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It's time for another Give Me Five list and it's time for me to put Carmen on the spot again. This time, I want her to take a look around the league and think about what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could steal from other teams.
Or who they could steal, that is. Here's my challenge to Carmen this week: Who are the top five players you would steal from other current NFL rosters to help the Buccaneers win in 2020?
I make this challenge as we begin our third week in the Give Me Five series. Sure, it's another series of lists, but this one has a twist: The list-maker doesn't get to choose the topic. I start each week by giving Carmen a topic and then she turns the table at the end of the week with a topic for me. We make our lists and then the person who chose the topic adds some final thoughts.
This particular question is one that no general manager or head coach could answer in public for fear of being charged with tampering. However, Carmen and I are allowed to speculate, and since none of this can actually happen, it's harmless anyway. It's just a thought exercise. That said, please understand that none of what is followed is meant to reflect the opinions or strategies of Jason Licht, Bruce Arians or anyone on their staff.
A couple quick ground rules, Carmen. First, you don't have to worry about salary cap. Take any player you want and assume it will work out. Second, you need to consider actual need on the Bucs' roster, and not focus too much on incremental improvements. Sure, every team in the league would like to add Patrick Mahomes, but there's not much point in that for the purposes of this exercise when you already know you're going to roll with Tom Brady. That said, you can add to what is already a position of strength if you think it will still improve the team's chances in 2020. For instance, the Bucs don't need a replacement for Mike Evans or Chris Godwin, but perhaps there is a third receiver out there who would fit in with those two.
Third, only consider the 2020 season. It might be tempting to snatch Joe Burrow away from the Bengals for the post-Brady future, but is he one of the five guys you want to add just for this season?
So, to reiterate
Today's Topic: Identify five players you would steal from other current NFL rosters to help the Buccaneers win in 2020.
Carmen's Thoughts: I would like to start by saying how the Bucs excel in the area of capology year in and year out thanks in large part to one Mike Greenberg and many others on Jason Licht's staff. That being said, the below would be impossible – even for them. But you told me salary wasn't a concern so yeah – I'm running with it. I'd venture to say this offseason has been pretty darn close to an ideal one already so I'm really off in dreamland with the below list.
The exercise was pretty simple though as soon as I figured out how I wanted to attack it. I identified areas of need or where the Bucs could improve and then thought of the best player in the league at that position. However, I also took into consideration how said player would fit into the Bucs' system. For instance, Titans running back Derrick Henry was the league's leading rusher last season, but given how quarterback Tom Brady likes to throw to his backs and can use them often as another receiver – I instead listed Carolina's Christian McCaffrey, who not only had 1,387 rushing yards, but also had over 1,000 receiving yards with 1,005 last season.
With that in mind, also note that these aren't in any particular order. I tried to weigh one position/player over another and there were too many factors. These are very much the top five additions that I came up with, but feel free to place your own ideas of importance upon them.
To the list!
5. DT Aaron Donald
Hey, go big or go home, right? Again, the cap wasn't a concern – and neither was the availability of these players. I know Donald isn't going anywhere soon, signing a six-year extension with Los Angeles in 2018 but a girl can dream in this exercise. They're wise to keep him locked up, too. Donald is the most dominant defensive tackle in the league, bar none. Despite his interior dwelling, he managed 12.5 sacks, which was the seventh-most, last season. What's even more incredible is he did it as an interior defensive lineman in a 3-4 system, not entirely unlike the one the Bucs run.
While the Bucs actually finished tied for the seventh-most sacks as a team last year (and had the most of any team from weeks 9-17 with 31.0), most of those takedowns came from outside linebackers. Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul combined for 28.0 of the team's 54.0 sacks. Defensive tackles Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh combined for five sacks last season.
Now, that's not to say Vea and Suh didn't have an impact on the pass rush. It's quite the opposite, in fact. Because they both commanded so much attention on the interior, eating up space and blockers, others like Barrett and JPP were left one-on-one on the outside a lot of the time. A 6-5, 275-pound outside linebacker with freakish bend and athleticism like Pierre-Paul isn't going to be contained by one blocker – especially if that blocker is someone like a tight end.
But this is all the more reason to increase the interior presence. If you could get a rotation of Vea, Suh and Donald, there would be absolutely no reprieve for opposing offensive lines. If you could get more pressure from the middle like Donald has been able to do throughout his career, how in the world do you account for that? In fact, Donald coming to the Bucs would probably negate the need for the next guy on this list…
4. OLB Chandler Jones
Jones is another one built like JPP and was neck-and-neck with Barrett up until the very last game of the season for the sack crown in 2019. Jones was even named first-team All-Pro while Barrett wasn't – but that's a conversation for another time. Jones' 19.0 sacks for the Cardinals were coupled with eight forced fumbles, which tied for the most in the league, along with an additional five pass breakups. What that says to me is that even when he knows he can't get to the quarterback, he's never out of the play. He puts his hands up and tracks the ball – making him a do-it-all outside linebacker that would allow the Bucs a rotation on the outside like Donald would for the interior.
Though, even with a perceived lack of depth at the position, I think Jones may be less vital to the pass rush than a guy like Donald in a way because both JPP and Barrett hate coming out of the game. Ever. Those guys fight to play every single snap and can often be seen yelling at their own coaches who will take them out to give them a rest. It even happens in practice. While I love that attitude (and you should, too), you want to be able to preserve these guys for a long, grueling season. Jones, or another effective edge rusher who is still a major threat, could help mitigate the load. Plus, any combination of Barrett-Jones, Barrett-Pierre-Paul, Jones-Pierre-Paul is enough to give offensive lines nightmares. It would also allow a guy like second-year outside linebacker Anthony Nelson to develop more under some of the best players in the league.
