Hey, NFL football, you're back! We've missed you!
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play a game on Sunday for the first time in 259 days, invading the Louisiana Superdome for a star-studded opener against the New Orleans Saints. Perhaps you've heard that Tom Brady and Drew Brees – they of the combined 86.4 miles of passing yards and 1,088 touchdown passes – will be trading darts. It's kind of a big deal.
Brady's first start as a Buccaneer after 20 unparalleled seasons in New England is obviously the biggest story in Sunday's game, but several other players will be making their Tampa Bay debuts as well. That includes another former Patriot star in Tom Brady and a pair of well-heeled running backs in LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette. It also includes a handful of rookies who will be the first class ever to head into the regular season without any preseason games to get acclimated to the league.
The non-existent offseason program, canceled preseason and compressed training camp was supposed to make this year a particularly tough one for rookies to make that transition to the pros, and that's almost sure to be true for many of them. However, none of that stopped offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. from earning starting spots on the Bucs' Week One depth chart.
Wirfs and Winfield were the Bucs' top two draft picks in April, with the former going 13th overall and the latter selected midway through the second round. If both of them are indeed on the field for the Bucs' first offensive and defensive snaps, respectively, it won't be a common thing, at least not in Tampa Bay's franchise history.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster as it currently stands.
The Buccaneers have taken part in 45 NFL drafts, including the one this year. On only seven previous occasions have the first two players the team drafted end up as starters on opening day of their rookie campaigns. Unsurprisingly, four of those seven occurrences took place in the franchise's first six years (1976-81), as the team was basically stocking up an empty cupboard at that point. That means it only happened three times in the next 38 years.
To clarify, we are not necessarily talking about first and second-round picks; instead, we are looking at the first two players taken in each Buccaneers draft class. As an example, the Bucs had no first or second round pick in 2002 after trading them away to get Jon Gruden, so their first two picks that year were wide receiver Marquise Walker and running back Travis Stephens. (Side note: Not great, Bob.)
Here are all seven times that the Bucs' top two draft picks started the season opener as rookies:
· 2015: QB Jameis Winston and T Donovan Smith (also third and fourth picks G Ali Marpet and LB Kwon Alexander)
· 2012: S Mark Barron and RB Doug Martin (also third pick LB Lavonte David)
· 1995: DT Warren Sapp and LB Derrick Brooks
· 1981: LB Hugh Green and RB James Wilder (also third pick CB John Holt)
· 1979: G Greg Roberts and WR Gordon Jones (also third pick RB Jerry Eckwood)
· 1977: RB Ricky Bell and LB David Lewis
· 1976: DE Lee Roy Selmon and RB Jimmy DuBose
Now, it's fair to wonder if starting multiple rookies on opening day is a good thing or not. Could it just mean that the roster was talent deficient to start with and the newcomers basically became starters by default. That was probably the case to some extent in the early years, and perhaps in 2012 and 2015 to some extent, too.
However, that's a pretty impressive list of players overall. Most of them became long-term starters and/or top producers. There are three Hall of Famers on that list (Selmon, Sapp and Brooks). Several of the team's all-time leading rushers are there, too, not to mention two current starters on the Bucs' offensive line. For the most part, those Day One starters were clearly there for a reason. Even if Winston ultimately was replaced after he finished his rookie contract, he did leave with most of the team's career passing records. Probably the least successful pick in the bunch, from the Buccaneers' perspective if not necessarily the player's, was Barron.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 1 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
As you can see, 2015 is the only year in which each of the Bucs' first four picks started in Week One, which is pretty remarkable. That is very unlikely to happen this year, as third-round running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn and fifth-round wide receiver Tyler Johnson are at the back end of two loaded positions on the depth chart for the moment. But even having Wirfs and Winfield in the lineup in New Orleans would be impressive, particularly given the unprecedented obstacles they faced in 2020. And neither got their spot by default; the Buccaneers could run out on Sunday with Joe Haeg at right tackle and Mike Edwards at safety and feel perfectly fine about it.
Now on to your questions for this week.
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.
Who is the one player who hasn't been talked about much, but you think will make a big impact this season?
- @bigbucdefense, via Instagram
Tom Brady. Have you heard about this guy? I looked up his resume – he's been pretty good.
