Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Honors and Projections | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Bucs fans have questions about the Bucs' best personnel groupings on offense, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka's playing time, linebacker honors and more

8.25 SS Mailbag

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are through the first two rounds of roster cuts for the 2021 season, with the toughest one still to come. By 4:00 p.m. ET next Tuesday, August 31, the Buccaneers will need to trim their roster from 80 players down to 53.

While Tampa Bay returns the vast majority of its Super Bowl LV-winning roster, there are still a handful of jobs still up for grabs at the back end of the depth chart. As Head Coach Bruce Arians has said on multiple occasions, results on special teams will go a long way towards determining which players end up with those final spots. And that means not every remaining battle is contained within specific positions. Sure Tanner Hudson and Codey McElroy may be competing for a fourth tight end spot, but the Bucs also may end up choosing between a fourth tight end and, say, a seventh receiver or a fifth inside linebacker.

That said, there is a general target number to keep at each position, and knowing what those are can help us keep track of which players are on the bubble. To get an idea of those targets, we can look at how Arians and the Buccaneers constructed the roster last year. Below is a list of each position with how many players were kept on the initial 53-man roster, plus the high and low-water marks during the season, if either differed from the starting number. This includes the postseason.

QB: 3

RB: 4 (High: 5)

WR: 6 (High: 7)

TE: 4 (Low: 3)

OL: 9 (Low: 7)

DL: 6 (High: 8; Low: 5)

OLB: 5 (Low: 3)

ILB: 4 (Low: 3)

CB: 5

S: 4

SPEC: 3

Some of those low-water marks would only have happened in a season like 2020, which had expanded practice squads and game-day elevations from that crew to add roster flexibility during the pandemic. For example, I don't think you would ever see the Buccaneers carry fewer than eight offensive linemen into a game weekend without that option, and starting a game with just one reserve behind your two inside linebackers would be risky. But things were a little different last year, and those rules are in place again for 2021 so we could see some of the same fluctuations this fall.

However, if the Buccaneers do try to break down their initial 53-man roster the same way they did to start 2020, we can get a good idea of where the cuts will have to come from. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Bucs go one deeper in the secondary, perhaps at the expense of an outside linebacker. And, as noted, they could start light at tight end if there is a better special teams option at another position. The Bucs have an awful lot of qualified defensive linemen to choose from.

Anyway, to get to the same initial position-by-position numbers as last year, the Bucs would need to trim: one (1) quarterback, one (1) running back, four (4) wide receivers, two (2) tight ends, six (6) offensive linemen, four (4) defensive linemen, two (2) outside linebackers, two (2) inside linebackers, three (3) cornerbacks, one (1) safety and one (1) specialist.

That would indicate that the toughest remaining competitions are at wide receiver and defensive linemen.

The top six wide receivers on the current depth chart are Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller, Jaydon Mickens and Tyler Johnson. Rookie Jaelon Darden is not listed in the first six spots but pretty clearly seems to be competing with Mickens for the return job, so that could be a one-on-one battle. Justin Watson remains on PUP and is almost certain to be off the 53-man roster when the regular season begins. The other two competitors are Cyril Grayson and Travis Jonsen.

The first two waves of defensive linemen, from that same depth chart, are Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea, Will Gholston, Patrick O'Connor, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Steve McLendon, all of whom were on the roster in the Super Bowl. So too were Khalil Davis and Jeremiah Ledbetter. Those two plus Kobe Smith and Benning Potoa'e remain in the battle for spots this year.

There are other difficult decisions to be made, and Arians said earlier in the week that a number of players on the roster at the moment are really fighting for one of those 16 practice squad spots. Still, in less than a week will know how Tampa Bay's initial Super Bowl-defending roster has taken shape.

Now on to your questions.

View the top photos of Tampa Bay's preseason matchup vs. the Titans.

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.

All 4 linebackers in the nfl top 100! Finally getting some recognition. Definitely the best linebackers in the NFL right now and maybe the best ever, in my opinion. Is this the first time that a team has had 4 (or even 3) linebackers in the top 100 in the same year?

