The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will put out their first official depth chart of 2019 very soon, as required in advance of the preseason opener on Friday, and on it will be found some notable changes from a year ago. The front seven on defense, for instance, will now list three down linemen and two each of inside and outside linebackers, and that group should include some newcomers in starting roles, such as Ndamukong Suh and Devin White.
The Buccaneers also have a new punter and long-snapper and could have a new kicker, depending upon how the rather pitched battle between Cairo Santos and Matt Gay turns out. Tampa Bay's offense, however, has a very familiar look, particularly among the starting 11.
Nine of the 11 players who were listed as offensive starters when the 2018 season began are likely to remain in those spots to begin 2019 if one includes wide receiver Chris Godwin, who was listed as a co-starter with DeSean Jackson. That even undersells the continuity by a bit, because Ryan Fitzpatrick was only the first quarterback listed because Jameis Winston was serving a three-game league suspension. The only position on offense that is definitely going to have a new starter in 2019 is right guard, where second-year man Alex Cappa is leading the way after Caleb Benenoch held that spot last year.
According to Winston, this continuity is a big reason why Tampa Bay's offense set a host of team records in 2018 and is poised to have another very productive season in 2019. In fact, Winston credits the stable offensive roster with helping him improve statistically from season to season since his 2015 rookie campaign.
“My goal every year is to get better every year," said Winston. "Statistically, that has happened in a lot of different things. Year Five is another year that I have to get better. It really doesn’t hurt when you’ve got four years under your belt with Mike Evans, you’re about to have three years under your belt with Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard and you’ve got four years under your belt with Cam Brate, so that camaraderie helps. A lot of football teams don’t get that."
Winston split the QB starts in 2018 almost evenly with Fitzpatrick, but he's the unquestioned starter coming into 2019 and he has a Head Coach in Bruce Arians who expects big things from him. Fortunately for the fifth-year quarterback, he's got a healthy crew around him after the superb tight end duo of Howard and Brate were slowed by injuries last year. Winston also has an offensive line that he trusts, including two starters – left tackle Donovan Smith and left guard Ali Marpet – who were the Bucs' very next two draft picks after they took Winston first overall in 2015.
"When you’ve got guys who have been there for you – when you’ve got Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith, who have been with you your entire career, and you’ve got Dot [Demar Dotson] – it allows you to grow. It’s way bigger than football at that point. It’s more of a family thing. When you jell together as one, as we know, you can have a lot of success."
Not that maintaining this type of continuity on any unit is easy in the NFL. Evans, Brate, Smith and Marpet all got lucrative second contracts in the last couple years, which is what the franchise wants to happen when it drafts players but it does make navigating the salary cap more difficult. Winston, Howard and Godwin might all be not far behind. But the group is all together now and Winston can see it making a difference on a daily basis.
"I feel like we as a team are getting better day by day, and those are the specific goals for training camp – to grow as a team," he said. "When you grow as a team and you get comfortable with everybody being around you, that’s when consistency shows up in every position."
Winston is right that some of his performance in some key statistical areas has steadily improved over four seasons. His completion percentage has gone up each season, to a high of 64.6% last year, which was almost exactly league average in 2018. His yards per game has also risen steadily to a high of 272.0 last year, and his touchdown rate peaked at 5.0% percent in 2018. Winston was particularly hot down the stretch after a rash of interceptions hurt his early-season performance. His QBR of 71.8 in 2018 was by far the best of his four years.
It is, of course, those interceptions that have kept Winston from rising to truly elite status…yet. His INT rate in 2018 was a career-worst 3.7%, though again he had a good 13-4 TD-INT ratio over the last seven games, with no multi-pick games in that run. If that consistency that Winston expects to be a boon for the Bucs' offense specifically lends to a drop in his interceptions, the results could be even better than ever.
It is hard to keep an entire offensive or defensive group together year after year, of course. The Bucs did lose one of their homegrown standouts, slot receiver Adam Humphries, to free agency this offseason, as he deservingly got a big contract from the Tennessee Titans. Humphries was essentially a starter by season's end – and technically so when the Buccaneers began printing a depth chart with three receiver spots instead of two tight ends – and he has been replaced by Breshad Perriman. There will always be
some changes from season to season, and those tend to go best when new homegrown players emerge. As much as he likes the continuity of his group, Winston has also noticed some younger players pushing for bigger roles…and pushing the players ahead of them on the depth chart.
"[Justin Watson] is doing phenomenal," said Wilson of the second-year wideout. "RoJo [running back Ronald Jones] is doing phenomenal. Bobo [Wilson] is stepping up when he needs to step up. When you see those young guys picking up things fast and playing with confidence and getting open, that’s promising because now it’s going to push those older guys. … We’ve got Alex Cappa on the offensive line, who has been dominant. When you have young guys doing a great job, that speaks volumes on the veterans that are in their room, that are teaching them and pushing them along, but it also pushes those veterans to make them play even better."