The dust on free agency is settling, and while the Bucs could still make a few moves to improve their roster before the draft, this is largely the group you’ll see come Week 1. After re-signing 11 of their 23 free agents, the Bucs will bring back their entire starting lineup and every key player from their Super Bowl championship team, with wide receiver Antonio Brown the lone key unknown at this point.
It’s an offseason plan executed to perfection by Bucs general manager Jason Licht and cap wizards Mike Greenberg and Jackie Davidson, as Tampa Bay will become the first team in the salary cap era to bring back its entire starting lineup after winning the Super Bowl. You couldn’t have drawn up a better start to defending the Lombardi Trophy, but that doesn’t mean the Bucs are the perfect team either. Yes, right now the personnel concerns on the roster are muted, but they still exist, and the team would be wise to consider them as they approach the NFL Draft.
Defensive Line Depth
The Bucs starting defensive line of Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh and Will Gholston should be one of the best in the NFL again in 2021, but they are staving off two inevitabilities that come for every elite position group eventually: age-related decline and injuries. Last season, the Bucs lost Vea in Week 5 for the rest of the regular season until the NFC Championship Game, and the loss was monumental for them to overcome. The team traded for Steve McLendon to maintain their top-ranked run defense, but the pass rush felt Vea’s loss the rest of the year until the big nose tackle returned in the playoffs.
Fast forward to 2021, and not much has changed for the Bucs up front – yet. Anthony Nelson and Rakeem Nunez-Roches are currently slated to repeat as the team’s top defensive line options off the bench, despite the fact that neither has proven to be much of a factor against the pass in their NFL careers. In the event of an injury the team’s high standard of run defense would likely fall off just a little, but the four-man pass rush would suffer a major blow. Given that the Bucs were by far the most heavily passed-against defense in the league in neutral situations last season, that is a significant concern.
Now, you can play the injury game all day with every team in the league, and on at least one positional unit you are going to see significant drop-off at some point. But the Bucs defensive line is also battling the inevitable decline that comes with aging, featuring a starting front five with three players that will be 30 or older in Week 1. Pierre-Paul (32), Gholston (30) and Suh (34) have maintained a high level of play in recent years despite their age, but that decline is going to come. The Bucs are simply gambling on it not happening in 2021.
Maybe they are right, but it would be nice to have some young, fresh defensive linemen to add to the rotation this season, especially on passing downs. Suh and Gholston are better run defenders than pass rushers, and Pierre-Paul would benefit greatly from more opportunities as an inside rusher next to Vea. That’s where he has made a big impact over the past couple seasons in Tampa Bay, but opportunities there are scant unless the Bucs add more pass rush talent on the edge.
The draft is lean on good interior defensive line prospects, but the Bucs might be able to find some capable run defending types on Day 3. In a class riddled with high-ceiling, low-floor edge rushers, Tampa Bay will need to take a shot at a young, athletic prospect some time in the draft’s first three rounds. A rookie may not be ready to make a big impact this season, but even if they can provide a pass rush spark off the edge situationally, it would be a major upgrade over what Nelson offers on long and late downs.
What To Make Of Sean Murphy-Bunting And Jamel Dean
Heading into last season, I wrote that the biggest question mark the Bucs team had was how their young secondary would play. After starting the season on fire, the unit struggled over the final three quarters of the regular season, before standing on its head in the playoffs. At the end of the regular season, the Bucs pass coverage was their biggest obstacle to winning the Super Bowl, and at the end of the postseason it was the biggest reason why they’d won it all.
Such a dramatic transformation over the final three games of the year certainly leaves room to be skeptical heading into 2021. Cornerback Carlton Davis III solidified himself as one of the better cornerbacks in the league, but figuring out fellow starters Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean remains much more difficult. Dean was outstanding through the first six weeks of the season, then struggled mightily in Weeks 7-9 before being on a seesaw the rest of the regular season. Murphy-Bunting was the Bucs’ worst starter on either side of the ball during the regular season, then may have been their most impactful defensive player in the playoffs, with three game-changing interceptions and two pass breakups over four postseason wins.
I’m not sure what the expectation should be for the young duo moving forward. I don’t trust them implicitly for sure, but I also feel like the performance under fire in the playoffs may have been the growth they needed to stabilize a bit in coverage. Talent has never been a question for either player, as Dean and Murphy-Bunting both possess a tantalizing combination of physical and athletic gifts. But consistency in technique and mental processing have caused both to be liabilities at times too.
The Bucs could bring back veteran Ross Cockrell as the team’s No. 4 cornerback, as there were moments last season where Cockrell looked like the team’s second best cover man. The team could also opt for a surprise first-round cornerback like Northwestern’s Greg Newsome at No. 32 overall, then sort through their best three options when the regular season starts. There are options for the Bucs, but there will also be plenty of opportunity for Murphy-Bunting and Dean to continue to evolve into playmakers next to Davis in the Bucs secondary.
Still Plenty Of Questions In Bucs’ Backfield
Obviously the Bucs don’t need elite talent in their running back room to win a Super Bowl, as they’ll settle for a back simply getting hot at the right time. Tampa Bay’s primary concerns at running back have very little to do with the ability to run the football and everything to do with their more important role – how they perform on passing downs.
For most of last season, Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette were a hapless duo on passing downs, combining for 10 drops (that’s being kind) and two fumbles, per Pro Football Focus. When either back did catch the ball, they were largely ineffective, as Fournette averaged just 6.5 yards per reception and forced seven missed tackles on 36 receptions, while Jones didn’t even hit six yards per reception and managed just five broken tackles on the season as a receiver.
The Bucs might be able to overcome a repeat dud performance in the passing game by their backfield duo, but not in pass protection. Jones and Fournette combined to get Tom Brady killed with shoddy pass protection all season long, picking up pass pro grades of 42.3 and 28.9 from PFF, respectively. In fact, several of Brady’s interceptions came as a direct result of pressure or contact allowed by Jones or Fournette, including the quarterback’s second half pick against the Panthers in Week 2, his second half interception against the Chiefs in Week 12 and his third interception in the NFC Championship Game.
The Bucs need to clean up this area of their offense, as their backs were a bigger issues in pass protection through most of the year than their starting offensive line ever was. Fournette and Jones have struggled for years as pass protectors, and the situation is unlikely to right itself without bringing in a new option to take on the responsibility. Can Ke’Shawn Vaughn step up as the primary passing downs back in his second season? Or do the Bucs need to spend an early draft pick on an upgraded weapon for Brady out of the backfield? All options should be on the table as Tampa Bay approaches April.
Do Solutions Exist For Bucs?
Absolutely. Even if all three of these things are question marks at the end of the 2021 season, Tampa Bay could still repeat as Super Bowl champs. That’s how minor their visible personnel concerns are right now compared to the rest of the pack, especially in the NFC. It’s a great position to be in, and some solutions to their potential obstacles still exist before the regular season starts.
Signing a veteran like defensive tackle Geno Atkins or outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan for cheap would be a great step toward making the pass rush deeper and more formidable. But the Bucs also need some fresh, young talent to develop through the draft. I wrote earlier this month about how Tampa Bay should punt on selecting interior defensive linemen until Day 3 of the draft, but swinging on an edge defender with upside should be a priority with one of the team’s first three picks.