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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 2021 training camp is here and begins on Sunday, July 25 at the AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa. Each July I bring forth 20 Critical Camp Questions (and the answers) before the start of camp. Here is this year’s edition. Enjoy.
FAB 1. Critical Camp Questions: Bucs Offense
Which RB will emerge as the Bucs’ starter?
Ronald Jones II. It seems like we’ve been talking about this training camp battle all offseason and now the time has come. From a talent standpoint, Jones is the more gifted, natural runner. He finished the 2020 season 22 yards away from 1,000 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry along with six touchdowns. All were career highs. The only thing that stopped Jones was a wicked elixir of being on the COVID list at the end of the year, combined with a broken pinky and a thigh injury.
That allowed Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 367 yards and three touchdowns on a 3.8 yards per carry average to become “playoff Lenny” in the postseason, scoring a touchdown in four straight games, including Super Bowl LV. Fournette will likely cede the third down role to newcomer Gionvani Bernard, so there will be an intense fight between he and Jones for carries on first and second down. Both players are in a contract year and both will split carries. But it won’t be 50-50. Training camp will determine which back will get 60 percent of the carries and which one gets 40. The guess here is that it’s Jones.
Can Tom Brady top 43 touchdowns in 2021?
Yes. If Brady can throw a franchise-record 40 touchdowns in his first season in Bruce Arians’ offense without the benefit of an offseason or a preseason, and with a truncated training camp in 2020, he can beat that mark this season. Brady had three more TDs on QB sneaks, totaling 43 scores at age 43.
The 40 touchdowns are the second-most for Brady. He threw 50 in New England in 2007. If he stays healthy for all 16 games there is no reason why he can’t throw for 45-50 touchdowns in 2021, especially since he knows the offense and has a season’s worth of chemistry with his targets in the passing game.
Who wins the right guard starting job this year?
Bucs RG Alex Cappa – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Alex Cappa. Although Aaron Stinnie did a solid job filling in for Cappa in the postseason after he broke his ankle at Washington, Cappa is the better player. The key will be returning to last year’s form where he earned a 69 grade from Pro Football Focus. That was up from 62.7 the year prior.
Cappa was the only starting offensive lineman who didn’t surrender a sack last year. Stinnie played well and proved his worth last year. He was re-signed to a one-year deal as a restricted free agent. Both players are entering a contract year, but Cappa has more experience and slightly more talent.
Will Mike Evans reach 1,000 yards for an eighth straight year?
Yes, barely. Evans has had some close calls before. He barely hit 1,000 yards last year (1,006), in addition to hitting 1,001 yards in 2017 and 1,051 yards as a rookie. The days of Evans posting a 1,500-yard season like he did in 2018 are probably long gone due the diversity of the Bucs offense. There are just so many weapons now that the targets are split up between the likes of Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller, Rob Gronkowski and others in addition to Evans.
Evans is a pro and takes great pride in his NFL-record seven straight seasons with 1,000 receiving yards. As long as he doesn’t miss more than a game or two he should be able to reach that 1,000-yard milestone again in 2021. Don’t bet against Evans. He’ll finish with between 1,000 – 1,100 receiving yards this year.
Is another 1,000-yard season in store for Chris Godwin?
Yes. After catching 59 passes for 842 yards (14.3 avg.) and seven touchdowns in 2018, Godwin had a breakthrough season the following year. He caught 86 passes for 1,333 yards (15.5 avg.) and nine TDs in 14 games to lead the Bucs. Those numbers earned Godwin his first and only Pro Bowl season. Last year saw Godwin miss four games due to injury and he wound up with 65 receptions for 840 yards (12.9 avg.) and seven scores.
The Bucs wisely used the franchise tag on Godwin this offseason and want him to play on a one-year deal worth just under $16 million. Tampa Bay values the tough, clutch receiver who has mastered the slot position in Arians’ offense, which is asked to block in the running game, too. Yet the team wants to see if he’s worth paying as a Pro Bowl receiver with another 1,000-yard season or if he’s really an 800-yard receiver. Godwin balls out in his contract year and tops 1,000 yards again in 2021.
