Prior to the 2016 season, Cameron Brate had played in 19 NFL regular-season games, catching 24 passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns. That was actually a pretty promising start to a career for a former undrafted free agent who had played his college ball at Harvard, which has not exactly been a crucible of NFL stars.
Then, in 2016, Brate made the leap.
In his third NFL season, Brate transformed from a fringe part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense into one of the more productive tight ends in the NFL. He caught 57 passes – second-most on the team – for 660 yards and tied for the NFL lead with eight touchdown receptions. Brate proved that campaign was no fluke in 2017 by adding another 48 catches for 591 yards and six scores, despite the Buccaneers drafting another tight end, O.J. Howard, in the first round.
Some young players produce the moment they land in the NFL, like Brate's Tampa Bay teammate, Mike Evans. Many more take time to get adjusted to the professional game, hone their skills and carve out an important role. Then they make the leap. That latter group is the type of player we will be discussing today.
Team Reporter Casey Phillips and Buccaneers.com Contributor Carmen Vitali are joining me for a roundtable exploration of this topic: "Which Buccaneer will make the leap in 2018?" We'll each make one pick on offense and one on defense, and explain why we think our players are on the verge of becoming the next Tampa Bay stars.
We will leave the definition of a "leap" a little loose. For instance, Evans could still take a huge step forward in his career, but given what he's already accomplished he'd probably have to do something like pile up 1,700 yards or score 16 touchdowns. Kwon Alexander is now a Pro Bowler, but if he won Associated Press All-Pro first-team honors in 2018, that would be a leap. Younger players like Howard or Barber can qualify with a lesser performance as long as it's personally a major improvement.
So, Casey, you go first, if you please. Tell us a player on the Buccaneers' offense who is going to make the leap in 2018, and why. Carmen, I'll let you follow Casey and I'll pull up the rear.
View some of the top photos of C Ali Marpet from the 2017 season.
Casey Phillips:** OL Ali Marpet
The fact that I put "OL" next to his name and not "C" or "G' is part of why I picked Marpet. His first two years in the league, he was very successful at guard, especially considering the transition from DIII football to the NFL. Then the team asked him to play center for the first time in order to get the best five linemen on the field and make the front wall bigger in the middle, and that also went well.
We don't yet know which position Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter have in mind for Ali Marpet next season. Scott, you made the point on our Buccaneers Insider Live the other day that you believe it may have more to do with who is available to the Bucs in free agency and the draft than how Marpet actually performed at center last season. Either he will play center with an entire year of experience under his belt, or he will go back to guard where he had already proved his worth and dominance. Both of those options would suggest increased comfort and knowledge of his role.
Carmen Vitali:** RB Peyton Barber
Let me start off by saying you took the words right out of my mouth, Casey. Marpet was my first instinct on offense because of how well he transitioned into center. I also feel like we never got to see how good he really could have been in the center position with his season getting cut short due to injury.
The play of the offensive line as a whole is a good segue into who I think will make the leap, though not for the reason you may think. I really don't see a scenario next season where we don't see more of running back Peyton Barber. The second-year player gave Tampa Bay its only 100-yard rushing performance by a single player this season against the Packers in Green Bay. The fact that he did it behind an offensive line that was radically shuffled around before that game specifically is really telling of the kind of player Barber can be, in my opinion. He is able to fight and claw for those last couple yards when it counts. Take the game against the Falcons in Atlanta, where he was responsible for both Buccaneer touchdowns, one from two yards out and the other from the one-yard line. Put simply, the guy is tough.
We saw steady production from Barber following the aforementioned Green Bay game through the end of the season, too. He capped off the year with 71 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in the Bucs' Week 17 win over the Saints at home. It was the Bucs' second consecutive game with over 100 net rushing yards, due largely to Barber's efforts, but also improved play by the offensive line, pointing to what can happen when the two work in concert with each other. I'd like to see Barber get more of an opportunity, especially in short-yardage situations and on third down. He had a 100 percent conversion rate in six third-down situations this season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry in those scenarios. Furthermore, he had an average gain of 6.0 yards in eight second-and-long situations, essentially leading me to the conclusion that he has the potential to be one of those reliable, every-down backs. With a stable (and healthy) offensive line, I think Barber can make the leap and subsequently give Tampa Bay the boost it needs in the run-game next season.
