In last week's mailbag I was asked to pinpoint some possible dark horse candidates to make the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 53 man roster. I came up with four names, though I did not think that all four would make it through the cuts. As it turned out, I was two for four. Guard Brandon Walton and inside linebacker Olakunle survived the cuts and are currently on the active roster; wide receiver Deven Thompkins and safety Nolan Turner were waived and subsequently re-signed to the practice squad.
This type of question gets a little easier to answer as training camp and the preseason games progress, and as a few rounds of cuts occur and the last one draws close. I think it would have been a lot harder to point to legitimate dark horse candidates on the day camp started. Had I tried at the time I might have guessed Thompkins, since he had been drawing praise since mini-camp. I doubt I would have named Fatukasi and I'm certain would not have guessed Walton.
At the start of camp, if asked to guess which offensive linemen would make it, I likely would have listed Donovan Smith, Aaron Stinnie, Ryan Jensen, Shaq Mason, Tristan Wirfs, Robert Hainsey, Nick Leverett, Luke Goedeke, Josh Wells and Fred Johnson, if going with 10. If I only got nine, I would have probably been deciding between Leverett and Johnson.
Unfortunately, the injuries to Jensen and Stinnie changed the picture a bit, though Jensen was still carried through to the 53-man roster. Fortunately, when forced to shuffle around a bit, the Buccaneers found some promising young players, and the one I hadn't seen coming was Walton. The former Florida Atlantic standout had spent all of 2020 on the Steelers' practice squad and all of 2021 on the Bucs' practice squad, so he hadn't seen any regular-season action yet. But the Buccaneers put him at guard, found that he had flexibility to play on both sides and even gave him some first-team reps in the multi-player battle to replace Ali Marpet at left guard. Displaying that flexibility paid off because you need a couple multi-position players on reserve when you are only dressing eight linemen on game days. Walton could even fill in at his original left tackle position.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2022 53-man roster.
Anyway, I'm glad I was wrong to not think of Walton at first (but not that the Jensen and Stinnie injuries happened, obviously), because it's a good story.
Walton, who played at Seminole High, considers the Buccaneers his home team and he's been a fan his entire life. He was five when Tampa Bay won Super Bowl XXXVII and he remembers the neighborhood celebrations. Now he gets a chance to help that team chase another championship.
"It's good to be here," said Walton on Wednesday, his first official day on an NFL regular-season roster. "I'm from the area. I'm just working hard…being from FAU, being from the Seminole/Largo area, just having it come full circle. Now I'm on my home team and I'm ready to contribute every day."
NFL players are by rule a confident lot, and it's quite possible that Walton reported to camp in late July fully expecting to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. But it's fair to say that the odds were steep, and if he did harbor any doubts they would have started to fade away as the weeks went by in camp and things started to go his way.
"Things started clicking for me in camp and I just knew that it was my time," said Walton. "So now I've just got to keep moving forward."
During the emotionally difficult hours that are the NFL's final round of cuts every year, it is the stories like Walton's that provide some light. He may have been a dark horse for the roster at one point, but he's on the team now, and it just happens to be the home team.
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 email@example.com.
*Should I be worried that we lost all the preseason games, do they mean anything? *
- @leandrobelandria (via Instagram)
On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the least worried, I think you should be at a negative 5. Maybe negative 10.
Now, believe me, if the Buccaneers had gone 3-0 in the preseason I would similarly say that you should have absolutely no added confidence due to that fact. There is simply no correlation between the win-loss records of a team in the preseason and then the subsequent regular season. (I do admit, I don't know what to make of the Ravens and their 23 straight preseason victories. That's just strange.)
I've used this example before but all you have to do to see how meaningless preseason standings are is rewind a few years back to 2017, when the Cleveland Browns emerged from the August games with a sparkling 4-0 record while the New England Patriots limped into the regular season with a 1-3 mark. So of course, the Browns went on to the Super Bowl that year while the Patriots produced just the second 0-16 mark in NFL history.
No, wait, that's backwards. It was the Browns who went winless and the Patriots who ended up in a Super Bowl shootout with Nick Foles and the Eagles. At least the Browns were 4-16 overall if you count the preseason! The first 0-16 squad, the 2008 Detroit Lions, also went 4-0 in the preseason. There are countless examples and more are added every year. Such as:
The 2021 Packers – 0-3 preseason, 13-4 regular season
The 2021 Rams – 0-3 preseason, Super Bowl champions
The 2018 Cowboys – 0-4 preseason, 10-6 regular season, division title
The 2014 Colts – 0-4 preseason, 11-5 regular season, AFC title game
I could go on, but there's really no point. I was jumping around cherry-picking some of the most glaring examples I hit upon, but there are just an endless number of teams that went from something like a 1-3 preseason to a 10-win regular season, or a 4-0 preseason to a crappy record when they counted. If you're going to be concerned about the 0-3 Bucs this year, then you also need to worry about the 0-3 Chargers and 0-3 Vikings, both teams that I personally feel have legitimate playoff hopes (particularly the Chargers).
