Last summer, first-year tight end Tanner Hudson was one of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' standouts during the preseason. Hudson's 19 catches for 245 yards over four games not only led all Buccaneer players but were both second among all NFL players. His three preseason touchdown catches were the most in the league.
Hudson originally joined the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent in 2018. He spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad before a promotion to the active roster in December. After his big 2019 preseason, Hudson made the 53-man roster right out of the gate and stayed on it for the entire season. He didn't end up playing a ton of offensive snaps – 106 of them, most during a two-game midseason absence by O.J. Howard – but he got his foot in the door and is back in 2020 to try to fight through a crowded field of Tampa Bay tight ends.
There's no way to know if Hudson would've broken the season with the main squad last September if he hadn't shined on the preseason stage. Perhaps his work on the practice field in training camp plus his film from 2018 would have been enough. What we do know is that no player like Hudson will get a chance to spike his resume with a big preseason this summer. Among all the changes being made to try to conduct an NFL season in the midst of a national pandemic is the apparent cancellation of all preseason games.
Of course, not every preseason star turn results in a spot on the roster. Certainly it can help, and sometimes it takes a while to launch a prospect into a significant role. Earnest Graham comes directly to mind as such a case; Graham was so productive in a series of preseasons that he earned the tongue-in-cheek nickname of "Mr. August." But those preseason performances kept him on the right side of the bubble every summer and Graham eventually rose from special-teams contributor to starting running back. In time, his nickname became Earnest "Insurance" Graham because he was such a good insurance policy for coaches.
Is this kind of thing common? Let's look back at the last 10 training camps and see how many roster long-shots turned big preseasons into an NFL career of some note. Here are the Bucs' leaders in each of the last 10 seasons in five categories (arranged in reverse chronological order, from 2019 to 2010):
Passing Yards: Ryan Griffin, Griffin, Jameis Winston, Griffin, Mike Glennon, Glennon, Glennon, Brett Ratliff, Rudy Carpenter, Carpenter.
We're looking for undrafted players, not draft picks or established veterans. We want to find those who had never been on opening day NFL roster before but were able to crack one after this. Winston and Glennon were draft picks, obviously. Griffin had spent the entire 2015 season on the Bucs' roster before his first preseason in Tampa in 2016. Carpenter did make the Bucs' opening-day roster in 2011 but never threw a regular-season NFL pass. There are no good examples here.
View pictures of the Buccaneers' 2020 draft picks.
Rushing Yards: Dare Ogunbowale, Peyton Barber, Barber, Barber, Doug Martin, Jeff Demps, Peyton Hillis, Martin, Josh Johnson, Kareem Huggins.
Martin was a Bucs' draft pick and Hillis was already well established in the NFL before coming to Tampa in 2013. Johnson was a quarterback and a former draft pick. Demps, the former Olympic sprinter trying to make it in football, got a little regular-season action in 2013 but was on an exempt list to start that season and ended up on the practice squad after leading the team in 2014. Huggins did make the Week One roster for the first time in 2010 but only logged four career carries.
Ogunbowale and particularly Barber are good examples, though. Ogunbowale had bounced around a bit but his first opening-day assignment was last year after he led the team in rushing. Barber made the active roster as an undrafted free agent in 2016, and the next three years as well. He is the closest analog to Graham.
Receiving Yards: Hudson, Justin Watson, Mike Evans, Evans, Adam Humphries, Louis Murphy, Kevin Ogletree, Tiquan Underwood, Ed Gant, Mike Williams.
Watson, Evans and Williams were all Bucs draft picks. We've already covered Hudson. Murphy, Ogletree and Underwood were already established NFL receivers. Gant never played a regular-season NFL down.
Humphries, on the other hand, is the perfect example for this sort of thing. After earning a roster spot through a tryout in rookie mini-camp, Humphries performed well in the preseason and made the active roster as a rookie. He ended up playing four very productive seasons in Tampa before getting a lucrative free agency contract from Tennessee.
Sacks: Patrick O'Connor/Rakeem Nunez-Roches/Shaq Barrett, Gerald McCoy, Kendell Beckwith, Jacquies Smith, George Johnson, Larry English/Scott Solomon, Trevor Scott, Michael Bennett/Adam Hayward/Dekoda Watson, George Johnson, Bennett.
McCoy, Beckwith, Hayward and Watson were all Buccaneers draft picks, while O'Connor and Solomon were draft picks by other teams. Barrett, Nunez-Roches, Scott, Smith and English were already established NFL players before the preseason in which they led the Bucs in sacks. Johnson had made it into a couple late-season games as an undrafted rookie in 2010. He didn't make the opening-day roster after leading the preseason team in sacks in 2011 but eventually did so in 2012 and later had a strong season for the Lions.
