Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Competition in Full Swing | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Bucs fans have questions about Giovani Bernard, the battle for the last spots at cornerback, the NFL Top 100 and more

8.18 ss mailbag

The preseason is back after a one-year hiatus and that means you're going to be hearing Tanner Hudson's name a lot.

In the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2021 preseason opener last Saturday night, Hudson led the team with four catches for 48 yards. This came as no surprise to anyone who was watching the last time the Buccaneers played some preseason ball. In 2019, Hudson paced the Bucs with 19 catches for 245 yards and both of those totals also ranked second among all NFL players that year.

I don't have easy access to preseason stats going all the way back to Tampa Bay's inaugural 1976 season, but at least since the turn of the millennium those are standout totals for Hudson. They are both, in fact, the highest marks in those two categories for any Buccaneer in that span. In looking that up, I also noted the leading preseason totals for the team in a number of other categories. Here they are:

Rushing Yards: 203 by Michael Bennett, 2008

Receptions: 19 by Tanner Hudson, 2019

Receiving Yards: 245 by Tanner Hudson, 2019

Passing Yards: 744 by Ryan Griffin, 2019

Passer Rating (min. 20 attempts): 126.9 by Jameis Winston, 2018

Touchdowns Scored: 4 by Paris Warren, 2007

Interceptions: 2 by Dexter Jackson, 2000; Corey Lynch, 2010; Sean Baker, 2012; Keith Tandy, 2015; Vernon Hargreaves, 2016; Hargreaves, 2017

Sacks: 4.0 by Jacquies Smith, 2016

Obviously, big preseason numbers don't always – or perhaps even often – correlate with regular season playing time or success. Hudson did make the Bucs' active roster after his huge preseason in 2019 but caught just two passes for 26 yards over nine games played that year. Originally an undrafted free agent, Hudson played in 11 more games last year and is now likely on the roster bubble again fighting for a fourth tight end spot. He got off to a good start on Saturday.

A good number of the other players on the list were already well established veterans at the time of their big preseason numbers. Michael Bennett had arrived as a trade acquisition the year before and was already in his seventh NFL season. Ryan Griffin was not, and still isn't, an established performer in the regular season but that 2019 preseason was his fourth with the Buccaneers. Jameis Winston's sharp preseason in 2018 was his fourth in the NFL and he had started the previous there years. Keith Tandy was in his fourth year with the Bucs in 2015.

Jacquies Smith had racked up 13.5 sacks over the 2014-15 seasons for the Bucs, then seemed ready for even more after his four-sack preseason in 2016. Instead, that was essentially the beginning of the end for him, as he would play in just 10 more NFL games and would not record another sack.

Vernon Hargreaves is a mildly interesting case here, too. A first-round draft pick in 2016, he impressively picked off two passes in each of his first two seasons, and he would immediately step into the starting lineup for the regular season. But he had only two regular-season picks for the Bucs before being waived in November of 2019.

Corey Lynch's strong 2010 preseason helped him make the Tampa Bay roster and stick around for three seasons, even starting eight games along the way. However, Sean Baker never played a regular-season game for the Bucs and saw action in just five career contests for Atlanta in 2014.

By far the most interesting story, if not necessarily one with a happy ending, for any player on the above list belongs to Paris Warren. A seventh-round draft pick in 2005, Warren had spent his first two NFL seasons on the bubble, splitting time between the practice squad and active roster and playing in just eight total games. However, he appeared to be taking a big step forward in his third season with a huge preseason that included 15 catches for 191 yards and four touchdowns. All three of those numbers were the best for any Buc since 2000 until Hudson came along.

The last of Warren's four touchdowns was a game-winning 31-yard grab in the final 2007 preseason game, a 31-24 victory over Houston. It was a bittersweet moment, however, as Warren suffered a broken leg on the play and would end up on injured reserve. After the game, Head Coach Jon Gruden said that Warren would have made the 53-man roster had he not been hurt. Though he would have stints with Dallas and New Orleans and a second shot in Tampa Bay, Warren never played in another NFL regular season game.

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 tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

How does Giovanni Bernard fit into the offence?

- @masterwrangler (via Instagram)

I think we saw some direct evidence of how Bernard will work in the Bucs' offense in the preseason opener.

Bernard only got four snaps in the 19-14 loss to Cincinnati last Saturday, but they were high-value snaps that came with the first and second-team offenses. Most telling: The very first time the Bucs faced a third down, Bernard was the man in the backfield. On the play, Tom Brady targeted Bernard and the veteran back turned a short pass into a nine-yard gain on third-and-eight.