- Aaron W. in Memphis, TN (via direct email)

To add some background to this question, it is in response to an email exchange between me and Aaron back in March after he sent in a question regarding the Bucs' current linebacking corps. He originally asked for a comparison between the Bucs' current four starting linebackers (ILBs Lavonte David and Devin White and OLBs Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul) and other great 3-4 groups in the past. As it turned out, Aaron gave me what I eventually considered the two best answers: the Giants' Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks, Harry Carson and Gary Reasons from 1984-88; and the Saints' Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson from 1986-92. That latter foursome combined for 20 Pro Bowl invitations in that span. You can read the whole answer, which also includes a comparison between the Bucs' linebackers in 2020 and 2002, here.

Now, the NFL Top 100 for 2021 has been 90% revealed and all four of those aforementioned Buccaneer linebackers are on the list. Barrett came in at number 88, Pierre-Paul at 59, David at 43 and White at 28. I may have mentioned in last week's mailbag that I'm not the world's biggest fan of that whole NFL Top 100 show, but I can't disagree with Aaron that it's a pretty cool note that all four of those guys made the list. And obviously, he's right about recognition coming a little slowly for the Bucs' linebackers, in particular Lavonte David (though David has been something of a fixture on the top 100, to be fair).

So I decided to look into Aaron's follow-up question, since it's not hard to find records of those past Top 100 lists. Fortunately (for me), the series has only been around for 11 years, counting the current one, so it didn't take me all day to pore over the lists. Just to be clear, we're counting both inside (off-ball) and outside (edge) linebackers in this study, so it matters how teams identify their defenses and the positions in that defense. Before the arrival of Todd Bowles, the Bucs never could have had more than three starting linebackers on the list because their edge rushers were called defensive ends. As an example, Houston's Jadeveon Clowney was identified as a defensive end on the 2018 list but an outside linebacker the following year.

Also for clarification, these lists are always supposed to be identifying who NFL peers think are going to be the 100 best players in the upcoming season. So the one currently being revealed is called the Top 100 for 2021, but it is obviously based on what players did last season (and previous seasons). So what Aaron and I are saying here is that all four of the Bucs' linebackers played well enough in 2020 to be considered top 100 players by their peers. Thus, if a player switched teams between seasons and then showed up on the next list, I considered him as part of his previous team for the purpose of this study. Even if I went the other way, though, it wouldn't change the final answer here.

And that answer, Aaron, is no. Never before in the illustrious 11-year history of the NFL Top 100 has a team placed four linebackers on the same list. The 2020 Buccaneers were trailblazers!

On the other hand, there have been five instances of a team getting three linebackers on the list in the same season, most of them overlapping. The San Francisco trio of Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman did it first in 2013 and then again in 2014. The Kansas City trio of Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson duplicated the 49ers' feat in 2014 and did so again in 2016. In between, Baltimore put a threesome on the list in 2015 with Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley.

Every year there's been at least one team with two linebackers on the list, and usually multiple teams that did so. In 2012, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago and San Francisco all had two each. And when Baltimore had three in 2015, Denver and Kansas City also had two each. You would recognize many of the names on the list as huge stars, such as Von Miller, Ray Lewis, Luke Kuechly and Brian Urlacher.

But nobody has done four before, and maybe no one ever will again. If that proves true, it will be absolutely the single greatest thing the Buccaneers accomplished during the 2020 season.

By the way, since I was taking the time to go through that list, I thought I'd note where Tom Brady landed each time. Spoiler alert: It was high. Here are his rankings in each of the previous 10 NFL Top 100 lists:

2011 – 1st

2012 – 4th

2013 – 4th

2014 – 3rd

2015 – 3rd

2016 – 2nd

2017 – 1st

2018 – 1st

2019 – 6th

2020 – 14th

Out of the top 10 last year, after his final season in New England! Had the decline finally begun? Uh, no. Brady's next season ended with him holding the Lombardi Trophy over his head for the seventh time, and for the first time as a Buccaneer, and his ranking will be going back up. The players ranked 11-100 have already been revealed and they did not include Brady. You know what that means. The top 10 will be unveiled on Saturday.

