Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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S.S. Mailbag: Depth Chart Debates

This week, Buccaneers fans have questions about the new additions to the Bucs' offense, the latest group of undrafted free agents and more//

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The NFL will drop its 2020 schedule on Thursday night, and earlier this week I took a crack at guessing four possible opponents and destinations for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week One. I'll admit, much of my reasoning for all four guesses was based on the "Tom Brady Effect;" essentially, the idea that Brady's presence on the roster creates some matchups that could draw significant interest to start the season.

Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees, a matchup of the two leading passers in NFL history? Yes, please! Tom Brady helping NFL football kick off in Vegas? Good idea! And so on.

Whoever is the Buccaneers' opponent in Week One, that game will surely be remembered as Brady's debut in pewter and red. And when that happens, he will become the 39th quarterback to make his first regular-season start as a Buccaneer, a list that spans, chronologically, from Steve Spurrier to Ryan Fitzpatrick. Or alphabetically from Jeb Blount to Jim Zorn. Or memorably from Terry Hanratty to…well, Tom Brady, soon.

Those 38 QB-debut games have resulted in 11 wins and 27 losses, though that's a bit misleading. The Bucs lost a lot of games and cycled through a lot of short-term quarterbacks before and after Doug Williams' tenure, and no quarterback won his first Tampa Bay start until future Hall-of-Famer Steve Young in 1985. Young went on to lose 16 of his next 18 starts before being traded to San Francisco.

The next two wins on the list belong to a pair of replacement-game quarterbacks during the 1987 players' strike, and if you don't want to count John Reaves or Jim Zorn I don't blame you. Neither do I. The Vinny Testaverde era came next, along with the likes of Chris Chandler and Joe Ferguson, and the Bucs didn't get another win in a quarterback's debut until Shaun King in 1999.

However, that was also around when the franchise was turning around its fortunes and four straight quarterbacks on the list would get opening wins. Since 1999, the Bucs have had 16 quarterbacks make their first start for the team and exactly half of them have won. That's not bad.

King's win in a Monday Night Football showcase against Minnesota was memorable in that the rookie helped spark a late-season surge that took the team all the way to the NFC Championship Game. Perhaps the other most memorable game on the list was Josh Freeman's first career start in his rookie season of 2009. The Bucs had lost their first seven games and the visiting Green Bay Packers were on their way to an 11-5 record but Freeman helped Tampa Bay get the 38-28 upset by throwing three touchdown passes.

A number of quarterbacks on the list didn't get to finish their first starts, often due to injury. That happened to Parnell Dickinson in 1976 after he had completed all four of his passes, one for a touchdown. He never made another NFL start. It also happened to Chris Simms, who gets credit for starting a win at New Orleans in 2004 though he was knocked out after just eight passes and replaced by Brian Griese. Even Williams only got off five passes before being sidelined in his 1978 rookie debut.

Dickinson's efforts produced a perfect 158.3 passer rating, but he wouldn't have enough attempts to qualify. Among those quarterbacks on the list who got off at least 10 passes in their debuts, the three who finished with a triple-digit passer rating were…wait for it…Joe Ferguson, Bruce Gradkowski and Luke (not Josh) McCown, and only McCown's effort came in a win. By measure of statistics and outcome, McCown's 27-23 win in New Orleans in 2007 essentially ranks as the best debut in franchise history. He completed 29 of 37 passes for 313 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 108.7 rating. McCown was clutch that day, too: His last pass was a four-yard, go-ahead touchdown toss to Jerramy Stevens with 14 seconds left in the game.

View pictures of the Buccaneers' 2020 draft picks.

There's a good chance that Bucs fans will remember Tom Brady's Tampa Bay debut for a long time. Hopefully he'll become the 12th quarterback in team history to win his very first start for the franchise.

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.

Hey Scott -

I also like the draft haul this year(mostly), at least hitting on perceived needs with the amount of picks we had. I don't watch college football too much, but do read as much scouting material and mock drafts as possible, so my only complaint would be to not have heard or read about either Ke'Shawn Vaughn or Tyler Johnson during the pre-draft hype. I hate to question Jason Licht but did they really find an upgrade at RB with Vaughn? It seems to me he's very similar to Peyton Barber, and not the pass catching, shifty type back they wanted to compliment Ronald Jones, am I wrong in that assessment?

Also I noticed Kendall Beckwith is still on the roster, is there any chance he makes it back? What is the staus of Jack Cichy? I think we could be a little thin at depth at ILB behind Minter and thought maybe that should be addressed in the draft, or is that where Chapelle Russell comes in? I don't know much about him.

Lastly I agree with you in thinking interior O-line could use some depth, a lot of unproven and undrafted guys there, do you think Earl Watford could be re-signed still?

I appreciate your time, hopefully you can tackle one of these questions in your next mailbag, thanks a lot

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

That's a lot to work with there, Ed! You asked me to tackle one of those questions; I'll try to address all of them, at least briefly.