Brady only played one drive, with Blaine Gabbert and mostly second-teamers coming in for the Bucs' next possession, including Ke'Shawn Vaughn in the backfield on the first play. On the second third down of that drive, Gabbert converted a third-and-three by finding Bernard for a short pass that became a seven-yard gain and another first down. The Buccaneers faced a total of five third downs on those two drives, so Bernard getting four plays pretty much tells you what his role was on that night, and very well could be in the regular season.

Both Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette are competent pass-catchers out of the backfield, primarily on screens and little swing passes. But Bernard has been one of the NFL's most productive pass-catching running backs since he entered the league in 2013. That is the reason the Buccaneers snapped him up quickly when he was released by the Bengals in the spring, during an offseason that otherwise saw the defending champs make very few veteran additions to the roster. After re-signing virtually every contributor to last season's Super Bowl run, the Buccaneers weren't really lacking anywhere on the depth chart.

They did not have a back like Bernard, however. Brady had played with a high-volume pass-catching running back in New England, getting a lot out of James White over a five-season stretch (2015-19). And by a lot I mean an average of 63 catches and about 30 first downs per year. That's about twice a game that Brady moved the sticks by throwing to White in that span. Bernard got two of those (one from Brady) in less than a quarter. That's a good start.

I don't think there's much doubt that Bernard will make the team and be active on game days. At least for now, it looks like he's a top option on third downs. How big his role ends up being will probably be determined by how much the coaches want to have Fournette or Jones on the field. If either one proves to be a solid third-down option, too, then Bernard could end up with less playing time. The same would be true if second-year man Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who had a good showing against the Bengals, grabs more playing time than he did a year ago.

What do you think about that 5CB position?

- @cmiddleton_ (via Instagram)

This same fan on Instagram asked about Dee Delaney, and he's definitely in the mix for that fifth cornerback position. He didn't hurt himself with an interception early in the third quarter last Saturday. That pick was actually erased by a pass interference call against Delaney but the penalty was hard to discern on replay. I'm willing to bet that he was given a positive grade for that play when the coaches reviewed the game tape later.

"I hated to see Dee get his interception taken away, but I thought he played well," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "He played well on teams. The rest of them, they have a ways to go. Thank God we have two more preseason games to get some of the jitters out and make some corrections to hopefully get better."

But there is A LOT of competition for that spot. The top three of Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean is set. The fourth spot seems very likely to go to Ross Cockrell, who excelled in that exact role last year. Cockrell has been working at safety in this camp, and may end up being a very versatile reserve this season, but he still figures to slot in right behind that top three. His versatility could actually make it possible to keep six cornerbacks, since Cockrell would make a six-four CB-S split more like a 5-5 split. That would be good news for Delaney and the other competitors.

That's a group that also includes Antonio Hamilton, Herb Miller, Nate Brooks and Chris Wilcox, and there are decent arguments to be made for all of them. Hamilton is a proven special teams performer who has looked good backing up at the slot corner spot in this training camp. However, Arians says that Hamilton needs to improve playing outside cornerback because he wants a reserve who can play both positions.

Arians says Brooks "did some good things" in the preseason opener while some other roster candidates took a step back on special teams in that game. Brooks had a strong start to training camp with a lot of eye-catching plays in the early days. Miller impressed the coaching staff last year while performing on the practice squad and was even elevated for a couple games, snaring an interception in Week 16 at Detroit. He came into this year's camp in better shape than a year ago, as well. And, of course, Wilcox is a draft pick, albeit a seventh-rounder, who the Bucs like for his size and speed combination. Like a good number of this year's draft picks, he was targeted in part because the Bucs thought he had a chance to make an impact on special teams right away.

It doesn't look like Arians is leaning towards playing any of his starters in this week's preseason game against Tennessee, given all the good looks they are getting in the joint practices with the Titans. That means lots and lots of reps for Delaney, Hamilton, Miller, Brooks and Wilcox. I don't think any of them have moved ahead of the pack yet, though Delaney certainly helped himself last weekend. Right now, the depth chart would indicate that Hamilton and Miller have the inside track for the fifth and possibly sixth cornerback spots, but this weekend's game against the Titans will probably help define that competition quite a bit.

How many Bucs players do you think will be in the NFL Top100 list?

- @mohand_omran1 (via Instagram)

So nobody sent me a silly question like last week's one about a mascot brawl, but this one is about a topic I consider about equally weighty. I've never really put much stock in this particular list, but that being said you can definitely tell the impact winning a Super Bowl has had on the reputations of Tampa Bay players.

