In discussing the upcoming free agency period and his team's salary cap flexibility on Wednesday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht noted part of the philosophy that drove the team's roster construction in 2020. Said Licht: "I think last year proved that a lot of depth at key positions helped us get to our goal, winning the Super Bowl."
The first two goals for Licht, Bruce Arians and the Buccaneers as they transitioned from 2019 to 2020 were to keep the top of the depth chart intact on defense and address the most important position on the team with, if possible, the best to ever play that position. They succeeded, with the March 20 signing of quarterback Tom Brady the centerpiece move in building a championship roster, but they were far from done. The rest of the free agency period featured some signings and re-signings that built or maintained depth on the offensive line and all three levels of the defense. But even then they weren't done.
Some of the moves that followed in April and September and even October were of a different variety. They addressed positions that already seemed to have at least reasonable if not quite good depth. Those additions would prove to be key parts of the Super Bowl puzzle, too. As we count down the 15 most significant moves in building the Buccaneers' Super Bowl-winning 2020 roster, we get to one of the moves in that category to start the week.
Note: The countdown we will be constructing over the next three weeks does roughly progress towards the most impactful moves at the end, but it is not strictly a ranking. There's not much of a distinction to be drawn between moves listed near each other in the countdown, and we're not trying to say that any particular re-signing on defense was more important than the next. There is, however, a clear number one. These are also not in chronological order.
Countdown: Top 15 Transactions in the Buccaneers' Pursuit of the 2020 Championship
10. Signed WR Antonio Brown, October 27
The Buccaneers almost inarguably had the best pair of starting wide receivers in 2019, with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans ranking second and fourth, respectively, in the NFL in receiving yards per game and combining for 17 touchdowns. That didn't stop them from drafting Minnesota wideout Tyler Johnson in April to add to a group that also included 2019 draft pick Scotty Miller and 2018 draft pick Justin Watson. There didn't appear to be any deeper position on the team, particularly when Miller clearly appeared to be taking a big step forward in his second training camp.
But depth can disappear, or at least temporarily dematerialize, quickly in the NFL if the injury bug bites. By midseason, Evans, Miller and Godwin had all dealt with or were still dealing with injuries that knocked them out of some games and limited them for many others. Even though all three of those players were on the field for the Bucs' Week Six drubbing of Green Bay, Licht had seen enough. There was an option to add depth at this position and he was going to pursue it.
The Buccaneers beat the Packers on October 18. The first report that they were going to sign Brown surfaced on October 23, two days before a Week Seven Game in Las Vegas. Brown was officially signed on the following Tuesday but was not eligible to play in a game until Week Nine. And sure enough, Godwin fractured a finger making a touchdown catch in Las Vegas, an injury that cost him one game and forced him to wear a splint on his left hand for several more weeks.
The signing of Brown was in, one sense, definitely an insurance policy against any more injuries to the receiver group. Had the Buccaneers made the postseason the year before, they would have had to navigate it without both Evans and Godwin, both of whom suffered significant hamstring pulls in December. But as Brown rounded back into form after 14 months away from the game it also became clear that he was a very good addition to those two in the Bucs' prevalent three-receiver sets, in which he would mostly play on the outside while Godwin moved into the slot.
Brown played eight regular-season games after signing with the Bucs and had 49 or more yards in five of them. He heated up significantly down the stretch, with 20 catches for 266 yards and four touchdowns in the last three games. And when Evans went down with a knee injury early in the Week 17 win over Atlanta, Brown moved into the primary X role and caught 11 passes for 138 yards and two scores. Early on he was most useful on quick-hitting completions that allowed him to use his run-after-the-catch ability, but towards the end of the season he was successfully targeted on some deep passes downfield.
Brown finished fourth on the team with 45 catches for 483 yards and those four scores in the regular season. He missed the NFC Championship Game with a knee injury, and that helped limit his postseason totals to eight catches for 81 yards, though he did score twice, including a big touchdown right before halftime in the Super Bowl.
The Buccaneers built great depth at receiver going into the 2020 season but when that depth was threatened Licht made sure to bolster it even as the season progressed. The Bucs ended up with one of the deepest group of skill position players in the league and it showed when they averaged just under 34 points per game during the eight-game winning streak that led to the Super Bowl championship.