The Bucs enter the 2020 season (if there is one) with greater expectations than the franchise has had in a long time, largely due to an offseason full of national headlines. I decided to offer my superlative predictions for how I believe the season will unfold for a handful of individuals who will play pivotal roles in how successful the Bucs are in 2020.
Bucs’ MVP: QB Tom Brady
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The Bucs are too talented offensively to have any clear cut Most Valuable Player, but Brady’s presence is going to mean three significant things for the Bucs that will be the difference between past talented Tampa Bay teams and the 2020 version.
Bucs QB Tom Brady – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
First, Brady will bring intangibles to the Bucs that perhaps no other quarterback in the league is capable of providing in the same way. He’s always been said to be as impressive in the meeting room and off the field as he is on it. Brady will be transformative to the culture of the Bucs in a way that completes the work Bruce Arians and Co. started a year ago.
Second, Brady isn’t going to come close to the amount of turnovers that Jameis Winston achieved last season. Over the past four seasons, Brady has thrown 29 combined interceptions, or one less than Winston threw last year. The former Bucs quarterback’s greatest weakness – decision-making – is arguably their new quarterback’s greatest strength. That’s a massive transformation in a key area.
The final area where Brady will be so valuable to the Bucs is in his ability to avoid taking sacks. Consistently among the least sacked quarterbacks in the NFL, Brady is a master at beating pressure with his brain, and even with his feet. Subtle steps and slides in the pocket allow him to put pass rushers at disadvantageous angles and even creates the occasional throwing lane.
Brady’s success in this area will also be a far cry from Winston, who was the fifth-most sacked quarterback in the NFL over the course of his first five seasons in the league. Winston was sacked 47 times last year, and the team held him responsible for 15 of those due to holding on to the ball too long.
Bucs’ Most Improved: TE O.J. Howard
In 2018, Howard was on his way to a breakout campaign with 34 catches for 565 yards and five touchdowns before his season was waylaid by injuries after 10 games. Yes, 2019 was a setback, but Howard was on his way to greatness the year before, and even last season he got rolling over the team’s final stretch of game to conclude the regular season.
Bucs TE O.J. Howard – Photo by: Getty Images
This year, with the focus on so many other pieces, including new tight end Rob Gronkowski, a five-time Pro Bowler, Howard is ready to show the improvement we’ve been looking for. I’m not sure I’d call his upcoming performance a “breakout” as he’s already been fairly productive in his career, and it’s tough to predict how many balls there will be to go around the Bucs offense in 2020. I have to think he’ll catch more than one touchdown as he did last season.
Nevertheless, I think you’ll see big plays and fewer mistakes from Howard this season, as Arians’ offense fits his skill set perfectly. If Howard can be more dominant at the catch point and show a little more nuance as a route runner, his natural gifts of size, speed and length may do the rest. I fully believe we’ll see a much-improved player in Howard this season.
Bucs’ Most Disappointing: RB Ronald Jones II
I don’t think the Bucs’ 2020 success depends much on the play of Jones, which is probably a good thing for Tampa Bay. While I do think Jones improved last season, most running backs hit the ground running in the NFL and maintain that path until injuries or old age diminish their performance. That has not been the case at all with Jones.
Bucs RB Ronald Jones II – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Granted, the USC product was unquestionably improved last season, but his rookie campaign (44 yards rushing and one touchdown while averaging 1.9 yards) was about as bad as it gets, so I’m guessing the Jones we saw last year is more or less the player we are getting in the NFL. The former second-round pick led Tampa Bay with 724 yards and six touchdowns while averaging a healthy 4.2 yards per carry.
Is he the Bucs’ best running back? Absolutely. Is he going to be a difference-maker with the ball in his hands? As a route runner? As a pass protector? At making people miss in space or running through contact? I doubt it. Jones can be a capable rusher with great burst and decisiveness, but the odds are against him becoming more of an all-around threat.
Bucs’ Breakout Player: CB Jamel Dean
The truth is that Dean may already have broken out as a rookie, starting five games, recording two interceptions and breaking up a whopping 17 passes on just 370 defensive snaps. Dean was everywhere down the stretch last season, playing a big role in shutting down Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley when the two matched up.
Bucs CB Jamel Dean – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Dean continues a new age of massive cornerbacks who have the length to match up physically with big, possession receivers, and the speed and ball skills to defend the vertical plane as well. Dean was one of the best cornerbacks in the league in all of these areas last season, although the sample size is too small to draw any sweeping conclusions just yet.
Still, combining Dean’s athletic profile and limited tape results in at least some heightened expectations that we will see him become a full-time player in 2020, perhaps flashing the potential to be a true No. 1 cornerback. I’d expect Dean to be more Shaquem Griffin than Stephon Gilmore, but I think we see a big step forward this season.
