NFL players, coaches and analysts are all saying the same thing: This year's class of rookies faces a challenge like none before trying to prepare for real professional football games without any offseason program or preseason tune-ups. Across the league, it would probably be wise to temper our expectations about how much impact most rookies will be able to make, particularly in the early going. And it is going to be harder than ever for teams to find roster spots for undrafted players and late-round draft picks.
There is, however, a flip side to that problem for 2020 rookies. While there may be less of an opportunity to impress in August this year, there will be a greater opportunity to stick around and make that impression in the fall.
That's true for two reasons, and it's simple math: There are only 80 roster spots in camp this year, as opposed to 90 in previous summers. That means fewer rookies to compete against for those who are in a camp. And practice squad rosters have been expanded from 10 to 16 spots for this season only in an attempt to provide more roster flexibility while playing during a pandemic.
So, if we assume for a just a moment that a team doesn't bring in any players let go by other teams during the roster cutdown, that team would only need to let 11 of their 80 players out of the building to start the season. The 53-man roster plus the 16-man practice squad adds up to 69 spots, some of which surely will go to rookies who might not quite be ready to step into the action. Last year, the Buccaneers had to trim their roster from 90 camp players to 63 spots between the active roster and practice squad. That meant 27 players who wouldn't have a spot.
More practice squad spots means more opportunities for young players – and this year, with some eased restrictions, some veterans as well – to take the first step towards actually playing on Sundays. That certainly will be true in Tampa; every year, the Buccaneers end up with a handful of players on the active roster who have been promoted after time on a practice squad, either on their own unit or another team's squad.
In fact, the Buccaneers' current 80-man camp roster is loaded with players who at one point or another have spent time on an NFL practice squad. Eighteen of those 80 players are rookies, so they have not yet had an opportunity to land on a practice squad. Of the other 62, 20 have been practice squad players at some point, even if only briefly.
That group of 20 includes the NFL's 2019 sack king (Shaq Barrett), one of the best red zone tight ends of the last five years (Cameron Brate), the starting center and glue of the offensive line (Ryan Jensen) and a safety who has started 15 games for the Bucs over the last two seasons. It also includes the long-snapper (Zach Triner), , last year's third-down back (Dare Ogunbowale) and a critical piece of D-Line depth who is currently enjoying a monster training camp (Rakeem Nunez-Roches). And there are others.
Who could benefit from that the most this year? Young, small-school pass-rushers Quinton Bell and Kahzin Daniels have already done a little bit of practice squad time and are currently in the thick of the battle to be the fourth outside linebacker on the depth chart. If one or both doesn't win that job, though, they could still get some more seasoning on the practice squad and potentially help later in the season. The same could be said for undrafted rookie OLBs Michael Divinity and Cam Gill.
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
The wide receiver position is another one to which the Bucs might try to devote a few practice squad spots to for possible promotion later. Doing so would help the team manage its cut-down to 53 as it tries to decide whether to keep extra players at receiver, running back or tight end. Undrafted rookies John Hurst and Josh Pearson could stick around in that manner, and even those who have been around a little longer, like the recently re-signed Jaydon Mickens, will be eligible for the practice squad.
Obviously, every single player named above is fighting to achieve their main goal, which is to make it through that cut-down and end up on the 53-man roster. And certainly some of them will. But even those who don't might find they have more of an opportunity to stick around during this wholly-unprecedented 2020 NFL season.
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
Will Godwin be predominately used in the slot? Who's the other outside WR going to be?
No, Chris Godwin will probably not be used predominantly in the slot in 2020, but he will probably be the Bucs' predominant slot receiver.
I've mentioned some numbers regarding this situation on a couple occasions before so I apologize if I'm being redundant. But for those who haven't seen them yet, let's go over it one more time.
Last year the Buccaneers played 649 offensive snaps in "11" personnel. With the quarterback and the offensive linemen taking up six of the 11 spots available on any given snap, that leaves five spots for eligible pass-catchers. The "11" designation refers to the combination of one running back, one tight end and three receivers. Here's a little hint: Whenever you see personnel packages described as 11 or 12 or 21 or something like that, the first number refers to how many running backs are on the field and the second number refers to how many tight ends are on the field. Whatever is left out of the five eligibles are receivers. So 11 means one back and one tight end, and the rest have to be receivers.
