The Tampa Bay Buccaneers formed their first 53-man roster of 2022 on Tuesday, but that doesn't mean every question about the team has been answered. In fact, though Tuesday's league-wide action is commonly referred to as "final cuts," the roster that emerged that evening is surely not final. Expect some more moves in the days ahead.
In the broader sense, though, there are some conclusions we can draw, at least tentatively, from the specific 53-man group the Buccaneers carved out of their larger preseason roster. On offense, the Bucs kept seven wideouts and, with Rob Gronkowski no longer in the mix, may become even more of a receiver-driven offense. The defense has massive size along the front and will hope to overwhelm opposing offenses at the point of attack. And on special teams the team chose to stick with a proven track record at placekicker over the potential of a powerful young leg.
Over the next three days, we are going to look at some of the questions that remain in those three phases of the game after the 53-man roster took shape on Tuesday, starting today with the offense. The Buccaneers have had one of the most explosive attacks in the NFL in the two seasons that Tom Brady has been at the helm and appear poised to be among the league's elite in 2022, as well. However, there are still some areas in which the final outcome is uncertain. In fact, it may take a few games for the offense to round into whatever form proves most successful.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2022 53-man roster.
"You don't want to pick one thing to do well and then they stop that, and you can't do another," said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "You want to try to work everything every week. We won't know what kind of team we are until about four weeks into the season. We're still mixing and matching things defensively and offensively. Until that roster settles down and we get guys where we want them and how we want them – depending on who we are playing, that's what kind of team we are going to be. But we want to be multiple. We don't want to be one-dimensional on either side."
As the Buccaneers prepare for the first game that actually counts on September 11 in Dallas, here are three questions we still have about the offense.
1. What will the backfield rotation look like?
For the third time in five years, the Buccaneers used a Day Two draft pick on a running back, picking up Arizona's Rachaad White in the third round this past April. As it turned out, neither of the two backs chosen before him – Ronald Jones in the second round in 2018 and Ke'Shawn Vaughn in the third round in 2020 – became heavily involved in the offense as rookies. Jones had 77 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown in 2018; Vaughn had 143 and one in 2020. Jones did nearly have a 1,000-yard rushing season in 2020 and Vaughn may still emerge this year or next, but neither impacted the Bucs plans right away.
There are early indications it could be different this time. White has shown burst between the tackles and has looked fluid running routes and catching the football. Judging by the rotation in the three preseason games, the rookie seems to be second in the rotation behind Leonard Fournette, who was far and away the team leader with 249 offensive touches last year despite missing the last three games. Fournette was also leading all NFL running backs in receptions with 69 at the time of his December hamstring injury. If White can show in the early weeks of the season that he is a dynamic weapon for Brady, he could eat into Fournette's touch and reception shares and become a significantly part of the offense on a weekly basis.
That said, Fournette is clearly still the lead back after he finally got the coveted multi-year contract this past spring. He has a strong connection with Brady, allowing them to tweak some plays in real time, and he is a trusted pass blocker. Fournette averaged more than 90 yards from scrimmage per game in 2021 while producing career highs in both yards per carry (4.5) and yards per touch (5.1). He's still only 27 and he's only logged 200 or more carriers in two of his first five NFL seasons, so there's no reason to expect any sort of decline soon.
Vaughn also showed during the preseason that he can produce out of the backfield, and Bowles noted after the last outing that the third-year back is displaying the type of cut-back runs that haven't been a part of his game in his first two seasons. Veteran Giovani Bernard, a talented pass-catcher out of the backfield and a good option on third downs, was also retained though he has been sidelined for several weeks due to injury.
The Buccaneers appear to have more than enough talent in the offensive backfield to produce an effective ground game. How the football is shared among those four backs, though, remains to be seen.
2. Will the new-look offensive line approach last year's star-studded group in terms of its pass protection?
There's no reason to sugarcoat it: The offensive line is the most uncertain part of Tampa Bay's offense heading into the 2022 season.
That doesn't mean it is necessarily going to be a problem, just that there is a lot left still to be proven. Tampa Bay sent three starting linemen to the Pro Bowl last season, but one of those (left guard Ali Marpet) has retired and another (center Ryan Jensen) is out due to injury until at least late in the season. Meanwhile, starting right guard Alex Cappa left for Cincinnati in free agency.
Thus, the Buccaneers will go into the season with new starters at all three spots between tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs. Shaq Mason, acquired early in the offseason in a trade with New England, slides easily into the right guard spot, offering plenty of experience and even a previous connection with Brady. However, second-year man Robert Hainsey and rookie Luke Goedeke project as the starters at center and left guard, respectively, and neither has a regular-season NFL start under their belts.
Of course, the Buccaneers drafted Hainsey and Goedeke with the belief that they would end up in the starting lineup before long; if anything, the timetable has simply sped up. Both are rugged blockers and will probably keep the Bucs' ground game at least on the same level it was in 2021. The larger question is how effective they will be in protecting Brady. Last year, the Buccaneers allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL (23) despite attempting the most passes (731). That obviously sets the bar extremely high; how close the rebuilt line in 2022 gets to that bar could determine how smoothly the offense operates.
3. How creative will the Bucs get with their revamped tight end corps?
Again, Tampa Bay's offense will be trying to replace the Gronk-sized production of a certain retiree, and as Bowles noted on several occasions during the offseason, that's not all necessarily going to come from the tight ends. White, Julio Jones and Russell Gage are all players who could help pick up the slack in different ways.
Even so, the Buccaneers have put together a four-headed answer at tight end that may lend itself to a wide variety of combinations. Assuming the coaches can find a way to keep all four of those tight ends active on game days (which will involve special teams implications…looking at you Ko Kieft and Cade Otton), they could provide an answer that is even greater than the sum of its parts.
Brate, the proven veteran who is among the team's all-time leaders in touchdown catches, becomes the primary target in the passing game, and indeed he caught two passes on the one and only drive that Brady helmed in the preseason. Veteran pick-up Kyle Rudolph remains an effective blocker and offers enough threat in the passing game to keep opponents guessing when he comes into the game, particularly in two tight end sets.
Otton, the fourth-round pick out of Washington, offers the potential of a true 'Y' tight end with his technically-sound blocking and enough juice in the passing game. Kieft is a fearsome blocker who, judging from the evidence we saw in preseason games, could potentially line up all over the formation to make use of that skill. He had more than one thunderous lead block on running plays in those August games.
How does Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich and his fellow architects of the offense make them all fit, particularly when there are so many talented wideouts they need to get on the field? As Coach Bowles said, we may not know for three or four weeks, making the development of the tight end room a key issue early in the season.
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