The leap. That's what we call it when an NFL player goes from good one season to great the next. Or from relatively obscure to the center of attention. Think of Chris Godwin, who had a nice 800-yard season as an NFL sophomore and then suddenly emerged as an NFL top-10 receiver in 2019.
Now, the leap can be splashy, like a three-year-old in a kiddie pool. I would put Rondé Barber's 1998 season in that category, as he played in all of one game in his rookie season before busting out with picks and sacks and forced fumbles and touchdowns in his second year. Or the leap can be quiet, like an Olympic diver nailing his entry. Vita Vea probably makes a big splash when he jumps in a pool but he had a rather unheralded breakout in 2019, apart from his much-hyped big-man touchdown catch.
Lots of NFL standouts make that jump in their second seasons, having gotten a good feel for what the league is all about as a rookie. That was the case for Barber and Vea. Godwin actually made something of a leap in his second season but his biggest step forward (so far) was in his third campaign. Sometimes it even takes longer; John Lynch scuffled for a few seasons under coaches who couldn't find the right fit for him and then blossomed in his fourth year after Tony Dungy's arrival.
Sometimes it's a simple matter of being blessed with better injury fortune. Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon, the first pick in the 1976 draft, was always going to be a star but injuries limited him to eight games as a rookie and he "only" had five sacks. The next season? Boom – 13.0 sacks in 14 games. Sometimes it just comes down to a player finally getting the opportunity he deserves. Two words: Shaq Barrett.
So whatever the situation, we're looking for a player on the Buccaneers' 2020 roster who hasn't yet fully burst onto the scene but will this coming fall. That's the penultimate question in our 10-part Camp Countdown, in which Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I are debating a number of topics as actual football approaches. We've already discussed such topics as the running back depth chart and the players facing the toughest challenges in the coming weeks; you can find links to the first eight below.
Monday, August 3: Which player on the roster will make the biggest leap from 2019 to 2020?
Tuesday, August 4: Who 'wins' training camp? Offense or defense?
Today's Question: Which player on the roster will make the biggest leap from 2019 to 2020?
There are a lot of good choices for this answer because a good number of young Buccaneer defenders already had mini-breakouts in the second half of 2019. I won't run through the names because Carmen might be writing about one of them below. But I'm going to go in a slightly different direction, landing on a player who's already been in the league for a few years. I am, of course, talking about Rob Gronkowski. When is that guy finally going to do something with all his talents?
Just kidding. My answer is actually Ali Marpet, and I think the recipe for his next leap is going to be one cup of him taking his game up another notch and one cup of him getting some much-deserved recognition. And Tom Brady will be stirring the pot.
Now, Marpet isn't a complete unknown at this point, six years into a career that has seen him go from Division III diamond in the rough to one of the NFL's better guards. He has gotten some recognition, such as this one:
But Marpet has not been voted into a Pro Bowl yet and in fact it doesn't seem like his name gets tossed around as much as it should when the voting is taking place. Getting an NFC Pro Bowl spot at guard isn't easy when Zack Martin basically has one locked down in perpetuity, but it's not impossible. Last year, the other two guards voted onto the NFC's Pro Bowl roster were Philadelphia's Brandon Brooks and Washington's Brandon Scherff. When Martin and the Brandon Bros opted not to play, their three replacements were Carolina's Trai Turner and the Saints duo of Andrus Peat and Larry Warford. It's worth noting that Turner is now in the AFC and Warford is unsigned and has opted out of the 2020 season. The leap for Marpet would be adding his name to that group in an NFL fan's casual conversation.
(Yes, I think there's a very strong possibility the Pro Bowl isn't played after this season, but I still expect the voting and recognition to occur.)
It's a bit harder to justify a "leap" for an offensive lineman than it is for, say, a cornerback or a running back because the linemen don't have a lot of personal statistics that he can multiply. Marpet already played every single offensive snap at left guard for the Bucs last year; he can't get any more of those. There are sources that track which linemen are responsible for their quarterbacks taking sacks and hits, but that's a bit subjective. Marpet is going to have to rely on some team statistics to tell his story, and in that regard it would help immensely if the Bucs got better at running the ball.
Tampa Bay was 24th in rushing yards per game in 2019 and, more importantly, 28th in yards per carry. Brady's presence is expected to be the rising tide that lifts all boats, shining a brighter spotlight on some underappreciated Buccaneers like Marpet and Lavonte David. However, it would be best for all if Brady isn't throwing the ball 40 times a game and the offense is more balanced in 2020, with Marpet and his O-Line pals pushing opponents around.
Yes, Ali Marpet is already a very good NFL guard. But I think he can get even better in his age-27 season. That and the combination of a bigger NFL stage built by Tom Brady could put Marpet into the Pro Bowl for the first time, and to me that would qualify as a leap.
I'm hoping all of that and more comes true for Marpet. The lack of offensive line stats really hinders the recognition and credit these guys receive. Somehow though, I think o-linemen take pride in that.
The player I think will make the biggest leap was actually just talked about Friday morning on Good Morning Football when our friend, Peter Schrager, said that White could be a player that wasn't included in the NFL Top 50 (or 100, for that matter) but could in fact end up in the Top 10 next year. No, that's not a typo.
Talk about confidence.
I love it. And there's truth to Schrager's words, who justifies his claim with what White was able to accomplish in just 13 games in 2019. His 91 tackles in 13 games ranked fourth among a strong rookie class that included the other first-round Devin linebacker in Devin Bush up in Pittsburgh. White was on pace for 112 combined tackles had he played all 16 games, which would have ranked first among rookies and 22nd league wide.
I fully expect for White to surpass that total in 2020 should he remain healthy and now that he has a better handle on playing at this level. More than that, I see him making more of an impact in other areas, too. We heard Head Coach Bruce Arians say on Tuesday that he would like to see an increased pass rush role for both White and his big brother, Lavonte David, which would result in gaudier sack stats for the pair, in turn leading to more recognition (maybe). Primetime games, as Schrager also noted, should help in that regard, too.
Plus, White also has a nose for the football, seemingly always knowing where it is and often times, getting his hands on it. In fact, White tied for the second-most fumble recoveries of any player in the league last year with San Fran's DeForest Buckner, and behind only New Orleans' Vonn Bell. White recovered four of them. He also forced three himself. And through the air? Well, Scott predicted yesterday that White would be the first to intercept quarterback Tom Brady in training camp. That could certainly be an excellent start to making the proverbial leap.