The National Football League is about to return with a vengeance, with all 32 teams set to open their training camps between the 18th and the 27th of this month. That will start the ball rolling towards opening weekend and, for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a season they hope will end with a return to the playoffs.
The bottom line is wins and losses, but plenty of other statistics will be generated along the way. And for some individual Buccaneers, and the team as a whole, those numbers could challenge franchise records. In fact, at least one Buc is poised to become the club's all-time leader in a very prominent category. You can read about that below, along with four other Tampa Bay records that could be toppled in 2018. Two are well within reach, two would take career years from individual Bucs and one, we'll admit, is a little far-fetched…but all are possible.
1. Mike Evans, Career Receiving Yards (and Touchdown Receptions)
Mike Evans is still only 24 years old (he'll turn 25 during training camp) but when you open your career with four consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns you can make a quick run up your club's all-time receiving yardage chart. That's exactly what Evans has done since he was drafted seventh overall in 2014, and now he's in position to move to the top of that list, perhaps even before the midseason mark.
Mark Carrier is the Buccaneers' all-time leader in receiving yardage, having generated 5,018 yards on 321 catches from his rookie season of 1987 through the 1992 campaign. Carrier went on to play six more seasons for Cleveland and Carolina and run his career mark up to 8,763 receiving yards, but it's his 5,018 that matters here, and it's a record that has held for more than a quarter-century.
Carrier narrowly surpassed the previous Buccaneer record of 4,928 career receiving yards set by Kevin House from 1980-86. Those are the only two players yet to be reeled in by Evans, who has needed only four seasons to rack up 4,579 yards on 309 receptions. That means he is only 350 yards from moving past House, and once he does that he'll need just 90 more to grab the top spot from Carrier.
So, Evans begins his fifth season needing just 440 yards to become the Buccaneers' all-time leader in receiving yardage. His career per-game average is almost exactly 75 yards. If he simply maintains that average, Evans would get to 440 yards by the sixth contest of the season, barring injury. That would be nice, because the Bucs' sixth game of 2018 is at Raymond James Stadium against the Cleveland Browns; breaking the record at home would be a bonus.
We're only counting this entry as one in our five-part list, but Evans is nearly certain to break the team's all-time record for touchdown receptions as well. He already has 32 of them, and the team record, belonging to Ring of Honor member Jimmie Giles, is 34. Evans passed House (31) for second on this list last year and needs just three more to leap over Giles. Evans' own career is an illustration of how fickle touchdown totals can be, but even his lowest single-season mark of three would get the job done.
In case you were wondering, no Evans is not in position to pull the trifecta and secure all three of the Bucs' main receiving records: receptions, yards and touchdowns. He is third on the receptions list and will pass Carrier for second place on his 13th catch of 2018. However, it will probably take into 2019 for Evans to claim the top spot, as former running back James Wilder put that one a little out of reach with 430 receptions. Evans would need 122 catches in 2018 to get that mark, too, and that would be a hyper-aggressive prediction for a player with a career single-season high of 96 grabs.
2. Team, Single-Season Gross Passing Yards
As a team, the Buccaneers set a new franchise record with 4,165 passing yards in 2016, a mark that lasted one year as the 2017 squad upped it to 4,607 yards. There's no reason that bar can't be cleared for a third straight year.
Last season, the Buccaneers' passing attack generated just under 288 yards per game, second in the NFL to New England by less than a yard per game. It's true that Tampa Bay will be without its usual starting quarterback, Jameis Winston, for the first three games of the season, but Winston missed three games with injury last year and was ably replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick re-signed with the team this spring and could very well be under center again when the season begins.
Otherwise, the principles in the Bucs' passing attack have all returned and are arguably in a better position to succeed in 2018. DeSean Jackson's output in his first season with the team was less than expected but his own level of play never faulted and the Bucs believe they can get many more big plays out of the speedy receiver this fall. Second-year man Chris Godwin came on strong down the stretch last year and could easily up his 525 yards with more playing time. Tight end O.J. Howard, the team's first-round pick in 2017, is also expected to improve upon his rookie totals. Fellow tight end Cam Brate and slot receiver Adam Humphries are steady producers unlikely to fall off.
The Bucs might also get more out of their running backs in the passing attack this year, particularly if rookie second-rounder Ronald Jones proves to be a force in that regard. There's even a rookie receiver in the mix, though it might be hard for Justin Watson to find playing time early on.
Perhaps just as importantly, Buccaneer quarterbacks may have more time to survey the field and find open targets if some shuffling up front pays off in 2018. Tampa Bay made former Baltimore center Ryan Jensen a priority in free agency and landed him soon after the market opened. That will move rising-star blocker Ali Marpet to left guard, potentially creating big improvements at two spots. Otherwise, the Buccaneers will hope for continued improvement from talented and young left tackle Donovan Smith and another strong year from right tackle Demar Dotson as he returns from injury.
3. Chandler Catanzaro, Single-Season Points Scored
Now we get to the first of our two more speculative record chases. This one is based on situational factors more than the specific player involved, though Chandler Catanzaro does offer the potential of a big improvement at his position.
Tampa Bay's offense is certainly capable of putting its kicker in position to rack up a lot of points. The Buccaneers finished ninth in the NFL in total net yards from scrimmage last year, and that was with a sputtering rushing attack that figures to improve in 2018. That means eight teams finished above the Bucs on the yardage chart, and five of them had kickers who scored at least 137 points. And not all of those kickers are exactly household names; sure, you're familiar with New England's Stephen Gostkowski and Atlanta's Matt Bryant, but you'll also find Harrison Butker, Chris Boswell and Will Lutz on that list.
