S.S. Mailbag: Free Agency Approaches

Mailbag- Ronald Jones

Super Bowl LV will be coming to Tampa 12 months from now. Before that, the winners of Super Bowl LIV will also be visiting the Bay area.

Though the specific date and time will not be known until April, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers do know this: They'll be entertaining the reigning NFL champions at Raymond James Stadium in 2020. The Kansas City Chiefs, who rallied for a 31-20 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, are one of the Buccaneers' eight regular-season home opponents next season. The Chiefs say they're coming back to Tampa next February, too, but the Buccaneers hope to make that more difficult during the fall.

The Buccaneers have faced defending Super Bowl champs before, of course. In fact, they've done so 23 times in 44 seasons (twice in one season on occasion). Their overall record in such games is 5-18, which of course isn't great but one would expect defending champs to be good teams most of the time. And much of that happened in the early years; the Bucs are a respectable 5-8 against reigning league champions since.

Here are the five times the Buccaneers have beaten the defending Super Bowl champs, ranked:

5. Buccaneers 13, Broncos 10, Sept. 26, 1999

The first of these five games chronologically was also the only one against a defending champ that would go on to have a losing season. This was understandable in Denver, as future Hall-of-Fame quarterback John Elway had retired after the second of the Broncos consecutive Super Bowl wins. This was one of four consecutive losses to open the season for Denver. It was still an impressive performance by a Buccaneer defense that was starting to emerge as one of the league's best, as the Broncos were held to 173 yards, eight first downs and one third-down conversion in 12 tries. Rookie QB Brian Griese completed just 14 of 29 passes and star running back Terrell Davis had just 53 yards. Bucs back Mike Alstott took over with 131 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown.

4. Buccaneers 23, Saints 13, Jan. 2, 2011

This was the final weekend of the 2010 regular season, and the Saints came in one game behind the Falcons, who were 12-3 and playing Carolina at home. Atlanta and New Orleans had already clinched postseason spots but the Saints still had a chance to win the division and the 9-6 Bucs could still complete Raheem Morris's "Race to 10" and, with some helps, put a third NFC South team in the playoffs. Tampa Bay avenged an earlier loss to the Saints in Tampa and got their 10th win, but a Green Bay win later in the day blocked their playoff entrance. The Saints did pull some starters after Atlanta jumped out to a big lead over the Panthers, playing at the same time, but Drew Brees still threw 38 of their 31 passes on the day. Josh Freeman had a spectacular outing for the Buccaneers, completing 21 of 26 passes for 255 yards and throwing touchdown passes to Mike Williams and Dezmon Briscoe.

3. Buccaneers 27, Eagles 21, Sept. 16, 2018

The Eagles were without quarterback Carson Wentz early in the '18 season, but that wasn't a terrible hardship given that his replacement, Nick Foles, had led the team to a wild shootout victory over New England in the previous Super Bowl. The Bucs also had a reserve under center, but Ryan Fitzpatrick was coming off a 417-yard, four-touchdown performance in a win in New Orleans in Week One. Any notion that the New Orleans game was a fluke evaporated on the first play of the game when Fitzpatrick hit DeSean Jackson on a 75-yard touchdown pass. Fitzpatrick would also hit O.J. Howard on a 75-yard touchdown and finish with his second consecutive 400-yard, four-touchdown day.

2. Buccaneers 22, Ravens 10, Dec. 29, 2001

The 2001 Ravens weren't quite the juggernaut that rode a historically-good defense to victory in the previous season's Super Bowl – played at Raymond James Stadium, coincidentally – but they were 9-5 heading into this game and would go on to claim a playoff spot despite the loss in Tampa. This was every bit the defensive struggle one would expect from these two teams in this era, with the Ravens gaining 257 yards to the Bucs' 213 and the teams combining to convert just six of 30 third downs. Ronde Barber's 10th interception of the season set up the game's first field goal, and then Derrick Brooks intercepted Elvis Grbac again and returned it to the one-yard line to set up Brad Johnson's touchdown sneak. Todd Yoder's block of a Baltimore punt led to another field goal and the Bucs built a 16-7 halftime lead and held on. The game was played on a Saturday with the Monday Night Football crew calling the action.

1. Buccaneers 38, Rams 35, Dec. 18, 2000

This game was actually played on a Monday night, and it is widely considered the most thrilling regular-season game in franchise history. It was also a bit of revenge for the Buccaneers' 11-6 loss to the Rams in the 1999 NFC Championship Game in St. Louis 11 months earlier. This time the "Greatest Show on Turf" put up big numbers but Shaun King, Warrick Dunn and Keyshawn Johnson matched them yard for yard and point for point. In fact, Tampa Bay's offense rolled up 446 yards and 27 first downs, including 198 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns for Dunn. Marshall Faulk topped that with his four-touchdown night but Dunn landed the final blow with the go-ahead touchdown with 48 seconds left, on which he launched himself from the three-yard line and flew across the goal line. That drive probably would have ended around midfield if not for a bit of improvisation by Dunn, who took a handoff but got trapped deep in the backfield by Kevin Carter. As Carter tried to swing Dunn to the ground, the heady Buc back was able to pitch the ball back to King, who was able to scramble for 15 yards, with a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty tacked on the end. John Lynch sealed the win with a midfield interception, the third time Kurt Warner was picked off that night.

