Much has been made about the Bucs tight end room over the 2020 offseason, and rightfully so. On paper, there are three quality tight ends that could each handle No. 1 responsibilities if asked of them, with varying amounts of statistical success. Rob Gronkowski is the elder statesman of the group without a below-average season to his name in the NFL. O.J. Howard looks like he did during his mini-breakout in 2018, and Cam Brate might be the best No. 3 tight end in the NFL.
But despite their talent and ability to create mismatches, the Saints still present a challenge unlike perhaps any the Bucs will face this season. The usage of multiple tight ends on the field at one time typically puts a defense in a difficult situation, as they’re forced to defend with linebackers and sacrifice some speed, athleticism and man coverage ability, or to defend with safeties and give up size and strength, as well as run defense.
But New Orleans offers a unique counter to Tampa Bay’s trio of tight ends, as both Malcolm Jenkins and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson are fully capable of playing in the box and in the slot at a high level.
The Saints defense finished tenth-best in fantasy points (ESPN) surrendered to opposing tight ends last year, and that was before the Saints replaced a coverage nightmare in Vonn Bell with Jenkins, one of the game’s better safeties over the past decade. Jenkins is older now, but still fully capable of winning as a run defender in the box or as a matchup specialist against tight ends.
What really sets the Saints apart however, is their ability to play with three safeties on the field due to Chauncey Gardner-Johnson’s positional flexibility. Last year CGJ saw playing time at the nickel spot, in the box and even at outside cornerback as well as free safety. The Saints can move him around if they want, but against the Bucs 12 personnel looks, he gives New Orleans the option to play three safeties on the field if Tampa Bay begins to flex their tight ends and throw the ball around.
Very few NFL teams boast three safeties with the skill sets that New Orleans has, a staple of Dennis Allen’s defenses over the past five seasons. This year the Saints have FOUR quality safeties, as veteran D.J. Swearinger, the ex-Buc, seeks to re-ignite his career after a rocky 2019 campaign. Swearinger likely won’t play much defense on Sunday, but he’s another big, physical safety who was playing great football before he wore out his welcome in Washington in 2018.
The Saints defensive flexibility is rare, as is their deployment of a linebacker who can cover like Demario Davis can. A late bloomer who has come into his own over the past 2-3 seasons, Davis’ awareness and football IQ are strong reminders that you need a lot more than athleticism to be a successful coverage linebacker in the NFL.
Here's the full play and what I liked is that he cuts off the route since he's assuming that's where OJ Howard is going. And then he doesn't look back for the ball until he gets to Howard (in phase) and then he can locate the ball and get a paw on it. Almost picked it too pic.twitter.com/8bLT1puWqA
Bruce Arians likes to get his tight ends deep, both vertically and horizontally, running the seams and trying to hit deep crossers, especially off of play-action. That fits the skill sets of O.J. Howard and Rob Gronkowski to a ‘T’, as does Arians’ desire to isolate his tight ends on the backside of 3×1 looks at times. That’s something Gronkowski was asked to do a lot in New England, with obviously tremendous success.
The Bucs absolutely can still be successful with those concepts, and they shouldn’t get away from their game with the talent they have at the position. But it’s going to be a battle. The Saints are maybe the only team on the Bucs schedule with safeties that can turn and run the seam with Howard and Gronk, while also featuring a play-making single-high safety in Marcus Williams that will be patrolling between the numbers like a hawk. Davis gives New Orleans a savvy presence in the shallow-to-intermediate middle of the field and is coming off a career year in coverage, which could make life complicated for crossing patterns and slants.
The expectations are high for the Bucs tight end room, and the NFL schedule makers wasted no time in trying to figure out how high those expectations should be with their Week 1 matchup. These are the type of matchups the Bucs need to see O.J. Howard win to consider him worth the first round pick they spent on him. These are the type of matchups they envisioned Rob Gronkowski helping them overcome when they traded a couple picks to New England to bring him out of retirement. And this is why they hung on to Cam Brate when many believed the team should try to trade him.
The Saints are a formidable foe, but the Bucs tight end room was assembled for challenges like this. Sunday should be a clash of titans in the middle-of-the-field passing game, and whichever side emerges victorious could hold the keys to victory.
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