The 11 package has become the most common one across the NFL, and that was the case for the Buccaneers (and most teams) last year. Those 649 snaps in 11 personnel accounted for 59.8% of the time Tampa Bay's offense was on the field. The next most common package the Buccaneers used was 12, and if you use that formula above you'll now that means one back, two receivers and two tight ends. That was in use on 20.0% of the Bucs' plays last year. With the unbelievable talent the Buccaneers have at tight end after the addition of Rob Gronkowski it's reasonable to assume – and has been hinted at by Bruce Arians – that the Bucs will use 12 personnel more often in 2020, probably bringing down that percentage of 11 personnel a little bit.
Chris Godwin was on the field for 895 offensive snaps last year, which is to say he was on the field most of the time the Bucs were on offense. Of those 895 snaps, 436 came in the slot, which was 49% of the total. Yes, that was Godwin's most common location, but when you add up all the others (wide, tight and backfield), they add up to a majority of 51%. It wouldn't take much for those numbers to flip and his slot snaps be a bit more than his other snaps, but I still don't think that would qualify as "predominantly."
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, there were eight other wide receivers who got snaps in the slot for the Buccaneers last year: Mike Evans (174), Breshad Perriman (135), Justin Watson (88), Scotty Miller (43), Ishmael Hyman (12), Jaydon Mickens (3), Cyril Grayson (1) and Spencer Schnell (1). Those snaps add up to a total of 457, which is almost identical to what Godwin had alone. And there are a couple of things to keep in mind here. First, Godwin missed the last two games and part of the third-to-last game due to a hamstring injury, which led to some other guys taking over his slot snaps, Watson in particular. Also some of these snaps came in four-wide sets, with two guys in the slot.
Godwin was clearly the favored man in the slot when the Bucs went with an 11 package, and it's not hard to understand why. He's a magician over the middle. In fact, his 617 receiving yards on passes thrown to the middle third of the field led the entire NFL, again according to Next Gen stats. As far as 2020 goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Your second question, jdot, is probably the one I've been asked the most between this mailbag and our various live shows. In fact, I addressed it just two mailbags ago. For that reason, I know I'd be repetitive if I rehashed all that again here. I encourage you to click on that link if you want a more detailed answer, but I can summarize it.
I start with a "copout" answer, saying it's quite possible that the third-receiver job will be filled somewhat by committee, at least at the start of the season, with different packages for different guys. Bruce Arians later said something similar in one of his post-practice interviews. If you want to pinpoint a single name, though, the four guys I mentioned two weeks ago were Scotty Miller, Justin Watson, Tyler Johnson and Bryant Mitchell. Since then, Johnson has missed a lot of time with a leg injury and, as a rookie, has probably fallen well behind in that competition. Meanwhile, Miller and Watson are the two that have drawn the most praise from the coaches and attention from the media. At this point, I think it's a two-man battle between Miller and Watson, and my guess as to who gets the most action is Miller. He seems to have forged a connection with Tom Brady and his speed on the outside can help pull coverage away from Chris Godwin and Mike Evans.
Will Shaq break his own record of sacks this season?
I would be surprised if that happened. Very, very happily surprised.
Consider that the Bucs previous record of 16.5 sacks in a season, set by Hall of Famer Warren Sapp, stood for 19 years. And when Sapp set that record in 2000, he was breaking the team record of 13.0 sacks set by Lee Roy Selmon 23 years before that. These occurrences don't come along very often, so it would be shocking, to say the least, if that record was broken two years in a row.
Also consider that to break his record of 19.5 sacks from 2019, Shaq Barrett would have to get at least 20 sacks (impressed with my math skills?). That is also a very uncommon occurrence. In fact, it's only been done 12 times across the NFL in the 38 seasons since the sack became an official statistic in 1982. Unless we're talking about J.J. Watt, the only player to make that list twice, I don't think it's a very good bet to predict anyone will get to 20 sacks in any particular season.
