You didn't think we'd start the regular season without offering up some idealistic predictions now did you? I couldn't resist adding my own hype to the mix by offering some bold predictions. You can do what you want with them, but it's always fun as you wait in anticipation of the regular season to imagine the possibilities. After pushing through the dog days of summer during training camp, I've bought into quite a few things. It's not hard with how much better the Bucs have gotten between 2017 and now – at least on paper. The real test will start Sunday in New Orleans and frankly, I can't wait. Good thing we won't have to for much longer.
If you feel one of the below is ridiculously outlandish, feel free to click that little Twitter icon above and tell me about it. Social media is fun for that.
Without further ado… see my bold predictions for 2018 below. They're also in bold… ya see what I did there?
The Bucs will have two 1,000 yard receivers.
I don't think anyone will have much of an argument against this one. The Bucs surely have enough talent to accomplish this feat. Last season, it was Mike Evans that surpassed 1,000 yards – taking until Week 17 to do it but doing it, nonetheless. He became just the third receiver in NFL history to begin his career with four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. The other two? The great one, Randy Moss, and the Bengals' A.J. Green. Pretty impressive. And I think Evans can do it again. Given the fact there are so many receiving weapons, the opportunities Evans will get one-on-one should be plentiful, which will work in his favor.
But to have another receiver also surpass 1,000 yards? That's a little bit crazier just because of the sheer availability of targets. Especially with an emphasis being placed on a more balanced offensive attack by further establishing the ground game, how do you pass the ball enough to get two guys to 1,000 yards? Oh, and not to mention the fact the two guys that tied for the team-lead in touchdowns last season weren't actually wideouts – they were tight ends. Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard each had six touchdowns apiece in 2017 and Tampa Bay includes two tight end sets more than most, further dwindling the targets thrown the way of the wide receivers.
Still, you can't deny the guys in the receiver group all have the potential to be a 1,000-yard receiver. Literally, all of them. Sure, Adam Humphries gets a lot of shorter, more conservative throws as the slot receiver. But we all saw in the preseason what he can do when he already has the ball in his hands… take it 109 yards to the house on a field goal return, evading multiple tacklers along the way. So throw him the screen pass, he can get those yards after catch. I don't think I need to make a case for why DeSean Jackson or Chris Godwin are threats to the 1,000-yard mark. They pretty much speak for themselves.
The Bucs have only had two 1,000-yard receivers one time in franchise history and it was pretty recent. It was in 2014 during Evans' rookie season. Evans recorded 1,051 receiving yards on 68 receptions and it was Vincent Jackson, who had 1,002 receiving yards on 70 receptions, that worked in tandem with the young player to combine for the third-most by a duo in Buccaneer history to boot. But with the steps quarterback Jameis Winston has taken this offseason to improve his game and the reliability of Ryan Fitzpatrick for the first three games, I think the Bucs can do it for the second time in less than five years.
The Bucs will have two players with double-digit sacks on the defensive line.
The defensive line this season is set up to facilitate two double-digit sack players. It will require a lot of pieces to work together to do it. But it's more than possible. The front four of course, will have to be fluid and take care of their assignments. Given the versatility of most players on the line, the line should be able to keep the guys opposite them in the trenches off balance with various looks. A confused offensive line opens up room for error, which could translate into opening up literal holes for the likes of Gerald McCoy to get through. Plus, after seeing Jason Pierre-Paul during training camp, I'm not sure there is anyone that will be able to effectively set the edge against him. Not to mention, and I admittedly didn't realize this until he was one of the good guys, he's an inside threat, too. We saw him lined up inside next to McCoy in multiple situations and if that doesn't confuse a guard or two on the other side of the line, nothing will.
I'm hinting at the fact I think if there are two double-digit sack guys, they are Gerald McCoy and Jason Pierre-Paul. JPP had 8.5 sacks last season with the Giants and Gerald McCoy had 6.0 sacks. JPP has surpassed the double-digit mark multiple times and McCoy has come close. Making opposing offenses have to guard against an inside guy and an outside guy is going to be tricky and I think both will benefit. I also think Vinny Curry could be in the mix there, too, but he's actually a really effective run stuffer – one of the best in the league last season, in fact. I think he's more effective there which would take his emphasis on getting to the quarterback away a little bit. But there is something to be said about the fact that opponents may be over-accounting for JPP and McCoy, freeing up Curry to make some plays.