Good memories. Hopefully the Bucs will make more of them when the Lombardi Trophy-toting Chiefs come to Tampa next fall. 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.

"Are we keeping all of our free agents?"

- @tekimpo, via Instagram

…and…

"Any movement on the Shaq Barrett contract?"

- @fahadd_syed

All of them? I highly doubt that. The Buccaneers have 19 players from the 2019 roster who could become unrestricted free agents on March 18. I am confident some of them will be back; I'm equally confident some of them will not. NFL rosters generally turn over by about 30% from year to year, and some of that involves players whose contracts just expire and they sign elsewhere or simply conclude their playing careers.

But I don't think that's what you're really asking me, tekimpo. I'd bet you probably can't name all 19 of those potential UFAs. Heck, I'm not sure I could get them all if you made me write them down without looking at the list I have pinned to the wall to my left. I doubt you want my opinion on whether or not Darian Stewart or Jerald Hawkins will be back.

What I'm sure you mean is this group of players: Jameis Winston, Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, Carl Nassib, Demar Dotson, Breshad Perriman and Peyton Barber. All I can say is, that's a tall order. The Buccaneers do have two franchise or transition tag options, which could help if it becomes necessary, but that still means most of the players on that list can taste free agency if they choose to do so.

Bruce Arians mentioned in his final press conference of 2019 that keeping together the defensive front that performed so well in 2019 is a high priority, and I'm sure it is. If I were in Arians' shoes, I'd very much want to re-sign all of those defensive linemen and outside linebackers to keep intact what I had the previous year. And maybe the Buccaneers can get that done. As fans and observers, though, I think we should be ready for the possibility that the team cannot bring all of those players back. Even though I'd like to see all four of those aforementioned front-line players return, I think I'd be pretty happy if the Bucs managed to get three of them back.

Same thing for Dotson, Perriman and Barber. Any of those three could very well be back in the same role in 2020 as they filled in 2019, but I doubt all three of them will be. And as soon as we get some really good evidence on which way the Jameis Winston situation is going to go, I'll be sure to pass it along! Right now, your guess is as good as mine.

As for fahadd's question, if there is any progress being made in the Bucs' new-contract negotiations with Shaq Barrett, it's not being shared publicly. I tend to believe that we're not going to see this resolved until March, perhaps even close to the start of free agency. If a franchise or transition tag is in play, that would occur between February 25 and March 10. Even if a new deal is reached before free agency and without a tag, these things usually happen closer to whatever deadline is in play. Barrett has repeatedly said that his goal is to remain in Tampa, and Arians famously said, "He ain't going anywhere," in a late-season press conference. Recently, after a Pro Bowl-week practice, Barrett once again spoke very positively about the Buccaneers and his contract situation, but when somebody asked him if it felt good to know this would be resolved by early March he laughed and said he wasn't sure that was true.

"Will Ronald Jones II get 1,000 rushing yards next season?"

- @curls_wrld, via Instagram

Sure. I mean, that's not really that bold of a prediction, to be honest.

Last year, 16 players cracked the 1,000-yard rushing mark, though we probably shouldn't include league MVP Lamar Jackson, since he's a quarterback. Still that's a 1,000-yard rusher for nearly half the teams in the league. Aaron Jones and Mark Ingram made it despite sharing backfields with teammates who took over 100 handoffs away from them. Marlon Mack, Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs all made it despite having some injury issues. Carlos Hyde made it for the first time in his six-year career!

Now let's look at Jones specifically. After a lost rookie season in which he produced only 44 yards on 23 carries, Jones jumped all the way to 724 yards last fall. He did that on 172 carries, averaging 4.2 yards per tote. All of the running backs who cracked 1,000 yards last year did so on at least 200 carries. At his rate, Jones would have only needed 65 more carries on the year to get that fourth digit in his stat line. That's almost exactly four more carries per game.

Could we expect Jones to get four more carries per game next year, going from about 11 to about 15? Well, that depends. Though Jones ended up with significantly better numbers than Peyton Barber, the two got fairly close to splitting the backfield load down the middle. Barber ended up with 154 carries, just 18 fewer than Jones. As a contrastingly example noted above, Green Bay's Jones had 236 carries for 1,084 yards in 2019, with backfield mate Jamaal Williams taking 107 handoffs for 460 yards. That's more like a 70-30 split.

