The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made dozens and dozens of roster moves before and during the 2020 season, beginning in the days after the 2019 season and not ending until roughly a week before the Super Bowl. Of course, every team in the NFL made a lot of roster moves last season; the difference is, only the Buccaneers' maneuvers resulted in a championship.
The signature move engineered by General Manager Jason Licht and Head Coach Bruce Arians was, of course, the dramatic free agent signing of quarterback Tom Brady, who came to Tampa with six Super Bowl rings and promptly earned a seventh. That move alone, however, might not have resulted in the desired outcome if Licht and Arians and their staffs hadn't also bolstered the roster in many other ways. In fact, the Buccaneers actually signed two players on March 20 and today we're going to look at the one who was not Tom Brady.
Licht and company are now beginning their efforts to put together another championship roster in 2021. In the days leading up to the start of free agency on March 17, we're counting down the 15 most important roster moves the team made in 2020. NFL rosters are always in flux and the shaping of the 2020 Buccaneers was conducted through months of free agency, into the 2020 draft and even while the season was underway. Some of the moves were planned from the start, while some were reactions to opportunities along the way. This countdown is a mix of both.
Note: The countdown we will be constructing over the next three weeks does roughly progress towards the most impactful moves at the end, but it is not strictly a ranking. There's not much of a distinction to be drawn between moves listed near each other in the countdown, and we're not trying to say that any particular re-signing on defense was more important than the next. There is, however, a clear number one. These are also not in chronological order.
Countdown: Top 15 Transactions in the Buccaneers' Pursuit of the 2020 Championship
14. Signed Joe Haeg and A.Q. Shipley and Re-Signed Josh Wells
The 2020 Buccaneers returned four of their five offensive line starters from the previous season and used the 13th-overall pick in the draft to complete that unit. The continuity of Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen and Alex Cappa combined with the stunning debut season turned in by rookie Tristan Wirfs produced outstanding results. Tampa Bay ranked second in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per pass play and mounted a very effective running game when it mattered most, in January and February. The Buccaneers also have all five of those starters under contract for 2021.
Of course, the Bucs also needed to be prepared for possible injuries to one or more of those starters; the last time Tampa Bay had all five of its opening-day O-Line starters intact for all 16 games was 2005. And Licht and Arians clearly preferred veteran depth at that position. The Bucs did keep a handful of rookie linemen on the practice squad for future development but the reserves they actually used were veterans Haeg, Wells and Shipley (and, briefly, in the Wild Card round, Ted Larsen).
None of those players was under contract with the Buccaneers when the 2020 league year began in March. The signing of Haeg, an unrestricted free agent who had spent the previous four seasons in Indianapolis, happened on the same day that the team officially landed Brady, so it was obviously overshadowed a bit. But Haeg proved to be a valuable addition, too, perhaps never more so then in Super Bowl LV.
Wells had been with the Buccaneers in 2019 and had actually started one game each at right and left tackle, but he wasn't immediately re-signed at the beginning of free agency in March. A week after the draft, the Bucs called Wells back, giving them two experienced veterans to back up the tackle spots. Haeg had started 35 games in Indy, while Wells had 11 starts between the Bucs and Jaguars.
As for the interior line, it looked near the end of training camp that the depth was going to be some combination of Aaron Stinnie, Zach Bailey, Anthony Fabiano and undrafted rookies John Molchon, Nick Leverett and Zach Shackelford. Only Fabiano had any previous NFL regular-season experience, and even then only a very small amount. Once again, the Buccaneers chose to go with veteran depth instead and brought in Shipley, who had 70 career starts, including 35 in Arians' system in Arizona. He and Stinnie backed up the interior lineman most of the way.
The Buccaneers did enjoy mostly good health fortune with their offensive line in 2020, as Wirfs and Jensen both started all 20 games and Smith started 19. But Marpet was out for three games in November with a concussion and Cappa fractured an ankle in the Wild Card round and missed the final three playoff outings.
After first trying Haeg at left guard in Week Nine, the Buccaneers adjusted for the following two games, moving Jensen over to guard and playing Shipley at center. That produced very good results, particularly in a dominant win at Carolina in Week 10 in which the Bucs rushed for a season-high 210 yards. Shipley would see his season and career come to an end after that run due to a neck injury but he helped the line stay strong while Marpet was out. With Shipley out by the playoffs, the Bucs instead turned to Stinnie to replace Cappa.
Smith would then miss the Bucs' Week 15 game at Atlanta while on the reserve/COVID-19 list, though he did not test positive. Wells stepped in at the critical left tackle position and helped the Bucs ring up 416 yards of offense in a 31-27 comeback win.
Meanwhile, Haeg found an impactful weekly role as an eligible sixth lineman in jumbo sets, something the Bucs used with increasing frequency in December and into the playoffs. Haeg played a total of 64 offensive snaps in that role during the playoffs, peaking with 21 in Super Bowl LV. The Bucs used that jumbo package on nearly a third of their plays in their victory over Kansas City, both running and passing the ball effectively out of that scheme.
All three of the veteran offensive linemen that Licht and Arians brought in at different times in the year eventually were called upon to be the "next man up" at some point during the Buccaneers' championship run. There are much more prominent signings ahead in this countdown but sometimes the seemingly minor moves make a big difference.