It's Week Four of our 'Give Me Five' series here on Buccaneers.com, and if you've been following along, you get the concept. It's lists – everyone loves lists – but with a twist. The person making the list doesn't get to choose the topic. Each week, I give Staff Writer Carmen Vitali a topic for which she must then create a list, and later in the week she does the same to me. And then we comment on each other's choices.
That's enough preamble for today; I'm getting straight to the point. Carmen, this week I want you to make five 'surprise' predictions for the Buccaneers in the 2020 season. That means it can't be obvious, like, 'one or both of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin will make the Pro Bowl.' But it should at least be realistic; we're not looking for empty hot takes here.
Let me give you a couple examples that spring to my mind:
· Ke'Shawn Vaughn will have more yards from scrimmage than Ronald Jones
· Ali Marpet will earn his first Pro Bowl invitation
· Sean Murphy-Bunting will finish in the league's top five in interceptions
· Scott Smith will be named Sportswriter of the Decade
See what I mean? All completely possible and realistic but something no one else has predicted yet, to your knowledge. So get to it. The Buccaneers' world is your oyster. Let's find some pearls.
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Today's Topic: Make five 'surprise' predictions for the Buccaneers' 2020 season.
Carmen:Side note – how did we not call this series 'List with a Twist'? Missed opportunity, man.
This was quite an interesting exercise. A fun one, too. It's also inviting me to get called out on Twitter/Facebook/Reddit with people saying, 'I said this x weeks ago!'
I promise, the following predictions came from my brain. Any similarities to others' past predictions is purely coincidental. Great minds just think alike, am I right?
Which brings me to Scott's above predictions – all of which I also like (yes, even the last one – who am I to take away dreams?). They gave me ideas for some of my predictions, in fact. And in keeping with the rules of not choosing anything obvious, I omitted Lavonte David making his triumphant return to the Pro Bowl this year. I feel like finally there are plenty of people who are talking about and predicting that. If you know me, you know I would like to see nothing more than that happen. But this is supposed to be more unexpected in nature, so I am defying expectations with the below. Take a look for yourself.
5. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. will lead all rookies in interceptions.
I am so freaking excited about this guy. I wish we had been in the office for the draft like any other year, that way Scott could have attested to my reaction when we chose him in the second round. Instead, I yelped alone in my condo as I frantically typed out the initial article on our selection. It was exhilarating.
What's also exhilarating are this guy's ball skills. Last season at Minnesota, Winfield Jr. tied a single-season school record when he nabbed seven interceptions. Seven! The most any player had in 2019 was six up here in the big boy league. And when Scott said SMB will finish in the league's top five in interceptions it got me thinking. Murphy-Bunting tied for the lead among all rookies in interceptions last year with just three. Well, not just three. That many interceptions for a rookie, especially, is impressive. One of those even went for a touchdown, in Murphy-Bunting's hometown of Detroit, Michigan against the Lions. You couldn't have scripted it better. But if SMB can do it, I'm thinking the guy with a history of ball-hawking and NFL pedigree might be able to do it, too.
4. OLB Shaq Barrett's production will go down to a more sustainable total but the Bucs will have two double-digit sack players.
I said this last week on our new Instagram Live show with Casey Phillips and I, but I do think there will be a drop off in Barrett's production. It's just reality. His 2019 total of 19.5 sacks just isn't sustainable year over year, no matter how well you fit into a system and how many pass rush moves you have. Barrett had the element of surprise on his side last year. That is, most opponents, especially early on, didn't have him as a designated 'game-wrecker.'
You better believe they do now.
Even with opponents better preparing for him, I still think Barrett will be incredibly successful. I foresee another double-digit sack season in his 2020 future. On top of that, I also see another double-digit sack season in the future of another Buccaneer. That player, to me, will be Jason Pierre-Paul. The outside linebacker became the Bucs' first double-digit sack player in 13 years when he totaled 12.5 sacks in 2018. Injury kept him out of the first eight weeks of 2019, but once he returned, he still managed 8.5 sacks before the season was over. A healthy JPP, or one that at least doesn't miss the first six games of the season again, should be able to surpass 10.0 sacks pretty easily if we're going off that rate. JPP, like Shaq, also hates coming out of the game. His second game back from injury last year he played 96% of the team's defensive snaps. The higher the snap count, the more opportunities you have to make plays (like sacks). With both those guys on the field a majority of the time, I don't see how they both don't end up in double digits across a full season.
3. WR Scotty Miller will have five touchdowns in 2020.
This might be the prediction I'm least confident in – and not because of anything to do with how Miller plays. I'm just not sure there will be enough touchdowns to go around – especially with a prediction I make later. Let's start there with that number, though. How many touchdown passes do we think quarterback Tom Brady will throw in 2020? Well, last season he threw 24. He's thrown as many as 50 (!!) in a single season. And he threw 32 in 2017, which was the last year he went All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl. In a high-powered offense like Bruce Arians' and a former NFL quarterback as the playcaller in Byron Leftwich, the Bucs threw for 33 touchdowns last year. So, let's settle on an even 30.