Just kidding, obviously. The problem here is finding a Buccaneer who hasn't been hyped up yet. The spotlight that the signing of Brady helped shine on Tampa Bay has led to good publicity for a lot of players, even guys we've long considered wildly underrated, like Lavonte David. I would say at least these 13 guys would not qualify as answers to your question: Brady, David, Rob Gronkowski, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard, Ali Marpet, Tristan Wirfs, Ndamukong Suh, Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Devin White and Antoine Winfield. I even think I'd put Scotty Miller on that list because he was one of the more talked-about players in training camp, a guy that many (including yours truly) could have a breakout year as the primary third receiver.
Here's my first pick, but I'll make a couple others below in case you feel like this one doesn't qualify, either: Carlton Davis.
The reason that I'm unsure if Davis qualifies is that at one point during training camp head Coach Bruce Arians called him a top-10 cornerback in the NFL. A couple weeks later, Arians also said he thought Davis could be the type of cornerback a team could use to shadow a star receiver, like Julio Jones, throughout a game. Those are pretty aggressive statements about how good Davis is and could be.
The thing is, I'm not sure those statements got a whole lot of traction outside of Tampa, or even within it. Arians said that Davis had reached that level of play by the end of last season, but Davis was not voted into the Pro Bowl and there were more than 10 corners who were selected in 2019. If Davis is one of the NFL's 10 best cornerbacks right now, his reputation is lagging behind. (And honestly, that's a good thing at the moment, even if Davis deserves more attention.)
Let's say that Arians is right and Davis is an elite-level cornerback, and potentially a matchup shutdown cover man. That's probably one of the top four assets a team can have along with a good quarterback, an effective edge rusher and a top-tier left tackle. Really good cornerbacks are really hard to find, and that might be the toughest position in the game other than quarterback to play. If the Buccaneers have a player who can largely prevail in matchups with the likes of Jones, Davante Adams, D.J. Moore, Kenny Golladay and so on, that would make a very big impact on how good the defense is overall in 2020.
Conceding that there's a chance that Davis has gotten too much buzz to qualify, I'll add a second pick in defensive lineman Vita Vea.
Vea very quietly had a strong sophomore season last year, though he admittedly drew a lot of attention when he became the heaviest player ever to catch a touchdown pass. Vea was absolutely critical to the team's top-ranked run defense, and he and Suh drew a lot of attention away from their edge rushers, who in turn feasted on one-on-one matchups. Vea was also occasionally disruptive in the backfield, though his final sack total of 2.5 doesn't really show that.
Arians thinks Vea is on the verge of being a more effective pass-rusher because his combination of size and nimble feet make him hard to block. It might be asking a bit much to expect Barrett and Pierre-Paul to combine for 28 sacks again in 2020, so if the Bucs want their pass rush to be as good or better than it was in 2019 (47 sacks), they'll probably need some other members of the front seven to step up. Vea is a good candidate to be one of those players; if he adds seven or eight sacks to his prowess against the run, that would be a big impact.
One final pick here: kicker Ryan Succop. Nobody's even had a chance to talk about Succop much, since he only got here about a week ago. After just a few practices, the Bucs chose to go with Succop over incumbent second-year man Matt Gay, who was erratic at times in training camp. The veteran kicker really didn't have much time on the practice field to prove he was the better option; the Buccaneers surely based their decision partly on his entire body of work. Subtract last year, when a knee injury clearly led to his brief one-for-six performance on field goals, and you have a guy who made 86.6% of his field goals over the previous five years in Tennessee. At one point in that span he set an NFL record by making 56 straight field goals of less than 50 yards.
Think about the chaos and turnover the Buccaneers have lived through at kicker for close to a decade now, and then think about how much different 2020 will be if they are sending out a kicker who is essentially automatic on kicks of reasonable length. Past performance does not guarantee future success, of course; Succop still has to demonstrate that he is back in that 2014-18 form. But the Bucs obviously believe he can be that kicker, and if he is that also would make a huge impact on the team's fortunes in 2020.
Do you think this defense has a chance to be better than the 02 defense?
- @esai2westside, via Instagram
Man, really shooting for the moon, huh Esai?
I mean, there's always a chance, but this is like asking me if I think the Tampa Bay Rays – a fun, young team with high expectations – can be better than the 1927 Yankees.
Do you know just how good that 2002 Buccaneers' defense was? First of all, it's already sent two players to the Hall of Fame and probably should have two or three more (Ronde Barber, John Lynch, Simeon Rice). It would be great if the current group of Buccaneer defenders eventually ends up with multiple guys in the Hall of Fame and a couple others knocking on the door, but do you really want me to make that aggressive of a prediction.
