Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bouncing Back | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Bucs fans have questions about injured players, playoff seeding, injured players, free agent receivers, injured players and more

12-23 SS Mailbag

As you know by now, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers placed five players in the Pro Bowl this season, their highest total since 2015. With three other first alternates and a handful of other alternates, the Buccaneers could end up with a few more men in the all-star game, though they would obviously prefer to be unavailable due to Super Bowl considerations.

The Bucs' five 2021 Pro Bowlers include two players the team drafted (Ali Marpet and Tristan Wirfs) and three that joined the team as free agents (Tom Brady, Ryan Jensen and Shaq Barrett). The team's three first alternates are all homegrown stars (Mike Evans, Devin White and Antoine Winfield, Jr.). And that got me wondering…which is something I write quite a bit in mailbag intros.

In this case, my curiosity led to a pretty easy bit of research, as compared to some other sideways treks I've gone in the past. This question is simple: When you look at all the Pro Bowlers in team history, are you going to see more players the team drafted itself or more players they acquired in some other fashion? How many of the Buccaneers' Pro Bowlers had previously gotten that honor with another team?

Let's take a look.

To begin with, counting this year's haul the Buccaneers have now had a total of 104 Pro Bowl invitations earned by 48 different players. Derrick Brooks has the most with 11, Warren Sapp is next with seven. Mike Alstott's six are the most by a Tampa Bay offensive player.

Of those 48 Buccaneer Pro Bowlers, 25 were drafted by the team. The first Tampa Bay draftee to make the Pro Bowl for the team was the first college draftee in franchise history, period: defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, now a Hall of Famer. He was the first-overall pick in 1976 and he first made the Pro Bowl in 1979, a secondary honor to him also taking home the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. The next was linebacker David Lewis, drafted in 1977 and in the Pro Bowl in 1980. The most recent players drafted by the Bucs to make the Pro Bowl, before Marpet and Wirfs this year, were Mike Evans and Chris Godwin in 2019.

Twelve of the Bucs' 25 drafted Pro Bowlers were first-round picks. There are also five second-round picks on the list, sixth third-rounders and two fourth-rounders. Those two fourth-rounders were center Tony Mayberry (a three-time Pro Bowler) and linebacker Kwon Alexander. One of the Bucs' Pro Bowlers was an undrafted rookie, kick returner Clifton Smith in 2008.

Of the 48 Tampa Bay Pro Bowlers, 20 were men who had played for other NFL teams before coming to Tampa. The first was nose tackle Dave Pear, the Bucs' first-ever Pro Bowl selection in 1978. The next was Jimmie Giles, a 1978 trade acquisition who made the first of his four Pro Bowls in 1980. He was the first offensive player to make the all-star game for Tampa Bay.

So right now it's 26 drafted and rookie free agent players on one side and 20 veteran free agents on the other. How close the final split it is depends on how you want to classify tackle Donald Penn and linebacker Shelton Quarles, each of whom made one Pro Bowl. Both of those players spent a little time with other teams before coming to Tampa, but neither on an active roster. Personally, I think they belong in the first group as original Buccaneer finds, so that's where I'm going to put them. So it's 28 homegrown players and 20 mercenaries. That's actually a pretty even split.

Of those 20 players who had played for other teams before joining the Buccaneers, 12 of them had previously been to Pro Bowls with other teams, starting with Brady and his 14 trips as a Patriot. That leaves us with an exclusive group of eight players who had played elsewhere before coming to Tampa but first got all-star recognition as a Buccaneer. They are: linebacker Hardy Nickerson, tight end Jimmie Giles, tight end (and for the purposes of his Pro Bowl selection, long-snapper) Dave Moore, outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, nose tackle Dave Pear, cornerback Wayne Haddix, punter Josh Bidwell and finally, center Ryan Jensen this year.

And 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.

What chances do Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette have of returning this week against Carolina?

– yk_valleyboi.38 (via Instagram)

Little to none, I'm afraid, and I wouldn't dwell too long on the "little" part of that answer. It seems quite clear that Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette – both victims of hamstring injuries in Sunday's loss to the Saints – are out for at least this week and may not see much more action before the playoffs (assuming the Buccaneers clinch a spot).

