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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Combined Efforts | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Buccaneers fans have questions about important drills and standout performances at the NFL Scouting Combine, a hypothetical all-free agent team and more

ss mailbag

It wasn't long ago that Tom Brady and Drew Brees were squaring off in a Divisional Round playoff game between two NFC South foes. For many years before that, both the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers featured former NFL MVPs under center – Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, respectively – while the New Orleans Saints had a superstar in Brees and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were getting prolific numbers from first-overall draft pick Jameis Winston. The NFC South was loaded at the game's most important position.

Of course, no quarterback's career lasts forever – Brady certainly made us wonder, though – and the NFC South quarterback landscape looks a lot different than it did a few years ago. That said, as we head into the 2024 season, the division is loaded with intrigue. It's a fair question, here on the first day of March, to wonder which of the four teams in the Buccaneers' division will be happiest with its quarterback by the time next January rolls around. You could make a case for any of the four as the proper answer.

The Falcons, for instance, could be ready to make a seismic shift at the position. They tried to go with 2022 third-round pick Desmond Ridder as their starter in 2023 after he showed promise at the end of his rookie campaign, but the results were middling. Ridder threw 12 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions in 13 starts and was benched on two separate occasions. There's a strong chance the Falcons will be looking for a new solution in 2024, and one of the rumored possibilities is a big swing on the trade market.

The Chicago Bears own the first pick in this year's draft and may use it to select uber-prospect Caleb Williams of USC. If so, they would almost surely be looking to trade their current starter, 2021 first-round pick Justin Fields. Bears General Manager Ryan Poles didn't shut down that line of reasoning when asked about it at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this week.

"If we do go down that road, I want do right by Justin as well," said Poles. "No one wants to live in the gray. I know that's uncomfortable, I wouldn't want to be in that situation, either."

Meanwhile, the Falcons have been established favorite to land Fields if he is traded, though there are some questions as to whether he's a good fit for the scheme of new Offensive Coordinator Zac Robinson. If that deal does happen, it will bring one of the more unique quarterback talents into the division. The Buccaneers have handled Fields well in both of their games against him so far, but a quarterback who can run for over 1,000 yards and score double-digit touchdowns on the ground, as he did in 2022, is a different sort of challenge to face twice a year.

The Panthers hired former Bucs Offensive Coordinator Dave Canales to be their new head coach, and Canales's impressive work with quarterbacks Geno Smith and Baker Mayfield had to factor into that decision. The first order of business for Canales will be to develop Bryce Young, whom Carolina took with the first-overall pick a year ago. Young had an up-and-down season for the 2-15 Panthers but definitely has some impressive physical talents. A rough year for a rookie quarterback thrown directly into the fire is hardly shocking, but the stark contrast of second-overall pick C.J. Stroud's success in Houston adds pressure for the Panthers to turn things around quickly.

Count Buccaneers Head Coach Todd Bowles as one observer who thinks Young is still destined for a great career.

"I think Bryce is a tremendous talent and he's [going to] be great for this league," said Bowles at the Combine. "Bryce has got off to a rough start. It's hard playing as a rookie quarterback. He's trying to do all the things that you have to do. In C.J.'s case it ended up great, in Bryce's case it didn't. That doesn't mean he's not a good quarterback. That just means the jury is still out on him. I have a lot of belief in him. I personally think he's a very good football player."

The Saints, in their post-Brees era, made their big move at quarterback last offseason, signing former Raider Derek Carr to a big contract that included $100 million in guarantees. Statistically, Carr had a fine first season with the Saints, throwing 25 touchdown passes and eight interceptions and compiling a passer rating of 97.7. The perpetually all-in Saints missed the playoffs for the third year in a row, however. Of course, they did end the season with the same record as the Buccaneers at 9-8, missing out on the division title on a tiebreaker.

Whatever outside assessments there were about Carr's first season in New Orleans, the Saints doubled down on the commitment a week ago by restructuring the quarterback's contract in their efforts to be cap compliant. The move reduced Carr's hit on the cap in 2024 but will make it harder for the Saints to get away from the contract if they wanted to in subsequent years.

And then there's the Buccaneers, who couldn't have been happier about their union with Baker Mayfield in 2023. After the former first-overall pick in Cleveland produced a career year with 4,044 yards, 28 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions for a team that advanced to the Divisional Round of the playoffs, it seems obvious that the Buccaneers would want the same man under center in 2024. The complicating factor, of course, is that Mayfield signed a one-year deal last March and thus is a potential free agent in about a week and a half. Both sides seem motivated to get a deal done, but if for some reason that doesn't happen the Buccaneers could end up with the least settled quarterback position in the division.

Now on to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me any time 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

Best Bucs combine performance you can remember off the top of you head?