Those are all good kickers, of course, and the point is that a good kicker can put up a lot of points if he's backing up the right offense.
Tampa Bay's record for points scored in a single season is 131, set by Bryant in 2008. That fall, Bryant got 38 field goal attempts and he made 32 of them, a success rate of 84.2% that only ranked 19th in the NFL. Bryant also made all but one of his 36 extra point tries. He was a reliable kicker on a decent offense – the Bucs ranked 19th in scoring and 14th in net yards that year – and that was enough to get him the Buccaneer record, which had previously set at 128 by Martin Gramatica in the 2002 Super Bowl year. Bryant has had better seasons during a long and successful career (he had 158 points for Atlanta just two years ago), but he simply had to be good in 2008.
Last year, Tampa Bay kicker Patrick Murray was nearly as accurate as Bryant was in 2008, making 82.6% of his tries. But he only had 23 tries, and his limited range – he was two of five on 50+-yard tries, with both makes from exactly 50 – might have reduced his opportunities. So too did the Buccaneers too-high total of 27 turnovers rob the team of scoring changes and Murray of opportunities to put up more field goals or extra points.
Nick Folk handled the Bucs' kicking duties for the first four games and struggled, and overall Tampa Bay was 25 of 34 on field goals and 28 of 31 on extra point tries. If Tampa Bay's offense is just 15% better at creating scoring opportunities in 2018 – and that seems like a reasonably modest goal – the team will end up with 39 field goal tries and 36 extra point attempts. Last year, the NFL as a whole had a success rate of 84.3% on field goals and 94.0% on extra point tries.
If the Bucs get the number of opportunities noted above and merely convert them at league-average success rates, they would make 33 field goals and 34 extra points. That would add up to 133 total points for Catanzaro if he handles every kick, and that would be a new Buccaneer single-season record by two points. Guess what Catanzaro's career averages are on field goals and extra points. 84.4% on the former, 94.4% on the latter.
In other words, with a very reasonable uptick in scoring opportunities created by Tampa Bay's offense, all their new kicker has to do to challenge this record is be as good as he already has been, and there are indications from his past four seasons that he can be even better. In 2015, Catanzaro made 28 of 31 field goal tries for the high-scoring Arizona Cardinals, a career-best mark of 90.3%. Get back to that level, and he might soar past the Bucs' record.
4. Lavonte David, Single-Season Forced Fumbles OR Fumble Recoveries
There's no denying that seventh-year linebacker Lavonte David has a knack for causing loose balls, and a nose for finding them when they're bouncing around between possessors. Last year, David had exactly five forced fumbles and exactly five fumble recoveries, which was remarkable even for him. Only one player in the NFL, Jacksonville defensive end Yannick Ngakoue with six, had more forced fumbles, and nobody matched David's total for recovering opponent's fumbles.
David has been doing this his whole career. He didn't force or recover a fumble as a rookie in 2012, but since 2013 his 17 forced fumbles and 13 opponent fumble recoveries rank second and first in the NFL, respectively. There's no reason to expect this talent to disappear in 2018, and a reloaded defensive line in front of him could provide David with more opportunities for clean hits on ballcarriers, and each one of those is a chance for him to poke the ball loose.
Now it's true that those five forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries were both career highs and neither one would give David sole possession of the team's single-season marks in those categories. But it wouldn't take much more. His five fumble recoveries already tied the record set by Bill Kollar in 1979, while the mark for forced fumbles is seven, shared by three former Bucs. Wally Chambers first did it in 1979 and was later matched by Broderick Thomas in 1991. Stylez G. White most recently joined that tie in 2007. David could conceivably put them all into a tie for second with his biggest fumble-related season yet.
5. Team, Single-Season Sacks
The previous two entries can be filed under possibilities rather than probabilities. We'll admit that we're rounding out this list with one more that is actually unlikely. Still, if everything works out as well on the field as it looks like it could on paper, Tampa Bay's defensive front will be dropping a lot more quarterbacks than it did a year ago.
The main problem with this one is that the team's single-season sack record is, shall we say, impressive. Also, rarely challenged. The swarming 2000 Bucs defense had Hall of Famer Warren Sapp at his absolute peak and also got a career year from Marcus Jones. Those two combined for 29.5 sacks, which was an awfully nice start. The team as a whole got opposing QBs down 55 times; no other Buccaneer defense has gotten closer than 10 sacks away from that mark, though four different teams from the 1997-2005 golden era put up 43 or more.
Last year's Buccaneer defense produced a league-low 22 sacks so, yeah, there's a long way to go to challenge that 2000 record of 55. Recognizing this, team management went hard after the problem in the offseason, adding Vinny Curry, Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein in free agency, trading for Jason Pierre-Paul and drafting Vita Vea. The Bucs are also hoping that third-year edge-rusher Noah Spence can bounce back from his shoulder injuries and have the breakout season many expected to occur last year. All of those new or returning pieces fit in nicely around Gerald McCoy, a six-time Pro Bowler who is a near lock to finish in the six-10 range in sacks.
The Buccaneers probably only need two of those potential sack-masters to put up big seasons in order to make a legitimate run at the record. As noted above, Sapp and Jones accounted for more than half of the team's sacks in 2000; otherwise, it was a lot of smaller contributions adding up, likely because defenses had to pay so much attention to Sapp and Jones. Anthony McFarland had a career-best 6.5 sacks. Ronde Barber added 5.5 sacks blitzing out of the slot. Five other players had between 2.0 and 3.5 sacks of their own.
The Bucs are hoping to send pass-rushers out in waves this year, keeping everyone fresh. If one or two of those comes up with a career year – or, in Pierre-Paul's case, replicates a previous career best – it could start a sack frenzy that ranks among the best in Bucs history.