Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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S.S. Mailbag: Second-Year Standouts

Among the questions Buccaneer fans have this week is the 2020 outlook for a pair of 2019 draft picks heading into their second NFL campaigns

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It appears that the NFL will skip warmups this season and go right to the action that counts, as preparations for a season played among a pandemic will reportedly not include any preseason games.

Obviously, that would remove one of the primary avenues that players had for preparing for the games that count, though some need it more than others. It stands to reason that rookies, in particular, could use some warm-up live game action before they are thrown into the fire in September. That's just another challenge for this year's NFL newcomers in a world where the COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for just about everyone.

That's not to say that all rookies will struggle with their sudden immersion into NFL football. One former Buccaneer who famously hit the ground running after barely playing in the preseason was running back Cadillac Williams, the fifth-overall pick in the 2005 draft. Then-Head Coach Jon Gruden didn't have much interest in exposing his new back to preseason injury so he only gave him 12 carries across those four games. Gruden took the wraps off when the regular season started, though, and Williams came out of the gates so fast that three weeks later his cleats were in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His 434 rushing yards were the most any player had ever recorded across his first three NFL games.

View photos of Buccaneers quarterbacks and rookies on the first day of training camp.

That got me thinking about Buccaneer rookies making fast starts, regardless of how much or how little they played in the preseason. I decided to look at the first quarter of the rookies' seasons – four games, that is. Here are the Bucs' rookie record-holders in a variety of categories for production across the first four games of the team's season:

·   Rushing: Cadillac Williams, 2005 1st-round pick…99 carries for 447 yards and two touchdowns

·   Receiving: Michael Clayton, 2004 1st-round pick…19 receptions for 240 yards and one touchdown

·   Passing: Jameis Winston, 2015 1st-round pick…965 passing yards and six touchdown passes

·   Touchdowns: Warrick Dunn, 1997 1st-round pick/Mike Williams, 2010 4th-round pick…three touchdowns scored

·   Points Scored: Matt Gay, 2019 5th-round pick…39 points scored

·   Sacks: Santana Dotson, 1992 5th-round pick…6.0 sacks

·   Interceptions: Tony Covington, 1991 4th-round pick…two interceptions

·   Tackles*: Kendell Beckwith, 2017 3rd-round pick…36 tackles

(* Game-by-game tackle statistics available through 1987)

The sack was not an official statistic until 1982 but they were recorded by the Buccaneers and I checked the 1976-81 seasons to make sure no one else had surpassed Dotson's fast start. None had, not even future Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon. I was also surprised to learn that Tony Covington, a safety who had four career interceptions, remains the only rookie in team history to have two interceptions in his first four games. I checked Aqib Talib and Donnie Abraham just to be sure. (If you're wondering about Rondé Barber, he only played in one game as a rookie.)

Otherwise, very little about that list above is surprising. Beckwith might qualify as a mild surprise but at the time his was considered a very fast start, particularly because he was returning sooner than expected from an ACL tear that ended his LSU career. Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander were not far behind on this list.

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 tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Do you think Devin White will finish as a top 10 linebacker this season?

- @landondavis18, via Instagram

I'm going to assume that you mean a top-10 off-the-ball linebacker, Landon. That would separate him from all the "outside linebackers" who are essentially edge rushers, like the Bucs' own Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. Not to mention Von Miller, T.J. Watt, Khalil Mack, Matthew Judon, Chandler Jones, Josh Allen, Ryan Kerrigan, Bud Dupree, Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith…you get the idea. It will be a lot harder to crack the top 10 if we're lumping all the "linebackers" in together.

So if we want to know Devin White's chances of cracking the NFL's top 10 in off-the-ball linebackers in 2020, we should probably identify the 10 or so that he would be chasing. The Bucs' own Lavonte David is at or near the top of that group, and that's clearly also true of Seattle's Bobby Wagner. It helps that Luke Kuechly has retired, because he would join those two in what many would consider the top three.