- tayylor_lovee (via Instagram)

Does Bo Jackson count? He never actually played for the Buccaneers, but his 40-yard dash at the 1986 Combine in New Orleans remains the stuff of legends. Whether or not you accept one report of a 4.12-second timing (he was also clocked at 4.22 on a more widely-accepted rep), he cemented himself as a generational talent and the Bucs drafted him first overall against his wishes. You know the rest.

There have been some recent ones, including cornerback Zyon McCollum scoring a maximum 99 "athleticism score" in Indianapolis two years ago. Calijah Kancey's 4.67-second 40-yard dash last year was the fastest by an interior defensive lineman since 2003, and Tristan Wirfs blew away a variety of drills in 2020. However, I'm going to go with a player for whom I actually won't have a lot of numbers to support my case.

That player is offensive lineman Ali Marpet. Marpet played tackle at a Division III school named Hobart, which isn't exactly an NFL player factory. Area Scout Andre Ford was the first member of the Bucs organization to find this diamond in the rough, and fortunately Marpet got an invitation to the Senior Bowl in 2015. On Ford's recommendation, General Manager Jason Licht and his crew made a point in checking Marpet out at the all-star game and came away with a good first impression.

However, it was at the Combine where the Bucs interest in the small-school prospect became more of an obsession. Everybody knew that Tampa Bay, which had the first-overall pick in the draft, was targeting a quarterback in the first round, either Winston or Marcus Mariota. On the other hand, the Bucs kept their appreciation for Marpet under wraps. After watching the offensive linemen work out in Indianapolis, Licht had to tell somebody how he felt, so he texted this to team Owners/Co-Chairmen Bryan and Joel Glazer: "I just watched my favorite player, Ali Marpet."

After the Senior Bowl, Licht still needed some convincing that Marpet was as good as he suspected. The Combine took care of that, as Marpet shined on the field and in interview sessions.

"He just blew it out," said Licht. "He had a great workout. You don't want to put everything into one workout, but it was all starting to add up. The Senior Bowl practices versus top competition. Then he goes to the Combine and you find out he's a great kid, perfect. He reminded me of the offensive linemen who have been so successful with the Patriots – Logan Mankins when he was coming out, Joe Andruzzi, Stephen Neal – all these guys who were successful in New England. He had that kind of presence about him and that mindset, that toughness, that intelligence."

The Bucs would take Winston first overall and get him a left tackle early in the second round in Donovan Smith. When Marpet was still available late in that second round, Licht pounced, making a trade with the Colts to move up four spots and get his man. Marpet developed into one of the best guards in franchise history, making the Pro Bowl in 2021 before choosing to hang up his cleats after just seven seasons.

The most overlooked combine stat in your opinion?

- Kenyan.central (via Instagram)

It feels like all the other drills are overlooked to some extent when compared to the 40-yard dash. As for what the most important drills are, that can be somewhat position-specific. Do we really care how many bench press reps a star receiver can throw up? I mean, you'd like your offensive linemen to be fast like Wirfs was in 2020, but a slow 40-time for a player at that position is hardly a deal breaker.

However, if there's one drill that should probably get more attention for how well it can test ability at multiple positions, it's the three-cone drill, also known as the L drill. It is designed to measure speed, acceleration and deceleration, body control, agility and change of direction skills. Players run back and forth in short areas around cones arranged in an L shape, changing directions as quickly as possible. Scouts get a better measure of a player's "football speed" than they do from the straight-line, all-acceleration 40, and they can see how flexible a prospect is and how he can lower his weight and shift his hips.

It applies to almost every position. The L drill can show which receivers run the sharpest routes and make the cleanest cuts. Edge rushers can show how good they are at bending around a blocker, a key trait for a pass rusher. Offensive linemen can display their short-area quickness and agility for blocking schemes that require a lot of movement. Defensive backs show off their footwork, which is critical at the position, and how well they can stop and start and mirror receiver routes.

I mentioned above that Zyon McCollum had an insane "athleticism score" at the 2022 Combine. That included a 6.48-second three-cone drill time that is very good. The Combine record for the drill is 6.28, by former Oklahoma cornerback Jordan Thomas in 2018. After making the case for the three-cone drill being the most important one at the Combine, I'll throw some cold water on that idea. Let's just say you need to do more than just nail that one drill. Thomas wasn't selected in the 2018 draft and he never played in the NFL after being signed as an undrafted rookie by the Eagles.

Would a team of upcoming nfl free agents win a superbowl next year?

- tainful (via Instagram)

In my opinion, no chance.

