Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Looking Ahead to the Season | S.S. Mailbag 

The NFL's 2021 schedule is out and this week Bucs fans have questions regarding that season, such as practice squad rules, formidable opponents and the Bucs' offensive backfield

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Ryan Fitzpatrick, now a member of the Washington Football Team after two years in Miami, will start at quarterback for his ninth NFL team this fall, presumably. He already holds the record among quarterbacks with starts for eight teams, a list that includes the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Before Miami and after (deep breath) the Rams, Bengals, Bills, Titans, Texans and Jets, Fitzpatrick stopped in Tampa for the 2017-18 seasons and started 10 games.

But you know what Fitzpatrick has never done across those eight teams, 16 seasons, 165 games, 146 starts and 3,069 passes? He's never played against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Assuming that Fitzpatrick is still at the helm for Washington in November, he'll finally get his chance to face off against the red and pewter. The Buccaneers are scheduled to play at Washington in Week 10, on November 14. That will certainly be interesting. We all know that the Fitzmagic can break out on any given Sunday.

Actually, it's an interesting year overall for the Buccaneers in terms of the quarterbacks they could face in 2021. There are some familiar faces of course – Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford (now a Ram) and possibly Cam Newton in New England. Still, thanks to the QB-heavy 2021 draft and some big-time trades (Carson Wentz to Indy, Sam Darnold to Carolina), there is a chance the Buccaneers could encounter a whopping 10 quarterbacks they've never faced before as starters.

That's not a given. Some of those 2021 draftees are going to have to fight for the starting job against a quarterback the Bucs have faced before, such as Newton, who now has rookie Mac Jones as a teammate. Justin Fields would have to beat out Andy Dalton in Chicago and second-overall pick Zach Wilson has to overcome…okay, it's probably going to be Wilson.

If those three rookies all win the jobs, they will face Tampa Bay's ferocious defense in Weeks Four (New England/Jones), Seven (Chicago/Fields) and 17 (Jets/Wilson). That's four, counting Fitzpatrick. Who else?

Well the Post-Drew Brees Era in New Orleans appears to be starting with either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill under center, at least for now. Winston, of course, played his first five seasons (2015-19) for the Buccaneers and while he made a couple brief appearances against the Bucs last year he did not start any games for the Saints. Likewise, the Bucs are familiar with Hill but none of his first four career starts at quarterback last year came against Tampa Bay.

The Carson Wentz trade likely put two more new QBs on the Bucs' schedule. Wentz never faced the Bucs among his 58 starts in Philadelphia. He was hurt early in 2018 when the Bucs and Eagles last met and the previous game between those two teams was in 2015, a year before he was drafted. The Bucs get Colts – and Wentz, presumably, in Week 12. And his move to Indianapolis along with the Eagles' decision to pass on a first-round quarterback last month means Jalen Hurts is likely to make his first start against the Buccaneers in Week Six.

Since Tampa Bay and the NFC South were last matched up with the AFC East in 2017, before the respective arrivals of Josh Allen in Buffalo and Darnold in New York, those two have not yet been exposed to the Bucs' defense. But now the AFC East has rolled around again, which puts Allen on the Bucs' schedule in Week 12. We already mentioned the Jets with Wilson in Week 17, but the Bucs also presumably get two looks at Darnold with the Panthers in Weeks 16 and 18. Man, it seems weird to type "Week 18," but I digress.

That AFC East cycle also brings another young quarterback into the Bucs' orbit. The Dolphins are rolling with 2019 first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa after not bringing Fitzpatrick back or drafting a competitor in April. The Bucs and Dolphins are scheduled to meet in Week Five.

So that's 10, in order of when they will (or could) start against the Buccaneers for the first time: Mac Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields, Jameis Winston/Taysom Hill, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Carson Wentz, Josh Allen, Sam Darnold and Zach Wilson. By the way, the first six quarterbacks on that list face the Buccaneers in consecutive games from Weeks Four through 10.

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 tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Will the expanded practice squad continue this season or will it be back to normal practice squad rules? How critical do you think the expanded practice squad is?

- @antoniobuttefrid (via Instagram)

I can give you an answer for that first question, Antonio, but not the answer. That's because the NFL and NFLPA have not yet decided upon the answer for 2021.

Before COVID-19 turned everything upside down last March, the NFL and NFLPA had inked a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and it included some new rules that were agreed upon even before the pandemic forced some other temporary changes. For instance, the new rule allowing teams to elevate players from the practice squad for games was pre-COVID-19 and is here to stay.

