S.S. Mailbag: More, More, More

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I kicked off last week's mailbag with a little note about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' ultra-productive receiving duo of Chris Godwin and Mike Evans and some of the most productive pairs of teammates in franchise history. This week I'm starting the mailbag with…well, a little note about Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. Sorry. That's what's hot right now.

What got me on the topic this week was a comparison I heard regarding A.J. Brown, the rookie wide receiver for the Buccaneers' next opponent, the Tennessee Titans. Brown is close to the same size as Godwin and he shares some positive characteristics with the Bucs' receiver – he's tough over the middle, he's strong to the ball, has good hands and runs well after the catch. Heading into Week Eight, Brown is third among all the receivers taken in the 2019 draft with 337 receiving yards on 20 catches. The former Ole Miss standout was the fourth receiver selected this past spring, going 51st overall.

That's a good second-round get for the Titans, but the Buccaneers got even more value two years earlier when they nabbed Godwin in the third round, at the 84th overall pick. Godwin was the 11th receiver drafted that year, a list that begins with another current Titan, Corey Davis. Davis was taken fifth overall, one of three receivers drafted among the first nine picks.

Godwin has significantly out-produced Davis so far, as well as the other two of those top-nine picks, the Chargers' Mike Williams and the Bengals' John Ross. In fact, Godwin has more career receiving yards than all but one of the 32 receivers who were drafted that year, with 2,268. Pittsburgh's JuJu Smith Schuster, the 62nd-overall pick leads the way with 2,683 yards. Godwin has topped Smith-Schuster this year, however, 662 yards to 340.

The Buccaneers' current roster includes two players who could end up as the most productive receivers from their respective draft classes. Mike Evans was part of an incredible class that also includes Odell Beckham, Davante Adams, Brandin Cooks, Jarvis Landry and Allen Robinson – all of whom already have more than 4,000 receiving yards – so the competition for him is sure to remain tough throughout his career. At the moment, however, Evans leads the way in that group with 6,567 yards, with Beckham next at 5,912.

If Evans is able to finish his career as the most productive receiver from his draft class, he won't be the first Buccaneer to do so. And if Godwin is able to finish his career as the most productive receiver from his draft class, he won't be the first Buccaneer receiver taken in the third round to do so. In both cases, that's because Mark Carrier came first.

Carrier was the Buccaneers' all-time leader in receiving yards for more than a quarter-century, until Evans usurped the top spot last year. He played six of his 12 seasons in Tampa, recording 5,018 receiving yards as a Buccaneer and then going on to top out at 8,763 yards after six more seasons in Carolina and Cleveland. That's the most yards for any player selected in the 1987 draft; the Buccaneers nabbed the Nicholls State standout with the first pick of the third round, number 57 overall.

The first receiver selected that year was Haywood Jeffires, 20th overall by the Houston Oilers, and Jeffires is in fact the next player on the list behind Carrier, with 6,334 yards. Of the other five wideouts taken before Carrier, the Giants' Mark Ingram was the most productive, and Ricky Nattiel had his moments but not too many NFL fans are going to remember Lonzell Hill, Ron Morris or Scott Schwedes.

A lot of people are going to remember Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Okay, now let's get 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.

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Do you agree that Peyton Barber needs more touches?

- nolimit.free, via Instagram

Do I agree? Hmm. Not necessarily.

I do think the Buccaneers could use more balance in their offense, which would mean more carries for somebody. Head Coach Bruce Arians thinks so, too.

"You always want to have balance, especially through three quarters," said Arians on Wednesday when asked about this very topic. "You can play the fourth quarter to win the game – with the lead, you’re going to run it more – when you’re down two touchdowns, you’re going to throw it every down. The running game gets out the window when you go down that many points, but we’d like to stay 50-50 – at least through three quarters – and then see what we’ve got to do to win the game."

Right now, the Buccaneers are running the ball on 38.8% of their snaps, which is just the 21st-highest percentage among the 32 teams. The top five teams in rush percentage – San Francisco, Minnesota, Baltimore, Seattle and Indianapolis – all have winning records. This can be a little bit misleading in terms of cause and effect, which Arians hints at above, because teams that are more often winning in the second half are more likely to run the ball more frequently. Still, whether it's the chicken or the egg, it would be good if the Bucs could nudge that number close to 50%.

That said, I don't think the Buccaneers' backs as a group are being wildly underutilized. I do notice that you said "touches" and not "carries," nolimit, so I'm assuming you are talking about our backs both running and catching the ball. Barber has the most touches, with 75, while Ronald Jones has 68. Dare Ogunbowale has only taken three handoffs and probably won't get a lot more if everyone stays healthy, but he does have 16 catches. Between the three of them, Buccaneers backs are getting exactly 27 touches per game so far. Compare that with this week's opponents, the Titans, who have power back Derrick Henry and are generally thought of as a run-heavy team. Tennessee's backs have combined for exactly 25 catches per game so far.

