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FAB 1. The Bucs’ Money Men In The Playoffs

Tampa Bay’s postseason run to Super Bowl LV has been a total team effort with stars like quarterback Tom Brady, linebacker Devin White and wide receiver Mike Evans shining bright throughout. But there has been some stellar individual performances from some soon-to-be free agents that have not only helped Tampa Bay advance to the championship in a rematch of the Week 12 battle against Kansas City, but have also made some money for themselves in the playoffs in the process. Here are five Buccaneers that

RB Leonard Fournette

Perhaps no Buccaneer has helped his cause this offseason more than Fournette. In three playoff games he has rushed for 211 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 48 carries (4.4 avg.). He’s also caught 14 passes for 102 yards (7.3 avg.) and another score, becoming the only Buccaneer on offense with a touchdown in each playoff game. Fournette has accounted for 18 first downs (11 rushing, seven receiving) in the postseason, which is seven more than any other Buccaneer.

Fournette hasn’t been perfect, in the postseason. He’s had a drop in each of the last two games after having five drops during the regular season, in addition to missing a blitz pick-up that resulted in Tom Brady throwing a third quarter interception.

But Fournette’s emergence down the stretch has relegated Ronald Jones II to a bit-player since he’s recovered from a quad injury, a broken pinkie and COVID-19. Fournette would have to a take a cheap, one-year contract similar to his $2.5 million deal this season to return to Tampa Bay, but he’s likely looking for a bigger role elsewhere. His performance in January and his great attitude this year will benefit him greatly come free agency. He may not land a huge deal as a feature back in 2021, but his stock should be on the rise.

WR Chris Godwin

A year after he had a career-high 86 receptions for 1,333 yards (15.9 avg.) with nine touchdowns, Godwin only produced 65 receptions for 840 yards (12.9 avg.) and seven touchdowns in 12 games during the 2020 regular season after missing four games due to injuries. Godwin averaged six catches and 95 yards per game in 2019, but the addition of more viable targets like Antonio Brown and tight end Rob Gronkowski have led to less production.

When healthy, Godwin averaged five catches for 70 yards per game during the regular season and he’s averaged just over four receptions for 74 yards in the postseason. What’s been surprising is that Godwin has had an astonishing seven drops this postseason, including five against Washington in the first round of the playoffs, but he is also tied for the team lead with 14 receptions and leads the Bucs with 223 receiving yards (15.9 avg.) and one touchdown. Godwin had just two drops in 83 targets during the regular season.

The Bucs will forgive Godwin’s drops because of his track record of being previously sure-handed, and they’ll be encouraged by his postseason play-making, including his touchdown at Washington and his key, acrobatic 52-yard catch last week at Green Bay. Godwin’s drop in catches and yards during the regular season and those drops might hurt his market value a bit, if not for his postseason production. Look for the Bucs to use the franchise tag on Godwin if the two sides can’t reach a deal on a long-term deal.

OLB Shaq Barrett

No one expected Barrett to post 19.5 sacks in 2020 after he led the league with that number a year ago in his lone Pro Bowl season. Yet eight sacks in 15 games seemed a little underwhelming, especially with Barrett being hit with the one-year franchise tag deal. Barrett was second in the league in QB pressures with 77 behind Aaron Donald, according to Pro Football Focus, but didn’t even reach double-digit sacks in the regular season.

Bucs OLB Shaq Barrett

Bucs OLB Shaq Barrett – Photo by: USA Today

Barrett went four games – Week 15 and 16 and the first two playoff games –without a sack before erupting for three sacks in the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay. Keep in mind that Barrett missed Week 17 due to COVID-19, so it was actually four games in five weeks since he got to the quarterback. The fact that he turned in a postseason masterpiece – albeit against a backup right tackle in Rick Wagner – will only help his cause in free agency.

Barrett is 28 and will turn 29 next November. Will the Bucs attempt to lock him up with a multi-year deal, and if so, for how long and how much? Will Barrett get the franchise tag again, and is he worth it after just 11 sacks in 18 games? Tampa Bay wants him back, but the money math must work in a salary cap-crunched year.

LB Lavonte David

David ceded the title of Bucs’ leading tackler to Devin White this year, finishing with 117 stops to White’s 140 tackles. White also led the Bucs in the splash play department and that’s usually an area where David excelled earlier in his career. But at age 31, David hasn’t made as many splash plays as he has in years past.