My favorite statistic from that 2002 defensive season – actually, my favorite Buccaneer stat of all time – is that Tampa Bay held opposing passers to a 48.4 passer rating. That's all the quarterbacks the Bucs faced that year combined. Ryan Leaf's career passer rating was 50.0. The 2002 Buccaneers turned all the quarterbacks they faced into one collective passer who was worse than Ryan Leaf. That's incredible. That defense allowed only 10 touchdown passes while snaring 31 interceptions. 10 and 31!
I'll stipulate that the Buccaneers' 2019 defense was very good in the second half, good enough to finish fifth in Football Outsiders' DVOA chart, even with a rough first half included. That included a young secondary that really turned the corner in November and December. But in the end opposing passers combined for a 90.0 rating against Tampa Bay. I expect that number to go down in 2020; I don't expect it to be cut in half. Last year, the Bucs' pass defense allowed 30 touchdown passes and hauled in 12 interceptions. I readily concede that the game is different in 2020 then it was in 2020 and if that same Super Bowl defense was playing today it would probably give up more passing yards and touchdowns. But it would still end up as the best in the league in those categories.
The Bucs also only allowed 196 points in 2002. Since then, no defense in the NFL has allowed fewer than 200 points in a season. If we remove the points scored on defensive touchdowns, the Bucs' 2002 defense gave up 178 points while the 2019 version gave up 408. Again, yes, the game is different now and the 2019 defense was put in a lot of bad positions by a whopping 41 Bucs giveaways overall, but we're still talking about an enormous amount of ground to make up.
Now, I do see how you can draw some parallels between that 2002 group of defenders and what the team has now. That '02 defense had two Pro Bowl linebackers in the middle of the field (Brooks and Shelton Quarles) and I could definitely see both David and White getting all-star nods this year. In 2002, the Bucs had a wildly-underrated cornerback trio of Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly and Dwight Smith. We might eventually be talking about Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting in a similar way. The 2002 defense had one of the league's best edge rushers in Rice paired with a dominant inside force in Sapp. Barrett and Vea could approximate that inside-outside threat in 2020. There probably isn't a John Lynch equivalent among the safeties just yet, but Antoine Winfield could emerge as a big-time playmaker.
I think there's a good chance the Buccaneers' defense will be very good in 2020. Will they better than the legendary 2002 crew? Well, there's a chance that I could hit a major league fastball…but not really. This is just asking too much.
How will snaps be divided with Fournette & Shady?
Either you are forgetting about Ronald Jones or you are asking me what Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy will get, respectively, from the touches that are left after Jones gets the top share. I assume you mean the latter.
I'll go ahead and make a guess here but I want to stipulate that I don't think there's anybody who really knows the answer to this question right now, not even Coach Arians. I think Arians and his staff will have a definite plan for how they want to use all of their backs this Sunday, but I don't anyone knows exactly how this rotation is going to shake out three or four weeks from now. Unless you're trying to make a fantasy football decision, it's actually going to be a pretty fun situation to watch unfold.
Before the arrival of Fournette, it looked pretty likely that Jones was going to get the lion's share of the touches and that McCoy would get most of what was left, and perhaps most of the work on third downs. That latter part seems even more likely with Dare Ogunbowale out of the picture and rookie third-rounder Ke'Shawn Vaughn being brought along slowly.
Now add Fournette to that picture. On Tuesday, Arians said Fournette would have a "solid role" in the opener. I also thought there were a couples of clues in this response from Arians to a question about Fournette's strengths:
"He's a big, strong back that can really catch. He can do everything. He can protect, he's a big third-down back and he's been a solid guy in the league. It just gives us another weapon. Until his role really, really expands, I wouldn't think you'd have to game plan for him that much, other than just our running game."
Arians specifically uses the phrase "third-down back," not to say that Fournette is strictly a player for third downs – he was every bit the three-down back in Jacksonville – but that he can be quite effective in that role. And then Arians says, "until his role really, really expands." That says to me that Fournette is going to start out with a small piece of the pie but that it would not be a surprise to eventually see him more heavily featured in the backfield.
With all of that, I would say that in Week One the Bucs still have Jones and McCoy in the roles they were expected to fill before the arrival of Fournette. Then I would expect Fournette to take a little bit from each category, just to see what sort of impact he can make. As the weeks go on, Fournette's role will grow, particularly if he has the hot hand or proves to be more consistently effective than either Jones or McCoy in either of those two roles.