Last year, there were five Buccaneers on the list, topped by Brady at number 14. Mike Evans was 30, Shaq Barrett 32, Chris Godwin 38 and Lavonte David 100. You may recall that Evans, Barrett and Godwin all had huge 2019 seasons, thus all the love in the 2020 offseason. And Tom Brady is Tom Brady.

This year, they've revealed the players ranked 41 through 100 and there are already six Bucs in that group. Pleasingly, David jumped all the way from 100 up to 43. This is probably the best example of how the Super Bowl spotlight has raised the profile of some very good Buccaneer players who had previously been underappreciated. However, Evans (48), Godwin (81) and Barrett (88) all saw significant drops. Were any of those players significantly worse in 2020 than they were in 2019? No, but their stats didn't quite measure up from the previous year and so…you get why I'm not that into this list every year.

The other Bucs already revealed in the top 100 are Tristan Wirfs at 89 and Jason Pierre-Paul at 59. Had the Bucs not made their magical postseason run, I have a hard time believing Wirfs would have gotten enough attention to be this well recognized for his incredible rookie season.

So there are 40 more names to go and here are some Bucs who have not yet been mentioned: Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, Devin White, Carlton Davis and Antoine Winfield, Jr. All of those players are either in the top 40 or not on the list at all.

Brady has to be on the list, right? I would suspect he'll be higher than 14th this year. He was number one in 2011, 2017 and 2018, by the way.

I strongly suspect White will be in the top 40, too. I'm guessing it's too soon for Winfield and Marpet, Jensen and Davis will remain undervalued. Suh wasn't on the list last year so he probably won't be again unless that Super Bowl bump works for him, too. Gronkowski and Vea are the most difficult calls. Gronkowski obviously wasn't on the list last year after retiring following the 2018 season, but in 2018 he was all the way up at number 15. He has great name recognition and even though he wasn't one of the NFL's most productive tight ends in 2020 I could see him pulling in a lot of votes. I think Vea would have been a lock for this list had he not been hurt just five games into the season. He drew a lot of attention when he returned in the playoffs but is that enough buzz to get him on the list.

I'm guessing yes on Gronkowski and no on Vea. So that's Brady, White and Gronkowski added to the six already named for a total of nine. And that's my answer.

What do you think Jake Benzinger will bring to the team in camp and/or preseason?

- @aust1n1_ (via Instagram)

Well, to start, it would be disingenuous of me to claim a deep knowledge of Jake Benzinger's game. But I do know one thing: He's going to get a chance to play right away.

Benzinger is the newest man on the Bucs' training camp roster, which was trimmed to 85 players at Tuesday's deadline. He had started training camp with the Colts this summer but had been waived on August 10. A former Wake Forest standout, Benzinger first entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Cardinals last year. He was waived before the regular season and did not play for an NFL team in 2020 but got picked up by the Colts in January. He measures in at 6-7 and 295 pounds and was an honorable mention All-ACC pick in 2019.

That's about all I know about Benzinger, having not watched much Wake Forest football in recent years. But he was obviously the top available man at his position on the list the Bucs always keep updated in the pro scouting department. When a rash of injuries hit the Tampa Bay offensive line over the past week or so, the Bucs first brought in familiar and versatile veteran Earl Watford and then signed Benzinger while putting promising rookie guard Sadarius Hutcherson on injured reserve.

Watford re-signed with the Buccaneers last Thursday and was on the field playing in a game just two days later, which is remarkable and also an illustration of how thinned the O-Line ranks are right now. After practice on Thursday, Arians said he thought the Bucs would have at least seven offensive linemen ready to play if he chooses to rest all the starters. That's pretty thin for a preseason game with an 85-man roster, but that's where we are right now.

And that likely means plenty of playing time for Benzinger, despite his relative lack of preparation in the Bucs' offense. That's a big challenge for the young player but I'm sure he prefers that and the opportunity to put out some game tape over not being on an NFL roster. The Bucs must have thought he was up for that challenge when they chose him from their list of available tackles.

Obviously, Benzinger remains a huge long shot to make the 53-man roster. But remember that the NFL has chosen to keep its relaxed roster rules from last year since the pandemic is anything but over. That includes super-sized 16-man practice squads. Other than Hutcherson, the Buccaneers don't have any injuries that appear to be long-term concerns, but you never know. If Benzinger can make a good impression quickly and some injury issues persist, he could have a shot at the practice squad. That would be a nice step up for him after not being on a roster last year.

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