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Rules and Predictions | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Buccaneers fans have questions about potential changes to NFL rules, lesser-known players who may make a run at the 53-man roster, and more

MB

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offseason program is over, so we won't be hearing from the players again until training camp kicks off in late July. Plenty of Buccaneers sat or stood before the microphone over the last five weeks, though, so we did get to hear some of their thoughts as they began preparing for the upcoming season.

One of the things that struck me during those various press availabilities was that Carlton Davis, Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jamel Dean all spoke specifically about wanting to improve their interception totals in 2022. That's a worthy goal and the Buccaneers would love it if even one or two of those three were able to do exactly that. For the record, Winfield and Dean each had two picks in 2021 and Davis had one.

It's also completely possible that it won't happen for any of them, no matter who much they work on their hands and ball skills and no matter how well they play during the season. Today's NFL simply doesn't provide as many opportunities for interceptions as it did a couple decades ago.

It should be noted that Davis led the team with four interceptions in 2020, and that actually tied for the seventh-highest total in the NFL that season. It was also as good as any Buccaneer player has done in that category over the past eight years. Can you guess who the last Tampa Bay player was to have a five interception season? Amazingly, it is Lavonte David, in 2013. The last Buccaneer defensive back with five or more picks in one season was Aqib Talib, in 2010. That tied for fourth in the NFL that year.

The Buccaneers' single-season record for interceptions is unsurprisingly held by future Hall-of-Famer Ronde Barber, who had 10 in 2001. The two years before that, Donnie Abraham had seven interceptions each. In the 2002 Super Bowl season, Brian Kelly had eight. Perhaps someday a Trevon Diggs will come along for the Buccaneers and have a random eight or nine-interception campaign, but for the most part, those days are gone.

It is rather eye-opening how much interceptions have declined across the league from decade to decade. The NFL and AFL merged in 1970, which makes that year a good place to start for a lot of statistical analysis. In the '70s, there were a combined 2.76 interceptions per game, or 1.38 per team per game. Those numbers held pretty steady in the following decade, with 1980s teams averaging 2.64 picks per contest. However, the slide started in the 1990s, which featured 2.16 interceptions per game. It was a little bit lower in the 2000s, at 2.05, then it dropped precipitously to 1.78 in the 2010s. We're only two seasons into the 2020s, but the trend is continuing, as games have had an average of 1.58 interceptions in that span.

What has caused this? Other analysts have studied this in recent years and here are some of the possible answers:

·    Rule changes, beginning late in the 1970s, that have made it easier for receivers to get open and easier for teams to keep their quarterbacks from getting hit (and thus making errant throws)

·    Rules protecting defenseless receivers from getting hit, which leads to fewer balls being dislodged and caught off deflections

·    Receivers are just bigger and faster now and can beat defenders to the ball

·    Maybe the quarterbacks are just better these days

·    Passing offenses have become sharper and more precise, with a lot of short throws – such as screen passes that have essentially replaced handoffs – that usually don't lead to turnovers even if they aren't successful

Personally, I think it's rather obvious that changes in rules to help the offense and promote the passing game have made a huge difference. Otherwise, I think the last item on the above list is the most important. Maybe quarterbacks and receivers are just better than they were in, say, the 1970s, but surely the defenders have gotten better, too. What's really different is how the passing game has evolved, with a lot of offenses able to scheme pass-catchers into open areas for quick throws, with much of the yardage coming after the catch.

Anyway, here's to Dean, Davis and Winfield in the pursuit of their shared goals (presumably the Bucs' other defensive backs feel the same way but those are the three I heard talking about it). We all know that takeaways win ballgames, so it would be great if the Bucs could create more of them. Keep this in mind, however: Last season, the Buccaneers recorded 17 interceptions as a team, or exactly one per game. The league average was 0.81 interceptions per team, per game, which was the third lowest in a season since the merger. That means the Bucs' defense was already above average in picking off the football. There may only be so much room for improvement.

Now on to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

There was significant discussion again this past year about overtime rules; but I think some other rules should be changed for consistency, fairness, and safety. Here's my list. What do you think?

Warren (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Okay, Warren's list was quite long, and rather than repeat them again in my answer I pulled them out and will go through them one by one below. Since there's so many of them, I'm only going to hit on each one briefly, basically noting whether I agree or not, and/or whether or not they are really viable options. The bolded portions below are Warren's writing.

·    "Touchback" - If the offense fumbles and the ball goes out of the end zone, the ball goes over to the defense & placed on the 20 (as if the defense had recovered it in the end zone). Instead, the ball should go back to the offense & placed at the 20 with a loss of down.