Godwin led the team last year with nine. Evans had eight. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman had six, and he's gone now. For the purposes of this argument let's say the ball gets spread around a little more with Brady at the helm and Godwin gets eight, Evans gets six, Miller gets five. That leaves 11 touchdowns between Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate, Ronald Jones and perhaps Ke'Shawn Vaughn – especially if Scott's prediction comes true. Is that a little conservative? Probably. But here's why I think Miller will see an uptick in production.
He's the deep threat. While his stature may give you pause when utilizing him in the red zone, anything outside of it is going to allow him to open up that speed and get into the end zone before any defensive back can catch up. He's pretty uncatchable on the outside. And yes, Brady's critics are quick to say he can't throw the 'deep ball' anymore. First off, let's define deep ball. It doesn't have to go 50 yards to be considered deep. In fact, NFL's Next Gen Stats classify a deep pass as one that travels over 20 yards. That would be just enough space to give Miller room to run. In fact, according to NFL.com’s Nick Shook, Brady (lack of weapons and all) threw seven touchdowns of 20 yards or more last season against just two interceptions. His passer rating on passes 20 yards or more is a fantastic 107.6. Our very own Scott Smith broke the stats down even further here.
Now that we've established Brady can throw over 20 yards just fine, thank you, how much do the Bucs actually incorporate that into their offense? Ergo, how many chances could Miller get to be the deep target? Well, a lot. In fact, the Bucs had the most 21+ yard attempts and subsequently the most completions in the league last year, according to SportRadar. It reinforces the idea that Arians and Leftwich like to throw it – and Miller's speed makes him one of the most equipped receivers to catch those passes, provided he builds up good chemistry with Brady.
2. C Ryan Jensen will be selected to his first Pro Bowl.
Much like Scott predicted Ali Marpet will make his first all-star appearance (how he hasn't already is mind-blowing), I also think Jensen will see his first selection. Why? Well, what other center is going to be more on display than the one snapping to Tom 'Terrific' Brady? Jensen quietly had one of the best seasons among centers last year and easily played the best ball of his career. According to PFF, Jensen allowed just one sack and 15 total pressures in 751 snaps in pass protection.
Now that he has his towel technique under control, I foresee an even better season for Jensen with Brady as the signal caller.
With more people paying attention, one of the guys that gets overlooked the most might actually be seen this year, which could result in a much-deserved accolade.
1. TE Rob Gronkowski will lead the team in touchdowns.
Remember how I said I was concerned about the amount of touchdowns to go around when talking about Scotty Miller. Adding Gronkowski to the mix is pretty much the reason why. Yes, he spent the last year out of football but he's also the only one with nearly a decade of rapport with Brady. And a good rapport at that. The two are the best quarterback-tight end combo the league has ever seen and are right up there with offensive duo of any kind.
Gronkowski's last season was an outlier in a lot of ways. In 2018, he played in 13 games, starting 11 of them but was battling injury much of the season. He played a lot of snaps, too. It resulted in poor production. He had just three touchdowns, the least he'd had in any season where he played 10 games or more. Gronkowski has scored as many as 17 touchdowns in a season, setting the league record at his position, in fact. That was in 2011. More recently, in his last Pro Bowl/All-Pro season, Gronkowski had eight touchdowns in 2017. Should he do that again, it would tie him with Godwin from my previous breakdown for most touchdowns on the team. I could realistically see that happening because of the aforementioned rapport with Brady and now that Gronkowski is healthy.
I'm not sure his yardage total will be there, but that's why I was specific in saying touchdowns. I've been saying since the Bucs got him that they don't need him to shoulder the receiving load. Tampa Bay is set there. But when inside the red zone, game on the line, it's hard to imagine Brady not entrusting a guy who's been solid as a rock for him for a decade with that throw. Will that change given what Brady has available to him? Maybe. Guys like Godwin and Evans certainly warrant the trust. But they may get more of the receiving yards while Gronkowski gets the red zone targets, therefore upping his scoring production while keeping him at a modest yard total.
There's precedence for that, too. Take tight end Cam Brate – in 2018 he had six touchdowns, which ranked him third on the team and just two behind Evans who had a team-leading eight. Yet, Brate had only 289 yards. Even last year, Brate had four touchdowns with only 311 yards. The reason? He was a favorite red-zone target for Jameis Winston. It's something I could see happening with Brady and Gronkowski in 2020, but we'll see.
Scott's Thoughts: What is there for me to say? These are predictions. They're neither right nor wrong…until they are. We'll have to wait and see.
That said, there's nothing outlandish here. I agree that Scotty's five touchdowns are the boldest prediction. And even if Carmen is proved right about the Bucs' new tight end being primarily a red zone threat, I hope we at least get to see one or two of those Gronkowski Specials in which he catches the ball around the 30 and just runs past, around and through a gang of tacklers.