The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV, so it stands to reason that a majority of their players played quite well in 2020. Team sack leader Jason Pierre-Paul was the team's only Pro Bowl selection and there were no first-team All-Pro nods for any Buccaneers, but that probably represents a flaw in the system rather than a lack of talent in Tampa.
Tom Brady, Mike Evans, Devin White and Carlton Davis were among the Bucs who had enormously successful seasons. Tristan Wirfs was an instant star and he had company on the line with Ali Marpet, clearly now one of the NFL's best guards. Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette, Shaq Barrett, Lavonte David, Ndamukong Suh, Antoine Winfield, Jr., Ryan Succop…that's an incomplete list of other Buccaneers who made huge contributions to the Bucs' run to the title.
The Buccaneers hope to repeat with the virtually the exact same cast of characters, but there's no guarantee all of those players will hit the same benchmarks they did in 2020. Brady may not throw another 50 touchdown passes and White might not reach 9.0 sacks again. If the Buccaneers do successfully defend their title, it will probably not be the result of the exact same formula that produced last year's Lombardi Trophy. Some players may contribute a little less…and some may contribute a lot more.
That latter group is what we'll be focusing on today. Well, mainly Carmen Vitali will be focusing on it, as this is another installment in our "Give Me Five" series. The gimmick: I give Carmen a topic and she has to come up with a Top Five list for it, then we reverse roles the next day. We've already had a list of Carmen's five favorite plays from 2020 and another one of my five biggest challenges the Bucs will face in 2021. Now it's Carmen's turn again and she is tasked with providing the following:
Today's Topic: Name five Buccaneers who will produce more in 2021 than they did in the 2020 Super Bowl season.
In my mind, I'm thinking of this from a statistical standpoint. Like, Jason Pierre-Paul had two interceptions last year but he'll raise that to five in 2021 (I purposely used an example I didn't think Carmen would choose). But however Carmen elects to interpret the topic is fine with me.
Carmen: It's hard to imagine a team that averaged the third-most points per game in the regular season could possibly be more productive but that's why I'm glad you individualized it, Scott. As a whole, the Bucs' offense was potent as ever, averaging 30.8 points a game and 289.1 passing yards per game, the latter of which is good for second-highest mark in the league last year. Quarterback Tom Brady made the most of the weapons at his disposal by incorporating pretty much everyone. With all those passing yards, the Bucs had just one 1,000-yard receiver – and thank goodness. Mike Evans made a mad dash that finished in dramatic fashion to the 1,000-yard mark, giving him the record for most consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to start a career in NFL history, surpassed his idol Randy Moss's record of six. Evans now stands alone in NFL annals there, too. And we'd love to see him extend that record this year.
He doesn't ultimately make the below list because I just expect him to stay consistent – not necessarily increase his production. On top of those receiving yards, he also had the most receiving touchdowns of his career in 2020 with a fitting 13.
But this list will focus on players I think could eclipse their 2020 production and we'll start, not necessarily in any order, in the receiver room.
5. Antonio Brown
This is kind of a gimme because not only is the NFL season one game longer but Brown will now be with the Buccaneers for an entire season. He joined Tampa Bay following his eight-game suspension at the midway point of the year and ended up with 45 receptions for 483 yards and four touchdowns. He'd also nab a score in Super Bowl LV.
Prior to his 2019 season that really wasn't, Brown had six-straight seasons going well over 1,000 yards. In fact, his lowest receiving total between 2013 and 2018 was 1,284. He scored 12 touchdowns that year. His single-season record is a whopping 1,698 set back in 2014 and in 2018 he had a career-high 15 touchdowns in a single season. So yeah, I think it's safe to say he eclipses 483 yards playing a full season, as he's expected to.
4. O.J. Howard
Ok, I'm getting the gimmes out of the way. Howard's season was obviously cut short last year by an Achilles injury but he's aiming to be ready for training camp and full-go for the 2021 season.
Before getting hurt, Howard averaged 13.3 yards per catch through four games played. He ended up with just 143 yards and two touchdowns. At full health, Howard is a matchup nightmare that you have to think the Bucs will utilize him however they can. He's big enough to block but fast enough to run past linebackers and has the hands of a receiver. Here's to hoping he stays healthy this year and we finally see what he's capable of in 2021.
