With a new NFL season on the horizon, excitement builds. Football enthusiasts around the globe begin to mark their calendars and analysts start their numerous evaluations. Every possible scenario is brooded over, as a plethora of 'lists' make headlines week-after week on the internet. In order to pass the time during the offseason until the lights turn on in the stadium, the pads come on and the coin toss commences, a variety of topics are discussed. The truth? NFL football is 365 days a year. Scott and I will join the majority in making lists; however, our compilations have a twist.
Over the next few weeks, Senior Writer Scott and I will be exchanging Buccaneers-related topics to spark conversation as we unpack potential outcomes for the 2022 season. We will both disclose our opinions on a variety of propositions regarding the Bucs but instead of creating our own individual topics to mull over, we are going to assign a topic to each other. After Scott's career highs topic yesterday, I am up next. I have created a category for Scott. He will provide a top-five list and elaborate on his selection for each. I will add my concluding thoughts at the bottom. Tomorrow, we will switch roles. Let the game of musical chairs continue!
Today's Topic: Who are five dark horse candidates that you believe could receive Pro Bowl nods in 2022?
As Organized Team Activities are in full swing around the league, there are an exorbitant number of lists speculating which players on the Bucs' roster are poised for a breakout season in 2022, resulting in a Pro Bowl recognition. The Pro Bowl has received criticism in recent years regarding the selection process, garnering a myriad of "snub" articles every year. Fans account for one-third of the voting, with players and coaches occupying the other two-thirds. The recognition is viewed by many as a popularity contest with household names occupying the coveted slots.
However, each year surprises materialize, and new names are placed on the national radar. Scott, who are the underrated players on the Buccaneers' roster that you believe will have a stellar campaign in 2022, cementing a Pro Bowl nod? There are the easy, obvious candidates including reverse-aging quarterback Tom Brady, pass-catching threat Mike Evans, interior anchor Vita Vea or defensive tone-setter Lavonte David. The object is to think outside of the box to find the 'X Factor' candidates. So, venture off here, Scott, to find the players with untapped potential. Who do you believe will merit the lofty, yet elusive goal in every sense of the title in 2022?
I hope you have fun with this one!
Scott: Wow, Brianna, you're not exactly tossing me a softball here! The thing about the Pro Bowl is that there aren't a lot of dark horse selections in the entire league every year. There's a lot of repeat selections and yearly favorites, as you alluded to above. Finding five on one roster is not going to be easy.
I'm going to assume that a guy can't really be a dark horse candidate if he was in the Pro Bowl last year or has made it multiple times in the past. That's why this is so challenging – the Buccaneers had nine players selected for the all-star game last year. NINE. That's 17% of a 53-man roster, just skimmed right off the top before I can even get started. Oh well, enough complaining. Let's get down to business.
(Oh, and one more thing Brianna. You're a relatively new addition to the team and I know you have studied the players and coaches in great depth. You know the team well and obviously are well aware that Lavonte David is a great player. Two more things you'll quickly come to realize about him: 1) Everyone here loves Lavonte David, for good reason; and, 2) Lavonte David never gets the level of recognition he deserves. He's been to exactly one Pro Bowl, which is criminal. It should probably be more like six or seven. For that reason, he is very much not an "easy, obvious" choice. He definitely could be in consideration as an answer to this question.)
5. CB Carlton Davis
I'm going to do these in ascending order of…dark horsedness? In other words, from what would be the least surprising of my picks to most surprising. And remember: The task here is to identify five dark horse Pro Bowl candidates, a handful of underdogs who could emerge as all-star selections this season. In no way do I think all five of these players are going to be in the Pro Bowl.
So, I'll start with Davis, who himself is at least starting from an elevated platform in that he has gained a reputation as one of the better cornerbacks in the league. He was highly coveted on the free agent market in March, and he deservedly got a big contract to stay with the Buccaneers. He has not, however, been to a Pro Bowl yet; in fact, since we know which Buccaneers were alternates at the time of the initial announcement of the roster, we also know that Davis wasn't one of them. So, at absolute best he was about eighth or ninth in the NFC's voting at cornerback.
Why? I mean, it has to be interceptions, or to be more precise, the lack thereof. On Monday, Brianna predicted that Davis would set a new single-season career high with at least five interceptions in 2022. Now that might do the trick. Ladies and gentlemen, I direct your attention once again to the esteemed Ronde Barber. By the end of the 2000 season, the Buccaneers knew they had a standout cornerback in their secondary in Barber, a fourth-year player (just like Davis was last year), but he had secured exactly two interceptions in each of the previous three seasons. Then he tied for the team lead with 10 picks in 2001 and along came his first Pro Bowl invitation.