The new CBA did intend to expand practice squads, only more gradually than what we saw in 2020. They were going to expand to 12 in 2020 and 2021 and then to 14 in 2022 and beyond. However, when the two sides got together in the summer, just before training camps were about to begin, they agreed on some changes specifically to help teams manage their rosters during the pandemic. One of those was to expand practice squads to 16 players in 2020, with up to six of those players exempt from the restrictions on accrued seasons. In other words, teams could stock more established veterans on their practice squads if they so desired.

So here's the thing. If the league plays by the intended limit for 2021, the practice squad limit will be 12 players. However, the NFL has the option to adopt the same emergency rule changes from last year if the 2021 season starts under similar COVID-19 protocols as last year. So it's very possible there will be 16-man practice squads again this year, but that decision has not yet been made.

I thought the expanded practice squad proved to be a brilliant idea last year. I think it accomplished exactly what it was supposed to – give teams more flexibility to deal with roster issues caused by absences due to COVID-19 while also reducing the amount of player movement from team to team.

Look at the Buccaneers' ever-evolving regular-season rosters over the last five seasons. The total number of players who were with the team at some point – active, practice squad or some reserve list – has stayed pretty steady. From 2016 to 2020 those numbers were 89, 88, 94, 91 and 93. But the percentage of those players who joined the team at some point after the season had begun was lower in 2020 than the previous four years. Again, in order: 25, 18, 20, 21 and then just 15 last year (including only the regular season to make the comparison fair).

In each of those first four regular seasons, the percentage of players who spent time with the team but were not with the club to start the season was over 20%, peaking at 28.1% in 2016. Last year, it was 16.1%, and even that number was spiked at the very end of the season due to a fluky situation. The Bucs' entire specialist trio of punter Bradley Pinion, kicker Ryan Succop and long-snapper Zach Triner had to go on the COVID list for a couple days in Week 15 but were off it in time not to miss a game. As a precaution, the Buccaneers signed a trio of replacements to their practice squad, and then had to sign a second new punter (Matt Wile) after the first one (Dustin Colquitt) got signed to play for the Jaguars.

Overall, there just wasn't as much movement on the roster in 2020, and given the circumstances, that was a good thing.

Whether through COVID protocols or the original plan spelled out in the 2020 CBA, the practice squads are expanding and will be at 14 by next year. They have expanded a lot through the years; I remember when the limit was five players in the 1990s. To me, that's clearly a good thing – more jobs and opportunities for players, more flexibility and developmental chances for teams.

Who do you see as our most challenging opponent this season?

- @braden_russel15 (via Instagram)

…and…

With all the change up in the division, who do you see as the biggest threat this season?

- @diego.ephrum (via Instagram)

There are a number of good possible answers to Braden's question here. The team with the best record and the deepest advancement in the playoffs from last year on the Bucs' schedule is Buffalo, and I see no reason why the Bills won't be a formidable opponent again in 2021. If Josh Allen continues to ascend at a rate anywhere near what he did from 2019 to 2020, he's going to be a strong MVP candidate. The Bills managed to keep their two most important free agents, linebacker Matt Milano and right tackle Daryl Williams, and Emmanuel Sanders may be an upgrade over John Brown. The defense was pretty much middle-of-the-pack in 2020 and needed to apply more pressure but the Bills addressed that directly with their first two draft picks, Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham. Buffalo finished 13-3 and went to the AFC Championship game behind Allen and a high-scoring offense. If the defense jumps into the top 10, they could be a problem for the Bucs or any opponent.

And we can't count out the Saints, even with Drew Brees retiring. New Orleans has beaten the Buccaneers five times in a row in the regular season and won the last four division titles and they probably expect to make it five in a row in 2021. I mean, let's not forget that the Saints went 8-1 over the last two seasons in games that Brees missed. They had the NFL's fourth-best defense in 2020, kind of quietly, and the league's second-best scoring differential (+9.1 points per game). If Winston wins the job and has turnover problems, or if Hill wins the job but can't operate the offense as effectively as Brees, then maybe the Saints will slip a bit. But I'll believe it when I see it.

I included Diego's question above because I think I tangentially answered it with the paragraph above. I point out the Saints as one of the candidates to be the Bucs' most challenging opponent in 2021, but not the Falcons or the Panthers. I could be wrong about the Falcons if they can tighten up the defense and the Panthers if Darnold is the real deal, but the Saints seem like the surer bet to be contending for the division title in December.

