Welcome to the in-season edition of Bucs Briefing! My weekly column will appear each Wednesday morning, typically detailing seven key observations from the team’s most recent game. We’ll look at tape, scheme and major storylines as we get ready to close the door on one game, and open the door on the next. Enjoy!
7. Nine Teams Matter In The NFL
Six weeks into the season, I feel like we have a great grasp on the difference-making teams in the NFL with title contention ability. Here’s my list:
Maybe you could talk me into the Browns, but with Baker Mayfield not being great, and being injured, I have them outside the top group right now. I respect what the Raiders and Bengals have done, but putting them in the contenders group is a stretch for me. The 49ers don’t have a quarterback who is ready right now. Seattle is out with Russell Wilson’s injury. Panthers and Broncos were pretenders. The Saints have a strong defense and run game, but every team on the list above is led by a great quarterback. New Orleans doesn’t have that. The Titans had an impressive win Monday night, but they do that every season. They aren’t a real threat in the playoffs.
I don’t know where the Bucs rank in the NFC mix. They beat the Cowboys in Week 1 despite tons of mistakes, but Dallas is playing better since then. The Cardinals are undefeated, have beaten legit teams and look amazing on both sides of the ball. The Rams should keep getting better as Matt Stafford continues to settle in, and the Packers will go as Aaron Rodgers goes. Right now, he’s going pretty great.
All four of these teams are significant challenges for the Bucs chance at repeating. We expected that from Los Angeles and Green Bay, but Arizona’s start has been shocking. I was as high on Dallas as anyone preseason, and their defense might be adequate enough to compete for a title. The Cowboys offense looks amazing, but I think they’ve only beaten one legit team in the Chargers back in Week 2.
As the season goes on, 1-3 more teams will fall out of this mix. I don’t think I see any teams jumping into the fray. Hopefully every team can stay healthy as a season full of parity runs its course.
6. Get Marpet And Jensen To The Pro Bowl
The Bucs had one Pro Bowler last year, outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul. That result was laughable at the time last season, and it’s even more laughable to look back at now. This year, the team is hoping for more recognition, most of which should come on the offensive line. Tristan Wirfs has established himself as the best right tackle in the NFL, while Donovan Smith is having a career year. Both could garner Pro Bowl consideration in 2021.
But left guard Ali Marpet and center Ryan Jensen are having fantastic seasons. Thursday night against the Eagles, both players were spectacular against Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave.
For five weeks, Hargrave terrorized the league. But in Week 6, he was barely a blip on the radar. Marpet handled him confidently, putting the clamps on Hargrave at every turn. Meanwhile, Jensen took care of everything else, including keeping his eyes open for late blitzers.
Marpet has been one of the league’s underrated players for a long time. Too few people talk about his nastiness and finishing as a blocker. Marpet’s grip strength is among the best in the league, and he consistently tries to get his man on the ground. He was successful a lot on Thursday.
Right now, with Quenton Nelson out with an injury, Marpet is in the conversation for second-best guard in the NFL behind Zack Martin. The vast majority of other top guards are in the AFC, however, which means Marpet should be a Pro Bowl lock if he can stay healthy.
At center, Jensen should lead the way for Pro Bowl recognition. The Lions’ Frank Ragnow is on injured reserve, and Rodney Hudson, Alex Mack and Jason Kelce have all slipped a little bit in their play. It could always turn into a popularity contest, but Jensen’s chances look better than last year. He’s playing better too, which helps. The Bucs could have a real shot at three Pro Bowl offensive linemen in a few months. Pretty cool stuff.
5. One-Third Season Offensive MVP: Tom Brady
We’re gonna hand out some one-third season superlatives in today’s Bucs Briefing. No, it doesn’t roll off the tongue like “midseason,” but we’re on a mini-bye right now, so the timing is right.
This one is a no-brainer. Through six games, Brady is obviously the Bucs MVP, and might be the league’s as well. Certainly there are worthy challengers in Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray, but Brady leads the NFL in passing yards, is second in touchdowns (17) and is completing almost 69 percent of his passes. The basic box score numbers are impressive, but the way Brady is doing this is even more amazing. Consider that Brady has lost more production due to drops than any other quarterback in the NFL this season.
How much production has each QB lost due to drops this season? Using data from Sportradar, I estimated the total difference in EPA that each QB would have if all of their dropped passes were caught. This assumes average value after the potential catch. # of drops in parenthesis. pic.twitter.com/b8b0WjDdJy
Yet, Tom Brady is still out-producing almost every other quarterback in the NFL this season. Pretty crazy! Some of the drops Brady has endured have been big ones. A third down converting first-and-goal at the 5-yard line drop by Chris Godwin against Dallas that became a punt instead. The long ball drop by Rob Gronkowski that would have put the Bucs near the red zone against the Rams. Instead the drive ended in a punt. And don’t forget the touchdown against New England that Antonio Brown let slip through his hands. That was Brady’s best throw of the year, probably.
Antonio Brown had a chance to stick it to the Patriots.
