Time to take an extensive look at the Bucs’ snap count distribution for the 2020 season, drawing whatever conclusions we can about where certain players sit in the hierarchy of their position groups heading into the 2021 offseason. If the Bucs return their key free agents as expected, there are very few question marks in their lineup, as they could bring back their entire starting group from this past season.
Let’s start with Tampa Bay’s offense, with these snap counts from Pro Football Focus, including playoff action in their final count.
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BUCS SNAP COUNTS – OFFENSE
Tristan Wirfs was the only player on the entire team to play every snap this season, while Ryan Jensen missed just a handful. As long as Alex Cappa’s return from ankle surgery goes as expected, there should be very little question about who Tampa Bay’s starting five will be for Week 1 of next season, as Wirfs and Donovan Smith excelled at offensive tackles during the Bucs playoff run, while Ali Marpet enjoyed his best season to date. Cappa was one of the most improved players on the entire roster, and Jensen remained his steady and reliable, tone-setting self.
Obviously Mike Evans and Chris Godwin led the way this season and will lead the way again next season, assuming the latter is back as expected. As for WR3, that critical role remains a mystery, but in a much different way than this past offseason. Heading into the 2020 season, it was expected that Scotty Miller would win the role, but Justin Watson was still contributing early on, and Tyler Johnson was still working his way back from a hamstring injury suffered in training camp.
By midseason, Miller had established himself as a quality No. 3 receiver while Tyler Johnson flashed the ability that made him such a coveted fifth-round pick, yet the team still added Antonio Brown to the mix and watched him eat significantly into both younger receivers’ roles. Brown could be back if the price is right, but if not, it does appear Miller and Johnson received the playing time to prepare them for bigger roles in 2021.
After Brown’s arrival, Watson played just eight offensive snaps the rest of the season, and none after Week 14. With Jaydon Mickens offering superior return ability and receiving skills, it could spell the end of Watson’s time in Tampa Bay.
The Bucs have a couple big tight end decisions to make this offseason, as Cam Brate’s guaranteed money has expired, and the team could look to cut or trade him. Brate already took a pay cut to stick around for the 2020 season, and he’ll have to take another one at the very least if he wants to stay.
If Brate stays, it’ll be because he loves Tampa Bay and wants to try and win another ring, because he’ll be the No. 3 tight end for the Bucs, and there is no question he could be a starter making more money on several other teams. The veteran tight end ended up playing over 430 snaps and catching 28 balls for 282 yards and two scores in the regular season, but exploded in the playoffs with 14 catches for 175 yards and another TD.
The other big Bucs’ decision at tight end revolves around the potential return of Rob Gronkowski, who played over 1,000 snaps on the year, more than most were expecting. While having Gronkowski would appear like a luxury to some, he’s easily the best run blocking and pass protecting tight end in an offense that asks a lot of their tight ends in both areas. I think Gronkowski is a critical role player who will be back for at least one more year with Tom Brady.
Did I mention that O.J. Howard, who had 11 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns in 132 snaps before rupturing his Achilles, will be back next season on his fifth-year option?
The final snap counts showed the workload split almost evenly between Leonard Fournette (584) and Ronald Jones II (508), with each back playing in 17 of 20 games. Fournette definitely wrested away the feature role in the playoffs however, out-snapping Jones over the three games they both played in the postseason 139-to-58.
The biggest reason for this is that Fournette was clearly the better option on passing downs by that point in the season, although he did drop seven passes on the season and earned a miserable 28.4 pass-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus. If Fournette was the Bucs’ best pass-catching option at running back and still struggled to that degree, it makes sense that the team would try to upgrade that role in their offense next season, especially with Jones still under contract for one more year.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn did play 111 snaps during his rookie season. Unfortunately the first-year back really failed to impress, dropping four passes on just 10 targets and fumbling three times on 36 touches. Tough to count on that for next season, making running back one of the team’s top priorities heading into the offseason.
BUCS SNAP COUNTS – DEFENSE
It’s a devalued position in today’s NFL, but the Bucs have two incredibly special linebackers in Lavonte David and Devin White, the latter of which finally broke out toward the end of the regular season all the way through the playoffs. That upward ascent for White is very exciting, as he showed the every down potential the team hoped for when they selected him with the fifth overall pick two years ago.
Assuming David is back, depth is still a key need for the Bucs’ linebacking corps this offseason. Veteran Kevin Minter, who is Tampa Bay’s special teams captain, is a free agent who could return for a cheap run at another title, but he’s still young enough at 30 years old to contribute more heavily elsewhere if he wants to. Beyond Minter, the Bucs really don’t have anyone they can count on at the backup linebacker positions, so expect to see at least a mid-round pick on a linebacker this spring.
Tampa Bay’s top three cornerbacks are clear, and they are in good position to be the top three corners in Tampa Bay for the foreseeable future. Carlton Davis III took a huge leap forward this season, and will be a coveted free agent in 2022 if the Bucs let him hit the market, while Sean Murphy-Bunting joined White as key late bloomers for the team in the playoffs. If Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean can continue their upward trajectory, this could be a terrifying cornerback room for the next few seasons in Tampa Bay.
As for CB4, Ross Cockrell’s 272 snaps were key for the Bucs this season, and Bruce Arians has made it clear he would love to have Cockrell back in the fold. The question is whether Cockrell sees more playing time elsewhere, after not generating a ton of interest from teams this past offseason.
At safety, Antoine Winfield Jr. had the second-most snaps on the defense after David, and will be the team’s starting free safety for the foreseeable future. Jordan Whitehead’s 1,119 snaps seem to indicate he’ll return as Winfield’s running mate, but Mike Edwards was so impactful in 320 snaps that it seems difficult to keep him on the bench. It should be an interesting camp battle between Edwards and Whitehead this summer, and if Edwards wins the job we could see Winfield play more in the slot and in the box next season.
Either way, Tampa Bay’s safety room looks like one of the deeper groups in the league for next season.
This is where the most change will likely occur on the entire Bucs roster in 2021, as Ndamukong Suh, Steve McLendon, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Shaq Barrett are all set to be free agents. Suh (34) and McLendon (35) were the oldest defensive tackles in the league to take a snap this season, so they could opt to retire and go out on top. Suh could also opt to return on another one-year deal, but he’s recently married with twins on the way and has made a ton of money in the league already, as well as being well-positioned financially outside of football as well.
If Suh does walk away, that’s almost 1,000 snaps the Bucs have to replace next to Vita Vea and Will Gholston. Even if Nunez-Roches does return, it should be in a depth role, and not as Vea’s running mate on the interior on passing downs. And even if Suh returns, his age should keep defensive tackle as the team’s primary need this off