Look at this list of last year's NFC Pro Bowl cornerback and tell me who stands out: Jalen Ramsey, Darius Slay, Stephon Gilmore, Marson Lattimore and Trevon Diggs. All but Diggs were well-established cornerback stars who had each been to the Pro Bowl three or more times before 2021. Diggs was a second-year former second-round pick for the Cowboys who had put together a decent but certainly not overwhelming rookie season. Then he exploded for 11 picks in 2021 and a Pro Bowl was assured.
Gilmore was a curious Pro Bowl choice as a Panther last year, but the former Defensive Player of the Year has that all-important name recognition. Anyway, it's a moot point this year because he's now with the Colts in the AFC. Slay has that name recognition, too, but he'll be 32 by the end of this season and perhaps age will start to catch up with him. If Davis can put together an interception total that catches voters' eyes, he could force his way into the Pro Bowl picture for the first time.
4. WR Chris Godwin
Godwin is the only player on my list who has been to a Pro Bowl already, but just once and it was three seasons ago. He was an alternate last year, but he was not a first alternate. Two wide receiver alternates (including Godwin's teammate, Mike Evans) were eventually added to the NFC roster, so at best Godwin was seventh in the overall vote tally. It doesn't help that he suffered a season-ending injury just as Pro Bowl voting was rushing to an end.
I do think that Godwin's league-wide reputation is strong enough that he could get the necessary votes if he has a strong showing in 2022. What makes it so difficult, though, is how deep the pool of strong Pro Bowl wideout candidates is in the NFC: Cooper Kupp, Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Deebo Samuel, DK Metcalf and, yes, Mike Evans. It helps that Davante Adams moved to the AFC, but that's balanced by A.J. Brown coming over to the NFC. That's one of the reasons why I consider Godwin a "dark horse."
The other reason, of course, is the uncertainty over how soon his 2022 season will actually begin as he recovers from that aforementioned knee injury from last December. So putting him on this list is a bit that he will miss minimal time and will come back just as effective as he was last year, when he averaged more than seven catches per game before the contest in which he got hurt and was a beast out of the slot. The Bucs have since added Russell Gage, who also has operates well out of the slot. That should give the offense more flexibility with where they use Godwin, and by playing him both outside and inside in 11 personnel they should be able to get him even more and more varied opportunities in 2022. Godwin was a lock to break the Bucs' single-season receptions record last year before his injury. If he does get that mark – which would mean 107 or more catches – I think he's back in the all-star game.
3. RB Leonard Fournette
No, Playoff Lenny has never been Pro Bowl Lenny. Like Godwin, he was an alternate last year but not a first alternate. Still, that's a good sign that his amazing 2020 playoff run and his strong follow-up last season have pushed him back into the conversation about the NFL's best running backs. His best Pro Bowl chance so far might have been as a rookie, when he had 1,342 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns and still had the high-profile momentum of being the fourth-overall pick in the draft.
Things potentially look even better for Fournette in 2022, particularly if the Buccaneers can achieve more balance on offense. He missed the last three games of the 2021 regular season and half of a fourth one, which kept him from reaching that 1,000-yard mark that catches everyone's attention. But he did average 4.5 yards per carry, which was easily the best mark of his career. (This is another career high that Brianna predicted would be broken in 2021 on Monday.) If he can keep that right up or improve upon it, and the Bucs can get him, say, 230 carries, he would top 1,000 yards.
In addition, at the time of his injury last year, Fournette was leading all NFL running backs with 69 receptions. That extrapolates to 84 catches over a 17-game season. Around 1,000-yard rushing and 80-plus receptions? Those are Alvin Kamara-type numbers, and Kamara makes the Pro Bowl ever year (literally). Well, they're two-thirds of the way to Kamara numbers. Kamara has also averaged 13 touchdowns per year, and that goes a long way in Pro Bowl voting. Fournette did quite well to get to 10 overall touchdowns last year but may need to up that a bit to get over the all-star hump for the first time. The one fly in the ointment with this prediction is the addition of third-round running back Rachaad White. If White proves to be a great pass-catching back right out of the gate that would probably eat into Fournette's numbers in the passing game.
2. G Shaq Mason
Like Davis, Mason already has a reputation as one of the NFL's better players at his position, but he has never made the Pro Bowl over his seven seasons as a full-time starter in the NFL. That reputation is well earned:
That Tweet was sent after the Buccaneers swung a surprising trade to land the 28-year-old guard after losing starters Alex Cappa to free agency and Ali Marpet to retirement. Mason is expected to replace Cappa at right guard but he might also succeed Marpet as a Buccaneer offensive line Pro Bowler.
I'm going with the "rising tide lifts all boats" theory here. In Tampa, Marpet was widely considered a Pro Bowl-caliber player many seasons before he finally got that honor last year in his eighth and (as it would turn out) final campaign. That came at the end of the Bucs' second straight playoff season and a year in which the numbers suggested Tampa Bay had one of the best offensive lines in all of football. That brought individual recognition not only to Marpet but also to center Ryan Jensen and tackle Tristan Wirfs, both of whom also made the Pro Bowl.
