S.S. Mailbag: Possible Improvements in 2019

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Before I get to your questions this week, let's talk a little bit about the Year Two Leap.

You know what I'm talking about because, if you follow the NFL, you've heard that optimistic turn of phrase many, many times. Basically, the concept rests on the idea that the transition from college ball to the pros is a difficult one for most players, so we can excuse a well-regarded prospect if he doesn't immediately set the NFL on fire as a rookie. However, after a year of seasoning and, crucially, a first full offseason program, some players see their talents blossom in their second NFL season.

Often, there are promising signs in what is otherwise an average rookie season. Take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Vita Vea. The Buccaneers took the huge but agile defensive tackle out of Washington with the 12th overall pick in 2018 and envisioned him being a powerful force in the middle of their defensive line right away. Unfortunately, Vea ran into a significant calf injury on the third day of training camp and essentially missed the next two months of action. Upon his return he was eased back into the mix, and by the final month or so of the season he was beginning to make impact plays. The Bucs hope that with that strong finish and better health fortune, Vea will be a wrecking ball in Year Two.

There's no guarantee that will happen, but it's a very reasonable possibility. There are plenty of examples in the Buccaneers' own history of players who, for one reason or another, had underwhelming or unassuming rookie seasons and then came out blazing in Year Two. Here are three former Bucs, at three different positions, who definitely made the Year Two Leap.

1. CB Ronde Barber…A third-round pick in 1997, Barber had difficulty with his initial transition to the NFL and barely played as a rookie. He got into one regular season game but otherwise was inactive for the other 15. However, he began to show what would prove to be his considerable talents in practice late in the season, which prompted the team to turn to him as the nickel back in their second-round playoff game at Green Bay. That show of confidence was a boost for Barber, who the following season would play in all 16 game, log the first nine of his 232 career starts and produce two interceptions, two forced fumbles and the first of his 14 career non-offensive touchdowns. The rest is Buccaneers history.

2. WR Kevin House…The Bucs tried to ramp up their offense to match a top-ranked defense by giving Doug Williams a deep threat in the second round of the 1980 draft. House did indeed show off his big-play ability as a rookie with an average of 22.1 yards per catch, but he only started one game and was fifth on the team in receptions while averaging fewer than 40 yards per game. The following year, House shot to the top of Williams' targets, catching 56 passes and becoming the first 1,000-yard receiver in team history with a total of 1,176. He still averaged 21.0 yards per grab but also scored nine touchdowns.

3. DT Anthony McFarland…The Bucs already had a superstar defensive tackle in Warren Sapp and his productive running mate in Brad Culpepper when they drafted McFarland in the first round in 1999. That limited McFarland's playing time as a rookie, as he played in just 14 games without a start while Sapp was running away with the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award. However, the Buccaneers had envisioned pairing Sapp and McFarland for a dominant interior line, and they enacted that plan the following year after releasing Culpepper at the end of training camp. "Booger" McFarland stepped into the lineup, started all 16 games and produced a career-high 6.5 sacks. That was definitely a good complement to Sapp, who set a team record that year with 16.5 sacks.

Hopefully, Vita Vea can write a similar Year Two story in 2019. In the meantime, 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.

Do you think this is the year we finally fix our pass defense?

- Bodietman, via Instagram

I mean, "finally?" Yes, the pass defense has been bad the last couple years, but it was ranked 16th as recently as 2015. It's not like we've been wandering in the desert for 40 years.

But I'll concede it feels like a long time. After an incredible run from 1996 through 2010 in which Tampa Bay had a top-10 pass defense in 13 of 15 seasons, it hasn't ranked higher than that 2015 mark in the last seven years. That includes last-place finishes in 2012 and last year. So, yeah, even if I quibble with the wording here, it clearly needs to be fixed.

do think this is the year that we start moving in the right direction. A leap from 32nd back into the top 10 seems like a bit much to ask for, but it's not unprecedented. It could be that a new and much more aggressive scheme, possibly one that is a better fit for the personnel on hand, will be the biggest positive difference.

We've seen that before. The Buccaneers were 26th in pass defense in 1995, the final year of Sam Wyche's tenure, with Rusty Tillman as the defensive coordinator. The next year, Tony Dungy arrived and brought in Monte Kiffin and the two unleashed what would become the famous Tampa Two defense. There wasn't a massive change in personnel in the secondary – Anthony Parker replaced Martin Mayhew at one corner spot and Charles Mincy replaced Melvin Johnson at one safety spot, but neither Parker nor Mincy were long-time Buc stars – but the Bucs leapt all the way up to #4 in pass defense and stayed near the top for a long time.

If you think confidence is important, than things are definitely looking up inside the AdventHealth Training Center. Head Coach Bruce Arians has opined more than once that the personnel shortcomings in the secondary have been "fixed." The players agree. The three rookie draft picks – cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards – all looked very promising during the offseason program, though one must take that with a grain of salt due to the lack of pads. We'll find out a bit more about whether that optimism is well-placed when we get to training camp.

The Buccaneers have invested tonsof draft capital in the defensive backfield in the past four years, and they don't need all of it to hit in order to field a talented lineup. There's a huge amount of competition brewing at both safety and cornerback, and the coaching staff believes that competition is the key to producing a strong lineup. I like the speed and playmaking ability the Bucs added in this year's draft, I like the press coverage that should suit Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis well, and I like the history of turnovers produced by the Arians/Bowles combination in their days together in Arizona.

Look, it's an optimistic time of year, and having a new coaching staff with a history of success intensifies that feeling. I'm well aware that there are likely to be some bumps along the way, but yes, to answer your question, I truly believe the pass defense will be significantly better this year.