Like a comedian telling his best jokes at the top of his set, Warren starts off with a crowd-pleaser. Everybody hates this rule as it is currently constituted, right? If a player fumbles the ball forward in the field of play and it goes out of bounds without changing possession, the fumbler's team gets to keep the ball but it is returned to the spot where the fumble occurred. Why is it so different – and so, so punitive – if that forward progress by the ball goes across the goal line and then out of bounds? You could simply keep the rule that applies to the rest of the field – take it back to the spot of the fumble – or you could use Warren's suggestion above. Getting pushed back to the 20 seems like enough of a punishment to me.

·    "Hands to the face" - This penalty occurs almost exclusively in the trenches as a safety issue, but it should also be penalized when runners use a stiff arm to the face. For consistency and safety, straight arms should still be allowed, but not to the face.

I may be in the minority here, but I agree with you, Warren. Every time that play happens, it looks like it should be a penalty to me. But it's not. A running back can stiff-arm a defender in the face as long as he doesn't grab the face mask or get his hand caught in it. It also can't be a punch. But you can get your hand on his face mask and push his head back, and that head snapping back is the exact action that catches an official's eyes and brings out a flag when it happens in the trenches.

You're two for two, Warren, at least in the court of Scott Smith's opinion. It's not going to last.

·    "Roughing the Passer" - In most instances, barely touching the passer is a 15 yard penalty. But penalties against kickers are assessed in accordance with either running into him (5 yards) or roughing him (15 yards). To be consistent, the same should be the case regarding the QB.

I get the sentiment, but I don't think this is the solution.

Personally, I find this to be the single most frustrating rule in football. There are just so many times when it seems like they get it wrong. (To be clear, I'm saying that it is my perception that the call is wrong; I'm not necessarily saying I'm correct and the call is wrong. Yes, I am clarifying in order to avoid a fine!) And it's usually a huge play that has a big impact on the game. But I don't think splitting the rule into two type of severities is the way to go. It doesn't seem to me like I'm disagreeing with the degree of the infraction but rather the totality of it. That random, unintentional slap to the helmet shouldn't be a foul at all. Whether it's five yards or 15 yards, it can still erase a great play made down the field by the defense.

My solution, which I have mentioned several times on the Salty Dogs podcast with Jeff Ryan, is to make this play reviewable. I know that proved to be a disaster with the pass-interference penalty a couple years back, and I'm glad that one was quickly revoked, but I'm willing to try one more time with this rule. Unlike that PI call, you would only be allowed to challenge flags that were thrown, not ones that weren't.

·    "Taunting" - End this penalty unless a player initiates a fight…which should mean election.

I'm sure you meant "ejection" here and not "election." I don't know if we need to get rid of the rule. We just need to get rid of the instructions to the officials before the season to emphasize this rule. Instead, tell them to be judicious with these flags and only throw them when the action is egregious. We don't need to flag Tyreek Hill or Antoine Winfield Jr. for throwing up the peace sign, but we should probably discourage a player from standing over a fallen opponent and yelling down at him.

·    "Forward pass" versus "Lateral" - When the QB throws the ball forward to a player behind the line of scrimmage, that should be considered a lateral rather than a pass (just like the old days, lol).

Lol, indeed. I'm laughing because I think what you're trying to do here is not give the quarterback statistical credit for such an easy play. If we redefine a forward pass that doesn't cross the line of scrimmage as a lateral, than we have a running play and all the yardage gained (or lost) will be credited to the runner. There will be no passing yards added to the quarterback's total. This is merely stat-keeping in that regard, and I personally see no need for a change.

It would open up a new assortment of plays, though. If that forward pass behind the line of scrimmage is a lateral, than the pass-catcher can still throw it across the line. That's a common rule in adult flag football, by the way. I don't think we need it in the NFL, however.

·    Penalties on special teams - If a team commits a penalty on special teams (such as holding or illegal block in the back), the ball should be placed at the spot of the foul…unless the runner did not reach that point. In any case, there should not be an additional penalty yardage assessed (currently 15 yards is assessed from the spot of the foul). Therefore, the ball should be spotted at the point of the penalty on a kick that is returned beyond the point of the penalty.

One quibble: holding and illegal block in the back fouls are both 10-yard penalties, not 15. I get the sentiment here, too, because if a return goes out to, say, the 45, but there's a penalty back at the 25 that's already a pretty big blow to lose those 20 extra yards. But hey, those are the breaks. Offensive penalties (in this case referring to the return team as the "offense" on the play) always involve a loss of yardage. Even intentional grounding is only a spot foul if the spot of the foul is more than 10 yards. Otherwise it's 10 yards. By spotting the ball at the point of the penalty without then penalizing the offending team with a loss of yards, you are in a way incentivizing those players to hold or block in the back. If the player on the return team thinks the man he's after is going to get the return man if he doesn't block him in the back, then what does he have to lose? Either way, the ball ends up at the same spot.