3. Leonard Fournette
Let's just stick with offense here, shall we? I put Fournette here because I think he really came into his own in the playoffs. After a regular season where he had just 367 yards on 97 carries with six rushing touchdowns, Fournette exploded in the postseason. He nearly matched his 16-game total across the Bucs' four playoff games, amassing 300 yards on 64 carries with three touchdowns.
I'd like to see him continue more on that pace as he enters 2021 in his second year in Tampa Bay's offense. I'm also hoping for more of a balanced offensive attack in general that includes a bolstered run game. The Bucs were 9-1 in the regular season when they topped 100 yards on the ground, the lone loss being the forgettable Thursday Night game in Chicago. We don't need to go there.
2. Antoine Winfield Jr.
As good as the young safety played in his rookie year, that was far from his ceiling I think. Winfield was known at Minnesota for being a ball hawk and I'd like to see more of that, since we're talking about production here. Winfield just narrowly missed having his first NFL interception be against a player his dad picked off in Aaron Rodgers in Week Six. But by football rules, that means he finally got himself the very next game in Las Vegas against the Raiders. It ended up being his only interception of the regular season, though he did end up with another in the Super Bowl, which was pretty neat.
Not only would I like to see an uptick in interceptions for Winfield, but is it too greedy of me to also want him to be more involved in the pass rush, too? Through his first three games of his NFL career, Winfield managed two sacks, one of which was a strip sack and he went on to nab another sack against his dad's former team at home in the game against Minnesota. Now in his second year under defensive mad scientist Todd Bowles, who was himself a safety (and a Super Bowl-winning one at that), I have to think there's some more creativity coming not only Winfield's way but the whole defense. That should lend itself to production and leads me to my final bullet…
1. The Bucs' Secondary
Yes, I know this is probably cheating especially after I commended Scott for individualizing this exercise but this was surprisingly hard given the whole 2020 success thing, okay?
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said earlier this offseason that the Bucs' defense is coming for the number one spot this season. They ranked sixth in overall defense in 2020 and again had the league's leading rushing defense. Where does that leave the improvement? Well, the pass defense.
Granted, that doesn't all rest on the secondary's shoulders. A pass rush that now includes rookie outside linebacker Joe Tryon should very much help by forcing quarterbacks into errant throws or maybe no throws, at all. But I want to see more production in the form of interceptions from the defensive backs. The Bucs have the fourth-most takeaways of any team since 2019 and have scored the second-most points off said takeaways in that same span. Translation: takeaways matter. Yet, in 2020, they had only the 11th-best interception rate in the league and had 15 interceptions on the year. That was up from their 12 in the first year under Bowles but to me, that's all the more reason that number should go up again this year.
I'd also like to see production in the form of a lack thereof from opponents. The Bucs' defense allowed 246.6 yards per game in the regular season, which ranked 21st. You'd ideally like that to be less but I will say, before you get all doom and gloom – the Bucs came through when it mattered. They allowed just 22.2 points per game, which is good for a top 10 ranking, but even better, they had the fourth-best point differential in the league. Who knew that limiting points by the opposition while your offense subsequently scores a lot of points could yield such good results?
Scott's Thoughts: Sure, Brown and Howard are easy choices, but you have to take the layups when they're given to you. At least that's what I understand after reading 26 articles about Ben Simmons. Who knows if we'll see vintage 1,300-yard Brown again, but he seems like a lock to get past 436. And please, can we just get one 16-game O.J. Howard season. I want to know what that looks like at the end.
Winfield's a great choice but, yeah, that last one is cheating a little bit, albeit a worthy goal. One more player I'd like to see on this list is second-year man Tyler Johnson. Johnson had a tough time finding targets as a rookie what with all other superstar pass-catchers crowding Tom Brady's vision and he ended up with just 15 catches for 101 yards. But a couple of those catches were spectacular, especially the third-down play in New Orleans in the playoffs. Johnson's path to more targets in 2021 isn't obvious right now, but you never know how the season is going to play out. Johnson may have to wait a while to have the sort of meteoric rise that another mid-round pick, Chris Godwin, had in his second and third seasons, but I think that eventual outcome is possible.