In this week’s Bucs Briefing we are going to switch gears from your regularly scheduled tape-breakdown programming to take a step back, look at the Bucs from a wider lens, and offer thoughts on how this season could be everything fans hoped it would be, and how it could end in disaster.
I’ve listed the five reasons to be optimistic about the Bucs’ 2020 season on page one, and the five reasons to be pessimistic about the Bucs’ 2020 season on page two. Most of y’all know I’m predicting big things for the franchise this season, but I always try to step back and evaluate from multiple perspectives, because predicting football is never black and white.
5 Reasons To Be Optimistic About The Bucs’ 2020 Season
1. Tom Brady Is Here
The Bucs’ conceivable quarterback options entering the 2020 offseason were the fourth-best quarterback in the draft, what’s left of of former Chargers great Philip Rivers, another season of Jameis Winston, Saints backup Teddy Bridgewater or the greatest quarterback of all-time. Even if you think age has caused some decline in Tom Brady’s game, he was still easily the Bucs’ best hope for not only stability, but elite play at the quarterback position this offseason – and they got him.
It’s one of the biggest offseason wins in Tampa Bay history, as it not only brings the team some national attention, but also a much-needed offensive leader at the game’s most important position. The cultural and cerebral impact that Brady will have on the Bucs’ young offense should go a long way toward helping the unit reach their exceptionally high peak over the next two seasons.
Contrary to popular opinion, Brady should have very little difficulty fitting into Bruce Arians’ vertical passing game. According to Player Profiler, Brady threw 60 passes of 20 yards or more last season, good enough for 15th most in the NFL. So despite being on an offense with no semblance of a vertical threat, Brady still threw deep at an above-average league rate.
Not only is he not hesitating to throw the ball down the field, but even his raw accuracy numbers are very good, completing almost 42 percent of those attempts, a rate that ranked ninth-best in the NFL. Although Winston threw deep (20 yards or more) at the highest rate in the NFL (113 times), his lack of efficiency and consistent mistakes doomed the team, as he held the league’s 17th-ranked deep ball completion percentage at just over 36 percent.
So Brady’s apathy and inability toward throwing down the field are clearly overstated, and Tampa Bay’s offense is far more than just a bunch of go routes on every play. Brady’s game declined last season when he started forcing things and playing frustrated football due to the lack of talent and creativity around him. He may not be able to make chicken salad out of you-know-what anymore, as the Bucs might have the most talented skill position group in the NFL. Worse quarterbacks than Brady could still have this team in the playoffs this year, and with Brady the Bucs just might be a Super Bowl contender. He’s clearly the biggest reason to be optimistic about the team’s 2020 season.
2. The Return Of Gronk
If you want a reason to be optimistic about Rob Gronkowski’s return to the NFL, the fact that we’ve never seen him on a football field where he wasn’t among the best few players at his position is a good place to start.
Okay, maybe late in 2018 when he was playing through injury, but if that’s the worst tape of Gronk in his nine-year career, I’ll take it. I don’t think he’ll be Kansas City’s Travis Kelce or San Francisco’s George Kittle this season, but I bet he’s still in the Top 5 tight ends in the league. Even if Gronk has a lost a little athleticism, he’s always won with technique and ball skills over raw ability. Coming back fresh after a year away could be perfect for the 31-year old veteran tight end, especially considering the offensive situation he’s walking into.
The best vertical threat the league has ever seen at the position due to his 15.1 yard average, Gronkowski now brings that skill set to Tampa Bay where Bruce Arians has been waiting for a tight end like this his entire career. Contrary to popular belief, Arians runs plenty of two tight end sets and would love to get those guys the ball, he just hasn’t had a lot of proven talent to work with at the position over the more recent stages of his career.
With the Bucs likely to operate heavily out of 12 personnel, Gronkowski will be utilized flexed and in-line to exploit mismatches against base defensive personnel. Where Gronk was almost always the undisputed top threat in New England’s passing attack, he’ll now be the third option in Tampa Bay, and defenses can’t cover him like they did before his one-year hiatus. Opposing defenses will need some good luck with their third- or fourth-best cover man in one-on-one situation with Gronk on the backside of 3×1 sets.