We also have to consider what Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles talked about on Tuesday and Ndamukong Suh noted last Friday: There is going to be a target on Barrett's back in 2020. Bowles said the Bucs are working on moving Barrett around so it will be harder for opposing offenses to figure out how to double-team him from snap to snap. Suh said he thought he and the interior linemen might get fewer double-teams and more one-on-one pass-rush opportunities this year for the same reason.
For that reason, the road to 20 sacks is going to be a lot tougher for Barrett in 2020. Barrett could play just as well this year as he did last year and still not come all that close to 19 or 20 sacks. Even the great ones tend to fluctuate from year to year, even without an overall dip in their performance. Look at the year-by-year sack totals of pass-rusher extraordinaire Von Miller (excluding an injury-shortened 2013: 11.5 ,18.5, 14.0, 11.0, 13.5, 10.0, 14.5, 8.0.
Now, I'm sure Barrett is shooting for 20 sacks. His teammates say he is coming in with the proverbial chip on his shoulder, determined to prove that his amazing breakout season was no fluke but just the product of his talents. And, since he's playing on a one-year contract via the franchise tag, he's also playing for his next deal. I don't think motivation will be any issue.
That said, I think the Bucs would consider it a complete win if Barrett followed up his 19.5-sack season with anywhere between 10 and 15 sacks in 2020. There's a good chance that the sacks will be spread around a little more this year, with Jason Pierre-Paul likely chasing double digits again with a full 16 games at his disposal. The Bucs are also hoping for more sack production from Vita Vea, and if Ndamukong Suh duplicates his 43-pressure season from 2019 it's likely that a few more of those will turn into sacks than did last year, when he finished with 2.5.
How is the backfield shaping up?
Well, I think that's going to be a situation that continues to develop well into the regular season, particularly without the benefit of preseason games to help determine how much the rookies can handle. That said, we have learned a few things since camp commenced.
For one, Bruce Arians made it clear that Ronald Jones would be the main man in the backfield. Last year, Jones averaged a little under 13 touches a game, between carries and receptions. That number will likely go up into the 18-20 range, and I would imagine some games he'll get into the mid-20s if the Bucs really are improved this year and more often have leads in the fourth quarter. Last year, Jones only averaged a little more than two carries per game in the fourth quarter, and he only got two handoffs all year in which his team was leading with less than four minutes to play.
What we don't know yet, however, is how involved Jones will be in the passing game. He was effective in that area last year, averaging 10.0 yards per reception and catching 31 of the 40 passes thrown his way, but the volume wasn't high. The Bucs would like to get him in the open field more often, as he's shown he can be dynamic in space, but he's got to demonstrate that he's a reliable pass-catcher in these weeks of practice. He's had a couple issues with dropped passes so far, as have several of the backs in camp.
We also know that T.J. Logan will not be a part of the equation since he lost his season to a knee injury last week. That seems like more of an issue in the return game, but Arians had made it clear that he had plans for Logan as a running back, too.
We don't know yet how much rookie third-rounder Ke'Shawn Vaughn will be featured in the offense, but it doesn't seem like he'll be a big part of it in the early going. I base that on Arians' response to a question on Vaughn's potential impact against the Saints in Week One, in which the coach noted that if he did have an impact it would likely be as a kickoff returner.
And we know from what his new teammates are saying that 32-year-old veteran back LeSean McCoy has looked spry and shifty on the practice field since joining the team. McCoy averaged 4.6 yards per carry last year with the Chiefs and he's also proved to be a very good pass-catching back throughout his stellar career. He also knows what he's doing in pass protection. If RoJo continues to be more of a first and second-down back, McCoy could battle incumbent Dare Ogunbowale for the third-down role.
Based on all that, Mr. Wordsmith, I would expect to see a lot of Ronald Jones in the early going, with McCoy being his primary reserve. However, as the season develops, look for rookies Vaughn and Ray Calais to grow into bigger roles.