Yes, the Buccaneers may be returning all of their starters from the Super Bowl roster for 2021 in an age where continuity is king in the NFL (just ask quarterback Tom Brady), but that doesn't mean Tampa Bay is stopping there. Keeping the roster intact would be a fool's errand if you didn't think it would ultimately help the team get better. That's the one constant in the NFL: the desire to get better, even if you happened to be Super Bowl Champions the year before.
That's because every season is different. There are different opponents, different schedules and different challenges to contend with. Scott Smith has you covered on those, too, by the way. But while things stayed relatively the same from a personnel perspective, my Give Me Five challenge to Scott today was this:
Give me five ways the Bucs will be better in 2021 than they were in 2020.
That's a tall order, to be sure. You don't win the Super Bowl by accident. A lot of things have to go right and you have to have a pretty great team to do it. That team is still in place but with a few key additions in the draft and perhaps the return of some others that misses significant time last year, the Bucs could get even better.
So what say you, Scott?
5. A Deeper Pass Rush
Having retained virtually their entire Super Bowl roster for 2021, the Bucs had the flexibility in the draft to go with their top-rated prospect, regardless of the position he played. Sill, I don't think it was a surprise to anyone when they used their first pick on an edge rusher. The Bucs got 2,252 snaps and 23.5 sacks out of their starting edge duo of Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett (postseason included) but only 421 snaps and 2.5 sacks out of any other outside linebackers in 2020.
The Buccaneers could have reasonably gone into 2021 with the same cast of outside linebackers, with Anthony Nelson serving as the primary third man in the rotation followed by Cam Gill and/or Quinton Bell as occasional options. Barring injury, that group probably would have produced similar numbers to 2020.
However, with first-round pick Joe Tryon now in the mix, the Bucs have the possibility of fielding a deeper rotation, which could serve to lessen the load on Pierre-Paul and Barrett and make them more efficient on a per-snap basis. Nelson made strides in 2020 after an injury-marred rookie season and is confident he'll be a more productive player in his third season after his first real NFL offseason. The team is also still intrigued by what Gill could develop into and position coach Larry Foote is already lobbying to keep five OLBs on the 53-man roster this year.
Of course, Tryon would have been more of a necessity than a luxury if the team hadn't succeeded in keeping Barrett in town with a new long-term contract. Barrett responded to that long-sought security by setting extremely lofty goals for himself in 2021. If he comes anywhere close to achieving those goals and Tryon is legitimately effective as a rookie the Bucs should have not only a deeper edge rush rotation in 2021 but a scarier one as well.
4. More Weapons with the Returns of O.J. Howard, Vita Vea
As I noted earlier in this series, the Buccaneers had pretty good injury/health fortune in 2020 on their way to the championship; it will be challenging to duplicate that in 2021. The only two players who missed the majority of the season due to injuries were tight end O.J. Howard and defensive lineman Vita Vea. Howard was lost to an Achilles tendon injury in Week Four and Vea to an ankle fracture just one week later.
Both Howard and Vea were playing at a high level prior to their injuries. Howard was working well in two-TE sets with new starter Rob Gronkowski and was actually leading all Bucs tight ends in catches, yards and touchdowns before he went down. Vea was emerging as one of the league's most dominant inside forces and even had two sacks before his injury. His return for the final two games of the postseason clearly supercharged the Bucs' pass rush and showed how much better the defense is with him on the field.
Howard was one of just a half-dozen players who weren't able to practice during mini-camp but Arians said the fifth-year tight end was "really close" to returning to action. Arians also said that none of the sideline players during mini-camp were expected to still be out of commission when training camp started. Thus the Buccaneers can dream of an already potent offense gaining an athletic seam-stretching tight end and an already top-flight defense gaining a powerful inside force. It's true that Vea has missed time due to injury in two of his first three NFL seasons and Howard in all four of his, but the Bucs can hope that means both are due for a full, enjoyable campaign in 2021.
