Anyone can do a list. Actually, this is the internet so everyone can and does do lists. But this one, as we hinted at in the title, has a twist.
Think of it as Christmas in June. When someone asks you for Christmas gift suggestions, they are giving you a topic and asking you to provide a list on that topic. For the next week or so, Staff Writer/Reporter Brianna Dix and I are going to be exchanging gifts, and they're all going to be Tampa Bay Buccaneers-related.
Basically, we're going to share our thoughts, in list form, on a variety of issues and ideas regarding the Buccaneers and the 2022 season. But instead of choosing our own topics, we're going to assign them to each other. I'm going to go first and come up with a category for which Brianna must provide a top-five list and explain here reasoning for each selection. Then I will add my thoughts on her choices at the bottom. Tomorrow and each successive day, we'll switch the roles.
So here we go…
Today's Topic: What are five specific categories in which individual Buccaneers could produce career highs in 2022?
This one seems straightforward but actually could be a little tricky. I mean, I think we all know that Mike Evans is a good bet to score a lot of touchdowns, but to set a personal high in 2022 he'd have to score 15 of them. That would be a pretty bold prediction. On the other end of the spectrum, you don't want to come off as meek by choosing too easy of an accomplishment. For instance, I think Jamel Dean could be primed for a huge year but in terms of interceptions he would only need three in 2022 to set a new career high. That's not a particularly bold prediction.
So, let's see if you can walk the tightrope here, Brianna, and give us some possibly challenging but attainable career highs for Tampa Bay players in 2022.
Brianna: First off Scott, I loved the Christmas reference. Much like a nostalgic, young Brianna on December 1st pondering and compiling a gift list, I put pen to page on exciting possible milestones for five Buccaneers in 2022. Creating this career-high list took deliberation and analysis (not wanting to set the bar too high or too low for any player), but after thorough examination of stat sheets and a dip into film study, I have created my list of five categories that individual Buccaneers can produce career highs this season to take the club to new heights on their quest for another title.
5. Vita Vea: Sacks
Vita Vea is the anchor in the interior of the defensive line and plays on third downs, a rarity for a nose tackle of his size. With the renown of the Bucs' run defense, opponents have gravitated towards pass-centric offensive attacks, creating more opportunities for Tampa Bay to unleash their pass rushers. Vea out-leverages centers and guards with explosion out of his stance and dominance at the point of attack. His bull rush overwhelms the opposition and Vea is poised for another big campaign in 2022. He hit a career-high in sacks last year with 4.0, following a 2.0-output in 2020. Vea is already putting in work during installations and drills at voluntary OTAs and is working towards a breakout campaign this season. This may seem like a lofty goal considering the nose tackle's primary job is absorbing multiple blockers in order to create opportunities for other players in the defensive line to rush the quarterback, however, with the extensive number of reps that Vea commands in the interior, he is capable of hitting an untapped ceiling in 2022.
4. Carlton Davis: Interceptions
Heading into the 2022 season, the Bucs' coaching staff has stressed takeaways. With his role on the outside cemented, I believe Carlton Davis will have a career-high performance this upcoming season. He hit the top milestone of his tenure in 2020 with four interceptions (14 game starts) and had one last season (10 game starts), missing time due to a quadriceps injury in 2021. Davis is known for his ability in press-man coverage, effectively blanketing receivers, but he is proficient in zone as well. He is the perfect fit for the Buccaneers' system. The club utilizes a variety of coverages and disguises on the back end, providing flexibility in schemes to keep offenses off-balance. The goal is deception. Fluctuations in coverage are a quarterback's worst nightmare.
As a play breaks down, what appears to be one scheme – whether it is Cover 0 (man), Cover 1 (man), Cover 2 (man), Cover 2 (zone), Cover 3 (zone), Cover 4 (zone), Cover 6 (zone) – can flip to another once the ball is snapped. The Bucs are a model of inconsistency in coverage schemes which Davis thrives in. Traditionally, zone is more conducive to acquiring interceptions with the cornerback eyeing the quarterback. In man, the cornerback is watching the offensive player he is covering and turning his head as the receiver turns his to locate the ball in the air (if done correctly). By mixing things up in the secondary and adding to the opposing quarterback's workload pre-snap, opportunities abound for Davis off forced throws. A big portion of the attributing factor to turnovers is the defensive line's production up front, causing errant throws off relentless pressure. With a revamped crew up front and Davis entering his fourth season, he is poised for a standout year in 2022 with a career-high in interceptions.
3. Russell Gage: Receiving Touchdowns
The Bucs have gone against Russell Gage several times during his tenure with the Atlanta Falcons and acquired the versatile receiver this offseason to bolster the receiving corps. While Chris Godwin continues to rehab his season-ending knee injury last year, Gage will emerge in the Bucs' three-receiver sets. I predict he will eclipse his previous career high in receiving touchdowns (four). That may seem like an easy assessment but given the fact that Gage has yet to receive quality reps with Tom Brady in order to build trust with No. 12, that notion subsides. Also, if you take into consideration the team's embarrassment of riches at the position along with pass-catching running backs, the speculated highlight does not seem so obvious or as easily attainable.
