Last season in Week Three at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a ribs injury on a bruising collision against the Rams. He managed to come back into that game for a bit but it was immediately clear that he was going to miss some time, and the most immediate bummer in the situation was that he wasn't going to get to play in the reunion game in New England.
Eventually, the bigger issue was that Gronkowski would only play six snaps over the next six weeks right smack-dab in the middle of the season, with an abbreviated attempt to return in Week Eight at New Orleans snuffed by a back problem stemming from the original injury. The Buccaneers didn't really replace his contributions from the tight end position while he was out.
Since Gronkowski essentially ended up missing six games, in hindsight the Bucs could have gained a roster spot during that span by putting him on injured reserve and designating him to return. Players who are designated to return from a reserve list (IR, PUP, NFI, etc.) have to miss a minimum of three games, or at least that was the rule in 2021. And as the NFL tried to help teams navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, each club could bring back an unlimited number of players from injured reserve during the season.
But here's the kicker: in 2021, a team could only designate a specific player to return from I.R. once during a single season. If a key player were to land on a reserve list, come back, and then get hurt again, the team's options would be limited to carrying him on the 53-man roster while he was hurt or shutting him down for the rest of the season.
Now, there's no indication this dynamic came into play in the Buccaneers' decision-making with Gronkowski. More likely the team and the tight end were optimistic he would be back more quickly and didn't foresee a set-back. But in this type of situation, it is certainly a factor for a team to consider, particularly when dealing with older players who have had a history of injuries.
Or, I should say, it was a factor. In a decision that probably won't get much coverage, the NFL and the NFLPA have reached agreement on a number of revisions to roster rules in the CBA. One of those revisions is thus: A specific player can now be designated to return from injury twice in any given season. Seeing as it's highly unlikely there would be enough time in one 18-week campaign for a player to make three different short stints to injured reserve, this essentially erases that hypothetical concern I described above.
It is an interesting topic (at least to me), the bending and reshaping of roster rules the league and players have committed to over the past few seasons as the pandemic created a constantly-shifting landscape. Some of the rules put in place – or at least accelerated – have proved popular and appear to be turning into the new normal. Some, like the one above, are still being experimented with. There are several that will be affecting how the Bucs and their fellow teams run their rosters in 2022, and I'll be writing about more of them on Friday.
After that shameless plug for another click tomorrow, we are 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 email@example.com.
Who do you think will take the biggest step forward in the secondary this season?
-ste_kauf (via Instagram)
Well, hopefully by the end of the season we'll be debating over several potential good answers to this question, but I think for now I can narrow the field to one or two candidates and then pick my favorite.
I'm going to eliminate the two new veteran safeties, Keanu Neal and Logan Ryan. That's not to say I think they will fail to make an impact, but I don't think we would classify that as "taking a big step forward." That would just be a couple of quality additions delivering what the team hoped they would deliver when they were signed.
I'm also going to eliminate all the undrafted rookies from the last two years who are currently on the roster, like safety Troy Warner and cornerback Kyler McMichael. If any of those guys actually made the roster and contributed on defense, that would definitely qualify as a major leap forward (and more power to those guys in there attempts to do so) but I don't think that would be a wise bet by me here.
I'm also not going to pick rookie cornerback Zyon McCollum, even though he is an extremely intriguing option. As was pointed out recently by our newest contributor here on Buccaneers.com, Brianna Dix, McCollum (who is 6-2 and 199 pounds and ran a 4.33-second 40) graded out with a perfect 10/10 on Kent Lee Platte's Relative Athletic Score index. That made him the highest graded cornerback prospect in this regard in the last 35 years. If he can make a quicker-than-anticipated jump from Sam Houston State to the pros and unlock all of athletic potential, he could definitely take a big step forward. But I don't think that's the plan for McCollum right now; I think the Bucs would rather bring him along a little more slowly before throwing him into the fire.