Where on the field do you see Nick Fitzgerald making his impact on the team?

- Ben_thomassen, via Instagram

This year? Probably on the practice field.

Fitzgerald is a great story and I'm really impressed with the way he's bought into this idea of becoming a versatile, multi-positional player. He's obviously gifted athletically, and he and the team are trying to figure out how to best use those gifts in the NFL. In the offseason, we saw Fitzgerald throw passes with the younger group of players, cover kicks during special teams drills and even run some routes as a tight end. All of that is potentially on the table.

The name Taysom Hill gets thrown around a lot when Fitzgerald's future is the topic, and that's understandable. The idea of having a reserve quarterback on your team who actually provides value on game day when the starting QB is healthy is enticing. The Saints found a lot of ways to use Hill last year, sometimes with him and Drew Brees on the field at the same time. New Orleans would keep both of those active on game days, as well as second-string passer Teddy Bridgewater. You don't see many teams keeping three quarterbacks among their 46 active spots, but the Saints found a way to turn that into an advantage.

But Hill didn't spring into the NFL fully-formed as a Swiss Army knife. He first signed as an undrafted free agent with Green Bay in 2017 before being cut at the end of the preseasons. The Saints swooped in with a waiver claim and did keep Hill on their active roster that year, but he barely played. It wasn't until last year, after another full offseason and training camp to tinker with Hill's role, that they put him to full use. Hill threw seven passes last year and also ran 37 times for 196 yards, caught three passes and even made six tackles on special teams.

Fitzgerald is bigger than Hill by three inches and a few pounds, but he is also a gifted runner. He ran for 3,607 yards and 46 touchdowns at Mississippi State. His size and athleticism could make him useful in spot duty at tight end. I do think that Fitzgerald has a shot at at least making the Buccaneers' practice squad in 2019, but I'm guessing it will be a bit longer before he's seeing regular action on Sundays.

Who do you think will be the most improved o-lineman? Can a simple scheme change improve them?

- Gwright389

I think it needs to be Alex Cappa.

Cappa faced a tough transition as a rookie (see the intro above), as he moved from a Division II school, Humboldt State, to the highest level of American football in the world. Cappa was absolutely dominant in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, earning the conference's award for offensive lineman of the year in all four of his seasons, but that was against foes such as Alaska-Anchorage and Simon Fraser University.

Cappa is physically-imposing at 6-6 and 305 skills and the Buccaneers obviously liked his movement skills when they made a small trade up into the bottom of the third round in 2018 to make sure they weren't aced out of picking him. It's not completely clear how far Cappa needed to progress from where he was upon arrival in Tampa, or how far he got during his rookie season, but he obviously didn't get all the way there last year. The Bucs knew Caleb Benenoch was scuffling at right guard, and they did give Cappa some playing time there down the stretch, but they never did make a change in the starting lineup.

Now, they have. Or the new coaching staff has. Cappa ran with the first-team line during the offseason program, while Benenoch is now working at offensive tackle, where he showed promise at the end of the 2017 season. Arians and his crew seemed pleased with Cappa's performance so far but, as we all know by now, it's impossible to really judge how an offensive linemen is doing until the pads go on and the collisions start.

Beyond this needing to be the answer to your question, I also think it's the best choice. Left tackle Donovan Smith, left guard Ali Marpet, center Ryan Jensen and right tackle Demar Dotson all already have a certain baseline of performance that qualifies them as, depending upon who's doing the evaluating, good NFL starters. Cappa has the most room for improvement.

Do I think a scheme change could help? Absolutely. For one thing, I think you will see Arians make good use of the Bucs' strength at tight end to help the line, running power plays to the strong side, sometimes behind bunched tight ends. Also, if the Bucs can get their backs more involved in the passing game, as Arians has a history of doing, Jameis Winston will have some quicker options to avoid taking sacks. Look at the impact Arians and his crew had in Arizona upon their arrival. In 2012, the Cardinals gave up 58 sacks and ranked 28th in rushing offense. In 2013, Arians' first year, the Cardinals gave up 41 sacks and ranked 23rd in rushing offense.They did have more change in their personnel along the lines than it looks like the Bucs will have in 2019, but the new scheme likely helped, too.

Have you ever been star struck by an NFL player? If so, who?

- Charlie27_jennessee, via Instagram

Honestly, not really, or at least not often and not recently.

I don't mean that in a boastful manner. I have definitely been intimidated by some players, and have been nervous around them at various points in my career. I think there's something around working in sports, especially for a good amount of time, that lends a person to not be star-struck. You tend to see the athletes as real people, and I'm glad that's the case. I'm also probably giving my younger self a bit of a pass here. Most likely, I had some star-struck moments that I simply don't recall years later. I interned with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1991 and I'm guessing I was a bit wide-eyed around Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith.

If I could answer this question in a slightly different way, and briefly, I would say that the most surprising thing about meeting famous players is how often they are not what you expected. I can't count how many times I've had something of a preconceived notion about a player, only to find him to be completely different. I take that as an indication that sometimes players don't deserve the reputations they acquire.

One example: When the Buccaneers traded for Joey Galloway in 2004, I expected something of a prima donna. I guess that sprung from how his time in Seattle ended, with a contract dispute (of which I really knew no details at the time) and a trade. That reputation couldn't have been further from the truth, as Galloway was (and I'm sure still is) pleasant, approachable and down to earth. He even came out and played on our staff softball team (after getting the GM's approval, of course)!

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