Gage can be used interchangeably in the slot as well as outside. He possesses the vertical speed to quantify "deep threat" status and can stretch the field horizontally with the ability to effortlessly break inside on intermediate/underneath routes in a short passing attack. Byron Leftwich likes to employ a balanced dose of both, making Gage a valuable threat and addition to his arsenal. As Gage gains camaraderie with Brady throughout the offseason program and learns the ins and outs of the team's route running, he will be primed for an increase in receiving touchdowns this season in the Bucs' aerial assault.
2. Leonard Fournette: Yards Per Carry
The Buccaneers do have the best passing attack in football over the past two seasons (298.6 net yards per game). On the opposite end of the spectrum is a less productive ground attack (96.7 rushing yards per game on average), placing them in the bottom of the league in the latter category. The club uses the run to set up the pass and Head Coach Todd Bowles has made it clear that he will not put "handcuffs" on the offensive play calling to create equilibrium. His mindset is on winning, in whatever fashion it takes. Defensive strategies by the opponent will dictate what is emphasized. In the 2020 postseason run to the Super Bowl, the Bucs ran the ball on 45.7% of snaps and made an impact on the ground. Against certain opponents, the team will need to run the ball effectively and often, as tight end Cameron Brate pointed out during OTAs. Both the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams have had the Bucs' number in recent years, and the clue could lie in the team's rushing attack.
"I think schematically they do a really good job of taking away our primary weapons on offense," Brate commented. "You see the game we won against the Saints in the playoffs in 2020, we ran the football. I think that's the number-one thing you have to do against a defense like that – you have to have them respect the run. For whatever reason, last year against those teams we just couldn't do it."
Enter Leonard Fournette, the club's three-down back. Despite missing three regular season games and the playoff matchup against the Eagles last season due to a hamstring pull, Fournette concluded the season with a career-high 4.5 yards per carry and amassed a team-high 812 rushing yards on 180 carries. With acceleration garnering his burst through holes and a powerful spin move, Fournette is on track for an elevated performance in 2022. I believe that he will produce a career-high in yards per carry come fall. His rapport with Brady and his grit will pay dividends on the gridiron.
1. Devin White: Passes Defensed
Linebackers used to be prized for their physicality and skills as run defenders in the era of smash-mouth football. Now, the off-ball linebacker has become a trend. As the league shifts to more pass-centric offensive attacks, defenses are having to find players to create mismatches. Runs are now being replaced with jet sweeps and screens, in addition to the emergence of mobile quarterbacks, running backs catching the ball out of the flat and tight ends becoming pass-catching threats over the middle of the field. The importance of the pass coverage element for linebackers has now become essential as the NFL has evolved. Devin White's ability to cover outside of the tackle box is now a premium.
Throughout voluntary OTAs, the Bucs' defensive coaching staff has highlighted reading the quarterback and training the eyes in evaluating drop-backs to facilitate smooth reactionary skills. With an emphasis on batted passes, those installs will translate on the field in 2022. White received his first Pro Bowl berth in 2021 and entering Year Four he will strive to stack another impressive campaign off last year's. He had a career-high 4 passes defensed in 2020 and I conclude that White will post a new feat this season.
Scott's Thoughts: I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the statistics the Bucs have created, both as a team and individually, in recent seasons but I'll admit I was surprised to learn that Devin White's single-season high in passes defensed is four. There are metrics that suggest White had some troubles in coverage in 2020 (but made up for it with incredible blitzing success and a string of big plays, particularly in the postseason) but he showed improvement in that regard last season. And you know what else could help White fulfill Brianna's prediction? Even more improvement in his blitzing technique. White recently noted that when he comes flying into the backfield at 100 miles per hour – and his instant acceleration on blitzes really is remarkable – that sometimes even non-athletic quarterbacks can easily sidestep him. Look for White to finish his blitzes in more controlled fashion this year, which could lead to a handful of times in which he stops and leaps to knock down a pass rather than the quarterback himself.
Otherwise, I think the toughest milestone on this to reach will probably be five or more interceptions for Davis. Interceptions are just such a fickle statistic. Take the greatest interceptor in franchise history, Ronde Barber. He set a franchise record with 10 interceptions in 2001 but didn't have more than three in any of the four seasons before that or the three seasons after. Davis has established himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, but that doesn't mean a high number of interceptions are a sure thing. I think it's safe to say that the Rams' Jalen Ramsey is in the conversation for the current best cornerback in the league, and he's never had a five-interception campaign. So I guess what I'm saying is, if only one of these five predictions was going to come true, I really hope it's this one because that would be the top accomplishment on this list, in my mind.
Overall, this is a well thought out list and I wouldn't be surprised if you hit on at least three of them. Now I'm itchy with anticipation waiting to see what top you're going to give me for tomorrow, Brianna!