So the Bucs are getting their backs involved. Maybe they could get a few more touches, but the current level is at least reasonable. As such, what you're really asking me is if Barber should get a higher share of the touches going to the Bucs' backs as a whole. I wouldn't argue very strenuously with a Bucs fan who wanted to make that argument – presumably as you are in this case – because Barber has much more of a track record than Jones or Ogunbowale. Jones has been more productive per touch so far, but I'll admit it's a small sample size. Ogunbowale is likely to remain the primary third-down back so is going to get more catches and a lot fewer carries.

It's hard to support that argument if one only looks at this year's statistics, though. Jones has the best yard average of the three per carry and per catch. He has picked up 4.4 yards per tote so far to 3.5 for Barber and -0.3 for Ogunbowale. And while it's a smaller sample size, Jones's 18.4 yards per reception (on six catches) is better than Ogunbowale's 8.1 (on 16 catches) and Barber's 3.5 (on five catches).

I'll conclude by reiterating that we're only talking about six games here and I don't think any of the Bucs' backs has proven conclusively that he should be getting the lion's share of the touches. But if you wanted to make a case for any one of them to be getting a bit more, it's probably Jones.

I’m always a glass half full guy and I was wondering how it is our record after the bye week. Does it help us, historically speaking? How many times we went from a 2-4 record to the playoffs?

- Alexander Nascimento, via email to saltydogs@buccaneers.nfl.com

As you can tell, this question was actually sent to our Salty Dogs podcast (which had guest Scotty Miller this week), but Jeff Ryan and I weren't able to get to it this week and it won't really be relevant by next week. So I'll tackle it here, Alexander. Hope that works for you.

The bye week was first introduced into the NFL schedule in 1990, and the league even experimented with two byes during the 1993 season. Fortunately, that didn't last long. That means the Buccaneers have had 30 previous opportunities to come off their bye week and face an opponent. That includes a weird 2017 season in which Hurricane Irma forced the Buccaneers' season-opening game in Miami to be switched to Week 11, when both teams were originally scheduled to have their byes. So Week One became the bye week and thus there were only 29 pre-bye week games in team history before 2019.

The Bucs are 13-17 in post-bye games. That doesn't seem particularly great, but it's a .433 win percentage, and the team's win percentage in all other games in that same span is .426, so it really says that the bye hasn't had much effect overall on the Bucs' fortunes. It's worth noting that this is Bruce Arians' first season at the Bucs' helm and he was 4-1 in post-bye games while coaching the Arizona Cardinals. In the past, however, it doesn't appear as if the head coach has had a huge impact on this issue. Dirk Koetter was 2-1; Lovie Smith was 0-2; Greg Schiano was 1-1; Raheem Morris was 2-1; Jon Gruden was 4-3; Tony Dungy was 3-3; Sam Wyche was 0-5, Richard Williamson was 1-0 and Ray Perkins was 0-1. That second-to-last entry was interesting: Perkins won his last game and then was fired during a very late bye week, and Williams won his first game at the helm after that bye.

Does it matter how the team went into the bye week? Doesn't seem like it. Of the 13 times that the Bucs won their post-bye game, seven came after pre-bye wins, five after pre-bye losses and one after nothing in that aforementioned 2017 season. I guess pre-bye losses have hurt more – the Bucs are 5-12 after byes when their previous game was a loss. More likely that's just a function of the team not being particularly good overall in those seasons.

In this case, Alexander, we're just going to trust Arians and hope that his leadership and scheduling during a bye will lead to a win on Sunday in Tennessee.

And that's relevant to your second question because Arians isn't shying away from how big of a game this one is. Nobody is using the words "must-win" just yet, and a loss won't completely end the Bucs' playoff dreams, but 3-4 is a lot better spot to begin a second-half run than 2-5.

Actually, the Buccaneers don't have a whole lot of experience at exactly 2-4, though they've gotten more in this decade. There are only seven seasons in the franchise ledger in which the team was exactly 2-4 after six games. And I'm sorry to tell you that only one of those ended up as a playoff campaign…and that was an unusual case. The Buccaneers were 2-4 after six games in 1982, but that didn't happen until Dec. 12 due to a lengthy players' strike. There were only three games left in the season at that point and the Bucs won all three to go to 5-4 and be one of the 16 teams that were placed in the makeshift "Super Bowl Tournament" that comprised the playoffs. The Bucs were the seventh of eight NFC seeds and they lost in the first round to the second-seeded Cowboys.

