The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV last January with a very deep roster built incrementally through a series of aggressive moves by General Manager Jason Licht. Stunningly, Licht was able to keep that entire roster intact for 2021 as the Bucs try to chase down another Lombardi Trophy.
Through the first two weeks of 2021, Tampa Bay has kept its 10-game winning streak alive mostly through the efforts of the team's front-line stars: Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Ndamukong Suh, Shaquil Barrett, Carlton Davis and so on. With those core players putting up huge numbers, the Bucs haven't had to plumb that roster depth too much.
The Buccaneers will head to Los Angeles for a battle of the unbeaten with the Rams on Sunday, and they'll do so without outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul and kick returner Jaydon Mickens, both out due to injuries. They will almost certainly be playing without wide receiver Antonio Brown, as well, unless Brown makes a surprisingly quick return from the reserve/COVID-19 list. On Friday, Head Coach Bruce Arians said Brown's availability on Sunday was "very, very questionable."
Pierre-Paul started all 20 games for the Buccaneers in their run to the Super Bowl last season and led the team in the regular season with 9.5 sacks while earning the team's only Pro Bowl spot. He has played 88% of the team's defensive snaps through two games this season. Those are big and ever-present shoes to fill. Brown has played 55% of the offensive snaps through two weeks as the team's third receiver and is second on the team with 138 receiving yards. His 23.0 yards per catch illustrate the big-play element he brings to the Bucs' passing attack. And Mickens had been handling all of the team's punt and kickoff return duties before his abdomen injury in Week Two, averaging 10.9 yards on punts and 29.0 yards on kickoffs.
The Buccaneers would like to have all those players available against an opponent as tough as the Rams. However, they are also eager to see what some of those depth pieces can do with a larger chunk of playing time. That includes wide receiver Scotty Miller on offense, rookie outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka on defense and possibly even rookie return man Jaelon Dardon on special teams.
Actually, the Bucs already have a good idea of what they can get out of third-year wide receiver Scotty Miller, last seen hauling in a critical 47-yard touchdown pass just before halftime of the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. Miller may be the Bucs' fastest receiver but he didn't figure much into the game plan in Weeks One and Two, totaling just 20 snaps and not getting a pass thrown his way by Brady. Like any receiver, Miller would surely love to be more involved but it's hard to argue with a setup that is producing a league-high 39.5 points per game.
"I think everybody has respect for the guys in front of them in the room and [are] just chomping at the bit to get their chance," said Arians. "Because every time they've gotten a chance, they've proven that they're worthy of being out there. And the guys that are in front of them know, 'Hey, I'll tap it out. I've got a fresh good body going in, so I don't have to play tired.'"
Miller saw a lot of action in three-receiver sets with Godwin and Evans in the first half of the 2020 season, before Brown's arrival. His playing time was a little more erratic after that but he still finished with 501 yards on 33 catches, averaging 15.2 yards per grab. He may be the first option in those '11' packages without Brown, though second-year player Tyler Johnson may get some looks, too. Johnson would also be the obvious choice to spell Evans or Godwin when they need a rest, and he can provide some of the same plus blocking that Godwin gives the run game.
"I'm just really excited to go out there and get some opportunities, hopefully," said Miller. "I always try to stay ready no matter what because you never know when your opportunity is going to come. It could've came Week 1 or Week 2, but I didn't happen to get the ball thrown my way. This week I'll be ready, and if it does, hopefully I will be able to make the play."
When Brady first arrived in Tampa last offseason, he quickly found good chemistry with Miller, who had played a very limited role in the offense as a rookie in 2019. Miller said that connection is still there even if he hasn't been targeted in a game yet.
"Yeah, in the first two weeks, I still would practice with Tom a decent amount," he said. "Our connection is still great. Obviously, this whole week I got a ton of reps with him – deep balls and stuff. It's the same thing as last year and the same thing as the first time when we got together at Berkley High School down here in Tampa. He just does such a great job throwing the ball and he puts it on the money. I mean, he's the best to ever do it, so it really makes it easy for me and all of us."
The Bucs don't have quite as much evidence that Tryon-Shoyinka is ready for a larger role, but they have just as much confidence in him. The 2021 first-round pick was so impressive in training camp and in preseason games that Arians and his coaching staff were convinced he could play a major role on defense right from opening day. With Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett still taking their traditionally huge chunks of playing time, Tryon-Shoyinka has been limited to 40 defensive snaps so far. He has two tackles and one quarterback hit (which led to a Carlton Davis interception) but has continued to impress with the pace of his play.
Arians has not yet said whether Tryon-Shoyinka or third-year man Anthony Nelson will start in Pierre-Paul's absence, but he has no reservations about greatly increasing the rookie's playing time.
"No, he'll make some mistakes but he's going to make some things happen full-speed too," said the coach. "And we've got all the confidence in 'Nelly,' too. Nelly's been playing really, really well too. As long as it's full-speed, good things sometimes happen. You try to eliminate as many [mistakes] as possible. But for [Tryon-Shoyinka], good things can happen as fast as he goes."
As for the punt and kickoff return jobs, they could go to Darden, who appeared to have won them coming out of the preseason when he earned a spot on the 53-man roster over Mickens. However, Arians was reluctant to throw the inexperienced wideout directly into the fire and turned back to Mickens in the return game, first as a practice-squad elevation in Week One and then on the 53-man roster. Darden was kept inactive in each of the first two games.
The Buccaneers do have some other options in the return game, including Miller, who would relish the opportunity. They may also use Johnson on kickoff returns. But the rookie from North Texas, whom the Bucs traded up to get in the fourth round in large part because of his open-field shiftiness and lateral quickness, is a good bet to get his first NFL shot. Arians is excited about the possibility.
"Yeah, I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I'm looking forward to him getting out there and seeing what he's got."
Miller and Tryon-Shoyinka are going to show what they've got as well, and hopefully they will show the Rams what the Buccaneers believe they have: quality roster depth. That time was coming eventually, and now it has come for three young players who have been waiting to contribute more.