That's not a tough prediction to make in the first place, because hamstring injuries are tricky. I really don't recall the last time a Buccaneer player left a game for good with a hamstring injury and then was able to play the very next week. For one thing, even if the player is feeling pretty good in that following week, teams understand that it is usually wise to be extra cautious with hamstring injuries. You can feel fine, start to sprint and – boom! – immediate setback. You really want to make sure you're fully over a hamstring injury before you try to return.

Furthermore, the way that Head Coach Bruce Arians has discussed the team's immediate plans for the offense moving forward, it seems obvious that he is not expecting Evans or Fournette to be back right away. On Monday, Arians noted that, for running back Ronald Jones, it's "his time now," and that Jones has a chance to do the same thing that Fournette did last December, emerging in a big way after Jones got hurt. Also, that whole signing-Le'Veon-Bell thing seems like a pretty good hint to me that the Bucs need some healthy bodies in the backfield. To be completely fair with yk_vallyeboi, his question was sent in on Tuesday afternoon, before the Bell news broke.

As for Evans, knowing him he will push to be back as soon as possible, so perhaps he will return before the regular season is over. I think that decision could hinge on what happens in the next week or two and how much the Bucs have left to play for in the last two games. But I don't think you'll see him this week. He did not practice on Wednesday and Arians talked after practice about how the younger receivers are getting a chance to practice this week for the actual roles they'll be playing on Sunday in Charlotte.

Sorry, don't mean to be a downer. I wish I could answer your question with better news. I think the big-picture view, however, is that unlike the horrible Chris Godwin news, the Buccaneers do have a chance to get both of these critical players back into action when and if they make the playoffs.

If the Bucs win out, what do they need to happen to secure the number one seed in the NFC?

– bucs_uk (via Instagram)

Okay, so setting the scene here, the Buccaneers are currently in the third spot in the conference standings, with a 10-4 record identical to those of Dallas and Arizona. Green Bay is in the top spot with an 11-3 record. Dallas gets the tiebreaker right now thanks to a better conference record than the Bucs and Cardinals, and Tampa Bay slots in third thanks to a better strength of victory than Arizona. The only other team likely to factor in here is the Los Angeles Rams, who are also now 10-4 and could replace Arizona as the NFC West leaders.

So if the Buccaneers win out, they will be 13-4. The first thing Tampa Bay will need – and I'm sorry, but you're not going to like this – is for Green Bay to lose two of their final three games. The Packers finish with home games against Cleveland and Minnesota and a trip to Detroit. I've tried all three scenarios in which the Packers win two of those three games, and none of them give the top spot to the Buccaneers. In every case, Green Bay still wins a tiebreaker of 13-4 teams because they have a better conference record, either 10-2 or 9-3 as compared to the Bucs' 6-4. That loss to the Saints really did a number on the Bucs' number-one seed chances.

By the way, the Cowboys can still take the top seed if they win out and the Packers lose once. That's because Dallas is 8-1 in conference games and could finish 11-1…with their only NFC loss coming to the Bucs in Week One. Wild.

The good news is, if Green Bay does lose twice, the Bucs will definitely get the top seed if they win out. It helps that Dallas and Arizona play each other in Week 17. If Dallas also wins out and the Bucs and Cowboys are tied at the top at 13-4 each, that Week One win in Tampa would be the tiebreaker. If the Cardinals win out, the Bucs would beat them on common games. There is one teeny little problem, though. If the Cardinals lose one game and the Rams win out, Los Angeles will win the NFC West. If Dallas also wins out, they would get the top seed among the three 13-4 teams on conference record. If Dallas loses a game and the Bucs and Rams are the only two 13-4 clubs, Los Angeles wins the tiebreaker thanks to the Bucs' Week Three loss in L.A.

So, to recap: The Bucs need to win out, they need two losses by Green Bay, and they need either Arizona to win out or the Rams to lose one game.

It's clear as day, isn't it?

Now that Chris Godwin is out for the season, who will fill that spot?

– wchristopher179 (via Instagram)

What are the chances that the Bucs pursue a free agent WR (Larry Fitzgerald for example)?

– chefmikeml (via Instagram)

Let's do these two together.

