Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Caps and Comparisons | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Bucs fans have questions about salary cap space, great linebacking corps, running backs in the draft and more

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The other day, one of my coworkers needed some trivia questions regarding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NFL Draft. So I obliged. One of those questions was about the college from which the Buccaneers have drafted the most players over the first 45 seasons in franchise history (1976-2020). The answer is Alabama, with 14, so if you run across that trivia question you can now thank me for knowing the answer.

I'd imagine some astute Buccaneer fans could have figured that out anyway, or at least made 'Bama one of their first three or four guesses. It's probably more surprising that the Bucs haven't selected a Crimson Tide player since tight end O.J. Howard in 2017, given that 31 more Alabama players have been taken in the three drafts since. That includes 11 in the first round.

If you were guessing the answer to that trivia question, you might also have gone with Florida, Florida State, Miami, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee or USC. And if you did make those specific guesses I would probably accuse you of cheating since that's the exact list of schools (plus Alabama) that have produced 10 or more Buccaneer draft picks.

So I already told you which school has had the most Tampa Bay picks, but what I want to look at today is which has produced the best overall class of Buccaneers. Let's look at them in alphabetical order and then you and I can each decide which school tops the list of quality over quantity.

Alabama (14):

  • Cream of the Crop: Charley Hannah, O.J. Howard
  • Others of Note: Johnny Davis, Curt Jarvis, Keith McCants, Eric Curry, Mark Barron, Patrick Hape
  • The Rest: Jeremiah Castille, Mike Shula, Kerry Goode, Chris Mohr, Anthony Bryant, Kenneth Darby

Florida (10):

  • Cream of the Crop: Scot Brantley, Errict Rhett
  • Others of Note: Jimmy DuBose, Jason Odom, Reidel Anthony, Jacquez Green, Kenyatta Walker, Vernon Hargreaves
  • The Rest: Robert Morgan, Ahmad Black

Florida State (12):

  • Cream of the Crop: Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn, Jameis Winston, Lawrence Dawsey, Dexter Jackson
  • Others of Note: Roberto Aguayo, Dekoda Watson, Geno Hayes
  • The Rest: Lamarr Glenn, Shevin Smith, Clifton Abraham, Terry Anthony

Miami (13*):

  • Cream of the Crop: Warren Sapp, Winston Moss, Vinny Testaverde, Horace Copeland
  • Others of Note: Craig Erickson, Lamar Thomas, Nate Webster, Mike James
  • The Rest: Dan Sileo (supplemental), Fred Robinson, Tony Chickillo, Gene Coleman, John McGriff

(* includes one pick in the supplemental draft)

Nebraska (11):

  • Cream of the Crop: Lavonte David, Broderick Thomas, Barrett Ruud
  • Others of Note: Khalil Davis, Rick Berns
  • The Rest: Kenny Bell, Tracey Wistrom, Russ Hochstein, Willie Griffin, Brett Moritz, Brad Jenkins

Oklahoma (10):

  • Cream of the Crop: Lee Roy Selmon, Gerald McCoy, Davin Joseph, Greg Roberts
  • Others of Note: Dewey Selmon, Kevin Murphy, Devante Bond
  • The Rest: Donte Nicholson, Jim Rockford, Weldon Ledbetter

Tennessee (12):

  • Cream of the Crop: Reggie Cobb, Cosey Coleman, Luke Stocker
  • Others of Note: Charles McRae, Arron Sears, Mark Jones, William Howard
  • The Rest: Travis Stephens, Nilo Silvan, John Bruhin, Brad White, Tommy West

USC (12):

  • Cream of the Crop: Ricky Bell, Brian Kelly, David Lewis, Ronald Jones
  • Others of Note: Keith Browner, Kelly Thomas, David Gibson, Mazio Royster
  • The Rest: Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, Allen Bradford, Kyle Moore, Pat O'Hara

So, now that you've seen the list for all eight schools, who ya got? Which group would you most want to start a Buccaneers team with, assuming you get all of these players in their respective primes.

To me it comes down to Oklahoma or Florida State. Miami is close but would look better if Testaverde, picked first overall in 1987, would have spent more of his very long and productive career in Tampa. It's hard to beat the top three for Oklahoma of Selmon, McCoy and Joseph, and Roberts is one of the more underrated players in team history, though his career was pretty short. Meanwhile, Florida State jumps right out of the gate with Brooks & Dunn and also has the all-time leading passer in team history and the Super Bowl XXXVII MVP.

(You know what's cool? Having to clarify which of Buccaneer Super Bowl MVPs I'm taking about!)

Overall, I think I have to go with Florida State. Both schools boast a Hall-of-Famer (as does Miami), but I like also having one of the best running backs in team history and a quarterback who can pile up the numbers.

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.