The Bucs still have to slide Mason into one of those spots and hold a competition between the likes of Aaron Stinnie and rookie Luke Goedeke at left guard, but there is a chance the offensive line will be just as effective as it was last year and the team will once again prime Super Bowl contenders. If that's going to bring Pro Bowl votes to the individuals on the Bucs' offensive line, as I suspect it would, I think it's more likely the attention will go to the well established Mason rather than Stinnie or Goedeke.
1. OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka
As I said, I arranged this list to lead to the most surprising picks at the end. For the record, I think it would be pretty darn surprising if Tryon-Shoyinka ended up in the Pro Bowl this early in his career, but there are factors to his 2022 situation that could at least give him a chance to be a dark horse candidate.
Most importantly, Tryon-Shoyinka is expected to step into the starting lineup to replace Jason Pierre-Paul and he is likely going to be allowed to focus on just one position in his sophomore campaign. In an effort to get him on the field a bit more last year, the Buccaneers asked him to move around the front quite a bit and that meant learning a lot of jobs. It was a lot to ask of a rookie, which his coaches and teammates have readily acknowledged. Still, it was a relatively promising rookie season that included 4.0 sacks and 10 quarterback hits.
This year, Tryon-Shoyinka should be working primarily off the edge, and occasionally dropping into coverage. The Buccaneers pounced on the former Washington star with the last pick of the first round in 2020 because they thought he had elite physical traits and some pass-rushing tools that could be further developed in the NFL. If they're right, the second-year player could break out in 2022 and either approach or eclipse double digits in sacks. And it's usually sacks and sacks alone that gets edge rushers into the Pro Bowl.
Perhaps Tryon-Shoyinka will follow a trajectory similar to that of Harold Landry in Tennessee. Landry was the 41st pick in the 2018 draft and he had 4.5 sacks while starting three games as a rookie. He became a full-time starter in 2019, his snap count jumped from 591 to 952 and he doubled his sack total to 9.0. That didn't quite get him his first Pro Bowl invite – that would have to wait until 2021 – but I imagine it put him in the conversation. And that's all we're asking for here. Tryon-Shoyinka played nearly the exact same number of snaps as a rookie (560) that Landry did in 2018. Now he could get closer to 1,000 chances to be on the field and make a play. The opportunity is there for the second-year player to seize.
Brianna's Thoughts: First, I must point out that I am absolutely ASTOUNDED that Lavonte David has only received one Pro Bowl selection during his 10-year tenure in Tampa Bay. That is, indeed, a travesty to say the least. Given David's reputation and the reality that he is held in reverence league-wide as a marquee athlete in the NFL, I am shocked. However, that just illustrates my point in the necessity of creating a list of potential deserving Pro Bowl candidates. Much like David's snubs over the years, there seems to be continuity each year and a perpetual pattern of similar names occupying the coveted all-star list. Time for change.
Do you know what could help No. 2 come to fruition? Shaq Mason's familiarity with current starting quarterback Tom Brady. The pair have already won two Super Bowls together and Mason protected Brady in the pocket for five seasons in New England. At the NFL Scouting Combine, general manger Jason Licht disclosed that the offensive line was a "major key" in the team's success in winning Super Bowl LV and Mason knows a thing or two about not only the grand stage, but the man under center in Tampa Bay. The most important thing for offensive linemen is continuity at the line of scrimmage. Mason's relationship with Brady and well-established career as a starter in the league, makes him a prime dark horse nominee for possible Pro Bowl recognition in 2022.
I think the toughest path for a player on your list to garner national attention to warrant a spot on the esteemed compilation is Leonard Fournette. I do love the selection Scott, but his candidacy hangs in the balance of offensive equilibrium. The Buccaneers are known for being a pass-centric team (granted, the majority of the NFL is headed in that direction), but his punched ticket will rely on rushing yards accumulated during the 2022 campaign. If the Bucs throw the ball 50 times in multiple games during the duration of the year, his chances seem bleak. Todd Bowles has made it clear that the team will not be "handcuffed" into a certain ideology of run over pass or pass over run, but instead, will do whatever it takes to win. If that path is more balanced with a prominent ground attack led by three-down back Fournette, then his chances improve drastically. Also considering, much of the traditional run game in a sense has evolved to jet sweeps and screens. If Rachaad White or Giovani Bernard take care of most pass-catching duties, that will take away from Fournette's stat line. A lot to mull over on that but I would like to see that one in particular come true.
Overall, a well-organized list by my colleague and one that fosters creativity. Love the thought process and now, I will impatiently wait for the next topic you select for me, Scott!