·    Official QB statistics on drops should be counted similar to baseball where runs, hits & errors are standard statistics. Thus, QB statistics would be shown as attempts, completions & drops.

I don't think you'll have much luck convincing people to change the rules of football by comparing them to baseball rules. Regardless, the problem here is defining "drops." I think a better baseball comparison would be with the wild pitch and passed ball rules. The former is the fault of the pitcher and the latter is the fault of the catcher. So an incomplete pass that is off target is on the quarterback but a dropped pass is on the receiver. The problem arises when it's hard to tell whether the ball should have been caught or not. This is not a huge problem in baseball, when it's usually pretty obvious whether the pitch was too wild to catch or not. I've seen plenty of occasions in football where the ball hits a player's hands but is still a pass I would consider very difficult to pull in. If a pass-catcher makes a great effort to get his hands on the ball but can't quite catch it, are we going to call that a drop? Who's going to decide? I know there are already people and services out there who do count drops, but that doesn't mean I would agree with everyone of their decisions. Or that a quarterback or a receiver would agree. This sounds like a good way to get quarterbacks and their pass-catchers mad at each other.

·    "Touchdowns": Just "breaking the plane" should be changed. A player's knee or other body part must be down in the end zone to be ruled a touchdown.

So if a running back dives over the pile and crosses the goal line, he can be held up there off the ground while all the defenders try to strip the ball away? Nah, I don't think that's the type of action we need to see.

·    The replay official should have discretion to reverse a call on the field. Optionally, the NFL should use a sky judge arrangement to confirm or reject on-field calls.

Agreed. And I think the NFL will get their eventually, and maybe pretty soon.

·    Overtime Rules- There should be no ties in the NFL. If after regulation AND the 10-minute overtime period, the score is still tied, the winner should be declared via a statistical analysis. Statistics that should be considered are, in order: 1. fewest turnovers, 2. fewest penalty yards, 3. longest time of possession, 4. most yards gained, and 5. highest number of first downs.

Obviously, there can't be ties in the postseason, but I don't see why the possibility of a tie in the regular season is such a terrible thing. First of all, if this is a problem, it isn't exactly an enormous one. There was exactly one tie in the entire NFL in each of the last three seasons. There were a scandalous two ties in 2018, but none in 2017. We need a complicated system of statistical analysis to fix one game a year?

If we absolutely must do away with ties, then we should still let the decision be made on the field and not in the scorekeeper's booth. If it's still tied after overtime, simply have the two teams run alternating two-point plays until one team makes it and the other doesn't. Should take too much time. There are a lot of different ways to win a game, and I don't think we should set up a statistical hierarchy to determine which is the best. If I lost a game because I had one more turnover than my opponent but also happened to have 300 more yards, I think I'd pretty upset.

Who are some guys that could make a push for a roster spot during training camp that some fans may not know about?

-shane.vanilla (via Instagram)

Well, the one previously little-known name that we heard a lot during minicamp was that of Utah State wide receiver Deven Thompkins. The undrafted rookie turned a lot of heads with his speed, smooth routes and overall production, prompting both teammates and coaches to bring up his name during post-practice interviews.

That's great news for Thompkins, and Head Coach Todd Bowles specifically said he was looking forward to seeing what the relatively diminutive (5-8, 155) wideout can do during training camp. I wouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves on this one, though. It is very common for various receivers to flash at points in minicamp and/or training camp, but they don't always sustain it. Hopefully, Thompkins will keep his momentum going, but he also faces a stacked group of wide receivers on the depth chart. It's hard to whittle it down to just six even before you get to the rookies, and the task could be even harder if Chris Godwin isn't quite ready to go on opening day and the Bucs keep a seventh receiver around to start the season. Still, if Thompkins can even win a spot on the practice squad, that would be a great start to his career. So keep his name in mind.

I wonder how much fans know about first-year kicker Jose Borregales, who was an undrafted free agent last year. On one hand, he's been around for a year, but on the other hand he didn't crack the active roster at any point so it's possible some fans may have forgotten about him. Well, Bowles said it is going to be an "open competition" between the former University of Miami star and incumbent Ryan Succop, who has the best career field goal percentage in franchise history. If Borregales can outperform the veteran during preseason games, he might get the job.

Does cornerback Dee Delaney count? Probably not since he was on the active roster and did get some playing time last year. Still, I wouldn't say he's a household name yet and he apparently made a bunch of splash plays in OTAs and minicamp.

