S.S. Mailbag: Potential 2019 Improvements

Mailbag5-23

Justin Timberlake brought sexy back in 2006. Now Devin White is bringing 45 back, and maybe he can even make it sexy.

After briefly considering starting his NFL career with the number 41 on his jersey, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2019 first-round draft pick has landed on 45 as his professional uniform number. White's preferred choice was the same 40 that he wore at LSU, and even before that, but that's a number that already has a deep association in Buccaneer lore. Fullback Mike Alstott, one of the most popular players in team history, has that number displayed right next to his name in the Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium.

There's no such worry with the number 45, which has popped up now and again in Buccaneer history – most recently on the back of Alan Cross, the tight end/fullback hybrid of 2016-18 – but never for long. Wayne Haddix probably has the best claim to it as he took it to a Pro Bowl in 1990, but that was something of a fluky year as he notched all seven of his career interceptions in that season.

Haddix only wore it for 22 games; Jeris White, a cornerback from the '70s has the most Buccaneer games and starts in the number 45, with 46 of each. It would have been very cool if he had one fewer of each. Vernon Turner first donned the 45 jersey when he arrived in Tampa and played one game in 1993, but alas, by the time he made franchise history by recording the first Buccaneer punt return touchdown in 1994 he had switched to 30. Orie Lemon and Terdell Middleton have memorable names but I doubt many Bucs fans would have been able to link them to jersey number 45.

All of which is to say, if White, who was taken with a higher pick than the Buccaneers had ever before spent on an off-ball linebacker, even comes close to fulfilling the team's expectations he will quickly be the iconic number 45 in franchise history.

As a matter of fact, White could reasonably aspire to eventually show up on one of those lists on which a pundit names the greatest NFL player in every jersey number. His most immediate competition in that chase is probably Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones, who has started his career with three pretty good seasons. Sports Illustrated whipped up such a list four years ago, which is still pretty relevant, and they gave #45 to former Seattle safety Kenny Easley. Easley made five Pro Bowls and picked off 32 passes in a seven-season career cut short by a kidney ailment. Bears fans could probably successfully argue for their own #45 safety, Gary Fencik. Fencik "only" went to two Pro Bowls, but he played a lot longer, had 38 interceptions and was a starter on that great 1985 Super Bowl team. According to Pro Football Reference, Fencik compiled the most AV (Approximate Value) in league history while wearing number 45.

So White ended up with what you might call a "non-traditional" number, particularly in relation to the history of his new team, but that could work out well. Not only might he end up as the best Buc ever to wear it, he might be able to give number 45 some street cred, like John Lynch did with number 47.

No, nobody sent me a question about the history of the 45 jersey as it relates to the Buccaneers, but I thought I'd share it anyway and see if anyone else found it interesting. Now, let's get to what you did ask me 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.

What will be our biggest improvement this upcoming season?

- Cwadirondack, via Instragram

Let's open with this one so that we can start out on a positive note, even if it's only a speculative improvement at this point.

Ideally, the answer to that question would be "more wins!" However, I'm pretty sure Cwadirondack means that on a granular level. Like, what will the Bucs do a lot better, thereby leading to more wins? There are certainly some pretty glaring areas in which there is room for improvement, particularly the running game on offense and the tightness of coverage on defense.

I hope those two things are a lot better in 2019 than they were in 2018, but we're still pretty far away from getting a strong feeling about how either will go. There aren't really any new elements to the rushing attack since last year, so the improvement will have to come from coaching, play-calling and the development of young players. Meanwhile the secondary has a whole bunch of new parts but so many young players that it could take a while to really jell.

However, there is one area I feel confident in predicting a significant improvement: Takeaways.

For starters, the 2018 Buccaneers didn't set a very high bar in this category, creating just 17 turnovers. That tied for the sixth-lowest total in the NFL (amazingly, San Francisco was last with just seven takeaways), and was the lowest total the Bucs have ever finished with in a single season. Never before, in 42 previous seasons, had Tampa Bay's defense produced fewer than 20 turnovers in any given year. That's remarkable, and it was built on a midseason stretch in which the Buccaneers' defense went 34 straight quarters without forcing a single turnover. I was there for all of that, and I frankly still find it hard to believe.

The Buccaneers averaged about 31 and a half takeaways over their 41 seasons before last year's dip, through stretches of good defense and bad, so a simple regression towards the mean would be enough to make me right. I think that regression is likely. But there's more to my optimism than that. If we know anything about the type of defense that Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles intend to run, and what they each have run in previous NFL stops, is that it favors aggression. That's a double-edged sword, as aggressiveness on defense can lead to big-play opportunities for opposing offenses, but it also should lead to more turnovers.

When Arians and Bowles arrived in Arizona in 2013 and affected a quick turnaround of the team's fortunes, they put together defenses that were good at taking the ball way. Bowles left to be the Jets' head coach in 2015, but over the previous two seasons the Cardinals forced 55 turnovers, or 27.5 per season, which ranked ninth in the NFL in that span. Arians stayed on as Arizona's head coach through 2017, and in that five year span his teams produced 137 takeaways (again, right around 27.5 per season), which ranked fourth in the NFL.

By the way, right behind Arians' Cardinals on that chart of takeaways from 2013-17 were the Buccaneers, in fifth place with 134. This team may have forgotten how to take the ball away last year, but through long stretches in franchise history that has been part of its defensive DNA.