That said, I know it's not necessarily easy to take such a cavalier attitude towards a winless preseason. It kinda feels like it matters. I guess losing just sucks no matter what time of the year it happens. (As a corollary, if you play fantasy football do not under any circumstances pay attention to players' preseason stats. That's fool's gold, man.)
But we have to remind ourselves that the preseason is not really about winning games. I know, these players and coaches are hyper-competitive people and once a game starts they are all going to perform to the best of their capabilities because they want to win badly. But the real goals for a team in the preseason is to make roster and depth chart decisions, get maybe just a bit of warmup work for the starters and get through it as healthy as possible. And not necessarily in that order.
And the more specific goals of any two random teams playing each other in a preseason game may not match up in a way that lends itself to competitive football. For instance, one of the main goals the Buccaneers had for their 2022 preseason was to get a long, long look at second-year quarterback Kyle Trask, since he likely isn't going to throw another in-game pass until next year and the Bucs may by then be looking for a new starter. So Trask got tons of playing time, usually with deep reserves, and it was a productive time for him and the team. It didn't really lead to many points, but Trask had some encouraging moments. Now, do you really believe that Tampa Bay would have been held to 37 points in those three games if Tom Brady and his usual running mates were on the field the whole time?
Just remember, virtually all of the Buccaneers' starters were limited to a small amount of action in game three, and even then a few were held out, such as Chris Godwin, Russell Gage and Logan Ryan. Now, it's true that earlier today I listened to several coaches and players suggest state a belief that there is more quality depth all over the roster this season than in recent years, but the point of all that depth isn't to play all of it at the same time. You hope that you generally have the majority of your starters available, and then you occasionally have to call on that depth at one or two spots here or there. If you're down to the second and third levels of your depth chart at every position, you're basically talking about a whole new team, and one that shouldn't necessarily be expected to perform as well. That's what most of the preseason is like.
So, no, an 0-3 record in the preseason doesn't mean anything. Obviously, there are very high expectations for this team after it has gone 29-10 over the past two years, playoffs included, and with Brady back for another season. As always, there is no guarantee it will meet those expectations, but if it fails to do so it will have nothing to do with what we watched the past three Saturday nights.
What's the logic behind getting rid of Stuard and Johnson?
@zechspicer20 (via Instagram)
Well, it's different for each player, and in fact in a way the reasons for trading Grant Stuard and waiving Tyler Johnson are almost exact opposites.
The Buccaneers drafted Grant Stuard out of Houston in the seventh round in 2021 – with the last pick of the whole draft, in fact – largely with the idea that he could make an impact right away on special teams. Perhaps in the long run he could develop into at least a depth option on defense at inside linebacker. To his credit, Stuard did in fact do well in the kick-and-coverage phase of the game, leading the team with 11 special teams tackles, plus three more in the playoffs.
The Buccaneers also drafted Auburn inside linebacker K.J. Britt in the fifth round last year, and in the time since it has become clear that he is closer to becoming a dependable player on defense, while also contributing on special teams. Britt is being counted on as the primary reserve to both Lavonte David and Devin White this year, taking over the role filled by Kevin Minter the past three seasons. Also, the Buccaneers made a good find among the ranks of undrafted players this May, landing Rutgers inside linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi. Through playing time and the rotation at ILB during the preseason, it was evident that Fatukasi had passed Stuard on the depth chart for defense.
On Tuesday, as they worked to get their roster down from 80 players to 53, the Buccaneers found an interested trade partner and were able to send him to Indianapolis along with a 2023 seventh-round pick in order to get back a 2023 sixth-rounder. Head Coach Todd Bowles explained the decision on Wednesday.
"Grant was a good player on special teams, but we've got some guys who can play special teams – Fatukasi can play, Britt can play – we have some guys who can play special teams, plus they play linebacker. They were a little bit better at linebacker, but Grant was outstanding on special teams, and we needed help at both."