According to Pro Football Focus, Brady has been the best quarterback in the NFL this season. He’s the site’s highest-graded passer by a healthy margin, and has just one turnover-worthy throw. Defenses are currently committing absurd numbers to defending Brady’s vertical assault, which has opened up the run game and short passing attack. If he gets a little more help, Tampa Bay should have the best offense in the NFL this season. But the number one reason for their success is Brady.
4. One-Third Season Defensive MVP: Shaq Barrett
Four games into the season, I might have voted for Vita Vea in this spot. But as we enter Week 7, no Bucs defensive player has been more valuable than Shaq Barrett. With Jason Pierre-Paul struggling due to injury, Barrett has been a force for Tampa Bay. He leads the team with four sacks, and has been robbed of a few others. A bad call negated a strip-sack against Atlanta in Week 2. Barrett has also failed to get quarterbacks on the ground a few times when he’s had the chance. That needs to change moving forward, but his process is impressive right now.
Barrett leads the defense with 31 pressures, more than double that of the next closest player. He’s also been highly impressive in coverage while dropping 42 times. Barrett has two pass breakups and an interception this season, while limiting yards after the catch. And of course, his run defense has been as stellar as it typically is.
If Barrett can maintain this level of play, he’s a lock for a double-digit sack season. Hopefully Pierre-Paul can get healthier and Tryon-Shoyinka can continue his rookie ascent with more playing time as the year goes on. Combine those three with Vea and a quietly impressive Will Gholston, who has two sacks, and the Bucs’ pass rush should only improve in 2021.
Honorable Mention: DT Vita Vea, LB Lavonte David, CB Carlton Davis III
3. One-Third Season Biggest Surprise Player: Leonard Fournette
If you would have told me before the season that Leonard Fournette was going to become an above average pass protector and a legitimate threat after the catch, I would have told you to kick rocks. Shockingly, both of those things have happened. Six games into the season, Fournette has forced nine missed tackles as a receiver, fifth most among all running backs. He’s been a genuine force with the ball in his hands, which has added a whole new dimension to the Bucs offense.
If defenses are going to play the Bucs offense so preoccupied with preventing the deep ball, Tampa Bay will need underneath threats to step up. Fournette has been a big part of that improvement this year, as the Bucs lead the NFL in yards after catch. He’s also improved as a pass protector, enough to be trusted on in more pass-obvious situations. Fournette has spent his career as one of the worst pass protecting backs in the NFL. Expecting that to be gone because of six mildly impressive games is naive, but the improvements Fournette has shown are critical.
As a runner, Fournette is still very average. His vision has remained maddening this season, but he’s still a more reliable option than Ronald Jones II. The Bucs are never going to be run heavy, so as long as Fournette can remain efficient, they should be okay. His contributions on passing downs are more important to this team right now, especially with Jones’ struggles in that area.
Honorable Mention: CB Ross Cockrell, DE Will Gholston, OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, S Jordan Whitehead
2. One-Third Season Most Disappointing Player: LB Devin White
Devin White belongs in this category for two reasons. First, he hasn’t played to his potential. Has White been terrible? No, not at all. Has he played like a Top 5 overall pick? Absolutely not. Part of that is because nobody is trying to run the ball on the Bucs. That’s a huge part of his job, and White is hardly ever able to do it because of how opposing teams are playing.
But beyond that, White isn’t making the impact he should. He’s been average at best in coverage, and he continues to show a maddening lack of discipline for a third-year player. White’s inability to put hero ball on the shelf and simply do his job, trusting the other ten guys around him, is frustrating. It’s led to multiple big plays and touchdowns for the opposition this year too.
This play is a perfect example of what ails White as a player. On fourth-and-goal, White is the spy on Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. That gives the defensive line freedom to alter rush paths and do what they need to do to get to the quarterback. White is available on the second level to cover for the Bucs defensive line if Hurts escapes the pocket.
Instead White tries to play hero ball. The linebacker sees the right guard slide just for a second, and immediately decides to try and fire through the A-gap to attempt to sack Hurts. It’s a hasty decision to freelance that leaves his teammates in a bad spot. Hurts easily escapes the pocket, and without White or Jason Pierre-Paul there to contain, it’s a walk-in touchdown. Suddenly, the score becomes 28-14, and the Bucs end up with a dogfight on their hands instead of a huge 4th-and-goal stand.
The other part of this is the expectation level. White was voted the best linebacker in the NFL this offseason, by a poll of NFL coaches, scouts, players and personnel. He hasn’t even been a Top 10 linebacker in the league this season. White has 41 tackles, zero sacks, zero interceptions, zero tackles for loss and zero forced fumbles. If he were a down-to-down stud like Lavonte David, that wouldn’t matter as much. But White’s high-variance style of play relies on creating splash plays. Through six games, he hasn’t done that. If the Bucs defense is going to take a step forward, White has to be more of a catalyst for success.
Honorable Mention: OLB Jason Pierre-Paul, RB Ronald Jones II, WR Scotty Miller
1. Laugh A Little
Hopefully most of you have seen this going around the internet. But it’s been several days, and I can’t stop watching it. One of the funniest moments on a football field I have ever seen.
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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