So we're basically talking about Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Mike Edwards, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Antoine Winfield Jr. and maybe, if things go a little sideways at the top of the depth chart, Dee Delaney. From that group, Davis is probably the most advanced and his recent contract underscores that he is now considered one of the NFL's best cornerbacks. He doesn't really need to take a big step forward. This could have been a perfect opportunity for Edwards to do so with a lot more playing time after the departure of Jordan Whitehead, but the additions of Neal and Ryan complicate that. I think the Bucs have something in mind for all three of those guys but that doesn't mean Edwards will necessarily get a huge amount of additional snaps.
So it's probably Dean, Murphy-Bunting or Winfield. I'm very tempted to go with Winfield, even though he already ascended to Pro Bowl status last year in just his second season. I think there's still plenty of untapped potential there and he was talking the other day after an OTA practice about how he is committed to making more big plays. He also thinks the versatile contributions possible from Neal and Ryan could end up getting him some more action in different roles, such as playing in the box, blitzing and patrolling centerfield. He's a very talented and instinctive player and I'm betting the coaches will be looking for many ways to unleash him on opposing defenses. Kind of like another Honey Badger.
But I'm going to land on Jamel Dean for my answer to this question. That's partly because I think Dean could make a perceived leap in his fourth year even without making an actual giant jump in his play. What I mean by that is that I think Dean was underrated last year and we might just need more people to see that he is a very good player. As Brianna also recently noted and according to Pro Football Focus, no NFL cornerback has allowed fewer yards per coverage snap while in press coverage since 2020 than Dean.
Now, press coverage is not Dean's only job, so that doesn't paint a complete picture. But it's an awfully nice place to start. Dean has a lot going for him in terms of size, speed and length and I thought last year he was particularly good playing a physical style on routes near the sideline without drawing penalties.
Dean is also heading into his so-called "contract year," as his original rookie deal expires next offseason. I'm not suggesting he needs extra motivation to raise his level of play, but it certainly can't hurt. Dean has yet to play a full season without missing time and he has only started about half of his 42 career games. This could be the season he is entrenched as an outside corner on the Bucs defense for a full 17 games. I see opportunity, talent and motivation all coming together for Jamel Dean this season.
A number of deep threat wide receivers ... Hill, Landry, Adams,, Jones have gone to our competitors. And now maybe Beckham will go to the Saints. Have the Bucs been in the mix for any other WRs after getting Gage? And wht didnt the Bucs pursue Matthieu?
- Jack Reeves (via email to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Well, okay, I'm going to have to quibble about a few of the assertions within this overall question.
First, I object to placing Jarvis Landry in a conversation about "deep threats." Whatever you think of Landry, his career yards per reception number is 11.0. His ADOT (average depth of target) last year was 7.9 yards. The year before it was 8.2. To give you a reference point, has never had an ADOT lower than 12.1 and it has gone as high as 15.6.
Second, I'm not sure to which receiver named "Jones" you are referring. Julio? If so, I don't believe he's signed anywhere since being released by the Titans in March. I guess he's been rumored to such teams as the Packers, 49ers and Colts, and that could certainly happen, but I think it's clear by this slow process that he's not quite the threat he was at his peak. All those same teams, as well as the Saints, could be sniffing around Odell Beckham, too, but nothing to report yet.
Also, "gone to our competitors." Okay, Hill and Adams were traded to the Dolphins and Raiders, respectively, and Landry signed with the Saints. Okay, New Orleans, yeah, but if you're calling the Dolphins and Raiders "our competitors," then you're basically just saying, "signed with any team that isn't the Buccaneers."
The truth of the matter is that any team could conceivably be "in the mix" to sign or trade for players who are available or on the block, but we wouldn't necessarily find out about it. Who knows? Maybe Jason Licht put in a call to the Packers or Chiefs when the rumors started swirly, but I really doubt it. I highly doubt that the Chiefs or Packers would want to hand over one of the NFL's best receivers to one of the teams that will be viewed as their prime competitors for this year's Super Bowl.
But it's not just about what the Chiefs or Packers would want or not want. The Dolphins and Raiders were looking to add a dynamic number-one receiver to offenses that needed one, and they were willing to trade huge draft assets to get it down. They were also ready to get in line with contracts of around $30 million per year for their shiny new pass-catchers. That's fine for them but the Buccaneers have already invested very large chunks of their cap in two receivers who could credibly be called number-ones on just about any team, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. I have a hard time imagining any team investing about $70 million worth of cap space to their receiver position. That's not good math.