Question for Scott Smith:

Long time bucs fan here but first time to send a question for your mailbag. With the official news today that Lavonte has resigned, I'm curious how you think the current bucs linebackers (assuming they all return) compares to the greatest groups all-time. I'm thinking particularly vs some of the other great 3-4 linebacker groups such as the Giants (super bowl XXV) or Saints Dome Patrol. All of our linebackers have been pro bowl or all pro in the past 2 years! And it's not an equal comparison due to the different style of defense, but do you think they're better than the 02 Bucs backers who were part of a truely legendary defense? Derek Brooks is the greatest ever and he was in his prime, but the current team may be better all-around.

Thanks and Keep up the great work!

Aaron W. in Memphis, TN (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Hi, Aaron. Thanks for finally writing in. I've been waiting!

So you're really asking for two different comparisons here: One between the Bucs' current group and the best 3-4 foursomes ever, and one between the Bucs' current group and the 2002 Super Bowl team, which played a 4-3 (as you know, of course). That second one is a bit different because the edge rushers on the '02 team were considered defensive ends. But let's give 'em both a whirl.

Honestly, from the perspective of a 3-4 linebacker corps with a strong four across the board, I think you've already identified the top two.

The Giants had the foursome of OLBs Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks and ILBs Harry Carson and Gary Reasons together for five seasons, from 1984-88. They actually won Super Bowl XXI together, not XXV, after the 1986 season. Carson was no longer with the team in 1990 when they won Super Bowl XXV. Obviously, any group that starts with LT is going to be great, but Carson has joined him in the Hall of Fame and Banks was on the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 1980s. Reasons was the only one who never made a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro team.

The Saints had the foursome of OLBs Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling and ILBs Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson together from 1986-92. They didn't win a Super Bowl but they did lead New Orleans to its first four playoff appearances in 1987 and 1990-92. Those four also combined for 20 Pro Bowl invitations, with at least four for each player. Jackson is in the Hall of Fame and Swilling was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1991.

The Bucs have had their current 3-4 group of linebackers together for two years, with Lavonte David and Devin White as the off-ball linebackers and Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett as the edge rushers. Aaron is right that each has either made the Pro Bowl or earned an All-Pro honor during those two years, though it was just one Pro Bowl spot each for Pierre-Paul and Barrett and one second-team All-Pro designation each for David and White. One could make a very strong argument that makes this foursome criminally underrated, but the facts are the facts when it comes to postseason honors.

Since that doesn't really help us much, let's compare the best two-year periods for each of the first two groups above with what the Bucs' foursome did across the 2019-20 campaigns.

For the Giants, I think that was probably 1986-87, if just because it was the peak pass-rushing years for the Taylor-Banks combination. Reasons was only a starter for one of those two years, but it's still a good choice because of what the others did. Across those two seasons, the Giants' foursome recorded 41.0 sacks, seven interceptions and five fumble recoveries. The rest is tricky because there isn't much data from those seasons for tackles, forced fumbles, passes defensed, etc. Pro Football Reference has Banks with 224 tackles in those two years, but there's no equivalent information for the other three. Those four combined to make five Pro Bowl trips, though.

For the Saints' group, the best two-year cross section is probably 1991-92. There's more tackle and fumble data available by that time, though I don't completely trust the tackle numbers. Anyway, all four of those players went to the Pro Bowl in 1992, incredibly, and only Jackson didn't go in 1991. As noted earlier, Swilling was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1991. Across those two seasons, those four combined for 600 tackles, 57.5 sacks, five interceptions, 27 forced fumbles (TWENTY-SEVEN!!) and 15 fumble recoveries.

The Bucs 3-4 foursome of the last two years has combined for 668 tackles, 59.5 sacks, six interceptions, 24 forced fumbles and 10 fumble recoveries. Holy cow! I honestly didn't expect those numbers to be competitive with the Saints' 1991-92 numbers, but they most definitely are. Maybe even better. The Bucs may not have the same accolades as what is widely considered the best 3-4 linebacking foursome of all time, but it looks like maybe they should.

As for 2020 versus 2002, just let me say that the 2002 group included the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a future Hall of Famer (Derrick Brooks in both cases). Both Brooks and Shelton Quarles went to the Pro Bowl, as did defensive end Simeon Rice, who we'll have to equate to Barrett and Pierre-Paul here. The other starting end was Greg Spires, who didn't make the Pro Bowl but had a very solid season. Honestly, I'm not going to get into the numbers in this comparison (except to say that Rice had 19.5 sacks, including the playoffs, and Brooks scored five touchdowns). I think we need some more years to reflect on the current group before we decide which is better. Are there potential Hall of Famers in the current group? You can't count out Pierre-Paul and David is probably deserving though, again, so badly underrated that it makes you wonder if he would get his due. It's far too early to say for White, but I'd be willing to bet that he thinks he's going to end up in Canton. I wouldn't bet against him.

Should we be concerned AB & Playoff Lenny haven't re-signed? Could we lose them in free agency?

- @fer.rb89 (via Instagram)

I don't know if I'd use the word "concerned." I mean, if on the day after the Super Bowl I told you that the Buccaneers would be able to retain free agents Chris Godwin, Lavonte David, Shaq Barrett, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Stinnie, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Kevin Minter – and that there would be reports of possible re-signings of Ndamukong Suh and Ryan Succop – how happy would you have been? If all that happens but the Bucs aren't able to keep Antonio Brown and/or Leonard Fournette, could we really complain that much. I know I wouldn't.

