Injuries, unfortunately, are always a factor in how the final standings shake out in an NFL season. Sometimes teams are able to overcome the absence of a key player for a significant stretch of the season, as the Chiefs and Saints did last year without Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees, respectively. Sometimes the loss of such player effectively scuttles a season, as Ben Roethlisberger's injury did to a Steelers team that went 8-8 despite fielding an elite defense.
This could be an even bigger issue in 2020, as there's no point in ignoring the possibility of the COVID-19 pandemic affecting NFL rosters and player availability. The NFL and NFLPA are making every effort to minimize that potential impact, and hopefully the season goes smoothly, in Tampa and throughout the league.
For whatever reason, the Buccaneers will probably, at some point, have to overcome the absence of a top contributor or two. Last year it was Jason Pierre-Paul in the first half of the season and the receiving duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin at the end. And that's the basis of today's Burning Camp Question. I've taken the liberty of eliminating the most obvious answer before we start. Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I are now reaching the midway point of our 10-topic countdown to the Buccaneers' training camp and the return of football, and today for the first time we look past that camp and to the regular season.
Tuesday, July 28: Other than Tom Brady, whose absence for an extended period would be the toughest for the Buccaneers to overcome?
Wednesday, July 29: Who do you think is most likely to fit into that third receiver role?
Thursday, July 30: How do you see the offensive backfield shaping up?
Friday, July 31: Who will be the first player to intercept Tom Brady in practice?
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: Other than Tom Brady, whose absence for an extended period would be the toughest for the Buccaneers to overcome in 2020?
I've gone back and forth between three options here, but I won't mention the two I didn't choose because I don't want to steal Carmen's thunder below. I will say that, in addition to those options, I also think any of three starting interior offensive linemen would be tough because all the depth behind them is young and unproven.
But I finally landed on outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett. There's a reason that Head Coach Bruce Arians started throwing out lines about Barrett like (I'm paraphrasing), "He's not going anywhere," as far back as last December. When you have the NFL's sack leader and a guy capable of changing any games with multiple-sack outings, it's a little hard to imagine life without him. Barrett had four different games with two or more sacks last year; the last Buccaneer to do that was the great Simeon Rice way back in 2003.
The Buccaneers head into 2020 with a great pair of starters on the edge of the front line. No duo in the NFL produced more than the 28.0 combined sacks that Barrett and Pierre-Paul mustered last year, and that was with Pierre-Paul missing the first six games. The usual third man in that rotation was Carl Nassib, who is now with the Oakland Raiders. It would be ridiculous to criticize the Bucs for letting Nassib depart when they somehow managed to bring back Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh while landing both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski for the offense. Still, it does leave the Bucs a little uncertain after that starting duo.
Second-year man Anthony Nelson, a fourth-round pick out of Iowa a year ago, might be ready to step in and provide Nassib-like production. There might be a small-school diamond in the rough who can emerge as a rotational player, such as Charleston's Kahzin Daniels or Prairie View A&M's Quinton Bell. One of this year's undrafted free agents, like LSU's Michael Divinity, might bring some juice. The problem is, that's a lot of mights. The only real definite yeses are Barrett and Pierre-Paul, and Todd Bowles might have to get even more aggressive with his blitzes if he's without either of those two. As Carmen has pointed out in this very series, Barrett and Pierre-Paul are both guys who like to eat up as many defensive snaps as possible, and that's a great thing until one of them suddenly isn't available.
I appreciate you trying to not steal my thunder, Scott, but I am actually going to go with someone you indirectly mentioned: center Ryan Jensen. See, in my eyes, Brady may be the head as far as the team goes, but Jensen may just be the neck.
He's a guy who has improved year over year since signing with the Buccaneers in 2018 and last season played the best football of his career. He's one of the best at his position, which is a crucial one, across the entire league. Let me re-iterate: his position is a crucial one. The quarterback to center dynamic is one of the strongest and most nuanced of any two positions on the roster and while Brady and Jensen have had limited interaction this offseason, swapping Jensen out for, an unproven rookie as an example, would be a massive disruption. Brady is a guy who literally showed Jensen how he likes his sweat towel folded (and where). If he's specific about that, you can bet he's specific on all the other things, like checks and timing, both of which need to be developed together. That kind of attention to detail is what makes Brady who he is, and it undoubtedly rubs off on a guy with whom he's in constant contact.
Now, it could potentially not just be a choice of Jensen or a rookie. There's another option with the possibility that the Bucs would shift left guard Ali Marpet, who has experience at center, over one spot. It's not an ideal fix, though. Taking Marpet away from his natural position at guard would be taking away the anchor of Brady's blindside protection. You may have a little more flexibility there in plugging in a more veteran player (guys like newcomer Joe Haeg and Josh Wells have played all over the line), but you've now got two positions in flux versus just one.
See the conundrum?
That's what leads me to the conclusion that Jensen would be the biggest loss if he were to miss significant time. There is just no good replacement situation whatsoever. And while losing a marquee pass rusher, or the captain of the defense in say, Lavonte David, who was up there on my list of considerations, would be a challenge, I don't think it surpasses the disruption in dynamic between a guy who dictates the offense's every move and the guy who puts the ball in his hands.