Just merely by the numbers, I think there's a shot that either Olakunle Fatukasi of Rutgers or J.J. Russell of Memphis, both undrafted free agents, have a shot. Ideally, I think the Buccaneers would like to keep five inside linebackers, particularly if the three reserves behind Lavonte David and Devin White are all special teams performers. We know that second-year man K.J. Britt is in line to be the primary backup to David and White on defense, and that fellow 2021 draftee Grant Stuard is already a core special-teamer, but that's it before the two rookies. Fatukasi was a tackle machine at Rutgers, was a two-time semifinalist for the Butkus Award and has NFL bloodlines, as his older brother Folorunso plays defensive tackle for the Jets.

This isn't actually the best time of the year to answer this question. The OTAs and minicamps are more about installation than competition for jobs. Basically, Bowles wants to get every player on the roster in position to hit the ground running once when training camp arrives and the real competition begins. That's when we'll start to see some lesser-known names start to surface and really start honing in on roster spots. I'm not sure if I had answered this question at this time last year I would have picked guard Nick Leverett as making the 53-man roster, but he did end up grabbing one of the final spots. Let's revisit this question in mid-August.

How likely is it that Leonard Fournette has a 1,000-yard season this year?

-michael610722 (via Instagram)

Let's put it at about 70% likely.

There are definitely some encouraging factors. For one thing, after clearly wresting the lead job away from Ronald Jones last year, Fournette ran for 812 yards before missing the last three-and-a-half regular-season contests due to a hamstring injury. He had been averaging a career-best 4.5 yards per carry up to that point, so he would have needed about 41 more carries at that pace to crack 1,000 yards before the end of the season. Let's say he got five more in the second half in Week 14; after that he would have needed 12 per game to hit 41. I think there's a good shot he would have gotten to quadruple digits last season.

Now, in 2022, Fournette is still the lead back, a role that was cemented when he finally got a multi-year contract in March after playing his first two Buccaneer seasons on one-year deals. Ronald Jones and his 101 carries has departed but his spot on the depth chart has been taken by third-round draft pick Rachaad White. White is probably more of a threat to eat into Fournette's total of 69 receptions last year than his handoffs. It wouldn't be a surprise if White gets fewer carries in 2022 than Jones did in 2021.

Fournette has already had two 1,000-yard campaigns in his five NFL seasons, as a rookie in 2017 and then again in 2019, both with the Jaguars. He was limited by injury to just eight games in 2018, and in 2020, his first season in Tampa, he played second fiddle to Jones for most of the regular season. And, again, last year he was on pace to make it to 1,000 again before his injury. Overall, Fournette has a career average of 60.5 rushing yards per game, though that was dragged down by his reserve role in 2020. As his team's primary starter in the other four seasons, he has an average of 68.9 rushing yards per game. That first per-game average leads to 1,029 yards over 17 games; the second one leads to 1,171.

In other words, if Fournette simply performs as he has through most of his career as a starter, he should easily make it to 1,000 rushing yards. He is still only 27 years old, and with 943 career carries there isn't too much tread off his tires. For comparison, fellow 2017 draftees Joe Mixon and Dalvin Cook have logged 1,104 and 1,018 carries, respectively, in their careers to this point.

There are, of course, some factors working against Fournette and the pursuit of 1,000 rushing yards. One is, of course, the ever-present possibility of injury for any player. Fournette probably needs to play in all or at least all but a couple of the 17 games to make 1,000 yards a likelihood. Another is that, as much as the Bucs would like to have offensive balance, they are undoubtedly going to remain a pass-first team as long as Tom Brady, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Russell Gage (and hopefully Rob Gronkowski – fingers crossed) are still around. Fournette might get more than the 12.9 carries per game he was afforded last year, but I doubt it will be a lot more. To get to 1,000 yards you need talent and opportunity.

Finally, I'll return to White. I said above that I think the Arizona State rookie is a bigger threat to Fournette's receptions total than his number of handoffs, and I'll stand by that prediction, but there's always the possibility that I'm wrong. If White proves to be a dynamic ballcarrier out of the backfield right away, he could possibly turn first and second downs into more of a time-share with Fournette than expected. Last season, Jones wasn't much of a threat to start taking away more of Fournette's snaps because he wasn't really trusted in the passing game. White is a gifted pass-catcher, and if he can prove trustworthy as a pass-protector he would have a shot to be on the field more than Jones did in 2021.

To me, the positives outweigh the negatives here, which is why I set my prediction at 70% likelihood of Fournette hitting 1,000 rushing yards for the third time in his career. However, the margin for error is a little thin and if any of the above factors come into play he might fall short.

And, to be clear, that won't necessarily be a terrible thing. Fournette didn't hit 1,000 rushing yards last year but he did have a rather robust 1,266 yards from scrimmage when you factor in all of his work in the passing game. He also scored 10 times. Especially given that he missed those 3.5 games at the end, that's really good. I think the Bucs would happily take another 1,300 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns from Fournette in 2022.

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