Realistically how many snaps do you see Joe Tyron-Shoyinka getting this year?

- @bucs_uk (via Instagram)

I'm glad I was asked this question at the end of training camp rather than the beginning. I probably would have been a little bit more conservative in my answer a month ago, but Tryon-Shoyinka has been so relentlessly impressive as a pass rusher, both in practice and the two games so far, that I'm not going to aim somewhat higher. That's based on my belief, now, that Tryon-Shoyinka ("JTS," can we make that work?) is going to be a significant part of the OLB rotation right from the beginning of the season.

The answer hinges on two things. One, will Tryon-Shoyinka show enough as a run defender to be on the field in more situations, or will he be almost strictly used in obvious passing situations? Two, how much will the coaches, Barrett and Pierre-Paul be willing to reduce the workload for those two players?

I bring up the first point because even amid all the praise that he has thrown the rookie's way, Head Coach Bruce Arians did seem to put one possible limiting factor on his playing time, at least in certain games.

"Yeah [Defensive Coordinator] Todd [Bowles] has done a great job of creating plays and creating matchups," said Arians, when asked about attempts to get Tryon-Shoyinka on the field. "The game will depend. If it's a running game, a running team, maybe not as much. If it's a passing situation he's going to play a bunch. There's situations where I could see in the future, down the road, where we have all three of them out there."

Well, that list bit about Tryon-Shoyinka, Pierre-Paul and Barrett (who really needs to get a hyphen in his name to fit in) is very interesting. I'd like to see that. But it's the part about the rookie playing "maybe not as much" when the Bucs are facing a team with a heavy run percentage that is really relevant here. That suggests that the coaches currently see Tryon-Shoyinka mostly as a pass-rushing specialist. However, that perception can certainly change, and at least one of his veteran teammates thinks he can be an all-around force.

"I truly think he can do both to be honest," said Will Gholston. "With that size, versatilely, speed, you see the wiggle, you see the bend like his knees touching the ground when he's running, so I think he can be versatile at both. I wouldn't label him just as a pass rusher, for sure."

As for the second question, we know that Barrett and Pierre-Paul like to get as many snaps as they can, and with their combined 45.5 sacks over the past two seasons it's obvious the Bucs want them out there a lot, too. But my theory is that the team also believes those two can be more effective on a per-snap basis if their playing time went down a little bit. And if you can get each of them a bit more rest without your pressure on the quarterback suffering, that's the perfect scenario. That's where Tryon comes in.

Last season, Barrett was on the field for 77% of the Bucs' defensive snaps, though it was 84% of the plays in the games in which he played. He missed one regular season game and one playoff game while on the COVID list. Meanwhile, Pierre-Paul played 88% of the Bucs' defensive snaps even though he spent the whole season managing an injured knee and frequently sitting out practices.

Let's set aside for now plays that would have all three of them on the field at the same time, because that would probably only be a negligible amount even if it happened. So that means any snaps that Tryon-Shoyinka (and Anthony Nelson) get would have to come out of the shares for Shaq and JPP.

Last season, there were 421 snaps taken over 20 games by outside linebackers other than those two starters. That's almost exactly 21 per game, which isn't much. If that's the same average this year, even if you give Tryon-Shoyinka two-thirds of that allotment and Nelson one-third that's still only 14 snaps per game, or 238 over a 17-game regular season. I've got to believe that the coaches are going to want Tryon-Shoyinka on the field for more snaps than that, at least as long as he keeps performing like he is right now.

So, for the sake of argument, let's say we reduce Barrett and Pierre-Paul's snap loads to 75% each. Last year, the Bucs had about 64 plays on defense per game in the regular season, which is 128 OLB snaps to share in each contest. If the two starters take 75% of that total, that would be 96 snaps, leaving 32 for Tryon-Shoyinka and Nelson. Could that be 20 for Tryon and 12 for Nelson? That's a reasonable thought, particularly if the rookie is primarily being used on obvious passing downs.

