The NFL season begins on Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium, and so does its noncorporeal offspring, fantasy football. And it starts with a bang.
A majority of fantasy team owners probably have at least some stake in this incredible list of players who will take the field for the Kickoff Game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys: Tom Brady, Dak Prescott, Mike Evans, Amari Cooper, Chris Godwin, CeeDee Lamb, Antonio Brown, Michael Gallup, Rob Gronkowski, Dalton Schultz, Ronald Jones, Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette. Tampa Bay's defense and both kickers will be in play for some managers, as well.
On paper, and from a standpoint of both real and imagined football, this one looks like it could be a high-scoring affair. It could even be the most explosive game on the NFL's Week One docket. Of course, the Buccaneers have been there before.
Just three short years ago, Tampa Bay went to New Orleans for its season opener and a wild shootout broke out. With Ryan Fitzmagic tossing around 50-yard touchdowns like they were beads at Mardi Gras, the Bucs raced out to a 48-24 lead and then held on for dear life in an eventual 48-40 decision. It wasn't just the highest-scoring season opener in franchise history, it was the highest-scoring Week One game in NFL history.
Which got me to thinking as we await the game on Thursday night: What have been the most prolific individual Week One performances in Buccaneers history? Believe it or not, Fitzpatrick's four-touchdown outing in 2018 is not the team record for Week One touchdown passes. Let's look at the Bucs' record-holders in Week One games over the team's 45-season history.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 53-man roster.
- Passing Touchdowns: 5 by Steve DeBerg, vs. Atlanta, 1987
- Passing Yards: 417 by Ryan Fitzpatrick, at New Orleans, 2018
- Passer Rating: 156.2 by Ryan Fitzpatrick, at New Orleans, 2018
- Completions: 28 by Brad Johnson, at New Orleans, 2008; and Josh Freeman, vs. Detroit, 2011
- Receptions: 9 by James Wilder, vs. Detroit, 1983
- Receiving Yards: 157 by Bruce Hill, vs. Philadelphia, 1988
- Touchdown Receptions: Six players tied with 2
- Rushing Yards: 166 by James Wilder, at Chicago, 1985
- Rushing Touchdowns: 2 by Mike Alstott, at New England, 2000; and Lars Tate, at Green Bay, 1989
- Sacks: 2.5 by Warren Sapp, vs. San Francisco, 1997; Ervin Randle, at Detroit, 1990; and Kevin Kellin, vs. Atlanta, 1987
- Tackles (since 1987): 17 by Kwon Alexander, at Atlanta, 2016
- Interceptions: 2 by Brian Kelly, at Minnesota, 2005; Wayne Haddix, at Detroit, 1990; Mark Robinson, at Green Bay, 1989; and Neal Colzie, vs. Minnesota, 1981
If the Buccaneers' offense is as prolific as expected, or if the edge-rushing trio of Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka can start the season hot, maybe one of those Week One records listed above will fall. That would bode well for the Buccaneers and the game's final result. Personally, I'd most like to see somebody break up that six-person logjam for touchdown catches. I don't exactly have my hopes up, given that the Buccaneers have played 648 regular-season games to this point, and only four of them have included a player catching three or more touchdowns. Of course, one of those was Mike Evans (against the Giants in 2019), so you never know.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who's going to the lead in tackles?
- @codyking850 (via Instagram)
I think we're missing a few words here and the question is regarding who is going to lead the team in tackles in 2021. And I don't think we've done that one yet! I'm asked frequently to predict leading rushers and receivers, as well as who's going to be the sack king, but not often about the top tackler.
Maybe that's because there really aren't a lot of candidates to wade through. As always, we'll start with the "barring injury" caveat. Assuming injuries don't play a role in the final answer here, it almost has to be Devin White or Lavonte David, and White is the heavy favorite.
Start with last season. In his second year, White led the team with 140 tackles, which also ranked fifth in the entire NFL. David was next with 117 and no other Buccaneer defender reached triple digits. And that was with White missing the season finale while on the COVID list. Safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., was next with 91 tackles, but that's a pretty distant third. Yes, David led the team with 122 tackles in White's 2019 rookie campaign, but remember that White missed about a month of that season due to injury and still got to 91 tackles.
And don't forget about the postseason last year. After sitting out the Wild Card round while still waiting to come off the COVID list, White showed the whole NFL world what he is capable of. His two interceptions and two fumble recoveries were huge, but he also led the team with 38 tackles, averaging nearly 13 per game. David had 26 tackles in four games to finish second on the list.
White and David also never leave the field, and you have to be on the field first to make a tackle. The Buccaneers' top-ranked run defense starts with the big guys up front like Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh, but often what they do to make the defense work is occupy blockers so they can't get to the second level and take out those two inside linebackers. When it works, White and David are free to dart up into gaps and get one-on-ones with the ballcarrier. And they win those one-on-ones a lot.