That first email is the million-dollar question, isn't it? It's hard to overstate how important Godwin has been to the Buccaneers' offense. He is the team's leading receiver in both yards and receptions, and it's not particularly close. And that's on a roster that includes Mike Evans! He's also the team's best option in the slot, he's one of the best blocking receivers in the NFL and he's second in the NFL in yards after the catch. Largely because of how defenses are choosing to defend the Buccaneers this year, trying hard not to give up too many "no risk-it, no biscuit" shots downfield, Tom Brady has had his most success throwing quick timing throws and letting his best playmakers cook. Godwin was the best option for that type of play, which is why he had 98 catches through 13 and a half games.

So, I'm sorry, as encouraging as the "next man up" mantra is, and how thoroughly I think the Bucs buy into it, there isn't one single player available, on the Bucs' roster or out there on the street, who can step in right now and completely replicate what Godwin was doing.

So you adjust. The return of Antonio Brown will help. He is also very good at getting big gains out of quick throws and I'm guessing Brady is going to be looking to him quite a bit. It may take a bit for Brown to get back to top form, though; he hasn't played since October and is still dealing with the effects of an ankle injury. Tyler Johnson may be able to duplicate some percentage of Godwin's slot-work, pre-snap motion and in-line blocking, but surely not at the same level. Breshad Perriman will be back soon to give the Bucs another outside threat. And hopefully Evans isn't sidelined too long.

Strictly just answering the original question, when Evans is back I guess it will be Antonio Brown stepping in as the other starter in Godwin's place and some combination of Johnson, Perriman and Scotty Miller as the third receiver. The Bucs could also go with more two-TE and more four-wide sets to make use of Rob Gronkowski, Cam Brate, O.J. Howard and Miller. Honestly, I think this is a puzzle for Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich to piece together, and the final result isn't going to look exactly like the passing attack the Bucs had with Godwin in the mix.

And no, chefmikeml, I don't think the Bucs are going to search for outside help like Fitzgerald to help the receiving corps. Bruce Arians said as much on Monday. They did find Le'Veon Bell to help out with the backfield while Fournette is out, but I believe they are going to try to make it work with their existing options at wide receiver.

What do the Bucs have to do this week against Carolina to bounce back from the loss to the Saints?

– thomasprob_ (via Instagram)

Offensively, I think they have to tailor their game plan around what they currently have. On Wednesday, Bruce Arians said that the Bucs' injury situation at wide receiver did not necessarily mean they would run the ball more, but if Ronald Jones gets hot that could change on the fly. As I discussed above, Scotty Miller (and Jaelon Darden) are not perfect analog replacements for Godwin, but they have their own strengths that the Bucs could emphasize with a week of practice to get them ready, as opposed to the emergency situation last Sunday night. And the Bucs need to lean on their offensive line, which just put three players in the Pro Bowl.

Defensively, things are already trending in the right direction and the Bucs need to get that momentum going. Depending upon which quarterback the Panthers start, the Buccaneers will need to shut down that running threat, as they did against Taysom Hill (not so much against Josh Allen) and then pin their ears and get after him in the backfield.

But in a more big-picture way, the key is simply to roll up their sleeves, do what they've been doing all season, not panic and put this last game behind them. Last year, in Week Nine, the Buccaneers lost a Sunday night game at Raymond James Stadium to the Saints, 38-3. A fourth-quarter field goal evaded a shutout, but you could argue that loss was worse than the 9-0 shutout by those same Saints in yet another night game last Sunday. (Worse as a game defeat, though the injuries the Bucs sustained in this year's game probably make that one a more damaging outcome.)

That 2020 game snapped a three-game winning streak in which the Bucs had started to feel pretty good about themselves. There was plenty of gloom and doom the following week and things got worse when a very lengthy flight delay the following Saturday got the Bucs into their next destination after midnight before the next game. That game: at Charlotte to face a struggling Panthers team. The Bucs shook off all that adversity and not only won 46-23 but also, amazingly, scored on 10 straight possessions.

I always go back to the end of the 1999 season, in which a Buccaneers team that had won six straight games went to Oakland and somehow got steamrolled, 45-0, to a 6-7 Raiders team. There were no lasting effects. The Bucs won their next two against Green Bay and Chicago, advanced all the way to the NFC Championship Game and came within one late Ricky #@& Proehl touchdown catch of going to the Super Bowl. Basically what I'm saying is that the Bucs simply have to believe that they are still a very, very good team and play up to their capabilities, so that one bad loss doesn't turn into something more. I think that's exactly what they will do.

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