View some of the top photos of TE O.J. Howard from the 2017 season.
Scott Smith:** TE O.J. Howard
I can't believe I went third and you two still let me have the most obvious pick!
Second-year tight end O.J. Howard is the very definition of potential waiting to be tapped. In terms of the passing game, the Buccaneers brought him along slowly but surely, though his overall playing time remained steady throughout his rookie season. Howard had two games with 50 or more receiving yards in Tampa Bay's first nine outings, then three over the following five weeks before an ankle injury ended his season two games early. He scored in three of his last five games, too; in fact, he suffered his injury while completing a 30-yard touchdown catch against Atlanta.
Howard was on the field for 64% of the Buccaneers' offensive snaps, the most of any of the team's tight ends. If Tampa Bay was in a two-TE set, you can believe Howard was one of the two on the field (barring those last two games) because he has the potential to be that rare "Y" tight end who can do it all. The fact that he was so proficient at both blocking and working the seams in the passing game at Alabama was why he was the consensus top tight end available in last year's draft.
Now, as it turns out, Howard still had some adjusting to do when it came to being as dominant a blocker on the professional level as he was in college. Now he has an entire offseason to work on that facet of his game so that he can truly emerge as that highly-coveted "Y." I say that he succeeds in that quest and is not only an asset in the running game in pass protection next year but a more productive pass-catcher as well. He's got all the tools, he's a hard worker and an intelligent player and he's only going to get better. And we know how much Dirk Koetter likes to use his tight ends and his multiple-TE sets. If Howard starts off his second season hot, he's just going to get more and more opportunities.
Alright, those are three good choices on offense. Now back to you to kick off our defensive round, Casey.
View some of the top photos of S Justin Evans from the 2017 season.
Casey Phillips:** S Justin Evans
The aggressiveness and ball skills that made the Bucs want to draft Evans presented themselves early and often this season. He earned a starting role early and showed that he can rise to the occasion, with arguably his biggest game coming against the Patriots in his first start. Evans finished that game with nine tackles, two passes defensed and an acrobatic interception off Tom Brady. His three interceptions on the year were enough to tie for team lead and second among all rookie safeties in the league despite a late trip to injured reserve that cost him the last two games.
Instincts are a big part of excelling at the safety position, as the first step is often diagnosing whether a play is a run or a pass. Evans is an aggressive defender, and his instincts are only going to improve. Prior to the season, Buccaneers coaches expressed hope that Evans would improve his tackling and communication, and that happened over the course of his rookie season. Those instincts, as well as technique and on-field leadership, are exactly the types of things that should improve with an entire year behind him. And remember, he even missed time in the offseason and training camp last year with injury. Having 11 starts behind him and being able to participate in the entire offseason program this year could be the experience he needs to take that next step. Plus, we always talk about how the success of the pass rush and secondary are linked. The Bucs are almost guaranteed to add some pass rush talent, which should only increase the number of times opposing QBs are forced into ill-advised throws, with Evans waiting there for his next interception.
View some of the top photos of LB Kendell Beckwith from the 2017 season.
Carmen Vitali:** LB Kendell Beckwith
I think Casey and I figured we'd let the most 'seasoned' participant in this roundtable take the obvious choice, Scott. But as usual, you're dead-on with Howard. He's such a big body, making him more than capable of taking on defensive ends or blitzing linebackers as an extension of the O-line in run blocking. Yet, somehow at the same time he is so athletic as you watch him in the passing game and in the routes he runs. As he gets more comfortable in blocking schemes as well as pass protection, he most certainly can evolve into that 'Y' position, like you said.
