I think it's pretty safe to say that Week 15 was the worst week of the 2021 regular season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. An offense that averaged just a smidge under 32 points per game in the other 16 contests finished with a goose egg. Chris Godwin was lost for the season with a knee injury and both Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette were injured within the next dozen or so plays. And it was the reviled New Orleans Saints who went marching out of town with another win over the Buccaneers.
For somebody who enjoys a good record chase, particularly if the record in question has been standing for a very long time, that game also took another bit of joy away from me. Before sustaining an ankle injury less than five minutes into the second half against the Saints, Fournette had 69 catches, the most at that point by any running back in the NFL. He would eventually return to play in the postseason game against the Rams but spent the final three weeks of the regular season and the first week of the playoffs on injured reserve.
If we take Fournette's per-game receptions pace and extrapolate that to 17 regular-season games, we get nearly 84 catches. Do you know what the Buccaneers' single-season record for receptions by a running back is? It's 85! James Wilder did that during his famous 1984 season in which he was basically Tampa Bay's entire offense and also ran the ball what was then an NFL-record 407 times.
That's an old record! It has remained in the Bucs' record book, unchanged, for close to 40 years. Had Fournette not gone down in Week 15, I personally would have been keeping a close eye on his progress as he neared 85. And I think it's fair to say that he could have caught another pass or two in the second half of that Saints game, which might have been enough to put him over the top.
A similar thing happened with Warrick Dunn back in 2001, as he finished with 68 carries in 13 games played. His three missed games were spread out through the season, not all at the end, but he was able to average 5.2 receptions per game. That pace wouldn't have quite gotten him there, as that also comes out to about 84 catches over 16 contests. Fournette, of course, had the benefit of a hypothetical 17th game had he not hurt his ankle.
Fournette averaged 4.9 receptions per game last year, which is the fourth-highest single-season mark in franchise history. James Wilder has the top two at 5.9 in 1982 (a nine-game season due to a players strike) and 5.3 in the aforementioned 1984 campaign. Then it's Dunn in 2001, Fournette last year and Michael Pittman (4.7) in 2003. I'd say that Dunn and Pittman were both seen as high-volume pass-catchers, but I don't feel like Fournette has the same reputation. Maybe he should.
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.
Will any WRs have to be cut?
@graciegantt (via Instagram)
Oh, most definitely Gracie, and it's not going to be easy.
Of course, NFL teams always take more players into camp than they can keep at almost every position (punters, kickers and long-snappers are often the safest). This is especially true at wide receiver, where teams generally load up because those players run so much and you need a lot of them to handle all the snaps that come with training camp. This year, the Buccaneers brought 14 receivers into camp with them.
Consider that six receivers is usually the target number for the 53-man roster, and you can see how many players will ultimately have to be cut. Compare that to, say, inside linebacker, where the team will likely keep either four or five players and has only six of them in camp. It's a lot easier to project how that position will shake out in the cutdown to 53. Meanwhile the Bucs will have to trim at least half of their current roster at wide receiver, although there will likely be opportunities on the practice squad for several of them.
Head Coach Todd Bowles conceded on Wednesday that there are some difficult decisions ahead when it comes to sifting through the Buccaneer's embarrassment of riches at the receiver position. Though anything can happen, it's probably safe to say that Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage and Julio Jones is where the depth chart will begin. If the Buccaneers decide to devote six spots to the position, then how do you choose between the likes of Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Jaelon Darden, Cyril Grayson and Breshad Perriman? I'm glad that's not up to me. And that's not even considering some of the undrafted rookies and lesser-known names at the position, perhaps most notably Utah State's Deven Thompkins.
Special teams will likely play a role, especially if one of those players wins the primary punt and/or kickoff return jobs. That's obviously something that helped Darden claim a job last year and it could work in his favor again, too. Miller, Grayson and Thompkins could be considerations there, as well. Johnson has drawn praise for his work in camp as of late, from both Evans and Bowles, but at some point pretty much all of these guys have shined.
It seems like an almost impossible problem, but keep in mind that it's the first week of August and that final cutdown to 53 doesn't arrive until August 30. There are three preseason games and four joint practices with the Dolphins and Titans between now and then, and it's likely that some of those guys will separate from the pack. Bowles made a reference the other day to this time of year being a 'war of attrition.' What looks like a logjam that can't be cleared right now might look a lot different in a few weeks. Sometimes these things take care of themselves.
Still, it seems increasingly clear that this year the Buccaneers are going to have to let go of a receiver or two who clearly is good enough to make an impact in the NFL. That's the proverbial "good problem" to have, but I'm glad it's not up to me to solve it.
How are the undrafted rookies doing?
@thecrazygirltshirtshop (via Instagram)
That's kind of a broad question because we're talking about 14 guys and it's pretty much impossible to keep track of how every player on a 90-man roster is doing in camp. Even Coach Bowles noted the other day that he can't watch everyone in every practice and form an instant opinion, though he obviously gets more in depth in the evaluations when watching practice tape later.