Now keep in mind that Barber is one of those 19 potential unrestricted free agents I noted earlier. It's certainly possible that he does not return to the Buccaneers' backfield in 2020. That alone would seem to clear the way for more carries for Jones. But even if Barber is back there's a good chance the Bucs' coaches move towards more of that Green Bay type of model. Over the final two games of the season, Jones put up 173 rushing yards, the best two-week stretch of his young career. In those games, he got 25 carries and Barber only got 11, more than a two-to-one difference.

But I said that depends, and what it depends on is if the Buccaneers make another prominent addition to the backfield through either free agency or the draft. In that case, I would hesitate to be confident that Jones' share of the carries would increase significantly over 2019. So let's see what happens this spring.

If Jones ends up being the clear lead back for the Buccaneers next year, I would predict a 1,000-yard season, as I think he's got the skills to at least duplicate his 4.2 yards per carry, if not improve on it.

"Would we draft an offensive lineman with the No. 14 overall pick?"

- @da_real_aye_huncho, via Instagram

…and…

"Are we picking up any O-line beasts this season?"

- @deathin4k, via Instagram

I continue to believe this is a real possibility, the Buccaneers using their mid-first-round pick to address the offensive line. And to the second question, if you're hoping to add an instant difference-making mauler like Quenton Nelson or Ryan Ramczyk, you're going to have a much better chance of doing so if you utilize a first-round pick. Ali Marpet is a notable exception but small-school hidden gems like him don't come around that often.

The Buccaneers have four of their five starters from last year under contract heading into next year, and left tackle Donovan Smith is signed through 2021. The exception is right tackle, where Demar Dotson is a pending unrestricted free agent. Dotson has been the Bucs' right tackle for most of the past decade, barring stretches he missed due to injuries, and he certainly could return and keep that going for another year or two. But simply because of his free agent status and his age – at 34, he's the oldest of the Bucs' 2019 linemen – the right tackle spot is the one that has the biggest likelihood of turnover. Tampa Bay's depth at the tackle position – Josh Wells and Jerald Hawkins – are also pending free agents and it's clear the team doesn't have the next starting tackle waiting in the wings on either side.

Pair that with what appears to be a pretty strong class of tackles in this year's draft and it certainly looks like an opportunity to get good value out of the 14th pick. Carmen Vitali posted our first mock draft of 2020 today and somehow Louisville behemoth Mekhi Becton fell all the way to the 23rd spot. As I said in that post, I doubt Becton will actually make it to the 23rd pick on April 23, but I don't think any of the team-position pairings we had for the first 22 picks was way off the mark. So it's likely some highly regarded offensive tackle(s) will make it that far, and almost surely to pick number 14.

Carmen was responsible for our pick in this first mock draft but if it had been mine I would have made the exact same choice at this point: Iowa tackle Tristan Wirfs. Wirfs was the third tackle off the board in our draft and three more would go before the first round was up. NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah puts six offensive linemen in his first round and pairs the Buccaneers with Becton.

All of this said, we still must go through free agency before the draft, and more than any other year I can remember the Buccaneers' draft plans would seem to hinge on what happens on the market, particularly in terms of which of their own free agents they can retain. If there are some notable departures from that list the Bucs might have to put the O-Line draft plans on hold and use their top pick on a pass-rusher, a defensive lineman or even a quarterback.

"Should I go to the Denver or Vegas game being a fan who lives in Utah?"

- @zachm_79

Well, Zach, this looks like a no-lose situation to me.

First, I have to make a shocking admission here: I've never been to Vegas, so I can't give you any first-hand recommendations. Still, I think we all know what that city has to offer and if those things appeal to you, you could make a nice long weekend out of it.

I have been to Denver and found it to be delightful, though they were all very short trips. Denver has a thriving, fun downtown area but you can also get to some great hiking without having to go very far. And if skiing is your thing, you could make this a 2-for-1 vacation, too.

So it's two great destinations in my mind. Here's a couple of potential deciding factors:

One, consider the time of year. We don't yet know when the Buccaneers will be playing in those two cities. You might want to avoid Denver in December, or maybe that would make you more likely to go if you want to get in some snow sports. Earlier in the year might be better for hiking or having fun downtown.

Two, consider the uniqueness factor of the Las Vegas choice. This will be the NFL's first season in that city, and the game will be played in a brand new stadium (hopefully). You could have gone to a Bucs-Broncos game in Denver just eight years ago. If you choose the Vegas option, you'll get to be at the first-ever Bucs game in that venue, city and state. And if you've been a Bucs fan for a little while now, you might also find it especially appealing that your team will be going up against its old Super Bowl coach, Jon Gruden.

In conclusion, I might change my mind when I see when the games are being played, but if I had to choose now I would go with Las Vegas as the best of two very good options.

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