FAB 2. Critical Camp Questions: Young Bucs
Will Tristan Wirfs have a sophomore slump?
Bucs RT Tristan Wirfs – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
No. Every year during the NFL Draft some draft guru or analyst will say “that’s the kind of guy you draft him in the first round and you put him at tackle and leave him there for 10 years” whenever a top tackle is selected. Sometimes that happens when it’s players like Tony Boselli, Jonathan Ogden or Orlando Pace. That was even the case with former first-round Tampa Bay tackle Paul Gruber. Wirfs has shown early in his career that he has what it takes to be that kind of elite offensive tackle.
Wirfs’ rookie season was one of the ages as he surrendered just one sack the entire year – to All-Pro Khalil Mack. He quickly established himself as a force to be reckoned with, shutting out the likes of Joey Bosa and Cameron Jordan – three times. Wirfs is mature and serious about his craft. Few things would be more surprising in Tampa Bay in 2021 than Wirfs having a sophomore slump because nobody would see it coming.
Can Kyle Trask beat out Blaine Gabbert for the backup QB job?
No. Trask, the team’s second-round draft pick, isn’t being groomed to play in 2021 or even 2022 as Brady is under contract for the next two years. The Bucs don’t want to rush Trask’s development, nor do they need to. The team has Blaine Gabbert, a former first-round pick, who hasn’t shown much in this league other than that he can be a decent No. 2 quarterback.
But don’t tell that to Arians or general manager Jason Licht. Arians calls Gabbert the most underrated player in the NFL. Licht loves his rocket arm and indicated he could be in the mix as Brady’s eventual successor. Both are also high on Trask after his first offseason, but Gabbert has three years worth of experience in Arians’ offense. He’s not going to get beat out by a rookie for the backup job behind Brady. Now next summer might be a different story.
Is the hype around Ke’Shawn Vaughn real?
We’ll find out. Vaughn, last year’s third-round pick, made enough of an impression behind the scenes in practice that the Bucs refrained from drafting a running back this year. With Jones, Fournette and Bernard all in contract years, Vaughn is the only running back under contract next year. And with all of that experience ahead of him on the depth chart, the Vanderbilt product might not see much action again this season.
Vaughn rushed for a modest 109 yards on 26 carries (4.2 avg.), but struggled in the passing game with a couple of drops and just five catches for 34 yards (6.6 avg.) and one touchdown. Arians raves about his development and bright future. Vaughn didn’t have a preseason last year, which stymied his production. He needs to be the team’s most productive back in three August games or all the hype around Vaughn might turn out to be hot air. We haven’t seen enough to make a judgment one way or the other.
Will Jaelon Darden’s arrival cut into the development of Tyler Johnson?
Bucs WR Tyler Johnson – Photo by: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Yes. The Bucs’ embarrassment of riches at the receiver position continued in April with the selection of Darden in the fourth round. The Bucs drafted Johnson last year in the fifth round and he showed promise as a Godwin-type of receiver, catching 12 passes for 169 yards (14.2 avg.) and catching two touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 206-pound Johnson seems built to play both outside and inside at the slot, but opportunities were going to be limited behind Evans, Godwin, Brown, Miller, Gronkowski and O.J. Howard in the passing game.
Now that the speedy and shifty Darden is in Tampa Bay he’ll push for a few offensive snaps per game on screen passes and end-arounds as he handles the return duties. That will come at the expense of Johnson, whose growth was stunted last year without the benefit of any preseason games due to COVID-19. There is room for both Johnson and Darden on the Bucs’ depth chart, but both will have to earn their regular season reps by showing out in this year’s three preseason games.
What type of impact can Joe Tryon make in his rookie season?
Between three to five sacks. Unlike other first-round edge rushers in Bucs history like Keith McCants (1990), Eric Curry (1993) and Gaines Adams (2007), Tryon isn’t under any pressure to come in and start right away. Some of that is the fact that Tryon was drafted No. 32 overall instead of inside the Top 10, but the other part of it is that the defending Super Bowl champions have a great pass-rushing pair in Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul.
