In the spring of 2018, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded with the New York Giants to get a much-needed edge rusher in Jason Pierre-Paul. Pierre-Paul promptly ripped off a 12.5-sack season, ending a 12-year drought in which the Buccaneers couldn't find anyone who could hit double digits in sacks.
The very next year, Tampa Bay signed Denver Broncos reserve Shaq Barrett, who stunningly exploded for a league-leading 19.5 sacks. Barrett was the Buccaneers' 2019 version of Pierre-Paul, a veteran addition who easily eclipsed 10 sacks and jump-started the team's pass rush.
Identifying this year's version of last year's breakout player is a common exercise in fantasy football. Last year, for instance, many experts identified the Buccaneers' Chris Godwin as a potential 2019 version of 2018 JuJu Smith-Schuster, a young receiver about to break out in a big way. Boy, were they right. Now everyone is looking for the 2020 version of 2019 Godwin.
I'm going to steal that concept and apply it to the 2020 Buccaneers, but not in terms of fantasy football (for the most part). Rather, I'm looking for this year's version of 2019's…
…Vita Vea, The Young Player Who Has a Great Season Without Much Hype
Davis ranked second in the NFL in 2019 with 19 passes defensed and memorably shut down DeAndre Hopkins in a Week 16 battle with the Houston Texans. Recently, Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians contended that Davis was a "top 10" cornerback in the NFL. He may very well be right, but that's probably not yet an opinion shared around the NFL. Davis didn't get much Pro Bowl attention in 2019, for instance.
There's no reason to think Davis will regress in his third NFL season. He's still only 23 years old and he's in a defense perfectly suited for his skills. Davis and the rest of the Buccaneers' young defensive backs jelled in the second half of last season, putting up some of the league's best results from Week 10 on. This offseason, they followed Todd Bowles' directive to focus on getting better at understanding what opposing offenses are trying to do to them. The only criticism of Davis and the rest of those young DBs is that they didn't turn enough of their passes defensed into interceptions. If Davis can do that and up his interception total, he might start to gain more appreciation of his skills around the league. However, even a great season, like the one Vea quietly had last year, could be overshadowed by all the well-known stars on the Bucs' roster.
You could also use Vita Vea as "The Big Man Who Unexpectedly Scores a Touchdown." In that category I would pick rookie tackle Tristan Wirfs. Wirfs would have to sneakily move out of left tackle and into the tackle-eligible spot in a heavy package, but if he gets the chance he definitely has the athleticism to run a route and catch a trick pass.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster as it currently stands.
…Jamel Dean, The Rookie Who Makes a Delayed Emergence as a Key Contributor
The Buccaneers drafted Vaughn in the third round this past April and there seemed to be a spot waiting for him as the other half of a backfield rotation with starter Ronald Jones, with Peyton Barber departing in the offseason. However, the pandemic and Vaughn's week-long stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list have led to Vaughn getting far less preparation for his rookie season than running backs get in most years. In addition, the Buccaneers signed veteran LeSean McCoy just before training camp, and McCoy should have no problem stepping right into a prominent role if needed.
In his 2019 rookie season, Dean mostly played special teams through the first half of the season as the Buccaneers largely went with Davis, Vernon Hargreaves and M.J. Stewart in the first half of the season. Fellow rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting worked his way into that rotation relatively quickly but Dean wasn't used much until a Week Nine game in Seattle in which Davis was a last-minute scratch. From that point on, Dean remarkably collected 17 passes defensed and two interceptions.
The same pattern could emerge for Vaughn. Arians recently said he could see Vaughn possibly making a Week One contribution as a kickoff returner, but that seemed to suggest he wasn't on pace to be a big part of the offense in the early going. Given time, Vaughn could force himself into the backfield mix, possibly taking some portion of the touches away from McCoy. The Bucs have high hopes for the rookie from Vanderbilt but may have to bring him along slowly.
…Ronald Jones, The Second-Year Player Who Makes a Big Jump
This isn't the perfect comparison because Jones made his second-year leap from a very low plateau, having been mostly forgotten in the offense as a rookie. White, on the other hand, was a starter from Day One and the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month for both November and December. A knee injury slowed him during the season's first half but his breakout was well underway before 2019 came to an end.
Jones came on strong last year under a new coaching staff, jumping from 77 yards from scrimmage in 2018 to 1,033 last year. By the end of his second season he was a reliable starter and someone the team thought could be the main man in the backfield in 2020.
White is jumping from a higher starting point in his second season, and so he will have to finish at a higher level in 2020 than Jones did in his second season to qualify as a match here. That could mean Pro Bowl consideration and/or a stat line that rivals the league's best playmaking linebackers. White recently set his own bar for interceptions in 2020 at five, while also saying he would settle for five sacks instead (or maybe both). Anything approaching those numbers would definitely be a second-season leap.
…Alex Cappa, The Player Who Gets His First Chance to Start and Makes the Most of It
For this to work we're going to have to agree that the third receiver spot is essentially a starter. Miller is not going to unseat Mike Evans or Chris Godwin at the top of the official depth chart, but the third receiver is going to be on the field for more than half the snaps and is a key part of the offense.
A third-round pick in 2018, Cappa mostly watched from the sideline as a rookie but had a chance to grab the open right guard position after the Bucs moved on from Caleb Benenoch. Cappa won the job and started 14 games, missing two mid-season contests due to injury. Arians and the Bucs' coaching staff finished the season confident that Cappa could continue as a long-term starter on the line.
Miller got to play a little bit more as a rookie than Cappa did but also ran into some injury obstacles and finished with just 13 catches. For most of the year, veteran Breshad Perriman ably handled the third-receiver job. However, Perriman is now with the Jets and that position is the subject of a wide-open training camp battle. Both Miller and third-year player Justin Watson have had strong starts to training camp, and the third receiver might actually be a mix of several players as the season begins.
