart and tough and is good in pass protection. He's also the Bucs' third-leading pass-catcher this year, though I don't think the running back production in the passing game has been particularly dynamic across the board.

If you combined Jones and Barber you'd have a 948-yard rushing season with 11 touchdowns, with three games to go. That's not terrible. What concerns me is the Buccaneers' per-carry average of 3.6 yards, which is fifth-worst in the NFL. Arians and the Buccaneers want to run the ball. Tampa Bay's 338 carries rank 14th in the NFL and the team would probably be higher on the list if it wasn't frequently chasing deficits during the first half of the season. The thing is, every team listed above them has a better per-carry average, and only one of those 13 is averaging less than four yards a tote, like the Bucs. Six of the seven teams that rank at the bottom of the league in terms of number of runs are also in the bottom seven in yards per carry. Those teams don't run well and haven't tried as hard to do it. The Buccaneers still want to run.

That's why I'd say yes, Don – or Mr. Breezy, if you prefer – I think there's a chance the Buccaneers look to make additions in the backfield, even if they do indeed still think highly of Barber and Jones. Also, it's worth noting that Barber is a pending unrestricted free agent, which means the Buccaneers would have to sign him to bring him back. In that case, I'd imagine the team would compare Barber to the other options out there, including potentially the draft, to see what the best option is. Perhaps that is still Barber. We'll see.

One way or another, I think the Buccaneers need to get more explosive in the backfield to really unlock Arians' offense. I'm not sure Arians will be able to find another David Johnson, but something similar would be an upgrade for the backfield.

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