That said, we've heard and seen things here and there with some of these guys. I mentioned wideout Deven Thompkins above; he did such a good job during OTAs and minicamps that Bowles singled him out back in June as a player he was interested to see more of when the battle for roster spots started heating up. Thompkins hasn't disappointed; in fact he had a couple notable plays in Wednesday's practice, including one in which he picked up a good amount of yards after the catch by shaking his way around two defenders. In fact, with a handful of veterans getting the day off on Wednesday, including Evans and Jones, there were lots of reps to go around for the undrafted rookies – also including Kaylon Geiger, Jerreth Sterns and Kameron Brown – and they all had their moments.
A few days ago, rising-star safety Antoine Winfield Jr. was asked about his impressions of a newcomer at his position, former Clemson standout Nolan Turner. Winfield said Turner has been "ballin'" throughout camp and has made a bunch of plays. If the Bucs decide to keep a fifth safety, Turner might have a shot as the competition would come down to him, Chris Cooper and Troy Warner.
Arkansas State outside linebacker JoJo Ozougwu has turned some heads as a young player with some edge rushing potential. He's apparently having a pretty good camp. He may have to beat out seventh-round draft pick Andre Anthony and second-year position-switching project Elijah Ponder to stick but teams are always on the lookout for pass-rushing talent. For him, and a lot of these guys, a spot on the practice squad is a great consolation prize if the 53-man roster proves too hard to crack right now. A lot of great careers start out on the practice squad.
And now let's just lump these three together:
Will we find a replacement for Big Red (Ryan Jensen)?
How does the lineman Jon Molchon look in camp. He's big strong and smart but hasn't played?
- Corky Field (via email to email@example.com)
I was hoping you could help me with something. Since our all-pro center went down, even if we use Hainsey (who I like) don't we need quality backup? With J.C. Tretter, still available and widely considered the best free agent center still available, why don't we go sign him and let Hainsey and Tretter compete??? Either way, we end up with a quality backup.
- John Shaw (via email to firstname.lastname@example.org)
First off, Coach Cheese, by necessity, yes, the Buccaneers will find a replacement for Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen, who suffered a knee injury last week that will keep him out for at least a good portion of the 2022 season. I assume the underlying question is will the Buccaneers be able to find a replacement for Jensen who can help keep the offensive line performing at the very high level it did last year? It won't be easy, and the team won't necessarily find a solution quite as good as Jensen, but the process is underway.
John mentions one possibility, going outside the current roster for veteran help, as General Manager Jason Licht and company have done so well in recent years. Most recently, the news that Rob Gronkowski wasn't coming back prompted Licht to sign veteran Kyle Rudolph, who gives the Buccaneers veteran experience in a very young tight end room. Given how well Licht has filled depth chart needs, sometimes sudden and unexpected ones, it's natural to wonder if the team will go the same route to fill the Jensen-sized hole in their lineup.
And that's certainly a possibility. It's not necessarily easy to find high-quality veterans at any position this far into the offseason, but John does mention the top name that's been thrown around, former Brown J.C. Tretter. After starting 80 of a possible 81 games over the past five seasons, Tretter was released by Cleveland in March with one year left on his contract, leading to a dead cap hit of around $1.6 million. He has since not signed with another team. Former Panther Matt Paradis, who has started all 98 games in which he's played and was at one point a highly-regarded center in Dallas, is also still on the market.
You can bet that the Buccaneers' pro personnel department has these guys, and others, well-scouted at this point. What you and I don't know is whether those scouts and the Bucs coaches consider Tretter or any other veteran option out there, a better player at this point than what they have in house. It does seem to me like the team wants to evaluate its internal options first. Right now, that primarily consists of 2021 third-round pick Robert Hainsey and versatile second-year player Nick Leverett.
I also included Corky's question in this group because Molchon could also figure into the picture at center, at least in terms of depth. During Wednesday's practice, both Hainsey and Leverett were running with the first-team offensive line, with Hainsey at center and Leverett at left guard. On the second-team line, Molchon came in at center and rookie Luke Goedeke played left guard.
I do think the Buccaneers like Molchon. He's had some tough injury luck in each of the last two preseasons, which has forced him to start each of those campaigns on injured reserve. In each case, when he was cleared to play again he was kept around on the practice squad. That says something, and you're right Corky in that he's a very big guy and he's considered a cerebral player. You're also right that he hasn't played much, even in the preseason, due to those injuries. The Buccaneers will certainly give him a chance to play in the three games this August.
The Buccaneers can build depth at the position without turning to outside help. Leverett doesn't have a lot of experience but he impressed last year in training camp and won a roster spot, allowing him to develop all through last season. If Hainsey wins the job to start the season, the Bucs may very well feel comfortable in Leverett as the secondary option. What I'm sure John would say in response is that would not be experienced depth, and he'd be right about that, too. The thing is, as much as we'd like to have it, it's sometimes not possible to have experienced depth at every single spot on the depth chart. Look at the inside linebackers right now; if Lavonte David or Devin White were unavailable, the team would likely be returning to second-year man K.J. Britt, who has all of 28 regular-season snaps on defense in his career. And he's the most experienced of the Bucs' current potential backups.
All of that said, I've learned over the past three seasons never to dismiss the idea of Jason Licht going out and finding veteran help when it's needed. And it's worth noting that, just two years ago, when the Bucs felt like they needed veteran depth at the center position, they went out and signed A.Q. Shipley right before the season. We could possibly see a repeat.