I'm not sure what to tell you about the lack of scouting reports on Vaughn and Johnson; I mean, they're definitely out there. You can find profiles for both Vaughn and Johnson on NFL.com, among many other sources. That particular source projected Vaughn as a fourth-round pick and Johnson as a fifth-round selections. The Bucs took Vaughn in the third round but, remember, they no longer owned a fourth-round pick after trading one for Rob Gronkowski and the other to move up in the first round to get Tristan Wirfs. If the Bucs wanted Vaughn, they probably couldn't afford to wait, and clearly the did want him.

I just checked four pre-draft rankings of the running back prospects and I found Vaughn seventh on one, ninth on two others and 11th on the fourth. So, yes, there is some difference of opinion on him and some of the other backs in the middle tier of the rankings, but I guess I'm going to trust the Bucs scouts on this one and believe they got the player they believed could best help the team's offense. Tampa Bay took Vaughn 10 picks before Buffalo grabbed Utah's Zack Moss, and since Moss is rated higher on some of the aforementioned media lists, I think this is probably the source of some of the pick's criticism.

It's not hard to see what the Bucs liked in Vaughn. He's a decisive runner who hits the hole quickly when he sees it and can get up to top speed quickly. He has a sprinter's background and was a big-play machine as a junior. We all heard Florida State's Cam Akers get a lot of forgiveness for his stat line because the Seminoles' offensive line was pretty terrible in 2019, and Akers was the fourth back off the board. Vaughn deserves some of the same consideration as Vanderbilt's line wasn't among the nation's best last year but he still produced good numbers.

Vaughn is also a tough runner who gains a lot of yards after contact. I'd say that last trait is something he shared with Barber but I think the Bucs are banking on Vaughn providing more explosive plays. He's also a sure-handed receiver, and that plus his pass-protection skills should allow him to be a three-down back in the NFL. Ronald Jones, who had a very nice season in his second year in the NFL last fall, did sometimes struggle to block in the backfield.

On the other hand, I've seen almost nothing but praise for the pick of Johnson, so I'm a bit surprised you're unsure about that one, Ed. Yes, the Buccaneers could have nabbed a more prominent name if they had used their second-round pick on someone like K.J. Hamler, Denzel Mims or Van Jefferson (all of whom went not long after the Bucs' pick, but then they wouldn't have Antoine Winfield, Jr. in the secondary. I think the Bucs saw the incredible depth in this year's draft and figured they could get a third-receiver candidate in the fifth round. Since they already had Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, it's hard to put receiver ahead of safety on the hierarchy of needs to be met in the draft.

Johnson is similar in size to Godwin and like his new teammate and fellow Big Ten product he is excellent operating out of the slot. What scouts rave about and what the Buccaneers clearly value is that Johnson simply has a knack for getting open, and that's at all levels of the field, not just on short or immediate routes. He also has great hands and occasionally makes acrobatic catches, like the one in the 2020 Outback Bowl that caught the Bucs' eyes.

Moving on. Yes, Kendell Beckwith is still on the roster. To recap for anyone who is unfamiliar or who has forgotten Beckwith's situation, he was a third-round draft pick in 2017 who had a very promising rookie season for the Buccaneers. That included returning from the knee injury that ended his college career more quickly than most expected. Unfortunately, Beckwith was a passenger in a car accident the following spring and he suffered an ankle injury that put him on the reserve/non-football injury list to start the 2018 season. Beckwith tried to return and practiced during a three-week window in November but was ultimately left on the reserve list.

As is what happens with all players who finish a season on a reserve list, Beckwith was activated to the 90-man roster last February. However, he was put back on the NFI list in May and did not count against the 90-man limit, and then he was moved to reserve/NFI again before the start of the season. The same procedure began again in April, which is why Beckwith is currently on the active roster. I do not believe there is an expectation of Beckwith returning to the field.

Cichy has had some tough injury luck, as well, dating back to a pair of knee injuries he overcame while at Wisconsin. Another one sidelined him after just six games in his rookie season in Tampa but he fought his way back from that one, too, and was ready to go to start last season, which was impressive. Unfortunately, his second season lasted just four games before he suffered an elbow injury in Los Angeles. In this case, however, Cichy wasn't immediately placed on injured reserve. He was inactive for three games before the Bucs chose to move him to IR, and that seems promising to me. If there was some debate over if he could still return to action in 2019 that tells me he should be fine for 2020. And he definitely deserves an injury-free campaign.

I don't think depth at inside linebacker is a really big concern. The Buccaneers never carried more than five of them at once during the regular season in 2019, with Deone Bucannon listed as a safety/linebacker. Devante Bond, listed at outside linebacker, had some position flexibility, too, but both Bucannon and Bond were gone before midseason. The Bucs replaced Cichy with Noah Dawkins and rode with him, David, White and Minter the rest of the way.