The other seasons were 1988, 1994, 2006, 2012, 2015 and 2017. The Bucs' best finish among those seasons was 7-9 in 2012, and they did win their post-bye game that season. Tampa Bay also won its post-bye game in 2015 – and the next three games after that – but still finished 6-10. It was a weird year.

Expand this to include the rest of the league and what you'll find is there's a chance but the odds are against any 2-4 team, as you would expect them to be. There have been 193 teams that started their seasons with 2-4 records since 1990, and 18 of them have made the playoffs, most recently the Dolphins in 2016. That's a little under 10% of the field making the postseason. HOWEVER, if the Buccaneers can win this weekend's game at Tennessee to improve to 3-4, things get noticeably brighter. Of the 192 teams to start out 3-4 since 1990, 34 have made the playoffs, or 17.7%. Both Philly and Dallas did it last year.

If you want to keep tugging at this thread, the playoff rate for 4-4 teams in that span is 32.2% but at 3-5 it drops to 8.8%. What I'm saying is, if the Bucs' fortunes follow history, the next two games are pretty dang important. This glass may not be quite half-full, Alexander, but it's far from empty.

View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 8 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.

Can we expect O.J. to be more involved in the passing game in the weeks to come?

- suflo1987, via Instagram

Well, there's a new factor to consider in the immediate future, and that's the hamstring injury that Howard apparently sustained in practice on Wednesday. Howard was listed as a limited participant in practice that afternoon, and he wasn't previously on any injury report, so that usually indicates an in-practice mishap. On Thursday, Howard didn't practice at all, and that step down on the injury report is another indication the injury first cropped up the day before.

Howard still has one more day to get back into practice on Friday, and he could even play on Sunday in Nashville without doing so. He did get in a bonus practice with the rest of the team on Tuesday. After Wednesday's practice, Arians said that Alex Cappa (forearm) and Jack Cichy (elbow) were the only two players who had already been ruled out for the game in Nashville.

So we'll hope Howard is ready to go against the Titans, but if he does miss any significant time with his injury then that would obviously slow down the process of getting him more involved. In the absence of that problem, I would say yes, Howard's targets, catches and touchdowns will increase from where they've been through the first six games. I think he's simply too talented of a player, and too good of a mismatch against certain defenders, to continue to be infrequently targeted. Jameis Winston seems certain that more passes are going to be coming Howard's way, and you know, Winston is the one throwing those passes. Here's what he said on Wednesday (emphasis added):

"We’re going to get O.J. the ball. That’s just the type of player [he is]. He and Mike [Evans] – they are going to get the ball. We’re going to find a way to do it and it’s going to happen."

Just before that, Winston tried to explain some of the reasons that Howard hasn't been open as often so far this season:

"I can see that they are getting a lot of hands on O.J. O.J. has been in a lot of positions where he is attached to the line of scrimmage, so every chance they get, they are whacking him and they’re getting their hands on him, trying to slow down his tempo."

Winston knows this and the Bucs' coaches know this and they will find ways to alleviate that issue. Because Howard's targets are down. He was targeted nearly five times per game in 2018 and that has dropped to exactly three times a game so far this year. And even though Arians did note that Howard recently had a couple of dropped passes, his catch rate is actually up this year from 70.8% to 72.2%.

Howard had 11 touchdown catches in his first 24 NFL games and he's obviously a valuable weapon in the red zone. He hasn't scored yet this year, however, and that's not because Arians and company have forgotten about him when they've neared the end zone. The defense has either lined up in a way that makes other targets more viable or reacted to Howard's routes post-snap in a way that leaves him covered but others open. The perfect example is Chris Godwin's 20-yard touchdown catch at Carolina in Week Two, in which both Godwin and Howard ran posts from the right side of the offense. The defense's reaction to Howard's route gave Godwin a chance to get open against single coverage, he took advantage and Winston saw the open man.

"But [the] other [part] is opportunity," said Arians. "A lot of stuff that we’ve had for him in the red zone just hasn’t happened. We go into a game with 100-and-some plays and the game dictates sometimes what happens, but part of the time when we have game planned for him, they take it out of the way."

So I guess it's similar to what's happening with the Bucs' defensive front. Shaq Barrett had nine sacks through the first four games of the season, so the last two opponents the Bucs have faced have started paying a lot more attention to him. That is opening up opportunities for other pass-rushers, and the Bucs need to take advantage of that. If defenses are paying attention to Howard in a way that's making it easier to get the ball to the dynamic duo of Godwin and Evans, they might eventually want to change their approach. As teams try harder to stop both Godwin and Evans, there should be some more open field for Howard to exploit. Hopefully he's healthy enough to do so soon.

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