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FAB 1. 5 Bucs That Must Bounce Back
I’m back from my early summer vacation and ready to roll with another edition of SR’s Fab 5. This is officially the first SR’s Fab 5 of my 25th year of Bucs coverage, as I began my career as a Bucs beat writer for Buccaneer Magazine (which later became Pewter Report in 2002) on May 19, 1995 – just six days after graduating from Kansas State University and moving to Tampa.
And since SR’s Fab 5 has become my signature column, I thought it only fitting that I start each of the four main sections with my analysis of five Bucs players. Let’s start with five Bucs that need to bounce back after some trials and tribulations last year.
TE O.J. Howard
Howard’s 2019 tape wasn’t great, but it wasn’t the huge step back that some think it was. In his third year in the league, Howard caught 34 passes, which tied his career high from 2018, for 459 yards, which was the third straight year that the former first-round pick has topped the 400-yard receiving mark. The problem was that many expected Howard to take a big leap forward in his third season in the league with perhaps 700 yards and at least a handful of touchdowns. That didn’t happen because head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich directed the ball more towards to Pro Bowl wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin due to their reliability.
Howard saw a reduction in his number of touchdown catches from five in 2018 to just one last year, and his yards-per-catch average fell from 16.6 to 13.5 thanks in part to the fact that he didn’t have a catch longer than 40 yards for the first time in his brief NFL career. Mistakes were also a problem as Howard also had a fumble and saw two potential catches turn into interceptions in 2019. That led to fewer opportunities until the last four games of Howard’s season where he caught 16 passes for 226 passes (14.1 avg.).
The arrival of Rob Gronkowski in a trade with New England will demote Howard to the No. 2 tight end and reduce his playing time. Yet with fewer opportunities, Howard actually has the chance to do more, especially in the red zone where Tom Brady should find his 6-foot-6, 251-pound frame appealing. A 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers) grouping in the red zone with Evans, Godwin, Gronkowski and Howard could result in some real favorable coverage match-ups for the Alabama product. Howard could catch 34 passes again in 2020, but wind up with five or six touchdowns and a higher yards-per-catch average as he serves as the understudy of Gronkowski, a five-time Pro Bowler, for a year or two. That would be a nice bounce back season for Howard.
S Mike Edwards
More was expected from Edwards, one of two third-round picks by Tampa Bay last year, during his rookie season. Edwards started seven games for the Bucs in 2019 and recorded 45 tackles, three tackles for loss, six pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and one sack. His 58.2 grade from Pro Football Focus was underwhelming, but accurate. Tampa Bay thought that Edwards would be more of a playmaker and ball hawk like he was at Kentucky where he recorded 10 career interceptions.
Edwards was used a lot at free safety, but was eventually replaced by Andrew Adams after the Bucs secondary gave up several 300-yard passing games early in the season. Edwards showed his versatility by starting at nickel corner against New Orleans where he recorded a sack on a blitz from the slot, and he could see more action at strong safety in 2020 and play closer to the line of scrimmage with the arrival of Antoine Winfield, Jr., the team’s second-round pick. The instinctive Winfield would probably play more center field at free safety, putting Edwards in position to compete with Jordan Whitehead for the strong safety role. Wherever he plays, Edwards needs to make more plays on the ball and play tighter in coverage.
TE Antony Auclair
At first glance it might seem as if Auclair would get less playing time with Gronkowski’s arrival in 2020, as the Canadian tight end is now fourth on the depth chart behind Gronkowski, Howard and Cameron Brate. But Auclair played 172 snaps last year before a midseason toe injury ended his season. In 2018, Auclair played 325 snaps on offense as Tampa Bay’s primary run blocker. With the logjam at the tight end position, Auclair might see a snap count closer to 200 than the 325 snaps he saw in 2018.
However many snaps he receives he needs to really dominate as a run blocker, which was something that he struggled with last year at times, as pointed out by Jon Ledyard in a recent Bucs Briefing column. Tampa Bay’s running game did struggle without him in the line up down the stretch, and if he returns to health and becomes more effective at the point of attack, Auclair could help key the Bucs’ ground game. Auclair has never been much of a receiving threat, catching a career-high seven passes for 48 yards in 2018 before hauling in one pass for 11 yards last year. So any improvement in this area would be welcomed too.
OLB Anthony Nelson
There are high hopes for Nelson’s second season in Tampa Bay within the organization. With the Bucs expecting Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquille Barrett to have big years in 2019, it seemed likely that Carl Nassib would be the odd man out, so the team drafted the similarly built Nelson, who stands 6-foot-7, 271 pounds, to replace him. Nelson suffered a knee injury in training camp that caused him to miss the preseason and then missed six weeks with an in-season hamstring injury that really stymied his development during his rookie year.
As a result, Nelson saw action in nine games last year with one start at left outside linebacker, posting eight tackles, one pass defensed and one forced fumble. Nassib, who was in his fourth year, was far more productive and experienced than Nelson was last year, and posted 34 tackles, eight tackles for loss, six sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery as the Bucs’ third pass-rushing outside linebacker behind Barrett and Pierre-Paul. Is Nelson capable of putting up those types of stats in 2020? The Bucs better hope Nelson stays healthy and rises up this year – and that Barrett and Pierre-Paul stay healthy, too.
K Matt Gay
Gay finished his rookie season in awful fashion with three painful misses in the south end zone at Raymond James Stadium in a 26-22 overtime loss to Atlanta in the 2019 season finale that prevented the Bucs from finishing the year with a .500 record. His 77.1 percent field goal percentage to end his rookie year was not bad, but entering Week 17, Gay had connected on 27-of-32 field goals for 84.4 percent, which was mighty impressive for Tampa Bay’s fifth-round pick. Had he connected on all three of those final kicks, Gay would have nailed 85.7 percent of his field goals as a rookie, which is even more impressive.
Gay needs to follow head coach Bruce Arians’ advice and use the offseason to figure out the south end zone at Raymond James Stadium where he also missed a potential game-winning 34-yarder against the New York Giants in Week 4. Unfortunately those four misses are what Bucs fans remember the most, but Gay’s 27 made field goals, including an impressive 5-of-8 from 50 yards and beyond, contributed to Tampa Bay finishing with seven wins, which was two more than the team posted the previous year.
I’ve got a feeling that Gay will enter the 2020 season with a better mastery of the swirling winds in the south end zone at Ray-Jay and build on a rookie season that was better you think it was. In fact, I think Gay goes down as one of the best Bucs kickers of all-time when it’s all said and done – up there with the likes of Martin Gramatica, Connor Barth and Matt Bryant.
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