The Buccaneers still have a great turnover-producer right in the middle of their defense, and now he may have a very effective partner in crime. Inside linebacker Lavonte David has 10 interceptions, 18 forced fumbles and 13 fumble recoveries in his seven seasons. He'll be joined in the heart of the defense by the aforementioned White, whose speed, nose for the football and blitzing skills make him a potential takeaway demon as well. In addition, the three young players the Bucs drafted for their secondary – Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards – were all turnover producers in college. Hopefully they can add some juice to a secondary that produced just eight interceptions a year ago.

I think the Buccaneers' defense will be better this year. I know it will be more aggressive and I expect that to lead to more takeaways after a season that was alarmingly light on those big plays.

Which Buc do you think will shock everybody and go off this season?

- Cannoncoverage, via Instagram

That depends on what you mean by "shock." Does it have to be a total surprise to everybody or would it be enough if a guy the Bucs are already high on becomes more of a household NFL name? I'm thinking specifically of Chris Godwin here, and I think I have to eliminate him from the shock category based on the overwhelming response any time I tweet something about his potential 2019 production. We'll see how high Godwin's profile has gotten when we get to August and the fantasy football drafts start.

I think O.J. Howard is a little closer to qualifying. I don't imagine I'd be considered a visionary if I dropped an "O.J. Howard is about to blow up" take in a Tampa sports bar, but he might still be able to sneak up on the rest of the NFL. Yes, you are going to hear some national sports pundits predict a big season for Howard as the season grows closer, but we're still talking about a guy who ranks 24 in the NFL in receptions among tight ends over the last two years combined. If I told you that guy was going to be one of the top three pass-catching tight ends in the NFL this year, that would be a bold prediction, right? Howard was already starting to edge up to the league's elite last year before he lost the last six games to an ankle injury. (That injury, by the way, is fully healed and Howard is practicing at full speed this spring.)

Cam Brate should see his production rebound to previous levels now that he'll have a healthy hip again, but it's hard to imagine there being enough footballs to go around for Brate to have "shocking" totals. Vita Vea should be more of a force in his second season but his sack totals may be tied to what position and what role he's filling in Bowles' defense. Ronald Jones is getting a lot of positive publicity from the Bucs' coaches this spring and certainly has room for a huge jump from his rookie stats, but I don't think I can make that bold of a prediction with an unproven running back before the pads go on. Somebody in the new-look secondary could go off in the aforementioned turnover department this year, but your guess is as good as mine at this point as to who that would be.

So if you want a deeper pick, one that is far less anticipated than any of those above, I'll go with fourth-year outside linebacker Noah Spence. The first source of my optimism is those two words before Spence's name in the last sentence. Lost in the shuffle as a 4-3 defensive end, Spence seems much better suited to be a stand-up edge rusher in the new 3-4 scheme. The former second-round pick certainly showed promise as a rookie when he had 5.5 sacks despite playing with a shoulder harness that limited his movement somewhat. He clearly wasn't part of the plan with last year's coaching staff, but I think Arians and Bowles are going to give him every chance to show whether or not he can be the impact pass-rusher he showed signs of becoming as a rookie.

What's your favorite team to play against?

- Pezspence, via Instagram

THE NEXT ONE ON THE SCHEDULE!!

Sorry, just wanted to sound like a coach for a second. I do have an actual answer, or answers, as it somewhat depends on the situation.

If we're talking a preseason game, than the answer is the Dolphins, because if it happens to be a road game that's going to be the shortest possible trip. No one likes preseason travel, which is why it still amazes me that the Buccaneers played a preseason game in Seattle in 1994. I think that was just a matter of the two former expansion twins being the last two standing on the wall at the dance.

If we're talking a regular-season road game, than my answer is probably going to be based on how interesting the city and/or the stadium is. By that criteria, I'll happily take a trip to Seattle and I'm excited to be going back to Los Angeles this year for the first time since 1993. The Cowboys' stadium really is something to marvel at, and I was very impressed with the new Vikings stadium when we went there in 2017.

But what I'm sure you're really asking me is which is the team I get most psyched to see the Buccaneers play regardless of date or location. My favorite rivalry, I guess. And in that case, it has to be a division team, right. In my case the answer is yes, but it's not what you think. See the Bucs have played in two different divisions during my tenure with the team, and when the franchise was experiencing its long-awaited rise to prominence in the late '90s it was still in the NFC Central. The Black and Blue Division.

The rivalry with the Bears was rarely very interesting, as they spent more than a decade completely dominating us, but then weren't very good when the Buccaneers became a perennial playoff team. The Vikings and Bucs played a lot of really great games during the Dungy era, and his connection with the other franchise always made that one more interesting. But to me, nothing at all was better than the Buccaneers' great defense against Brett Favre. Finally getting over the Green Bay hump, which took quite a while, was the first step towards the Buccaneers actually winning a championship.

For me, those feelings have lingered. Yes, the Falcons or the Saints are probably the Bucs' biggest rival now, and I probably get more satisfaction out of the team beating Atlanta than any other team at the moment. But every time the Packers pop up on the schedule, I get excited. And if that game happens to be at historic Lambeau Field, even better.

** 

One note: A good number of this week's questions were about free agent defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who has been linked to the Buccaneers by multiple reports. I wasn't avoiding that topic, but at time of this writing the Buccaneers had not signed Suh. If that signing does occur, I'll return to those questions in next week's mailbag.

Related Content

Advertising