Tryon has the luxury of coming in as a DPR (designated pass rusher) during his rookie season, while playing on special teams. The Washington product will have the benefit of coming off the bench fresh to rush the passer on third downs and obvious passing downs, which should aid his learning curve. Tyron’s presence on the edge will allow Pierre-Paul the opportunity to kick inside and rush, where he is equally effective. Tryon should be able to get a few sacks as a rookie, facing one-on-ones against left and right tackles.
FAB 3. Critical Camp Questions: Bucs Defense
Which Bucs pass rusher leads the team in sacks in 2021?
Barrett. Tampa Bay has had back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons from Barrett (2019) and Pierre-Paul (2020). Barrett had a franchise-record 19.5 sacks to lead the Bucs two years ago. Last season it was Pierre-Paul’s 9.5 sacks. Inside linebacker Devin White came close to winning the sack title with a career-high nine, but missed the last game of the season on the COVID-19 list.
Barrett just got rewarded with a four-year contract extension worth an average of $17 million per year. Before leaving for summer break, Barrett seemed like a man on a mission during an interview with the media. He talked about his disappointing season in 2020 in which he only had eight sacks. Barrett wants to show everyone that he’s worth every penny and wants to make his mark on the league. We’re sold. Look for Barrett to notch a team-high 13 sacks in 17 games this season.
Who leads Tampa Bay in interceptions this season?
Bucs CB Carlton Davis III – Photo by: USA Today
Carlton Davis III will hang on to the Bucs’ INT title. Davis had a breakthrough season last year with a career-high four interceptions, in addition to 18 pass breakups. Now that he’s in a contract year Davis has every incentive to show he can be a consistent ball hawk and worth top cover cornerback money.
Sean Murphy-Bunting led the team with three interceptions, including a pick-six, during his rookie season in 2019. While he only recorded one INT during the 2020 regular season he came through with three picks in the postseason. Counting those interceptions he actually tied Davis. Will Murphy-Bunting pick up where he left off? He might, but Davis likely edges him by one interception with another four this season.
Will Vita Vea and Devin White make their first Pro Bowl this year?
Yes, both should. Vea missed a good chunk of the 2020 season with a broken ankle, courtesy of some unfortunate friendly fire from White in the Chicago game. But he returned in the playoffs against Green Bay and played in the Super Bowl. The Bucs totaled eight sacks in those two games and both Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes – two of the best QBs in the NFL – were harassed all game. Although Vea didn’t record a sack upon his return, he pushed the pocket and created opportunities for others. Vea recorded two sacks in just five regular season games and is regarded as one of the best defensive tackles in the league.
White took a massive step forward in his second season, recording a 140 tackles to lead Tampa Bay, in addition to nine sacks. In the postseason he took another step forward in pass coverage with interceptions against New Orleans and Kansas City, in addition to key fumble recoveries against the Saints and Packers. White’s end zone interception of Mahomes to seal the Bucs’ Super Bowl LV victory should help his buzz heading into the 2021 campaign. With the Bucs Super Bowl champions, both White and Vea should get plenty of Pro Bowl pub head as they look to defend their title.
Will Mike Edwards win a starting safety spot?
Not this year. Antoine Winfield, Jr. is a rising star in the league. Last year’s second-round pick was third on the team with 94 tackles. He also chipped in six pass break-ups (including the game-winner at New York), three sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception in the regular season. Playing mostly free safety, Winfield also had a key forced fumble at New Orleans in the playoffs and an interception against Kansas City in the Super Bowl. Whitehead is a great fit for Todd Bowles defense, doing the dirty work in the run game and covering tight ends. He’s not as dynamic of a playmaker as Winfield or Edwards, but he is entering a contract year and will bring his best stuff in 2021.
