The 2022 Tampa Bay Buccaneers were an interesting mix of seasoned veterans and very youthful contributors. They were led by a 45-year-old quarterback (Tom Brady) still operating a high level. The heart of the defense was an 11th-year veteran (Lavonte David) still operating at a high level. Perhaps their most impactful free agency addition was defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who turned 33 in November. Julio Jones, who provided steady contributions to the offense when healthy, was also in his age-33 season.
On the other hand, by season's end the Bucs were starting rookies at tight end (Cade Otton), running back (Rachaad White), punter (Jake Camarda) and kick returner (Deven Thompkins). The middle of the offensive line had transformed into a very young group and 2022 draft picks Ko Kieft and Zyon McCollum had emerged as core special-teamers.
In the middle were the not-so-young-anymore-but-not-old players entering into/already in/on the downside of their career peaks, everyone from fourth-year linebacker Devin White to sixth-year wideout Chris Godwin to fifth-year cornerback Carlton Davis. For these players, improving their game each season is a matter of professional advancement. They are already entrenched as quality NFL regulars, but strive to continue rising up the ranks among their peers.
Who did that most obviously in 2022? That's what we're here to discuss as out week of Point-Counterpoint debates continues into our next topic: The Buccaneers' Most Improved Player in 2022. Team Writer/Reporter Brianna Dix and I have already hashed out the team's Offensive and Defensive MVPs of this past season, as well as its Most Impactful Rookie. Now we will shine the light on a pair of players who raised their level of play most significantly in 2022. Since we are not allowed to repeat answers, the order of selection manners and today Brianna has the pole position.
Brianna Dix: CB Jamel Dean
Many could have been selected for this category, including outside linebacker Anthony Nelson who had a breakout year following Shaq Barrett's season-ending injury, however, I am going to spotlight Jamel Dean in this debate. The fourth-year player has repeatedly been underrated during his tenure in Tampa Bay but in 2022, Dean proved his value as a lockdown cover corner. Among all cornerbacks this season, Dean allowed the fifth fewest yards (386) as the nearest defender with a minimum of 60 targets per Next Gen Stats. In addition, since entering the league in 2019, Dean has surrendered the fewest yards (5.7) per target among defensive backs with a minimum of 150 targets. His production in 2022 garnered attention, landing him as the top upcoming free agent cornerback on PFF's compilation.
Dean's play bolstered the Bucs' secondary in 2022. He disrupts releases and possesses the elite combination of size, athleticism and physicality at the line of scrimmage. Dean matches up well against big-bodied receivers and challenges at the catch point. The Auburn product is fluid in-and-out of transition, bursting out of breaks on quick routes. In 15 game starts in 2022, Dean amassed seven pass breakups, two interceptions and only allowed a 46.6 completion percentage. He continued to ascend despite a nagging toe injury. Dean added to an already impressive resumé in 2022 and upped his stock. He is well-deserving of most-improved status. In the modern NFL where pass-heavy offensive attacks reign supreme, added stress is placed on defensive backs. For the Buccaneers this season, Dean set the standard. Give the man the credit he deserves! Scott, who is your counter offer?
Scott Smith: OLB Anthony Nelson
I'm cheating here a bit because I happened to be sitting in the room when Todd Bowles was asked this very question on his last radio show of the season. He gave two answers, one of which was your choice, Bri, so well done. The other one was fourth-year outside linebacker Anthony Nelson. I figure if the head coach thinks these are the two most improved Bucs of 2022, that's probably the right answer.
The case for Nelson is that he got by far the most playing time of his career so far and he used it to up his production significantly. He was limited by injuries as a fourth-round rookie in 2019 and was playing behind Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul the next two seasons. Those two guys didn't like to come off the field very often. Nelson got 680 defensive snaps in the 2020-21 seasons combined; he got 633 in 2022, with his playing time ramping up dramatically after Barrett landed on injured reserve in Week Nine.
We saw a glimpse of what Nelson could do late in the 2021 season, when both Barrett and Pierre-Paul were banged up and he was pressed into a starting role. In the final three games of the season he contributed 3.0 sacks, five tackles for loss, four quarterback hits and a fumble recovery. He was similarly hot down the stretch this past season, when he and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka essentially became every-down players after Carl Nassib was sidelined by a pectoral injury. In the last four games of the season, Nelson had 2.5 sacks, 16 tackles, three QB hits and two forced fumbles. His strip sack late in the win over Carolina, which led to what proved to be the game-winning points, was one of the Bucs' most important defensive plays of the entire season.
Nelson had 6.0 sacks in 42 games before the 2022 season, along with 48 tackles and one forced fumble. In 17 games in 2022, he recorded 5.5 sacks, 46 tackles and three forced fumbles. If nothing else, Nelson's production improved massively, and while that's somewhat a function of playing time, he still had to take advantage of it. My case for Nelson over Dean is that Dean had a pretty solid track record coming into 2022 and was an established starter. We didn't know for sure if Nelson could produce at the necessary level as a starter, but now we do. It was a bigger leap for Nelson.