Bennett looks like a great example at first glance. He had come to the Bucs as a waiver claim from Seattle in 2009 and hadn't yet played in a regular-season game. In his first camp as a Buccaneer the following summer he led the team in preseason sacks, made the roster to start the season and went on to a very fine 12-year career with the Bucs and four other teams. The problem is, Bennett actually made the Seahawks' roster as an undrafted rookie in 2009; he just didn't get into any games before being waived.
Interceptions: Jamel Dean/Jordan Whitehead, Ryan Smith, Vernon Hargreaves, Hargreaves, Keith Tandy, Nate Askew/Dashon Goldson/Keith Lewis, Najee Goode/Danny Gorrer/Mason Robinson/Tandy, Sean Baker, Devin Holland/Dominique Johnson/Elbert Mack, Corey Lynch.
Dean, Whitehead, Smith, Goode, Hargreaves and Tandy were all Bucs draft picks and Lynch was a former draftee of the Bengals. Goldson was a well-established NFL player before coming to Tampa. Johnson had been on the Giants' opening-day roster the year before coming to Tampa.
Of the remaining players on the list, Gorrer comes the closest to being applicable here. He had already bounced around the league for four years before coming to Tampa in 2012 and he had seen action for several teams. He had never quite made an opening day roster, though. He still didn't after tying for the Bucs' preseason interception lead in 2013; that's because he opened the season on injured reserve before returning to action in October. Askew, Holland, Lewis and Robinson were all undrafted rookies when they got on the Bucs' preseason leaderboard, but none played a down in the NFL.
So, from all that the best examples of long-shot players using good preseason performances to make a lasting regular-season impact for the Buccaneers are Humphries and Barber. Hopefully, the next round of players waiting to make the same leap will get their opportunities, if not this year than in the next few to come.
And now on to your questions for this week.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Will the offense be tailored around Brady now or will you run the same system?
This isn't an either/or question, and in some ways Bruce Arians has been answering it ever since the Brady signing became official in March. One of the first questions he asked was of the "is this a square peg for a round hole" variety; more to the point, is it accurate that Brady likes to throw short and Arians likes to throw deep?
"I think the perception is just wrong," said Arians. "I thought [Brady's] deep ball was outstanding last year. Through their play-action game, they hit a lot of deep balls. I thought he put it as good as anybody: 'Throw it to the guy that's open.'"
This is the quote from Brady that Arians is referencing, by the way: "Everybody has somewhat different styles and philosophies in how they call things and so forth. Football to me is about throwing the ball to the guy who's open, and if he's open deep that's where you throw it. If he's open short, you throw it there. If he's open outside, you throw it there. If they're open inside, that's where you throw it. You get the ball to the guys who can do something with it."
I assume I don't have to convince you that Brady's field vision and decision-making are elite. It would be hard to put together perhaps the greatest 20-year stretch in NFL history as a quarterback without those things being true. Most plays, whether they end up with moon shots or quick darts, have multiple options. The Bucs might call a play that they hope ends up in a deep completion, but if that first read doesn't look good, it could very well turn into a pass over the middle or a dump-off to a running back. Perhaps Brady will choose to throw the ball deep a little less often than Jameis Winston did; perhaps Brady in Arians' offense will throw it deep a little more often than he has in recent years.
"We do have reads that start deep and come short," said Arians. "I've had a couple quarterbacks that they just keep looking deep – they won't throw the check-down. Tom Moore has the best saying in the world, 'You never go broke putting money in the bank. Take the damn check-down.' I don't think you have to teach Tom that. I think the freedom of looking downfield on certain routes and in certain situations when the matchup is perfect – take it. Don't be afraid to take it. Some quarterbacks are afraid to take it. I'm not looking for a 'Check-Down Charlie' type quarterback."
I'm not going to try to tell you that the Buccaneers didn't throw the ball downfield more than most teams in their first year under Arians. They most certainly did. And while Brady actually performed well in passes thrown to all three deep zones last year – according to the NFL's NextGen stats he was "above average" in balls thrown to the deep right and deep left zones, and average down the middle deep – the Patriots didn't air it out nearly as much. That made sense given their offensive personnel, with running back James White and underneath receiver Julian Edelman as their top two pass-catchers. The cast around Brady in Tampa is quite a bit different, and more suited to explosive downfield plays.
So what you are going to have is a collaboration. As he has always made a point of doing throughout a career that has earned him the nickname "Quarterback Whisperer," Arians works hand-in-hand with his quarterback to develop a playbook and an overall offensive approach. Brady obviously does a lot of things well, but he and Arians will certainly emphasize what he does the best. Arians also doesn't seem to think what Brady will be doing now is a big departure from what he was already doing in New England.