What maybe isn't as obvious is what other levels of the defense will need to do to help this effort. They'll have to be extremely effective in rushing coverage. It makes sense. You can't give quarterbacks the shorter pass options, allowing them to get the ball out of their hands quicker and less opportunity for the defensive line or blitzing linebackers to penetrate the line quick enough. It will be heavily up to the cornerbacks to play up a little further, playing press or lining up just a couple yards off the line of scrimmage and therefore taking away any sort of cushion that would give the quarterback the opportunity to dump the ball off quickly. It's easy to realize that what the line does up front affects the secondary, but it's a little bit harder to realize the complementary nature of the two levels. At the end of the day, all 11 men on the field will have to be laser-focused into what their job is but with the strides made this offseason, I think it's more than possible.
The Bucs rank in the top 5 for rushing defense.
Way back in June at the conclusion of mandatory minicamp, Bucs' defensive tackle Gerald McCoy talked about the defensive line prioritizing its rushing defense. He went so far as to say that it's not a 'pass-happy league' as many might say it is. It's a run-stopping league, he said. Most teams are going to run the ball if you let them. Establishing a ground game also throws a defense off balance when both the run and the pass are threats. If you take away the run game, you make an offense one-dimensional and can therefore be more effective (and aggressive) in your efforts.
The Bucs' personnel additions would suggest that run defense is definitely a priority with the addition of two defensive linemen from the best run-stopping defense in the league last season: Philadelphia. Both defensive end Vinny Curry and defensive tackle Beau Allen were part of a unit that allowed just 79.2 total rushing yards per game on average. Opponents were held to a dismal 3.76 yards per rushing play and they allowed just a 32 percent third-down conversion rate.
Then the Bucs took defensive tackle Vita Vea with their first pick of the 2018 draft to shore up the interior of the line even further. He was good enough to earn Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors as well as the Morris Trophy, given to the top defensive lineman in the Pac-12 while at the University of Washington. He has been sidelined for most of the preseason with a calf injury but remains on the team's active roster which is a good inclination he should be back sooner rather than later.
In addition to the line, it will again need to be a collective effort. Sure, the solidified line helps, but linebackers will still need to come down and plug potential holes. The secondary, especially safeties will need to do the same. The good news is one of those safeties, rookie Jordan Whitehead, was himself a running back in college as a two-way player at Pittsburgh. It affords him a unique perspective on defending the run and he should be a great addition once he gets a little more comfortable within Tampa Bay's system.
The offensive line will allow less than 28 sacks in 2018.
All right, there aren't a whole lot of stats I can call upon here to prove why I think this could happen, but it sounds great, right? Let's start with where the Bucs were last season. Tampa Bay quarterbacks were sacked a total of 40 times in 2017. That may sound like a lot, and it's not a little to be sure, but it's not as bad as some. For reference, even Tom Brady was sacked 35 times in New England. Russell Wilson, as mobile of a quarterback as he is and how often he gets out of the pocket, was sacked 43 times. An offensive line that was right around our target number? Baltimore. Joe Flacco was sacked only 27 times in 2017.
That particular comparison is especially intriguing considering the Bucs now have the anchor to that offensive line here in Tampa Bay. The Bucs acquired center Ryan Jensen, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, during free agency and he seems to look out for his quarterback. Sometimes, even after the play is over. You might remember him from last season for going after Dolphins' linebacker Kiko Alonso after what many saw as a cheap shot on Flacco. After Alonso came in on the late hit, Jensen immediately went for the linebacker in retaliation in an effort to protect his quarterback. A guy that has those kind of instincts will surely insulate his quarterback more effectively as evidenced by Flacco's pretty low sack total. Plus, this season after guard Ali Marpet was moved to the left side in between Jensen and defensive tackle Donovan Smith, you have to think the quarterback's blind side will be pretty well protected so that even if some pressure does come his way, it'll be where he can see it.
In an ideal world, an offensive line doesn't want to let up more than even one sack in a game. In an ideal world. But an improvement of over 10 less sacks in 2018 with the personnel that the line now has I think is more than attainable – especially with a guy like Jensen on your side.
Lavonte David will make the Pro Bowl.
The guy has the numbers. The hot take here is that he's recognized for it. Can we start the Pro Bowl vote now?
View exclusive photos of the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp from Team Photographer Kyle Zedaker