3. Tom Brady's Knee, Command of the Offense
Brady had surgery on his left knee not long after taking home his fifth Super Bowl MVP trophy, a procedure that had Arians expecting a slow ease back to action by June, at best. Instead, Brady showed up at mini-camp with a brace-free knee and a desire to get in as many snaps as possible. Arians says Brady operated at "full speed" during the three-day camp and that was the best thing he saw all week from his 43-year-old quarterback.
While Brady is not going to start running all over the field like Lamar Jackson he should have more comfort and mobility in his legs in 2021 than he did during a very good 2020 campaign. If anything, he'll be better equipped to move around in the pocket and extend a few more plays.
Moreover, Brady's head is also in much more comfortable place heading into 2021 than it was a year ago. After the Super Bowl win, both Brady and Arians made it clear that the quarterback didn't have a full grasp on the Bucs' offense until well into the second half of the season. Arians specified that it really came together in the second half of a Week 12 loss to Kansas City. After that game and a bye week, the Buccaneers' offense caught fire, Brady put up ridiculous numbers and the team never lost again. This time around, the Bucs won't have to wait for Brady and the offense to come together gradually and could be much more potent from Week One on.
2. Special Teams Depth
The Buccaneers did a lot of good things in the third phase of the game in 2020. Ryan Succop solved the team's long-running placekicker problem and made 37 of his 40 field goal tries. Bradley Pinion was a touchback machine on kickoffs and gave the Bucs just what they wanted in terms of situational and directional kicking on punts. Jaydon Mickens was sure-handed on punt returns.
On the other hand, Tampa Bay ranked between 19th and last in the four return categories – punt and kickoff return average both for and against. The Bucs only had to defend 14 kickoff returns in the regular season thanks to Pinion but gave up a league-worst 33.6 yards per runback when they did. The Buccaneers also gave up a 54-yard punt return in the playoffs at New Orleans that could have been a back-breaker.
Succop re-signed in March and Pinion returns as well, and the Buccaneers don't really need "depth" at those two positions. They lost one of their top kick-coverage players of recent years in Ryan Smith, who signed with San Diego, but used the draft to nab a number of players who can help immediately on special teams. That, in fact, was a specific goal headed into the draft and as many as five of the team's seven picks could end up in a significant special teams role.
That includes Tryon, the first-round pick, who has physical traits that have Special Teams Coach Keith Armstrong drooling. The only issue for Armstrong is if Arians will let Tryon play in the kick-and-return game if he is being featured heavily on defense. There are no such issues with Day Three picks K.J. Britt, Chris Wilcox and Grant Stuard. Britt and Steward, a pair of off-ball linebackers, already proved they could excel on special teams at college and Wilcox, a cornerback, has the size-speed combination that screams "special teams ace."
Then there's fourth-round wideout Jaelon Darden, a small but shifty wideout from North Texas. The Buccaneers are definitely going to let Darden compete with Mickens, the incumbent, for the punt return job, and perhaps the kickoff return assignment as well. Darden showed some big-play ability in the return game in college and with the more favorable rules in the NFL could be even more effective in that role at the next level.
1. Everyone's Jewelry Collection
Just before the start of training camp, the Buccaneers will hold their long-anticipated Super Bowl ring ceremony. For most in attendance, the rings will be the most spectacular piece of bling they've ever slipped onto their fingers. (Tom Brady has a lot of competition on his other fingers.)
As Arians suggested during mini-camp, as satisfying and emotional as this ceremony is sure to be the team is also looking forward to holding that final celebration and then fully turning the page to 2021 and their title defense. They won't have to wait long after that evening to do exactly that. Still, a whole lot of jewelry boxes at home will be improved significantly that night, so this fits the topic Carmen provided me to perfection.
Carmen's Thoughts: That last point is by far and away my favorite. Being a champion is something that can never be taken away from you. It validated what the Bucs have known for a while now: they're a great team and are capable of just about anything. That bling will now serve as a constant reminder that they were right.
They'll now also be going into 2021 presumably with full health, barring anything happening in training camp. Talking about injuries sometimes makes my superstitious little heart beat a little quicker out of anxiety, but all Scott's points above were valid. Plus, if Tom Brady could play like that with a bum knee and a half understanding of the offense, imagine what he can do when both are at full tilt.
I can't wait to find out.