"I think that's one thing that drew us both together is I've always collaborated with my quarterbacks, whether it be putting a playbook together with Ben [Roethlisberger] [or] starting with Andrew [Luck] from scratch, "said Arians. "[It's about] just finding out the likes and dislikes of a quarterback. We've watched all of their film and they're so similar – in a lot of ways – to what we do, it's just how you call it."
There are also some new additions to the offense besides Brady who will probably lead to its continued evolution. I don't think the Buccaneers traded for the unretiring Rob Gronkowski in order to keep him in to block on every play. With the tight end room now loaded with the likes of Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cam Brate – two guys that can work the seams and another who is a monster in the red zone – it seems likely that more "12" personnel will come into play than ever before. And if rookie Ke'Shawn Vaughn proves to be a good route-runner and pass-catcher out of the backfield, the Bucs might get a lot more out of their running backs in the aerial attack than they did last year. Just as he will work to Brady's strengths, Arians is going to work to the strengths of his offensive personnel overall.
Who will be returning punts and kicks this year?
Well, T.J. Logan would figure to get the first crack at both jobs, since he had them both after the release of Bobo Wilson and before Logan's season ended with a broken thumb in December. Logan's kickoff return numbers in 2019 were unspectacular – which is something that has applied to the Bucs for a number of years running now – but he actually fared pretty well in his first extended shot at bringing back punts.
Another strong candidate is rookie running back Raymond Calais, a seventh-round draft pick out of Louisiana-Lafayette. Calais isn't big (5-9, 185) but he's fast and shifty and has a lot of experience returning kicks from his college career. He averaged 25.2 yards per attempt on 99 kickoff returns over four years, and broke two of them for touchdowns. Seventh-round picks often need to have some kind of special teams value to stick on the roster and this could be Calais' way of doing so.
Second-year receiver Scotty Miller never got a chance to return punts last year but he spent the entire season in the rotation for fielding punts in practice, so the Bucs know he's sure-handed. And he might be the fastest player on the team, so that's something.
Second-round safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. only returned three punts at Minnesota but he broke one of them for a touchdown. On the night the Buccaneers selected Winfield, Arians said that he would consider using the rookie in the return game. Of course, if Winfield succeeds in winning one of the two starting safety jobs, the Bucs might think twice about exposing him on kickoffs.
The Bucs usually cast a wide net during training camp in search of return men, so I would expect a lot of guys to be in the rotation for reps on punts and kickoffs. Some possible candidates are rookie running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, cornerback-turned-receiver John Franklin, running back Dare Ogunbowale and perhaps third-year wide receiver Justin Watson.
What are the chances we sweep the falcons this year?
Is there any chance I could defer this question for, say, four months? See, both of this year's Buccaneers-Falcons games fall in the final three weeks of the regular season. By then, we should know how well the Buccaneers have met the high expectations set by their offseason additions and last year's defensive rise. We should also know if the Falcons' strong finish to 2019 (six wins in their last eight games, including the last four in a row), which probably saved Dan Quinn's job, was an illusion or a sign of a team turning the corner.
What are the chances of a Buccaneer sweep of those Week 15 and 17 games? Well, they got pretty close to sweeping Atlanta last year. Tampa Bay won in Atlanta in Week 12 by a pretty convincing 35-22 margin, racking up 446 yards of offense in the process. When the two teams met for a rematch at Raymond James Stadium in the regular-season finale, there weren't any playoff spots at stake but it was still a pretty heated battle. The Bucs had a three-point lead with three minutes to play but the Falcons rallied to tie it as time expired in regulation. In overtime, the Bucs won the toss, which seemed like a good sign until the game, the season and Jameis Winston's run in Tampa all ended abruptly on a Deion Jones pick-six.
So if the Buccaneers came that close to a sweep last year and you believe they are a better team in 2020 with Tom Brady running the offense and a young defense continuing to mature, then it wouldn't be unreasonable for you to think they can sweep the Falcons. But, again, the Falcons finished with the same 7-9 record as Tampa Bay and might be a better team in 2020, too.
I could see these two teams being pretty evenly matched in 2020 if Atlanta gets its defense figured out. If that's true, they could also have the same level of motivation over the final three weeks of the season, when playoff spots may actually be on the line this time. That makes a split the safest bet. Buccaneer fans, of course, would like a repeat of 2002, when both Tampa Bay and Atlanta were on playoff paths and streaking down the stretch. That matchup featured Michael Vick turning into a superstar and the Buccaneers' defense coalescing into one of the best the NFL has ever seen. It was the Bucs' defense that won that battle in a very memorable December battle that year, winning a 34-10 blowout that completed the season sweep. Both teams went on to the postseason but it was the Bucs who went all the way.