When Todd Bowles arrived as the new defensive coordinator in 2019, the Buccaneers switched from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4, and that in turn led to some new position designations for holdover players. Prior to 2019, Lavonte David had been considered an outside linebacker because he played the WILL or weakside position in the three-man linebacker unit. His primary running mate for several seasons in that scheme was Kwon Alexander, who was considered the MIKE or middle linebacker. In the one season that Alexander played all 16 games (2016), he led the team with 145 tackles.
Now both David and White are referred to as 'inside linebackers,' to differentiate them from the likes of outside linebackers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, who are primarily pass-rushers. Still, David and White are more like a WILL and a MIKE, just without a SAM (strongside) ever on the field. Bowles' Bucs never have a third off-ball linebacker on the field; that spot is always either another down lineman in the base defense or another defensive back in the sub packages.
The Buccaneers actually ran a 3-4 defense for the first 15 years of the franchise's existence. Since it switched to a 4-3 in 1991 (and then back to a 3-4 two years ago), an off-ball linebacker has led the team in tackles every year except one. The exception was 1992, when safety Marty Carter just edged out linebackers Jimmy Williams and Broderick Thomas. And, with the one glaring exception of Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks, the leading tackler has almost always been the middle linebacker. That includes the likes of Hardy Nickerson, Shelton Quarles, Barrett Ruud and Mason Foster. David was the exception to that rule a few times, too, but I don't expect that to be the case in 2021. Obviously, it's not as cut-and-dried of a MIKE-WILL situation with White and David in the current scheme, but I still believe White will more often be put into position to make the tackle on run plays between the tackles.
So I'm going with Devin White, and if he stays healthy for 17 games, I think he'll easily top 150 tackles. The last Buccaneer to do that was Ruud, with 161 in 2010.
How will the defense stop the trio of cooper, lamb, and gallup?
- @marco_a_dieguezjr (via Instagram)
By getting to the quarterback.
First, to be clear, I don't think the Buccaneers (or any defense) can completely stop that trio, just like the Cowboys won't totally shut down Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. If they choose to, the Bucs could probably come close to shutting out one of the three with constant double coverage, as some teams chose to do against Evans last year, but Dak Prescott would then focus on his other two wideouts. These were the combined receiving yardage totals for the Amari Cooper-CeeDee Lamb-Michael Gallup trio in the five games that Prescott played last year: 190, 264, 289, 242 and 220. Wow.
So the idea here is to keep those three relatively in check. Think of it like the two games against the Chiefs last year and the attempts to slow down the incredible pass-catching duo of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. In the first meeting, a 27-24 Kansas City win in late November, Hill and Kelce combined for 21 catches, 351 yards and three touchdowns. In the rematch, which just happened to be Super Bowl LV, Hill and Kelce combined for 17 catches, 206 yards and no touchdowns, and the duo only had 89 yards through the first three quarters. By then, the Bucs already had their eventual 31-9 final lead.
Yes, Bowles had a different game plan for the rematch and it was executed to near-perfection by his players. But the real difference between the two games was how much pressure the Buccaneers' defense was able to get, and without blitzing much at all. Actually, Bowles didn't call many blitzes in either of those two games (nine in the first game, five in the Super Bowl), but he definitely didn't need to in the Super Bowl. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Buccaneers got pressure on eight of Mahomes' 51 drop-backs in November (15.7% pressure rate), and on 17 of 52 drop-backs in the Super Bowl (32.3%). Other sources had the Bucs' pressure rate even higher, closer to 50%, but even doubling your rate is obviously a huge difference. And you don't really need the numbers if you watched the game; Mahomes was on the run the entire night.
Ideally, the Buccaneers will get that same pressure on Thursday night against Prescott, and hopefully without having to blitz too much. It might seem counterintuitive, but the key to stopping that wideout trio may actually be to shut running back Ezekiel Elliott in the early going. If the Bucs can keep the Cowboys from settling into a balanced offense – perhaps in part by getting out to an early lead with their own explosive offense – they will be able to more effectively rush the passer. As Head Coach Bruce Arians said on Tuesday when asked which Cowboy the Bucs needed to stop:
"Offensively, it's Ezekiel, because it all starts with him and that big offensive line. They're going to try to run the football, so we've got to get them in a one-dimensional game there."
Remember also that the Buccaneers have a cornerback in Carlton Davis who has proved he can take on a team's top receiver and effectively shut him down for most of the day. He's done that three times in a row against Michael Thomas, in fact. Since Dallas is so strong across the board at receiver this may not be part of the game plan on Thursday night. Still, the Bucs could try to neutralize, say, Cooper and make Lamb and Gallup beat them. Also, Jamel Dean could be a good match for Gallup because he has the speed to match the Cowboys' big-play receiver.