So, basically, the difference between Fatukasi/Britt and Stuard on defense outweighed the difference between Stuard and Fatukasi/Britt on special teams. The Bucs just believe they are getting more two-way value from Fatukasi and didn't want to carry a fifth off-ball linebacker at the moment because they wanted to go heavier at other spots (wide receiver, O-Line, tight end).
It's kind of the other way around with Johnson, in that the special teams were the deciding factor. The Buccaneers had some tough decisions to make at wide receiver because they were just incredibly deep at the position, well past the numbers they could realistically keep. The top four were clear: Godwin, Gage, Mike Evans and Julio Jones. After that the Buccaneers had to decide on two or three more from among Johnson, Jaelon Darden, Scotty Miller, Breshad Perriman, Deven Thompkins and Kaylon Geiger.
All have something to offer on offense but Bowles noted that, to make proper use of those fifth and sixth (and now seventh) spots on the receiver roster they need to be filled by players who also have value on special teams. That was where several others moved ahead of Johnson. The Bucs waived the former fifth-round pick on Tuesday, but it wasn't an easy decision.
"That was tough," said Bowles. "Again, we have a lot of receivers and when you get down to a fifth and sixth receiver – Jaelon returns punts and kicks, [and] Tyler was the sixth receiver to dress on Sundays. You've got to be able to play special teams and contribute. [He is] a great pass receiver, very good catcher – he can catch the ball – [he's] a very good player, but no special teams value. Once you get down past the top four and five, you've got to have more value then just catching the football because you won't dress on Sundays. You know, that was a big reason behind it. We felt 'BP' (Perriman) can do a lot of things on special teams, we feel Scotty can do some things as well. So that's what it came down to."
When all four of Evans, Godwin, Gage and Jones are healthy at the same time, there probably won't be many offensive snaps to go around for the fifth, sixth and seventh receivers. Now, there is always the possibility of injury, and at some point Darden, Miller or Perriman could end up with bigger roles on offense. In the meantime, they can add value on special teams and thus be dressed for games and always available for a play or two if needed.
*Which quarterback match up against Tom are you most excited for? *
- @Matthew.jowers.73 (via Instagram)
All of them? It's ridiculous how many possibly MVP-caliber quarterbacks there are on the Bucs' schedule this year. Some have better chances than others, but tell me if you would be absolutely shocked if the 2022 NFL MVP was Dak Prescott, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Matthew Stafford, Joe Burrow or Kyler Murray. In the first month alone the Bucs get Dak, A-A-Ron and Mahomes, along with the Jameis Winston revenge factor.
There's a little lull in the quarterback wattage in the next three weeks with Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Carolina but then here comes Jackson and Stafford back-to-back. The last month of the season features consecutive matchups with Burrow and Murray. And who knows, new San Fran starter Trey Lance might be a handful by then, particularly if he has turned into a dual run-pass threat.
For me, the tiebreaker here is that I want to see something new. I've seen the Brady-Rodgers duels of the last two years, and enjoyed them thoroughly, but now that's a been there-done that. (Man, am I spoiled.) Same thing with Prescott, Mahomes and Stafford, though it would be nice to see the Brady-led Bucs finally beat the Rams.
The Buccaneers have squared off against Murray before, but it was the year before Brady arrived. That could be interesting but for my personal taste it ranks a notch below my final two: Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow.
Brady and Jackson have done battle before, during the 2019 season that was Brady's swan song in New England and Jackson's MVP campaign. The Ravens got the upper hand, 37-20, with Jackson throwing one touchdown pass and running for two more scores. Brady threw for 285 yards and a touchdown but was intercepted once. The Ravens also scored on a 70-yard return of a Julian Edelman fumble. I have no doubt that Brady remembers that game well and would like to even the score.
In the end, though, I have to go with Burrow. He's the brash newcomer who seems to motivate his offensive teammates to another level. It seems like he's every bit as confident as Brady, even though he has about two decades less of proof of concept. Like Brady, he has a dynamic cast of weapons around him, led by the fascinating Ja'Marr Chase. To me Brady-Burrow reminds me a bit of Brady-Justin Herbert in 2020, though Herbert at the time was four games into his rookie season, not coming off a Super Bowl appearance like Burrow. That Bucs-Chargers game early in 2020 was a blast, one of the first ones in which the Brady-led Bucs offense started firing on all cylinders. Brady needed everything he could muster, including 369 yards and five touchdown passes, to will the Bucs past Herbert and the Chargers, 38-31. I could see a similar shootout taking place in Week 15 at Raymond James Stadium when the Bengals visit.
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