Bucs’ Sleeper: WR Scotty Miller
I wrote at length about Miller right here, after being impressed by the youngster’s limited tape in 2019. With another year under his belt in Arians’ offense, my money is on Miller to provide the Bucs with a No. 3 wide receiver, at least until fifth-round pick Tyler Johnson gets his feet under him in an offseason that hasn’t been advantageous for rookies.
Bucs WR Scotty Miller – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Miller has a clear cut high-end trait that can really aid the Bucs in 11 personnel packages: speed. The 4.3 40 receiver made quite a few splash plays down the field last season, from the slot and the outside. If Arians is diligent about getting Miller clean releases with stacked formations, he can at least become a key decoy guy for the Bucs, opening up the middle of the field where Brady, Gronkowski and Chris Godwin and Gronkowski all thrive.
I don’t believe Miller will have a big statistical breakout season or anything like that, but rather that his contributions, while relatively few, will carry significant weight when they do occur. To me, that’s what a sleeper is.
Bucs’ Comeback Player: TE Rob Gronkowski
People who are convinced that Gronkowski will return as a laughable shell of himself astound me. I’m not saying Gronkowski will be the league’s best tight end as he was throughout basically the entirety of his career, but why in the world would you predict an incredible drop-off for a guy we’ve never seen play below a “good” level in the NFL? I don’t get it.
Bucs TE Rob Gronkowski – Photo by: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Gronkowski just turned 31 after a year away from football to get his body and mind right. This isn’t Jason Witten at 38, moving like a backup offensive tackle out on the field because he can’t step away from the game. Gronkowski’s 2018 season may have been injury-riddled, but there were still plenty of exceptional plays.
I still think he’s a clear difference-maker in 2020, and being a Top 5 tight end isn’t out of the question either. The scheme and the fit with Tom Brady and an aggressive coach in Arians is just too perfect for the big-play tight end.
Bucs’ Declining Veteran: DT Ndamukong Suh
Suh’s play has been declining for a couple of years now, but last year was the most ineffective I’ve seen him as a pass rusher. Suh’s juice off the ball and overall lateral quickness has evaporated heading into his 11th year, making him a power player who pushes the pocket on passing downs, while continuing to play the run at a high level in 2019.
Bucs DT Ndamukong Suh – Photo by: Getty Images
I’m guessing he loses another step athletically, a limitation which may become more exposed if Suh is forced to shoulder a heavy workload. The Bucs’ current lack of depth and pass rush options on their defensive line has put Suh in a tough situation heading into the upcoming season.
At 33 years old with minimal pass rush ability, Tampa Bay should be actively looking for ways to get Suh off the field on long/late downs to keep him fresh throughout the season. But who are they going to bring on to take his place? The unproven Anthony Nelson? The second-year player didn’t look ready for that type of a role in 2019.
I think Suh will be okay in 2020, but his days of being a big impact player are over, and the Bucs’ inability to provide suitable depth options could be a concern for the big defensive tackle as the season progresses.
Bucs’ Best Rookie: S Antoine Winfield
This wasn’t a difficult selection. The transition for rookie offensive tackles like Tristan Wirfs to the NFL is much more difficult than that of a first-year safety, and Winfield is decidedly more pro-ready than Wirfs, even if the Iowa product has a higher ceiling.
Bucs S Antoine Winfield – Photo courtesy of Minnesota
Winfield is one of the most mature and intelligent players in the entire 2020 draft class, making him an easy bet to be an impactful rookie. When you combine his intangibles with his ball-hawking abilities and instincts, you get the sense Winfield could compete for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors given the weight that splash plays hold in the mind of voters.
The path to playing time is also relatively smooth for Winfield, as Jordan Whitehead, Mike Edwards and Andrews Adams can’t hold a candle to the Minnesota safety’s talent level and ball skills, and Justin Evans can’t be considered available at this time due to his injury history. Winfield should not only start as a rookie, but could easily become the vocal leader of the Bucs’ young secondary. That’s a piece they desperately missed last season.
Out of all the moves Tampa Bay made this offseason, drafting Winfield may prove to be their most underrated decision. If he can provide stability to the team’s weakest defensive unit this upcoming season, the Bucs defense could take the next step to join the league’s best.
Bucs’ Worst Rookie: RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn
A couple of rookie draft picks might not make the Bucs’ final roster, but when compared to expectations, I’m predicting Ke’Shawn Vaughn will be the team’s most disappointing rookie. If Bucs fans are looking for a running back to come in, seize the reins and become the team’s feature back, keep looking.
Bucs RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn – Photo by: Getty Images
Not only will Vaughn fail to beat out Jones for the starting running back spot, but I think he’ll also look pretty ordinary as a receiver out of the backfield and pass protector. I hope I’m wrong for the team’s sake. There simply isn’t much from Vaughn’s college tape to get really excited about. He’ll fill a role for the team, but ultimately I wonder if Dare Ogunbowale provides more value as a blocker in pass protection situations.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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