Edwards is a super sub. He can come in and make some splash plays with just a few snaps. Edwards only had 11 tackles last year as a reserve, but had five passes defensed and two interceptions. With more playing time in the postseason, Edwards totaled 12 tackles in four games, broke up three passes and picked off Drew Brees’ final NFL pass. Edwards has earned more playing time. The guess here is that he splits more reps with Whitehead this year and then replaces him has the starter in 2022 as Whitehead tests free agency.
Can Anthony Nelson emerge as a legit pass rusher?
Bucs OLB Anthony Nelson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Probably not. The Bucs drafted Nelson three years ago to eventually replace Carl Nassib. Both are 6-foot-7, 270-pounders, but Nassib had more juice and that resulted in him averaging around six sacks per season in Tampa Bay. Nassib was just a better pass rusher than Nelson, who hasn’t been helped by not playing in a single preseason game yet due to injury (2019) and COVID (2020). Nelson just seems like he’s a step away from the QB on most of his pass rushes.
Nelson recorded his first two sacks of his NFL career late last year. His first one came against Minnesota and he had another one at Washington in the postseason. Nelson has been slow to develop and he might be running out of time to do that in Tampa Bay. The Bucs just spent a first-round draft pick on another edge rusher in Tryon, and he is going to take snaps away from Nelson. The third-year pro needs to really polish up his pass rush in the preseason playing opposite Tryon to stake his claim for his some reps in 2021. And don’t rule out Cam Gill or Quinton Bell putting some pressure on Nelson for his roster spot, either.
FAB 4. Critical Camp Questions: Bucs Miscellaneous
Can Ryan Succop have an even better season in 2021?
Yes. Succop was an absolute godsend to Tampa Bay last year. Poor kicking plagued this franchise for over a decade. Succop delivered a fantastic season in his first year with the Bucs, making 90.3 percent of his field goals and 91.2 percent of extra points. Succop also scored a team-record 136 points.
What can he do for an encore? Deliver an even higher percentage with better protection. Succop had three kicks blocked last year – two field goals and an extra point. He’s capable of making even more kicks if the protection is shored up in front of him. And the Bucs won’t be playing in Detroit this year, as the surface there gave Succop issues. He missed a field goal and two extra points in the Bucs’ 47-7 win against the Lions.
How many Bucs make the Pro Bowl this year?
Seven. It’s crazy to think that Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl last year with just one Pro Bowler – Pierre-Paul. For some reason, Arizona’s Kyler Murray was selected over Brady at the QB position. Guess that’s what happens when a Hail Mary goes viral. But Brady, who became the Super Bowl MVP, was clearly the better pick and he will make the Pro Bowl this year, along with Evans and two offensive linemen – guard Ali Marpet and Wirfs.
So that’s four, now what about the defense? We’re expecting a bounce-back year from Barrett, and a team-leading 13 sacks should put him in the Pro Bowl. We’ve also hinted that White and Vea should make the Pro Bowl this year too, so that’s three more Bucs. Seven sounds about right. Tampa Bay had six Pro Bowlers in 1999 and 2001, and a franchise-record seven in 2000 and 2002. This 2021 Bucs team is just as talented – if not more.
Who is the camp sleeper on offense?
Bucs WR Jaelon Darden – Photo by: USA Today
Darden is the obvious choice on offense, but keep an eye on offensive lineman Sadarius Hutcherson. The big, 6-foot-4, 315-pounder is an impressive looking athlete. He was a mauler in the run game at South Carolina and will push the likes of John Molchon for a roster spot at the back end of the O-line depth chart. Hutcherson played left tackle in college, so he has the athleticism to play guard at the next level.
But Darden will attract all eyes in camp. He’s ultra-quick and has some slick cuts and moves to help get open and elude defenders. Darden has great hands and can really pluck the ball out of the air despite being just 5-foot-8. He’s been compared to a smaller Antonio Brown coming out of college, and Darden will have the chance to learn from a trio of the league’s best in AB, Evans and Godwin.
Who is the camp sleeper on defense?