I mean, I kind of look at this the other way around. Two of the Buccaneers fiercest competitors this year for the title, Kansas City and Green Bay, lost their best receivers. I understand why they did it and don't even disagree, but that seems like good news for Tampa Bay.
As for Mathieu, I wasn't thrilled to see him land in New Orleans either. But the Bucs had already signed Keanu Neal and Logan Ryan to go with Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Mike Edwards. Sure, if they added Mathieu to that mix they would find a way to use him, obviously, but is that series of moves the best way to handle the position? Somebody among those first four safeties would essentially be rendered obsolete.
Look at the respective deals, too. Both Ryan and Neal were signed to very affordable one-year deals. Mathieu reportedly got three years and about $28 million. Yes, there are salary cap whizzes all around the league and the Buccaneers have certainly used some work-arounds in recent years to keep their core intact and add a few key pieces. But you simply can't have everyone that's available; at some point, the cap is a limiting factor. The Buccaneers think they have a safety somewhat in the mold of a Honey Badger in the rising star that is Winfield. He and Edwards on rookie contracts and a pair of affordable but useful veteran free agents looks like a good approach to me.
Given that the Bucs drafted two, how many tight ends do you think they'll carry this season?
- _.jayyoupnext (via Instagram)
I think the answer is four, though I'm not basing that on the fact that they drafted both Cade Otton and Ko Kieft this year.
I know that Todd Bowles has taken over for Bruce Arians as head coach but let's consider this somewhat of an extension of the old regime. Arians had three years at the helm and during the majority of that time he carried four tight ends on the 53-man roster. I think that's the target when the powers that be start to pare 90 down to 53.
In 2019, the Buccaneers carried at least four tight ends all season, to the point of promoting Jordan Leggett after Antony Auclair went on injured reserve. They even briefly carried five, including Tanner Hudson and Codey McElroy when all the receivers started getting hurt at the end of that season.
In 2020, the Buccaneers carried four all year except for the time Auclair spent on injured reserve. In 2021, they actually ran with three – Rob Gronkowski, Cam Brate and O.J. Howard – for most of the season, but there's a catch. While the Bucs' tight end corps would usually shrink or expand to cover injuries, the team didn't have to do that in 2021. Instead, it would just elevate a tight end from the practice squad to make sure there were three healthy guys available on game day. Between McElroy, Deon Yelder and Daniel Fells, the Bucs elevated a tight end to play in a game eight times that season.
Some of this hinges on what Gronkowski chooses to do. Hopefully after shagging Tom Brady's fly balls at the Yankees complex on Tuesday, the two pals planned out Gronk's return for a third season in Tampa, but you never know. Let's say Gronkowski does re-up for another year with Brady and the Bucs.
In that case, he is your number-one starter and the guy who will get the most snaps as a two-way tight end. Brate seems like a lock for a second spot as he continues to be a valuable pass catcher in two-TE sets, particularly in the red zone. As a fourth-round draft pick, Otton seems very likely to make the team; very few fourth-rounders are cut before their first regular season.
Sixth-rounders aren't quite as sure of a thing to make the 53-man roster, particularly if the team thinks it can get the player through waivers and to the practice squad. At the moment, if the Buccaneers are keeping four, Kieft would seem to be in direct competition with McElroy for the fourth spot. It remains to be seen how much of a shot undrafted free agents Ben Beise and JJ Howland have. If it's Kieft versus McElroy it comes down to what the Bucs want out of that fourth spot. Kieft is obviously known primarily for his blocking and might not contribute much in the passing game. McElroy definitely is stronger as a pass-catcher than a blocker. So if you have Gronkowski as a two-way guy, Brate as more of a pass-catcher and Otton, what do you want in your fourth tight end for a complementary skillset. The answer could hinge on how good Otton is in the passing game. If he can profile as another two-way tight end, you can pick or choose what you want out of that fourth spot.