I might also consider the Colts, the Patriots and the Dak-led Cowboys, but the first two have a little quarterback uncertainty and the last one has to prove it can field a better defense in 2021. All three could end up being prime contenders in 2021 but they don't seem like as sure a bet to me as, say, the Bills.

But none of those is my choice, actually. I don't know if anyone will find this surprising, but I'm most concerned about the Los Angeles Rams. We won't have to wait long to find out if my concerns are warranted because the Bucs had to L.A. in Week Three.

That Rams defense is no joke and Aaron Donald is the single most disruptive defender in the NFL. The Rams got him some help up front in the middle rounds of the draft with Bobby and Earnest Brown a year after adding Leonard Floyd and getting outstanding results from the former Chicago first-rounder. The Rams have two superstars on defense with Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey and they saw cornerback Darious Williams blossom into a Pro Bowl-caliber player last year. Los Angeles led the league in scoring defense, allowing 18.5 points per game, and were the only team to hold opponents below 300 yards per outing.

Meanwhile, it wasn't that long ago that the Los Angeles passing game was tearing it up with a deep group of pass-catchers like Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds and tight end Tyler Higbee. You may recall but Kupp and Woods topping double digits in catches and 130 in yards against Tampa Bay just last November. Reynolds is gone but Kupp, Woods and Higbee remain and have been joined by DeSean Jackson and second-round draft pick Tutu Atwell.

Most importantly, the Rams may have made a significant upgrade in the person distributing the ball to all those electric weapons when they traded Jared Goff (and some other stuff) to the Lions for Matthew Stafford. The Bucs have seen Stafford often enough to know what he's capable of, and he could quickly get Sean McVay's offense back to its peak with Goff.

Thus, it's the Rams that stand out to me because I know their defense will be one of the best in the league and Stafford could transform the offense into the same. Now that would be scary.

Do you see Ronald Jones hitting 1000 yards this season? Maybe Giovani Bernard?

- @eliav.bowman (via Instagram)

To start with the second half of that question, no I don't see Bernard as someone who is likely to rush for 1,000 yards in 2021. That's not meant as a slight to the newest member of the Bucs' backfield; I say that simply because he never had a 1,000-yard season over eight years in Cincinnati and now he's joining a group that arguably has two starters in front of him plus a third-round pick from just last year. It would be shocking if Bernard got enough handoffs to get close to 1,000 yards on the ground.

(Note that I am assuming the questioner here means 1,000 rushing yards, because that's the benchmark usually associated with running backs, not yards from scrimmage. Bernard did top 1,000 yards from scrimmage in each of his first three NFL seasons but has not done so since. Jones had 1,148 yards from scrimmage last year, so that wouldn't be a wild prediction for him in 2021.)

The real question here is how Leonard Fournette's playoff explosion is going to affect how the Buccaneers' dole out the handoffs this season. Because we know Jones can get to 1,000 rushing yards if he gets enough touches and avoids injury. Last year, he was sitting pretty with 900 yards and three games to go, but injuries and a stint on the COVID list knocked him off track. He only played in one of those three games, and while he played well in Week 17 he topped out at 978 yards.

Jones was clearly the favored back for the Bucs for most of the regular season. Even after missing those two games he finished with almost exactly double the number of carries as Fournette (192 to 97). Not counting runs by quarterbacks or receivers, Jones got 59.1% of the Bucs carries last year, and 67.4% of the RB carries in the 14 games in which he played. If he continues to get 60% to two-thirds of the handoffs in 2021, yes, I think he can hit 1,000 yards.

That seems like a big "if" at this point. Not that it would be shocking, but there are just too many variables right now to predict with much confidence how the ball will be distributed. The Bucs may try to run the ball more this year after ranking 30th in rush percentage last year, which would mean more opportunities for everyone. However, they may also want to mix Fournette in a little bit more (or possibly a lot more) after his star turn in the playoffs. They did bring him back on a new contract after all. Will Vaughn get more than the 26 carries he netted as a rookie? That seems quite possible. And if Bernard happens to win the job as the third-down back, how does that affect the snap counts for both Jones and Fournette.

I don't think Bruce Arians is going to sit down during training camp and give us direct and unyielding answers to any of those questions. Rather, I think the shape of the Buccaneers' backfield is going to be something that evolves in the early weeks of the season. If Jones seizes the day and proves to be the team's best back, then he'll get more carries and possibly hit that 1,000-yard mark he barely missed in 2020.

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