3. G Quenton Nelson
Do I think the Colts would ever part ways with one of the best interior offensive linemen in the league still on his rookie contract for anything the Bucs could afford? No. Is that stopping me from putting him on this list? Also, no.
I don't even think the Bucs are in dire need of help along the line, especially now with rookie Tristan Wirfs added to the mix. You did see him jump out of the pool again, right?
But adding Nelson to an already strong unit would make it pretty unstoppable and the impact would be two-fold. First, Nelson and his 90.8 PFF pass protection grade would solidify the pass game and really give Brady peace of mind. Nelson also didn't allow a sack all season, according to PFF, and drew just three penalties. But Nelson could also help shore up the run game by opening up more lanes for whoever is in the backfield. The Colts had the seventh-most rushing yards of any team in 2019 with 2,130 and also had the second-most rushing first downs behind only the Baltimore Ravens. The result? Indianapolis had a 1,000-yard rusher in Marlon Mack, and you have to think Nelson and the line had a lot to do with it.
The Bucs will need the cooperation of their line this coming season as they go into it with a stable full of running backs, each with their own strength. Tampa Bay drafted Ke'Shawn Vaughn out of Vanderbilt hoping he can bud into the pass-catching back Brady is so used to using. The Bucs also have third-year back Ronald Jones and third-down back Dare Ogunbowale with a few others vying for playing time. Though they have different skillsets, they all will need a line to run behind and Nelson could be a difference-maker.
2. RB Christian McCaffrey
Speaking of the run game, this guy right here is a difference maker himself. Shut down his running lanes? Cool, he'll catch the ball out of the backfield. Try to contain him? You'll lose leverage and he'll make one cut and be gone with his elusive speed. McCaffrey is the most complete back in the game and I can picture Brady practically salivating to work with a player like him.
Consider this: Brady targeted his running back, James White, 95 times last season, which was actually down from the year before when he threw 123 passes his way. White ended up with 645 receiving yards in 2019, nearly three times his rushing total of 263. Translation? Brady likes to throw to his running backs.
McCaffrey went over 1,000 yards in each phase of the game, as mentioned in the above introductory paragraph. He was targeted 142 times and came in with 116 receptions. 116! That's 30 more catches than Chris Godwin had last season as the Bucs' leading receiver. Having McCaffrey not only means having your starting running back, but he's also up there with your top receivers. It's why I didn't bother putting a third receiver on this list. Between offensive weapons like Godwin, Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Cam Brate, etc. adding McCaffrey to that mix would be all one team could handle. And it would just be incredibly unfair (in the best way for Bucs fans).
1. S Tyrann Mathieu
Back to the defense. Licht, Head Coach Bruce Arians and even Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles have expressed their confidence in the safety room going into the 2020 season. After all, they do have options – especially after taking Antoine Winfield Jr. in the second round of the draft. Winfield is a ball-hawking safety with NFL pedigree as the son of a 14-year league veteran and three-time Pro Bowler Antoine Winfield. The team also drafted Mike Edwards in the 2019 draft and have guys like Jordan Whitehead, D'Cota Dixon and potentially Justin Evans, should he make his return from injury, all waiting to be utilized in some form or another in Bowles' fluid system.
But what the unit is lacking is experience. Though Evans was taken in the 2017 draft, injuries have limited him to just 21 starts. Whitehead is your most experienced safety, playing in 29 games with 25 starts.
Bring in a guy like Mathieu and watch all of those guys improve and look like seasoned vets. Mathieu is coming off a Super Bowl win with the Kansas City Chiefs and is a huge reason the defense was able to withstand some growing pains of its own under new Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The Honey Badger had four interceptions last season, leading a unit that tied for fifth in the league overall. He's also a tremendous leader with a phenomenal track record with BA himself. Arians was the one who drafted Mathieu back in Arizona, when they were both rookies (Arians was in his first year as an NFL head coach) and you can routinely hear Arians singing Mathieu's praises, even now. Mathieu could be the veteran presence needed throughout the secondary, which should take a tremendous step forward in 2020, either way.
Scott's Thoughts: Whenever it's my turn to come up with a topic for Carmen, I always do a little exercise in my head in which I come up of a quick list of my own. In this case, two of the five guys I had chosen were on the list above: Aaron Donald and Quenton Nelson. I don't need to add to Carmen's reasoning for those picks, though I would note that Nelson is joining a team that feels good about its two guards, Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa. I don't think that's a bad thing, though. Put those three in a competition and you're going to come out with two stud starters and one very good interior-line reserve, which is sometimes hard to find. Not to mention, you're now prepared to move on smoothly if one of the two starters misses time due to injury or illness.
The Donald and Jones additions are great, providing more depth to positions that commonly rotate and are a bit top-heavy on the Bucs' depth chart. For that reason, I thought Carmen might go with a third receiver, too. Her rationale is understandable – after adding McCaffrey to an already loaded offense, how much do you really need a stud third receiver? That said, you still are going to use "11" personnel on the majority of your snaps, so it wouldn't hurt to have a third receiver that scares opposing defenses. In real life you'd need to find one who was really good but also really selfless, because his targets and stats are going to go down when you snatch him off his own team and put him behind Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. But just like we don't have to worry about the cap in this exercise, neither do we have to worry about egos. So, maybe Michael Thomas or Julio Jones?
The main difference between this list and the one in my head is that I really wanted to get a dynamic punt returner. Maybe we could snatch Diontae Johnson away from the Steelers and he could serve as the punt returner and that ego-less third receiver. That said, the five players that Carmen chose would probably all be more impactful than a punt returner.