There are too many cautionary tales from decades of NFL free agency for me to be confident in a team constructed solely on the open market. There's a reason most NFL team-builders, including the Bucs' own Jason Licht, will insist they prefer constructing a roster through draft-and-development through signing veteran free agents. You can miss in the draft or in free agency, but the latter misfire is usually a lot more expensive. There's no way you can convince me that a 53-man roster – or even a 22-man starting lineup – made up entirely of this year's free agents wouldn't have its share of disappointing outcomes.

First of all, if you were trying to make an all-star team out of this year's free agency pool, you would run out of cap space in a hurry. These are the top 10 players on the Pro Football Focus ranking of this year's potential free agents: Chris Jones, Kirk Cousins, Josh Allen, Tee Higgins, Brian Burns, Justin Madubuike, Christian Wilkins, Antoine Winfield Jr., Jaylon Johnson and L'Jarius Sneed. Jones, Madubuike and Wilkins are all defensive tackles, so if you don't want to pay three of them, we can throw in Danielle Hunter in his place. Sneed has received the franchise tag from Kansas City, which carries a value of $19.8 million for 2024. For the other nine guys, I looked up their estimated "market value" on Spotrac, which I frankly found to be fairly conservative on most of those players. Even so, those 10 add up to a 2024 cap hit of $249.9 million. The salary cap has been set this year at $255 million.

Yes, there are obviously ways to be creative about how you spread out the cap hit on a big contract, but this is a hypothetical exercise and I don't want to get too deep in the weeds. The point is, no matter how creative you get you're not be able to get star players at every position. At a lot of spots, you'll be forced to shop in the bargain aisles, and how is that a better way of building out a roster than drafting young and talented players who could potentially give you much more value and production?

Also, a lot of the best players who right now are potential free agents will no longer be so by March 13 when the market opens. You might covet Winfield but have to settle for Geno Stone or Deshon Elliott. (I'm not taking shots at any players; I'm just referring to their relative rankings on the PFF list.) For the sake of this discussion, though, let's see what the best possible starting 22 from that PFF list would be:

QB – Kirk Cousins

RB – Saquon Barkley

WR – Tee Higgins

WR – Michael Pittman

WR – Mike Evans

TE – Dalton Schultz

T – Tyron Smith

T – Trent Brown

G – Kevin Dotson

G – Robert Hunt

C – Connor Williams

EDGE – Josh Allen

EDGE – Brian Burns

DT – Chris Jones

DT – Justin Madubuike

LB – Frankie Luvu

LB – Lavonte David

LB – Patrick Queen

CB – Jaylon Johnson

CB – L'Jarius Sneed

S – Antoine Winfield Jr.

S – Kyle Dugger

Okay, if we're living in a fantasy world where you really could sign all of those players to the same team (and then somehow also fill out the rest of the 53-man roster through free agency), then yes that looks pretty good on paper. But I still believe it wouldn't work out. When a team signs one or two big-time free agents in the offseason, it can still be quite a process to integrate them into the existing offense and defense. Imagine having to onboard every player on the roster at the same time. There will be system mismatches. There will be ego issues. There will be some coveted free agents who just don't hit. It happens all the time.

(Also, Super Bowl is two words. Sorry, just a pet peeve of mine. Carry on.)

When do you think the NFL cap space will reach it max? What will that number be?

- tristennn.22 (via Instagram)

I don't think the NFL's cap limit will ever reach a maximum. The first Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed in 1993 and in 1994 the per-team salary cap limit was $34.6 million. Other than 2011, which came after an uncapped year in 2010 and the post-COVID 2021 season, it has gone up every year since. As recently as 2013, the cap was $123 million. In just 11 years it has gone up by more than $130 million. It even went up by about $10 million more than team executives were expecting this year.

The salary cap is calculated based on NFL revenues, mostly from broadcast partner contracts, with roughly 48% (the figure is negotiated each year) going to player costs. The NFL's revenues keep rising, so the cap does too. I don't see any reason why that trend would end, barring something as dramatic and unwanted as another world-wide pandemic. I mean, I guess everything comes to an end at some point, but I don't think the end is anywhere in sight for the NFL's growth.

Favorite tv show as a kid?

- zach.ari.ah (via Instagram)

Depends on what you mean by kid. I don't remember it personally, but I'm told I liked The Electric Company an awful lot when I was a toddler. Two of the first shows I can actually remember being really into were Speed Racer and Ultraman, two classics from Japan. Although I just looked up Ultraman to make sure I was remembering that correctly and, man, it's clear I really had no idea what was going on in that show. It just had this dude who could turn into a giant robot. I think.

Later when I was into cartoons, The Road Runner Show was my favorite but it was really only on on Saturday mornings, so I probably watched Tom & Jerry the most because it was on all the time. When I was a little older, my family liked to watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island back to back – appointment viewing. As a teenager it was probably Cheers. Thanks for this opportunity to date myself in front of everybody.

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