Defensively, I'm going to go with linebacker Kendell Beckwith as a player with the potential to make a leap next year. I know, I know, another rookie - but another starter, for the record. Truth of the matter is, if it isn't for the dynamic duo of Lavonte David and Pro Bowler Kwon Alexander, we are seeing a whole lot more production from Beckwith, numbers-wise. The LSU (read: Defensive U) product made his first start in the Bucs' first game of 2017 against the Chicago Bears, registering five solo tackles and a pass breakup. Alexander went down with injury that game and David followed the next week, leaving Beckwith to be the 'Mike' and wear the red dot in just his third NFL game. From Week 3 through Week 5, Beckwith registered tackle totals of eight, nine and 14, leading the team each game. Oh, and that 14-tackle performance came against none other than the New England Patriots. That's right, he led the Bucs' defense against Tom Brady as a rookie. What's more, the Bucs' defense held New England to mostly field goals - Brady and his potent Patriots offense scored just one touchdown. David returned in Week Six to take over signal-caller responsibilities and Alexander eventually re-established himself as the Mike, but Beckwith still contributed at the SAM position and as a stand-up edge rusher when the team was lacking in healthy defensive ends.
Like Casey said, it's almost guaranteed the Bucs will add pass rush talent for 2018, whether through the draft or free agency, but I think that Beckwith has a role to play in that as well. Beckwith spent his formative years in a pass-rushing role, not playing linebacker until college. He was a standout defensive end in high school and was even moved back to defensive end his first year at LSU. Playing the role of pass rusher is something he likes to do, by his own account. That versatility makes him capable of truly breaking out once the Bucs identify how to best use him. If he ends up getting an increased role in pressuring the quarterback and becoming an asset in the pass rush, I think it's a matter of when and not if we see him make that leap.
Scott Smith:** DE Noah Spence
So I started a run on 2017 draft picks, it appears. Collectively, we might be taking an overly rosy view on the near future of that draft class. If all three of those guys seriously take a dramatic step forward, the Buccaneers are going to get a lot better in a hurry. It usually doesn't work out that way – some guys come along quickly, others take a bit longer – but I guess there's no harm in being optimistic. If we're right on even two of those three, I'll be happy.
Well, Casey covered the back end of the defense, Carmen hit the middle, so I'm going to dip into the defensive front. My choice is defensive end Noah Spence who, if one listened to his teammates last spring, was due for a massive breakout last year. Robert Ayers thought he would finish with double-digit sacks.
It didn't happen, of course, thanks to another injury. As a rookie, Spence hurt his shoulder early but played through it, wearing a harness and producing 5.5 sacks, which seemed promising. Unfortunately, Spence injured his shoulder again early in 2017 and this time it was too severe to allow him to continue. He had a strip-sack in the season-opener against Chicago but that would be his last QB takedown of the season.
So why is Spence going to break out in his third season? The Injury Gods are going to favor him with nothing but smiles this time around. I point you to Gerald McCoy, the Buccaneers' first-round pick in 2010 and the team's best pass-rusher this decade. He suffered biceps injuries in each of his first two seasons and thus got off to a slower-then-expected start. Since then, he's been far more fortunate in that regard, missing just six of the last 96 games, and he's been to the Pro Bowl every season since. That's what I'm anticipating for Spence – a healthy third season and a chance to show off how talented he really is.
My reasoning here also piggy-backs off what Casey and Carmen said: The Buccaneers are likely to address their stable of pass-rushers in multiple ways in the months to come. It's far from guaranteed – in truth, the Bucs have been trying for years to beef up the pass-rush – but if they can create the type of pressure that comes from all angles, that will only help a player like Spence. I expect him to be used largely as a pass-rushing specialist, and if he's sharing the field with other dangerous backfield-invaders he'll get more one-on-one opportunities. I say he wins enough of them to have at least eight sacks, and that plus a full season of health adds up to a "leap."