3. Young Defense Is Trending Up
Over the second half of the 2019 season, the Bucs got outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul back from injury, benched cornerback M.J. Stewart, cut cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and saw their pass defense finally climb out of the cellar thanks to the rookie contributions of cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting, and the veteran presence of Andrew Adams at free safety, who replaced a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time rookie in Mike Edwards. Dean and Murphy-Bunting, combined with second-year cornerback Carlton Davis, helped boost the Bucs’ defense to the fifth overall spot in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defensive Value Over Average) rankings.
The Bucs had the best run defense in the NFL last season, and although a number of factors contributed to that success, Todd Bowles’ scheme was certainly one of them. One of the game’s best defensive minds, Bowles’ decision to lean on his young players on the back end and his studs up front was a big reason why the Bucs balled out down the stretch in 2019.
Everyone who matters from that group returns in 2020, with the important addition of second round safety Antoine Winfield, who should immediately step into a starting role on the team’s worst defensive unit from last season. Assuming Dean, SMB and Davis can all continue to make strides as a cover trio, the Bucs defense should be more than strong enough to withstand offenses that actually have to begin drives semi-deep in their own territory. That’s something they aren’t used to after Jameis Winston’s 30 interceptions last year consistently left them in bad situations.
Across the board, the right pieces seem to be in place. The Bucs’ pass rush is finally back, with outside linebacker Shaq Barrett breaking out to lead the league in sacks last season. JPP is the unit’s anchor, the rugged leader with a nasty edge to his game that Tampa Bay has desperately needed for so long on their defensive line.
MO linebacker Lavonte David, the heart and soul of the defense, might be the best inside linebacker in the NFL. Nose tackle Vita Vea and MIKE linebacker Devin White are the future of the Bucs defense, and ready to break out soon based on the way they finished 2019. The young cornerbacks are an exciting trio with all the potential in the world, and the safety unit could play catch-up fast if Winfield, one of the smartest and most pro-ready players in last year’s draft class, can hit the ground running. This is the season the Bucs defense has been building toward over the past three drafts. Bowles is going to have them ready to deliver.
4. Best Offensive Line In Years
The Bucs’ offensive line isn’t one of the NFL’s best perhaps, but it certainly isn’t among the worst either. Left guard Ali Marpet is an established, dominant player who has become one of the top guards in the game. Center Ryan Jensen bounced back strong after an average first year in Tampa Bay, looking like one of the best centers in the NFL last season.
Even Donovan Smith, much-maligned during his early career in Tampa Bay, has become a solid starting left tackle in the NFL. The occasional ugly reps remain, but Smith has finally started to become somewhat of a more consistent player, even if the word “dominant” will likely never be in his scouting report.
Demar Dotson faithfully gave the franchise a solid starting right tackle for years, but first-round pick Tristan Wirfs offers significantly more upside, especially in the run game. It might take a little while for Wirfs to reach his peak, especially without a rookie mini-camp or any OTAs this offseason due to COVID-19, but he has all the physical and athletic tools to be at least on Dotson’s level as a rookie, if not better.
Right guard Alex Cappa might be the weak link in 2020, but even he took a big leap forward to a league average player last season. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think he’s above average this season if he keeps getting stronger in the weight room and more consistent technically.
There are still question marks, particularly with the line’s depth and on the right side of the starting lineup, but the Bucs have the most talent individually and as a unit that they’ve had in years. The timing couldn’t be better, as Brady’s presence opens up about a two-year window for a Super Bowl run.
5. Bucs Beating The Bucs Might Finally Be Over
Tom Brady has never quarterbacked a team with a reputation for beating itself, and Bruce Arians has never coached one – for a second consecutive season that is. Under Jameis Winston and the former Tampa Bay regime, the Bucs earned one of the league’s most consistent reputations for sloppy, mistaken-laden play.
That was still true in Arians’ first season over the team, as the Bucs led the league in penalties and in turnovers. However, as our Taylor Jenkins discovered when he researched penalty trends under Arians during his career as a head coach, his teams are almost always in the better half of the league in penalties, especially now that he’s had a year to instill his culture in the organization.
As for the turnovers, the Bucs are going from a quarterback with a long-standing reputation as one of the game’s most irresponsible passers, to probably the best decision-making quarterback of all-time. Brady was about as reckless as I’ve ever seen him play over the second half of last season, and even that couldn’t hold a candle to Winston’s mistake-riddled play. In fact, over the past four seasons combined, Brady has thrown 29 interceptions – or one less than Winston threw all of last season.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a stat. Whew.