The NFL's Next Gen Stats provide a lot of insight into the performances of the league's players and teams. In fact, the ever-growing Next Gen database includes a section called "Insights," with statistical breakdowns often not available anywhere else. For that reason, this season we will be running a weekly Next Gen round-up of Next Gen information as it pertains to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It was through these Next Gen-provided "Insights," for instance, that we knew that Chris Godwin led the entire NFL with 617 receiving yards on targets over the middle of the field. Those insights also let us know that the Buccaneers didn't utilize play-action much; with play-action fakes on 17% of their dropbacks, they ranked third-to-last in the NFL. Sometimes these Next Gen nuggets just tell us a player is fast. Devin White got up to 21.44 miles per hour on his 91-yard fumble return against Atlanta in Week 17. That was the second time in 2019 that he was clocked in a sprint of over 21 MPH; all of the other linebackers in the league did that a combined four times during the season.
But Next Gen Stats can also give us a window into the performances of Buccaneer opponents. And as an appetizer for our upcoming Next Gen stories in 2020, that's what we're going to focus on here in the week leading up to the Fourth of July celebration. Each day from Monday through Friday, we're going to present you with one piece of information regarding three of the Bucs' 16 opponents in 2020 (which means two each for NFC South foes, of course). If you've done the math, you know that gives you a bonus fourth nugget on Friday.
This will be done in the order of the Bucs' schedule, so we begin today with the first three weeks of September.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 53-man roster.
Week One: at New Orleans
What You Need to Know: Jared Cook quietly developed into a huge threat in the Saints' offense
We don't need a Next Gen deep dive to know that Drew Brees-to-Michael Thomas is the key component in the Saints' offense. It's a seemingly unstoppable connection (9.3 Thomas receptions per game!) even though everyone knows it's coming. After that, the next offensive weapon Saints opponents would likely worry about is versatile running back Alvin Kamara.
Meanwhile, New Orleans hasn't fully been able to replace Jimmy Graham's contributions from the tight end spot since surprisingly trading him to Seattle after the 2014 season, other than one good campaign from Ben Watson in 2015. The latest attempt was Jared Cook, who had put up 896 yards for Oakland in 2018. At first, it didn't seem that Cook was the answer, as he had no more than four catches or 41 yards in any of the Saints' first eight games of 2019 (he missed two due to an ankle injury).
However, over the last eight games Cook quietly emerged as a problem for opposing defenses. He had 537 yards in that span, or 67.1 per game, seventh among all NFL tight ends. Cook also scored seven of his nine touchdowns; only Baltimore's Mark Andrews scored more often among tight ends.
What can Next Gen add to this picture? Well it gives us an idea of how the Saints used Cook, which helps explain his high scoring numbers and his Graham-like yardage working with Brees in the second half.
First, Cook was separated from the line and lined up in the slot on 51% of his snaps, which is reminiscent of how the Saints used Graham during his big seasons. In essence, Cook became a jumbo receiver and a mismatch for some defenders, and he exploited that to the tune of 16.4 yards per catch and 10.9 yards per target, excellent numbers for a tight end. As a comparison, superstar tight end George Kittle of the Saints averaged 9.8 yards per target.
Second, the Saints really liked to turn to Cook when they got close to the goal line. On 10 occasions in 2019, Brees threw to Cook when the tight end was already in the opposing end zone. That was tied for the second-most such targets by a tight end in the NFL in 2019. Five of those 10 targets resulted in catches, and obviously touchdowns.
It might have taken the Saints a bit of time to figure out the best way to utilize Cook's talents (and Brees's first-half thumb injury that caused him to miss five games delayed their connection), but they clearly had it by the end of the year. That suggests that Cook could be an even bigger problem for the Bucs and other New Orleans opponents in 2020.
View photos of wide receiver Mike Evans in the new Buccaneers uniforms.
Week Two: vs. Carolina
What You Need to Know: The Panthers' pass rush was scary in 2019 and could be better in 2020
Bet you thought this one was going to be about Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers' new 64 million dollar man. Well, remember, we have another Carolina game to cover in Week 10. McCaffrey was obviously the engine that drove the Panthers' offense in 2019, especially with Cam Newton sidelined most of the year, but the team's defense was led by a very good pass rush.
That's obvious from the surface statistics. Carolina racked up 53 sacks last year, just one behind Pittsburgh for the NFL lead. The Panthers also ranked second in sacks per pass play (9.74%), and they did this by blitzing just 27.7% of the time, below the league average of 30.3%. Obviously, the Panthers had some talented pass rushers in their defensive front, and one of those was a newcomer.
Carolina drafted Florida State's Brian Burns 16th overall in the 2019 draft, the fifth edge rusher taken in a draft absolutely loaded at that coveted position. Burns tallied 7.5 sacks in his debut campaign, which was a bit overshadowed by the 10.5 sacks posted by the seventh-overall pick, Jacksonville's Josh Allen. According to Next Gen stats, there's reason for the Panthers to hope and the Buccaneers to worry that Burns can put up even bigger numbers.
According to Next Gen, Burns needed an average of just 0.75 seconds to cross the line of scrimmage after the snap in 2019. That was the quickest average for any edge defender in the NFL who got at least 200 pass-rush opportunities. That's a little scary.
Next Gen also tells us that the Panthers as a whole recorded a sack on 9% of dropbacks by opposing quarterbacks, which was the second-highest rate in the NFL. Carolina got some sort of pressure on the passer on 28% of dropbacks, which was the 10th-highest mark in the league. The combination of those statistics indicate that Carolina defenders did a good job of converting pressure moments into actual sacks.
Week Three: at Denver
What You Need to Know: Von Miller remains one of the league's top edge rushers but perhaps could have used the help of a certain former teammate in 2019
Speaking of great edge rushers, there's a future Hall of Famer in Denver who will be rounding out his first decade in the NFL in 2020. Von Miller already has 106.0 career sacks and he's crossed into double digits in seven of his first nine seasons. Just two years ago he put up 14.5 QB takedowns.
Last year, however, Miller topped out at 8.0 sacks, his lowest mark since he had 5.0 in just nine games in 2013.
Even with those 2019 results, Miller has essentially been the league's best edge rusher over the last four years combined. Next Gen Stats tell us that since 2019 Miller has a 14.0% pressure rate on his pass-rush snaps, and a total of 235 quarterback pressures. That pressure percentage is the best in the NFL in that span and his pressures are the most by any edge defender during that time, with only Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald posting more.
That said, Miller's pressure rate in 2019 was "just" 12.5%, which was his lowest since 2019. We can sometimes put too much emphasis on sack totals, but in this case Miller's pressure percentage supports the idea that 2019 wasn't quite as good of a year as usual for the Bronco great.
Maybe the problem was a lack of help up front. According to Next Gen Stats, Miller tallied 52 quarterback pressures in 2019 but no other Denver defender had more than the 29 contributed by Derek Wolfe. It's possible that the Broncos foes were simply able to devote more attention to Miller in 2019. Another supreme edge-rushing threat like, say, the Buccaneers' Shaquil Barrett, could have made a big difference. Barrett was in fact a teammate of Miller's for five years, but he left for a one-year prove-it deal in Tampa and exploded with a league-leading 19.5 sacks.