Indy's Darius Leonard is really, really good…good enough to earn first-team All-Pro honors as a rookie in 2018. The Jets' C.J. Mosley was hurt almost all of last year but New York gave him a huge contract in free agency because he had been dominant in Baltimore for five years. Most analysts are also very high on the young rising star in Dallas, Leighton Vander Esch, who was also hampered by injuries last year.

I don't tend to put a lot of stock in those Top 100 lists that the NFL Network puts out every year, though I guess it's good to see five Bucs in there, including four in the top 38. That countdown actually started with David at number 100, which seems a little low, but there you have it. There have been a couple other off-the-ball linebackers on that list, which has been revealed through number 11 so far. They include Wagner, Leonard, Jaylon Smith of Dallas, Eric Kendricks of Minnesota, Fred Warner of San Francisco and Demario Davis of New Orleans.

Buffalo's Tremaine Edmunds is not on the list but was in the Pro Bowl last year. He's the only off-the-ball linebacker from last year's Pro Bowl who we haven't mentioned yet, other than New England's Dont'a Hightower. We know Hightower won't be in the top 10 in 2020 because he has opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns.

So what do we have so far: David, Wagner, Mosley, Vander Esch, Smith, Kendricks, Warner, Davis and Edmunds. That's nine. Let's throw in Cory Littleton, maybe the NFL's best coverage linebacker, in there to round out a very talented top 10. I may owe some apologies to Tennessee's Jayon Brown and Atlanta's Deion Jones.

What's it going to take for White to crack that group? Well, we can start with a statistical foundation. I'm throwing out Mosley and Vander Esch because of their injury-plagued seasons, but all of the other eight except Kendricks played a full 16 games and Kendricks only missed one outing. Those eight linebackers combined to average the following in 2019 (rounded to the nearest half): 126.5 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one interception, nine passes defensed, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 7.5 tackles for loss.

Are those numbers within reach for White in 2020. Absolutely! He missed nearly four complete early-season games and had to shake the rust off a bit when he got back but still finished with 91 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one interception, three passes defensed, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and four tackles for loss. So he's already there in sacks and the fumble categories and I'm pretty sure he would have hit that tackle benchmark with four more games. Where he'll need to pick it up in 2020 is the category the Bucs were most excited about when they drafted him fifth overall in 2019: Big plays.

That means more interceptions, more passes disrupted, more tackles in the backfield. White made most of his big plays, including a pair of fumble-return touchdowns, in the second half of the season as he was busy locking down NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for November and December. He finished the season with a lot of momentum and he was never lacking for confidence. This is a player who expects to be great, who started to get a feel for what that greatness could look like as his rookie season hit the stretch and who is primed for a big year in 2020.

What is heartening about that list of 10 I came up with is that several of those players invaded the NFL's elite level very quickly, like we are asking White to do here. Warner was in just his second season in 2019 and he's already in that aforementioned top 100 list. Smith went to the Pro Bowl last year in just his third season (after a rookie campaign spent on injured reserve), with a stat line that looked almost identical to what he did in his second year. Edmunds was just in his second year, too. Sure, you've got your grizzled old vets in David and Wagner (just kidding, Lavonte!) but there is no reason to believe a young player like White can't jump into that group quickly. Just look at David – he won his AP first-team All-Pro honors in his second year, 2013. And you know why? Because he went crazy with the big plays, specifically 7.0 sacks and five interceptions.

So yes, Landon, I think White is going to leap over a handful of players who you would expect to be the NFL's top 10-12 off-the-ball linebackers in 2020 thanks to a rash of big plays on a team that is suddenly much more in the NFL's spotlight. Assuming, he doesn't knock David out of that group, that would give the Bucs two linebackers in the NFL's top 10, and that would be the start for a very good defense.

How do you predict Scotty Miller will do this season?

- @Jacob_hundley01

If you checked out our "Camp Countdown" question on Tuesday, you'll know that both Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I picked Scotty Miller as our favorite in the battle for the third receiver spot. I actually hedged a bit, predicting that the job would be filled somewhat by committee, with Justin Watson and rookie Tyler Johnson also figuring into it a little bit. Either way, we're thinking that Miller will see a significant uptick from the 180 offensive snaps he got last year. And that spells more opportunities.

