The 2019 Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the 12th season in a row. The 2020 Buccaneers went 11-5 in the regular season and finished a four-game postseason tear with victory in Super Bowl LV.
Obviously, the Bucs ascended significantly in 2020, and some of that had to do with returning players duplicating or improving upon their performances from the previous season, such as Lavonte David, Devin White, Ronald Jones II, Scotty Miller and most of the offensive line. Still, it's fair to say that simply running back the 2019 roster would probably not resulted in a championship, and that's particularly true if the Buccaneers had not been able to retain some key free agents from that team.
Dozens upon dozens of roster moves were made before and during the 2020 season, as is the case with every team in every season. In this particular case, those moves engineered by General Manager Jason Licht, Head Coach Bruce Arians and their respective staffs produced the ultimate result at season's end. With that group about to start on another round of roster reshaping for an attempted title defense in 2021, we're looking back at the 15 most important transactions of Tampa Bay's Super Bowl season.
Licht, Arians and company started the effort with a plan that had two essentially equal goals they referred to as 1A and 1B. 1A was to keep a rising defense intact; 1B was to pursue a stunning acquisition at the most important position in football. That was just the beginning, however, and the shaping of the 2020 Buccaneers continued through a couple more months of free agency, the 2020 draft and some notable pickups along the way. 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
15. Signed CB Ross Cockrell, September 23
The Buccaneers initially added the veteran cornerback to their practice squad, and it might not have even been the most eye-catching move of that day, three weeks into the season. In fact, the story announcing a handful of roster moves on September 23 was entitled, "Bucs Promote Tanner Hudson to Active Roster."
It didn't take long for the Buccaneers to realize how useful Cockrell could be. In his second week on the practice squad the team elected to use one of their four "protection" options for that week on the seventh-year corner, making sure no other NFL team could sign him away. They did so again the following week and then also elevated Cockrell to the active roster for their October 8 game at Chicago. After that game, the Bucs signalled the value they had found in Cockrell by promoting him to the active roster, essentially switching him out with rookie corner Parnell Motley, who had made the team after an impressive training camp.
Before coming to Tampa, Cockrell had spent seven seasons with the Bills, Steelers, Giants and Panthers, including the 2018 campaign on injured reserve in Carolina. In 2019, he had played in 14 games and started 11 for the Panthers, and he also started all 16 contests for Pittsburgh in 2016. Cockrell had seven interceptions and 44 passes defensed in his first seven NFL campaigns.
Through the first 10 weeks of 2020, Cockrell had played only one snap on defense, as the Buccaneers had a set starting cornerback trio of Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting. However, injuries inevitably entered the picture in the second half of the season. Davis and Dean missed two games each and all three were sidelined for portions of games at some point. Cockrell proved to be the glue that held it all together. He would end up with 270 snaps over the final 10 games, including 38 or more in four contests and eight in the Super Bowl.
Cockrell's final 2020 statistics won't jump off the page. He had 11 tackles, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit and one pass defensed during the regular season, plus one stop and one pass defensed in the playoffs. But he proved to have a great grasp of Todd Bowles' defense and could be trusted to be in the right place at the right time. Most importantly, he kept Tampa Bay's pass defense from becoming vulnerable whenever one of the team's top three corners was unavailable. He was used both in the slot and on the outside depending upon the need at the time.
During the week leading up to Super Bowl LV, Arians praised Licht for the work he had done throughout the year and into the season to continue improving the team's roster. Some of the moves Arians noted – tradining for Rob Gronkowski and signing Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown – were high-profile additions at the time, but the coach put the addition of Cockrell into the same category.
"Then Jason did such a great job adding pieces as we went along – Rob, Leonard, Antonio and other guys," said Arians. "Ross Cockrell has been one of the best pickups we've had the entire season."