This offseason, the Bucs re-signed Minter, presumably to be the primary backup to both David and White as he was last year, as well as a heck of a special teams player. I'm presuming Cichy will be healthy and available and Dawkins is still on the roster, too. All of the rookie linebackers the Bucs have since added – Russell and undrafted free agents Michael Divinity, Cam Gill and Nasir Player – are listed as outside linebackers but a couple, perhaps Russell and Divinity, could have some position flexibility.

I did, in fact, write that I thought the Buccaneers' depth chart could still use some additions on the interior offensive line after the draft and I think that was subsequently reflected in the team's recently-announced list of rookie free agents. That group of 13 players included two guard (Boise State's John Molchon and Rice's Nick Leverett) and one center (Texas' Zach Shackelford). One other name to keep in mind is Zack Bailey, who was an undrafted free agent out of South Carolina in 2019. I think the Buccaneers were pretty high on Bailey – they had him on the 53-man roster – before he suffered a practice-field ankle injury and had to go on injured reserve.

The Buccaneers brought back tackle Josh Wells but so far have not re-signed Watford, who was their top interior-line reserve on game days last year. I'm guessing that the team will find out what it has in its young reserve options first before deciding whether or not to bring in a veteran like Watford or somebody else who remains unsigned.

Which of our UDFA's do you think will make the team and/or the most impact this season?

- @thelehtonen, via Instagram

Well, let me start by saying that it will be tougher for those guys to make an impact if there is a long delay in getting the players back on the field. I don't think competition for roster spots really begins until training camp, but the more comfortable young players can get with the playbook during the offseason the better chance they have of impressing in camp.

Though I don't think he would be expected to make much of an impact in 2020, I do think there's a decent chance that San Diego quarterback Reid Sinnett cracks the roster. I think he was one of the team's top priorities in undrafted free agency after none of its draft picks were used to get a young, developmental quarterback. Sinnett has a wonderful opportunity to learn from the most accomplished quarterbacks of all time, particularly if he can stick around on the active roster or the practice squad.

To make the active roster, Sinnett will probably have to take the spot of either Blaine Gabbert or Ryan Griffin. It's nice to have two veteran reserves who know the offensive system, but one could argue that if you're forced to your third quarterback in a season that season probably isn't going well. The Bucs could choose to hold onto Sinnett if they think he has long-term potential, rather than one of their veterans, as much as they clearly value both of those guys.

I think the changes to the roster rules brought in by the new CBA could help Sinnett. The regular-season roster limit remains 53 players but a team can increase its game day roster any week to 55 by temporarily promoting two players from the practice squad. Those moves don't involve waivers; promoted players simply revert to the practice squad the day after the game. There are some restrictions – no player can be promoted this way two weeks in a row or more than twice in a season – but clearly it provides a team with flexibility to handle, say, a rash of injuries at one position. And since there is this method to handle temporary depth issues, I think teams are going to be more likely to carry at least three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster. A team with a versatile quarterback who can help you in other ways, like the Saints' Taysom Hill, might even carry four.

Otherwise, as I've noted above the Buccaneers will be looking to figure out their depth situation on the interior line, which seems like a good opportunity for Shackelford, who was a long-time starter at a top college program. I'd also keep my eye on Oklahoma cornerback Parnell Motley. NFL teams are always searching for more quality cornerback depth, and Motley could end up competing with the likes of Mazzi Wilkins and Herb Miller. Motley was routinely tested by the Big 12's dynamic receivers and passing attacks and he more than held his own last year.

Which rookie do you think will have the most immediate impact?

- @bucsuk_nfl

I don't see a clear path to a starting role for the last three picks, defensive lineman Khalil Davis, running back Raymond Calais and the aforementioned Chapelle Russell. Calais might have the best shot of the three to make a big rookie impact if he can win one or both of the kick return jobs.

That leaves first-round tackle Tristan Wirfs, second-round safety Antoine Winfield, third-round running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn and fifth-round receiver Tyler Johnson. Vaughn is sure to get a good amount of playing time but we don't know yet how the touches will be distributed between him and Ronald Jones. Johnson will definitely battle for the third-receiver job and may win it to start the season but with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cam Brate roaming the field there may only be so many footballs to get to your third receiver.

So the best bets are Wirfs and Winfield…and, yes, I've narrowed it down to the team's top two draft picks. What a bold move! That's what we want the answer to be, though, right? The Buccaneers' brass clearly felt that getting a (likely) instant starter at right tackle to keep Brady upright was their number-one priority in the draft. Judging from the trade up Jason Licht pulled off to make sure Wirfs wasn't poached by another team at the last minute, I think we can safely say it was their top priority by a wide margin. If Wirfs plays a big role in giving Brady time to utilize all the great weapons around him, I think that will be the biggest impact made by any of this year's rookies. Winfield could emerge as a big-time playmaker on defense but first he's got to fight off competition for starting jobs at the two safety positions. Wirfs' path to being a starter seems more clear.

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