Of course, that will depend partially on his ability to stay healthy. Miller missed time due to a couple of hamstring injuries as a rookie, the second of which came when he was starting to pick up some momentum later in the season. It's worth noting that when the Bucs' 2019 third receiver, Breshad Perriman, missed two games in October due to injury the open snaps were split mostly between Miller and Bobo Wilson. Neither Perriman nor Wilson are still around.

Most of Watson's playing time came after Miller, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin got hurt, and of course Johnson was still playing at the University of Minnesota last year. With Perriman's departure, it would seem like Miller would be first in line for third-receiver snaps, with Johnson the wild card. I think Miller will be in that roll to start the season unless Johnson has a crazily productive couple weeks in an abbreviated training camp.

Now, that doesn't mean I'm predicting huge numbers for Miller this year. The fact is that there are a lot of more established mouths to feed in this passing attack, beginning with Evans and Godwin plus an absolutely loaded tight end room. The Buccaneers may in fact, play a little more in "12" personnel (two tight ends) and thus a little less in "11" (three receivers). There's also the feeling that Tom Brady might get the Buccaneers' running backs more involved in the passing attack. The third receiver may be on the field for more than 50% of the snaps, but he may not see a huge amount of targets.

And that's okay. Miller can still make a significant impact by sprinkling in some big plays while also stressing defenses with his speed on plays where he is not the first or second read. As Perriman did for much of 2019, the third receiver can help the offense a lot without personally racking up a lot of stats.

What is the status of Kendell Beckwith?

- @_nekooooooooo

Things have changed between when I got this question on Tuesday morning and when I'm writing the answer on Wednesday afternoon. When I first read it, I figured I'd be giving the "nothing's official but here's what's likely to happen," answer. However, something official did happen on Tuesday afternoon.

There are always a handful of moves at the start of a training camp as teams clarify the status of certain players who have been dealing with injuries and otherwise massage the roster to get it where they want it before practices began. This year, the Bucs started that off by updating the status of two players who have been out for lengthy periods due to injuries: Kendell Beckwith and Justin Evans.

In Beckwith's case, he is no longer on that roster after being waived/NFI (non-football injury) on Tuesday. That brought to a close his run of three-plus years with the Buccaneers, which unfortunately only included one season of actual play. Beckwith started his career by making a surprisingly quick recovery from an ACL suffered in college and putting together a very strong rookie season in 2017. However, he suffered a serious bit of misfortune in the following offseason when he was involved in a car crash as a passenger and suffered an ankle injury. He started the 2018 season on the reserve/NFI list and briefly practiced for a few weeks at midseason as he attempted a return to action. In the end, however, he was not activated from the reserve list and did not play. He also spent all of last season on the reserve/NFI list.

Beckwith was automatically activated from that list this past February, which means he was counting against the offseason roster limit. The complete cancellation of the entire offseason program made it less critical that the Buccaneers recover that roster spot so he remained there even though it was fairly clear his playing days, in Tampa at least, were over. That became official on Tuesday.

Though I wasn't specifically asked here, another player who has sparked a lot of questions in the last few months is safety Justin Evans. Evans has missed roughly a season-and-a-half due to foot injuries, putting on hold a career that looked quite promising after his 2017 rookie campaign. On Tuesday, the Bucs put him on the active/PUP (physically unable to perform list) to start camp. Players on active lists continue to count against the roster limit; so the sole purpose of such a designation is to give the team the eventual option of putting the player on the reserve/PUP list when the regular season starts. Obviously, the hope is that Evans will be taken off that list and will return to practice before the season, but the window is pretty tight. The Buccaneers will only have a few weeks of practice before the games begin. It's not necessarily a terrible sign that Evans is starting out no PUP, but it doesn't feel like a particularly good sign, either.

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