However, that's still only 340 snaps over the course of the regular season for Tryon-Shoyinka. I'm feeling bold and I'm going to arbitrarily up that to 500. You asked for a "realistic" estimate of his playing time in 2021. I think that's realistic.

Scott,

Should the Bucs lean towards playing more 11 personnel with AB looking closer to vintage AB and OJ Howard still trying to shake off the rust and recover from a serious injury? It seems like the Bucs can be very successful in either 11 or 12 personnel and maybe adjust the volume of each depending on whether the opposing defense is better in base personnel or nickel. The Chiefs defense definitely looked out-matched playing base against 12 and 13 personnel and it also seemed like they enjoyed running blitzes out of nickel. However, the Cowboys defense is very strong at linebacker and maybe less talented in the secondary so maybe the Bucs try to exploit the matchup between AB and the Cowboys third best corner. Maybe the Bucs can bring OJ along more slowly and target week 10 after the bye (about 13 months after the achilles rupture) to really increase his snap count.

- James P. Taylor (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Well, James, I think you provided the core of the answer to your question with this sentence: "It seems like the Bucs can be very successful in either 11 or 12 personnel and maybe adjust the volume of each depending on whether the opposing defense is better in base personnel or nickel."

That's really the beauty of the Bucs' offensive personnel, that it is so deep in talent at both receiver and tight end that it can trot out a very dangerous group in either 11 or 12 personnel, along with a number of other groupings. For anyone reading who is not familiar with those terms, 11 personnel means there are three wide receivers on the field and 12 personnel means there are two tight ends on the field. Remember this formula whenever you see packages described as 11, 12, 22 or whatever: The first number is how many running backs are on the field and the second is how many tight ends. Since there are five eligible players besides the quarterback, that means the other spots are all receivers. In other words, 11 has one running back, one tight end and three receivers.

Bruce Arians has said that 12 is his base offense, and indeed the team's depth chart lists two tight ends among its 11 starting spots. That said, like most teams the Bucs play the majority of their offensive snaps in 11 personnel. Specifically, they used that grouping on 56.2% of their plays during the 2020 regular season, as opposed to 20.4% in 12 personnel. Tampa Bay used 12 other groupings as well, such as 10 (one running back, four receivers), but none for more than 56 plays. The most exotic, used on exactly one play, was six offensive linemen, one running back and three receivers. I don't even know how you'd write that using the aforementioned formula.

This is all according to NFL Next Gen Stats, which also charts the "Success Rate" of each grouping. A play is defined as successful if one of these things happens:

·    On first down, the offense gains 40% of what it needs to get a first down.

·    On second down, the offense gains 50% of what it needs to get a first down.

·    On third or fourth down, the offense gets a first down.

Interestingly, the Bucs had a better success rate (54%) out of 12 personnel than out of 11 (49%). They were also successful 54% of the time out of 10, or four-wide, but that was in a much smaller sample size.

By the way, things changed a bit in one very specific way in the postseason. The Bucs still used 11 personnel most often, on 53.2% of plays, but their usage of 12, as strictly defined, fell to 12.8%. That's misleading though, because the Bucs were also in a formation that used a sixth offensive lineman, one back, one tight end and two wideouts on 12.5% of their plays. That's a lot like 12 personnel, but with one tight end replaced by an extra lineman (who had to declare himself as eligible). That was Joe Haeg's role in the postseason. Another 9.8 percent of the plays saw the Bucs utilize a real jumbo package with that extra lineman and two tight ends.

As you may recall, just about everything was working for the Buccaneers' offense at that time, and during the last month of the regular season. The Bucs success rate was 50% in 11, 59% in 12 and 58% and 54% in those two extra-lineman packages. They scored touchdowns out of all of those groupings.

Anyway, I do think the Buccaneers will tailor their game plan somewhat to the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing defense. I mean, finding mismatches and exploiting them, whether on offense or defense, is a lot of what good coaches do, and the Bucs have very good coaches. However, there's also something to be said for just simply doing what you do best and making the defense try to stop it.