However, the team would probably prefer that one player takes over the majority of that role, and Miller's elite speed make him an attractive option. Quarterback Tom Brady seems to be forging a connection quickly with Miller on the practice field, which is obviously good news for the young receiver.
…Andrew Adams, The Steady Veteran Who Fills in Well When Needed
In each of the last two years, Adams has joined the Bucs' roster in September, but despite those late arrivals he started 15 games in 2018 and 2019 combined. Tampa Bay has had a bit of a revolving door at safety in recent years and Adams has taken the opportunity to get a lot of playing time and prove he could be a steadying influence in the secondary. He managed to crack the lineup in both years despite it being two different defensive schemes.
Given that the Bucs drafted a safety in 2017, 2018 and 2019, they probably didn't plan on having to lean on Adams the last two years. The same could be said this year for offensive tackle, where Donovan Smith returns to man the left side and Tristan Wirfs arrives as a first-round draft pick to play right tackle. Wirfs has been taking most of the first-team reps, according to Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin, and the obvious plan is for him to be there on opening day. However, Arians said last week that if Wirfs wasn't quite ready the team was perfectly fine with playing Haeg.
Even if Wirfs is ready to go, Haeg could be needed at some point. Last year's third tackle, Josh Wells (who also remains as an option in 2020), started one game each at left and right tackle when Smith and Demar Dotson were unavailable. It's not often that a five-man line makes it through the season intact, with all five starting every game, so Haeg has a good chance of being on the field at some point. His 35 starts over four seasons in Indianapolis give him the experience to step right in and keep the line strong.
…Chris Godwin, The Fantasy Player Who Makes Believers Weep with Joy
The hype for Godwin as a breakout fantasy player in 2019 began early in the spring when Arians predicted that the young receiver would catch 100 passes in his offense. Godwin missed the last two games with a hamstring injury and thus lost his chance at making that prediction come true, but he did catch 86 passes for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns, finishing second in the league in receiving yards per game. Those fantasy football players who believed the hype and nabbed Godwin in the middle rounds were rewarded very, very handsomely.
Jones got a similar bump in fantasy circles this year, although much later in the year, when Arians made it clear that the third year back was the "main guy" in the Bucs' backfield. Some fantasy experts actually projected Vaughn as a higher pick after the Bucs drafted him in the third round, making Jones a potential later-round steal for those who believed in his prospects. It will probably take a somewhat higher pick to land Jones now, but he's still likely to come off the board after most of the other proven starters around the league.
Like Godwin, Jones took a significant step forward in his second year and is now coming into his third season as an uncontested starter. It remains to be seen how big of a role either Vaughn or LeSean McCoy will carve out, but there's a decent chance that Jones gets 15-20 touches per game. If he can make an impact in the passing game, he could quickly become a fantasy football stud.
…Justin Watson, The Young Player Who Becomes a Core Special-Teamer
The Buccaneers drafted Watson out of Penn in the fifth round in 2018 but for the most part haven't had much need to work him into the offense. That could change this year as Watson battles for a big part of the third-receiver assignment. The fact that he is still on the roster and getting a chance to win that spot, after a good finish to 2019, has a lot to do with his prominent role on special teams. Last year he tied for the team lead with seven kick-coverage tackles and also handled some of the punt return duties.
Russell already knows that special teams are his path to making the roster and being active on game days as a rookie seventh-rounder. He made that very clear to me and Jeff Ryan on a recent Salty Dogs podcast. Arians has already talked Russell up as a potential contributor in that part of the game this year, and the Bucs are running more live special teams drills in camp than usual in order to determine which young players should be in that group. Russell has a good size-speed combination to be effective in punt and kickoff coverage.
…Sean Murphy-Bunting, The Rookie Who Seals a Promising Rookie Season with a Big Play Against His Hometown Team
Antoine Winfield, Jr.
This is admittedly kind of specific, but the Buccaneers happen to have a couple players who could get this very opportunity. One of them is defensive lineman Khalil Davis, who grew up as a Chiefs fan. The Buccaneers get a visit from the defending champs from Kansas City in Week 12. However, there's a greater chance that Winfield, a second-round pick in the thick of the team's battle for starting safety spots, will be filling a significant role on defense this season.
Last year, Murphy-Bunting gradually grabbed more and more playing time after being selected in the second round out of Central Michigan. He was fully entrenched in the defense by the time the Buccaneers visited his hometown, Detroit, in Week 15. The Bucs were trying to hold off a Lions rally in the second half when Murphy-Bunting jumped an out intended for Danny Amendola and returned it 70 yards for a clinching touchdown. His friends and family in attendance were thrilled.
Winfield, Jr. played most of his high school career in the Houston suburbs but he was still in Minnesota as a freshman as his father finished up his nine-year run as a Viking. Winfield, Sr. played 14 years in the NFL and made the Pro Bowl three times with the Vikings. It's fair to consider Minneapolis as at least one of Winfield, Jr.'s hometown.
The Vikings come to Tampa in Week 14, by which time Winfield could possibly be in the starting lineup, or at least getting a good amount of snaps on defense. He could pull a Murphy-Bunting and turn in a game-changing play against his father's former team.
…Shaquil Barrett, The…
Never mind. Nobody is matching the leap that Barrett made in 2019. From 14.0 sacks in four seasons for the Broncos to an NFL-leading and team-record 19.5 sacks in his first season as a Buccaneer. That was way more than the Buccaneers could have ever hoped for when they signed him and it would be extreme hubris to expect something like that to happen again.
…Lavonte David, The Under-Appreciated Veteran Who Turns in One Fantastic Season After Another
Lavonte David, obviously.