Which is not to say I have lost hope of those two also returning, or that I don't want it to happen. I do hope Fournette and Brown return but, yes, there clearly is a chance that they could head to another team in free agency. We're a little over a week into it and neither one has signed yet, but they could still be searching for the right offer. Free agency always starts with a mad rush of high-dollar signings on the first day or two – particularly with the help of the "legal tampering" period before the official opening of the market – but the process will continue on for weeks as some teams let the market "settle" before going after some of the players who are still available.

If you are concerned about the Bucs losing Fournette and/or Brown, I would say that's a fair worry. Jason Licht's crew has done a magnificent job of structuring new contracts in order to bring so many players back despite a tight salary cap, but it's not getting any easier. There is, without a doubt, a certain number for both Fournette and Brown that the Buccaneers would not be willing to match. So we simply can't discount the possibility of one or both signing elsewhere, even if the lure of staying with the defending champs and their loaded roster is strong.

The good news is, the Buccaneers have options at both positions if either or both leave. Chris Godwin returning to pair with Mike Evans is a great start at receiver and it's not a stretch to think that both Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson could up their production in 2021. In fact, we saw what Miller could do in 2020, especially early in the season, and Johnson had enough impressive moments to think he's got a lot more to offer as well. And Ronald Jones was the starter and a productive player for most of the season before Fournette took the lead in the playoffs. Ke'Shawn Vaughn, a third-round pick from just a year ago, could step up as well.

How would we clear additional cap space if necessary?

- @stephen.maggio (via Instagram)

Pretty much the same way the Bucs have been doing it for the last couple weeks: Restructure existing contracts so that a player gets the same amount of money but his cap hit for 2021 is reduced. I think most people get this by now, but just as a reminder, here's a very simple way that a restructured contract can create cap space:

Player A has three years left on his contract and is due a salary of $16.075 million in 2021. The contract is restructured so that $15 million of that becomes a signing bonus, meaning the player gets the cash right now, rather than in game checks during the season. The cap hit of the signing bonus is spread out over the three years of the contract, at $5 million each. That makes his 2021 cap hit $6.075 million rather than $15 million and, voila, there's a $9 million cap saving.

The downside of this, of course, is that the player's cap hit in subsequent years goes up, which means the team will have to deal with it at some point. But 2021 seems like the perfect year to deploy this strategy of kicking some cap hit down the road. The salary cap went down due to the pandemic in 2021, which is almost completely unprecedented. When the newly-signed broadcast deals kick in, the cap is going to go back up, and perhaps in a very big way. There's almost sure to be room to pay for some of 2021, cap-wise, in 2022, 2023 and beyond.

The other option is to cut players, though from a cap standpoint that only works well if that player has a fairly high 2021 salary and no prorated signing bonus that would create "dead money" under the cap. Given that the Buccaneers are trying to "keep the gang together" for a spirited title defense, I think they would like to avoid this method.

What are the chances we draft a RB in round 1? Anyone in particular you think could compliment RoJo? @journeying_jordan

Another person asked if running back James White would make sense in the Buccaneers' backfield and I would have answered that with a resounding "yes!" However, White has since re-signed with New England so it's a moot point.

I obviously think that it's possible the Buccaneers draft a running back in the first round because that's what I had them doing in my most recent mock draft. And that running back was Clemson's Travis Etienne.

I think I'll go on the record here and say that I am in general agreement with the school of thought that running backs are not good value in the first round. There are countless examples of teams finding productive running backs later in the draft, and the shorter average career of that position makes it less palatable to use a first-rounder on it. Ideally, you'd like to pick a player in the first round that you're hoping to sign to another multi-year deal five years later.

That said, when you're picking 32nd, the math is a little different. I liked the decision to use a second-round pick on Ronald Jones in 2018, and that was just the 38th pick. In fact, it's not out of the question that the Buccaneers could trade back into the second round and take a back, depending upon when they start coming off the board.

Anyway, back to Etienne. I've never pretended to be a scout, so this is probably more opinion than anything else, but I'm really high on the Clemson back. I keep seeing him compared to Alvin Kamara, and that's exciting obviously, but I'm wondering if he could be a slightly bigger version of Warrick Dunn. Dunn had surprising strength in his legs, which is why he was able to be effective between the tackle at his size, and he was a wonderful weapon in the passing attack. Etienne is the same way with the lower body strength and he's proven to be a very good pass-catcher the last couple years. I don't think the Buccaneers would use a first-round pick on a running back if they re-sign Leonard Fournette, so I'm doing this exercise with the hypothetical that Fournette does not return. If that's the case, the Bucs could use a back who is their primary pass-catcher, and I could see that being Etienne.

It seems to me that Etienne would be a very nice complement to Ronald Jones, and they both have big-play ability. That was also true of Vaughn at Vanderbilt, so you could be looking at a very explosive backfield if the Bucs go after the Clemson star.

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