And I really don't think we're going to have to wait until Week 10 for O.J. Howard to be at full speed. If you're describing Howard as rusty because of a couple very noticeable drops in last Saturday's game, that's fair, but Arians didn't seem upset about it afterward. In fact, he said the drops were "not concerning" because Howard went on to catch a number of other passes thrown his way, including some that were "grimier." Grimy seems to be the favorite word in camp this year; it's Arians' way of describing catches made when there are defenders present making them more difficult. Anyway, according to Arians, Howard has been catching the ball fine in practice, and wet gloves may have contributed to his early struggles on Saturday.

I'd say my takeaway from those plays with the dropped passes is that Howard was getting open downfield. That's really the big thing that he brings to this offense, a mismatch who can get open downfield and make plays over defenders. Howard's career average of 15.3 yards per catch is the best among all NFL tight ends with at least 50 catches over the last four seasons.

Not to mention, the Buccaneers can utilize 12 personnel effectively without Howard on the field, and did so for much of 2020. Cam Brate didn't play much in the first four games of the season, but after Howard went down with his Achilles tendon injury, Brate's reps gradually went up as he became Rob Gronkowski's partner in the 12 package. You saw that in action on several occasions in the playoffs, particularly during a big game for Brate in the Wild Card round at Washington.

You do make a very good point in your opening sentence, though, James. If Antonio Brown is operating at anywhere near the level that essentially made him the NFL's best receiver from 2013-18, the Buccaneers will probably have the most lethal trio of receivers in the NFL. If you can put Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Brown all on the field at the same time – and all currently healthy – it would be awfully hard to resist doing so. When it's all said and done, I'd be willing to bet the percentages for each grouping will probably end up similar to last year's percentages. That's somewhere in the 50-60% range for 11, 20-25% for 12 and then the rest in a variety of other packages.

Will Mike Evans have one of his best seasons this year?

- @razarsqui3d (via Instagram)

You know what, Razor Squid (that's how I'm reading your Instagram handle), that depends on how you define "best." Evans had the second-lowest yardage total of his brilliant career in 2020, but I'd be willing to bet that he considers it his best season so far. You know, because of that whole "winning the Super Bowl" thing?

Also, Evans had a career-high and team record-breaking 13 touchdown grabs last season, and that begs the question of what is his most important stat. Even setting aside the Super Bowl thing, I'm guessing Evans would take 1,006 yards and 13 touchdowns over, say, his 2015 totals of 1,206 yards and three touchdowns.

If we're going strictly by yards and touchdowns and not team accomplishments to define what is best, you'd have to say his top season so far is either 2018 (1,524 yards and eight touchdowns) or 2016 (1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns). He was on pace for 1,424 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019, which might have been his best season but lost the last three games to a hamstring injury.

His yardage total in 2018 set a Buccaneer single-season record but his yards in 2016 are fifth on the list and he had 50% more touchdowns. Take your pick as to which is the bar he'd have to clear, statistically, to have his best season in 2021. If you ask me, around 1,400 yards and a dozen touchdowns would do it.

Do I think he'll get to those marks in 2021? Possibly, but I wouldn't call it a likely occurrence, even with a 17th game to give him more opportunities. And that's meant as any kind of insult or inference that his best days are behind him. In fact, Evans has had an outstanding training camp and believes that he's in the best shape he's ever been at this point in a season. He just turned 28 last week!

No, the impediment to Evans getting something like 1,400 yards and a dozen touchdowns is obviously the wealth of pass-catching talent around him and the quarterback who, for good reason, likes to spread the ball around. Several times last season, we saw an opponent very obviously take measures to minimize Evans' catches with double coverage and brackets. That meant some low weekly totals for Evans, but not for the Bucs' offense as a whole, and if the outcome was good for the team it was fine by Mike. He wants to get his, don't get me wrong, but he wants to win more than anything else.

So, again, my answer is dependent on what you mean by "best," Mr. or Ms. Razor Squid. I doubt he puts up his highest single-season statistical totals in 2021, so if that's the criteria then I'd bet against it. But if he gets something like 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns and the Bucs are once again in contention for the championship, then I would say yes.

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