When Tom Brady briefly retired from football back in February, a segment of the wider NFL world seemed to think the Bucs would quickly fade back into irrelevancy without him. That always felt like a wildly off-base expectation given the amount of talent the team still had on its roster.
Of course, Brady is back for another year after a short 40-day retirement. So, we won’t know for at least another year how well the Bucs will hold things together without him. But Pro Football Focus’ list of the best 25 players under the age of 25 should serve as a reminder that Tampa Bay has young talent to build around.
The Bucs have three players on the list, which ties them with the Cowboys for most in the league. Tristan Wirfs came in at No. 4, Antoine Winfield, Jr. ranked No. 18 and Devin White became the third Buc by checking in at No. 23.
Wirfs Leads The Way As Obvious Choice
Wirfs is a shoo-in for this list, written by none other than Pewter Report alumnus Trevor Sikkema. The big right tackle, who turned just 23 years old in January, moved from No. 9 on last year’s list to No. 4 on this year’s. He has played at an All-Pro level in his first two years as a pro.
Bucs RT Tristan Wirfs – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
As a rookie, he was a key part of Tampa Bay’s offensive line as it anchored a Super Bowl run. In fact, he allowed just one sack in 799 pass-blocking snaps during that season. Then, in 2021, he earned his first Pro Bowl nod. And had he not suffered an ankle injury that kept him out of the NFC Divisional Round, the Bucs very well could be entering 2022 as back-to-back Super Bowl champions.
“Wirfs hasn’t just been one of the best young offensive linemen over the past two seasons, he’s been one of the best regardless of age,” Sikkema wrote. “Since being thrown into a starting spot right off the bat in his rookie campaign, Wrifs has established himself as one of the best right tackles in the game — and also has a Super Bowl ring on his finger already. At just 23 years old, this could be the start of a very special career.”
It doesn’t come as a shock that Wirfs made the list, but his No. 4 ranking is perhaps a pleasant surprise. It’s not that he doesn’t deserve to be No. 4, as he is certainly good enough to shuck off whatever positional bias might exist against offensive linemen. Rather, the fact that he holds that spot over some of the players immediately behind him is a testament to just how good he is.
Minnesota wide receiver Justin Jefferson, Dallas linebacker Micah Parsons and Cincinnati wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase follow behind at No. 5, No. 5 and No. 7, respectively. Only Indianapolis running back Jonathan Taylor (No. 3), Los Angeles quarterback Justin Herbert (No. 2) and San Francisco edge rusher Nick Bosa (No. 1) rank ahead of him.
Winfield Debuts In The Top 20
Bucs S Antoine Winfield, Jr. – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
A case could’ve been made for Winfield’s inclusion in last year’s Top 25 Under 25 list, but his first Pro Bowl season earned him the nod this year. At No. 18, the Bucs’ do-it-all safety is the No. 9 defender on PFF’s list. Through two seasons, Winfield has lived up to – and maybe even outplayed – his second-round draft status for Tampa Bay.
He rarely makes costly mistakes and he is often around the ball making splash plays. In 29 career regular season games, he has had a hand in 11 turnovers. Plus, he’s also got five sacks, three of which came in his rookie year.
“Like Tristan Wirfs, Winfield was thrust right into a starting position in Tampa Bay during his rookie season. The results have been favorable: a Pro Bowl, a Super Bowl ring and the highest PFF grade of any safety with at least 1,000 snaps under the age of 25,” Sikkema wrote. “Winfield was praised in the pre-draft process for his high football IQ. That has manifested itself early in his career as a player who has proven reliable in both safety spots, as well as one who can be successful blitzing. Even as a second-round pick, he looks to be a steal of his draft class.”
Wirfs and Winfield were Tampa Bay’s first two selections in the 2020 draft, and being tasked with immediately contributing didn’t faze either of them. They were both key members of the team’s Super Bowl run, and both earned Pro Bowl selections in their sophomore seasons. Winfield turns 24 this August, making him a phenomenal player to feature and build the defense around for years to come.
White – Surprisingly – Rounds Out Trio Of Bucs On The List
Bucs ILB Devin White – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
White’s career in Tampa Bay has been somewhat complicated. He showed flashes as a rookie, totaling 91 tackles, 2.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and an interception. In 2020, his weaknesses in coverage were problematic. However, he managed to mask many of those issues with splash plays.
During that Super Bowl season, he posted 140 tackles, nine sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. During the postseason, he was one of the Bucs’ best players. His coverage was better and he had a knack for clutch turnovers. It looked like he was setting the stage for a big year in 2021.
However, that momentum from the playoffs didn’t exactly carry over. It was – in some ways – a down season for White, who oftentimes played too fast and created unnecessary problems for himself. The splash plays weren’t there as often, either. But even with all of that, he totaled 128 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. He even earned his first Pro Bowl nod. There’s something uneven about White’s game, and the perception of him is all over the place.
Sikkema noted as much while ranking him the league’s No. 23 player under 25. He called him “one of the most polarizing players in the NFL” and pointed to his solid 72.5 pass-rush grade over the last three years, as well as his abysmal 42.4 coverage grade.
“White is a hyper-athletic linebacker who benefits from playing next to one of the smartest and most instinctive linebackers this past decade in Lavonte David. David is the one who assumes the tougher coverage assignments, which frees up White to do what he does best: be fast,” Sikkema wrote. “For a middle linebacker in Todd Bowles’ scheme, that itself comes with a lot of value, as White showed during Tampa’s Super Bowl run. He might not be a top-10 player on this list, but he is still one of the best young players in the league, and he should be respected as such.”