While all eyes will be on Tryon, the newcomer, there is a trio of others to keep an eye on. Gill and Bell continue to create buzz behind the scenes as speedy, athletic pass rushers. Gill made the team last year, played on special teams and shared a sack with Ndamukong Suh in Super Bowl LV. Bell is a tremendous athlete who made a late transition from wide receiver to pass rusher in college. He’s still learning the game and was on the practice squad last year. Either could challenge Nelson for a roster spot with a superb preseason.
Defensive tackle Khalil Davis is also worth watching. The Bucs didn’t draft a defensive tackle this year due to a poor crop, but will be counting on Davis to develop. Suh and Steve McLendon are likely in their final year in the NFL and Davis will need to step up in 2022 and earn more playing time. That process starts now with a year of development behind the scenes under his belt. Davis, Gill and Bell will all benefit from the preseason this year – something that couldn’t experience from a year ago due to COVID.
Will the Bucs win the NFC South this year?
Bucs QB Tom Brady – Photo by: USA Today
Yes. Tampa Bay served notice that it will be running the show in the NFC South with a 30-20 win at New Orleans in the divisional playoffs. This comes after five straight regular season losses to the Saints dating back to Dirk Koetter’s last year as Bucs head coach in 2018. Without Dree Brees and a host of salary-cap cuts, the Saints may not have the firepower to keep pace with the Bucs anymore.
New Orleans is no longer the bully in the NFC South, and Carolina and Atlanta are rebuilding. Sweeping the division may be tough, but the Bucs swept both the Falcons and Panthers last year. Brady and the Bucs might have won the Super Bowl in their own backyard in 2020, but the didn’t win the NFC South last year. That’s a goal Brady, Arians and the Bucs want to achieve this year because that comes with a home playoff game. Expect the Bucs to win the NFC South – and 12 or 13 games this season, too.
FAB 5. Buc Shots
• BUCS OFFENSE BLOWS UP! Tampa Bay’s offense under Dirk Koetter and Bruce Arians has produced the most explosive plays in the league since 2014. Nearly 100 more explosive passing plays than Kansas City, too.
Since 2014, there are the seven NFL teams that have averaged at least 100 explosive plays through the air (15+ yards) each season:
• INTERESTING CONCERN FROM HAMILTON: Bucs cornerback Antonio Hamilton poses an interesting question regarding the new NFL rules pertaining to fines and forfeiting games if an unvaccinated player spread COVID. Hamilton asks what will happen if a vaccinated player causes a forfeit? This new NFL/NFLPA policy could cause some havoc and division in the league this year.
So what are they going to do if a vaccinated member catches Covid & spreads it? These rules grow crazier by the day. All bcuz guys don’t want to be vaxed which is their right. The vaccine is to lessen the blow when it hits, that DOES NOT MEAN U CANT GIVE IT TO OTHERS! @nfl@NFLPA
• BUCS TRAINING CAMP PREVIEWS ON THE PEWTER REPORT PODCAST: The Pewter Report Podcast is energized by CELSIUS and broadcasts four live episodes each week in the offseason – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 4:00 p.m. ET unless there is a special event.
Bucs training camp starts on Sunday, July 25 and the Pewter Reporters analyzed the roster as Tampa Bay heads to camp on this week’s episodes of the Pewter Report Podcast on our YouTube channel. Check out all of this week’s shows below.
Jon Ledyard and JC Allen break down the offensive skill players and those camp battles on Monday’s show.
Ledyard and Matt Matera discussed the offensive and defensive lines prior to the start of camp on Tuesday’s episode.
Wednesday’s show featured Ledyard and Scott Reynolds analyzing the Bucs linebackers and defensive backs prior to camp.
Thursday show featured Ledyard, Allen and Matera all discussing which Bucs they would protect if there was an NFL expansion draft this year like there was this offseason in the NHL.
Watch the Pewter Report Podcasts live on our PewterReportTV channel on YouTube.com and please subscribe (it’s free) and add your comments. All Pewter Report Podcasts are archived so you can watch the recorded episodes if you missed them live.
There is no better time to listen to or watch a new Pewter Report Podcast – energized by CELSIUS – than Friday afternoon on the way home from work, or early Saturday morning during your workout or while running errands.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com
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