In any case, it won't be easy. But I'm sure the Dallas defense is feeling the same way about Evans, Godwin and Brown.
Will you guys use kyle trask at all?
- @billy_zahner_22 (via Instagram)
I'm not going to answer this one here because I just did a very similar question last week. But I figured I could drop in a link to that mailbag in case you missed it and want to see what I wrote last week.
Which one of our off season additions will make the biffest impact this season?
- @dstaxx91 (via Instagram)
The "biffest?" Do you want me to go back to the future with this one? Ha ha. I'll be here all week. Tip your waitstaff.
Obviously, I'm being asked which of the Bucs' newcomers will have biggest impact this season, and the good thing is there are so few options we can pretty much go through them all in short order.
After the move of rookie kicker Jose Borregales to the practice squad, the Buccaneers now have a grand total of nine players on the 53-man roster that were not on the team last year. Teams generally turn over about a third of their roster every year, so that's a very small number. Those nine include draft picks Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, Kyle Trask, Robert Hainsey, Jaelon Darden, K.J. Britt and Grant Stuard, along with veteran additions Giovani Bernard, Dee Delaney and Chris Cooper. Let's address them in that order.
Joe Tryon-Shoyinka – First of all, he's expected to play a lot, probably more than any the other rookies on either offense or defense. And he may very well have a sizeable special teams role, too. Tryon-Shoyinka definitely looked like the real deal in training camp and the preseason games; he's definitely got his teammate convinced that he's going to make an instant impact. Expect the former University of Washington star to be the primary third man in the edge rush rotation with Barrett and Pierre-Paul and to keep the team's pressure rate up when one of those two vets is out of the game.
Kyle Trask – You can follow the link under the previous question to get a more detailed look at Trask's likely 2021 role, but the short version is that he's not likely to play at all as a rookie. Tom Brady is the starter, of course, and experienced veteran Blaine Gabbert is almost certain to be the active backup quarterback on game days. Gabbert was in that role last year and he basically got to play one half of one game, so there shouldn't be much work for him, either. Trask will spend his Sundays on the inactive list and will spend his other days on the practice field learning the NFL.
Robert Hainsey – The Bucs love Hainsey's versatility, which should eventually make him a very valuable reserve on game days and a potential starter down the road at several spots. That said, Hainsey may not have a role of much significance early on. The five starters are set. Hainsey is one of four reserve O-Linemen, and the Bucs will only keep three of them active on game days. Josh Wells and Aaron Stinnie are the first two obvious choices. That leaves Hainsey and first-year man Nick Leverett. While Hainsey missed time during camp to injury, Leverett rose from the ranks by also showing impressive versatility. Either one could be the eighth lineman active on game days, and it might be Leverett in the early going.
Jaelon Darden – The fourth-round receiver appears to have won the Bucs' punt and kickoff return jobs, though incumbent Jaydon Mickens remains around on the practice squad. If Darden proves to be a dangerous return man, that would certainly qualify as making a big impact. I'm not convinced he's going to have a big role on offense right away, though.
K.J. Britt – The former Auburn linebacker will probably be active on game day and will play quite a bit on special teams. As long as David and White remain healthy, he shouldn't see the field much if at all on defense.
Grant Stuard – Same story as with Britt, though he have to fight through the numbers to be active on game days.
Giovani Bernard – Arians said a week or two ago that Bernard had already carved out a big role for himself on offense, despite the two-headed starting running back presence of Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette. That role is almost surely to be as a third-down back and the guy in the backfield in two-minute drills and hurry-up situations.
Dee Delaney and Chris Cooper – I'm putting these last two together because each one is essentially fifth at his position. Delaney is behind the team's three starting corners and Ross Cockrell, and since Cockrell also now plays safety Cooper is behind the two starters, Mike Edwards and Cockrell. Both made the team over other defensive backs largely due to what they showed on special teams in the preseason. Since the Bucs need help in that phase of the game, they both have a chance to be active and see a lot of special teams action this year.
Out of those nine candidates, the two that seem most likely to have a big impact this year are Tryon-Shoyinka and Bernard. Those are the only two with clear and obvious roles on offense or defense, and they both give the Super Bowl champions something they didn't really have last year. In Tryon-Shoyinka's case, that's a third man in the edge rush rotation to take some of the pressure off Barrett and Pierre-Paul to always be on the field. In Bernard's case, that's a proven pass-catching running back who can keep defenses honest on third downs.
And from those two I'll take the rookie, hoping he can add five to seven sacks to what the Bucs already are getting out of Shaq, JPP, White, Ndamukong Suh and Via Vea.