David did force three fumbles and recover two, in addition to picking off one pass, breaking up six other passes and collecting 1.5 sacks in the regular season. He’s set to be a free agent in 2021 and the Bucs definitely want him back due to his steady play and his leadership qualities.

While he hasn’t made as many impactful plays as White has during the Bucs’ playoff run, he has not missed a single game this season, whereas White missed two due to COVID-19. During White’s absence against Washington, David filled the void with nine tackles and a key sack to end Washington’s comeback hopes late in the fourth quarter. He’s totaled 20 tackles, two pass breakups and that key sack in the playoffs, which should aid his cause for getting a new contract. David’s new deal may not be more than a couple of years added on to his contract and it might not be much more than the $10.75 million he made in 2020 due to his age, but David’s high stock didn’t lose any value in the postseason.

K Ryan Succop

After six years of plenty of swings and misses trying to address the Bucs’ problem at the kicker position with high-profile free agency signings (Nick Folk, Chandler Catanzaro) draft picks (Roberto Aguayo, Matt Gay), some in-season fill-ins (Pat Murray, Cairo Santos) and a trade (Kyle Brindza), general manager Jason Licht finally hit a home run with Succop. The 34-year old veteran turned out to be a godsend for the Bucs.

Bucs K Ryan Succop

Bucs K Ryan Succop – Photo by: USA Today

Succop had the best single season of any kicker in Tampa Bay history, connecting on 90.3 percent (28-of-31) of his field goals and 91.6 percent (52-of-57) of his extra points during the regular season. He totaled 136 points, which set a new franchise record for most points scored in a single season.

During the playoffs, Succop was phenomenal, connecting on all eight of his field goal attempts and missing just one of nine extra point attempts. The Bucs would love to have Succop back next year, but he’ll cost more than he did this year when he signed a one-year deal worth $1.05 million. Given the team’s horrible past at the position, Tampa Bay simply can’t afford to let Succop get away and should offer him a multi-year deal to stay.

FAB 2. The Bucs Whose Fortunes Have Been Helped By The Playoffs

After looking at five Buccaneers who elevated their stock prior to hitting free agency by stepping up in the playoffs, let’s take a look at a trio of Tampa Bay players that have helped their fortunes in the run up to Super Bowl LV. These players are under contract in 2021, but saw their stock within the walls of One Buccaneer Place slip during the regular season – only to rebound in a big way during the postseason.

LT Donovan Smith

Smith entered the season in a contract year of sorts, as this is the final year of his contract that features guaranteed money. Smith earned $14.5 million in 2020 and is on the books for $14.25 million next year, but Tampa Bay could release him without any dead cap money hitting the team. Halfway through the season there was speculation that the Bucs could move first-round right tackle Tristan Wirfs to left tackle, draft a right tackle and part way with Smith to help the team’s salary cap situation in 2021.

Smith had his ups and downs with inconsistent play during the regular season and was whistled for a team-high 11 penalties, including six holding calls. But Smith’s play really picked up over the second half of the season with just two penalties in the last eight games, including none in the playoffs. Smith has also allowed just one sack in the last seven games, as his pass protection has greatly improved in the team’s winning streak since the bye week.

Smith shut down the likes of Washington’s Chase Young, New Orleans’ Trey Hendrickson and Green Bay’s Z’Darius Smith in three consecutive playoff games and has only allowed just four total pressures in the postseason. Simply put, Smith is playing his best football right now and it’s hard to imagine the Bucs letting him go at the end of the season. He’ll be in a contract year in 2021 and have every incentive to continue his stellar play into next season as Tom Brady’s blindside protector.

CB Sean Murphy-Bunting

Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting

Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: USA Today

Murphy-Bunting led the team with three interceptions, including one pick-six, as a rookie in 2019 and was poised for a big year in his second season. Early season injuries and bouts of losing confidence caused him to have a very mediocre 2020 campaign. He lost his outside starting cornerback job around midseason to Jamel Dean, and was relegated to playing nickel cornerback for a few games.

The team’s second-round pick from a year ago surrendered over 700 yards and six touchdowns during the regular season and finished with just one interception and only two pass break-ups. Towards the end of the season it looked like the Bucs were going to have to draft a cornerback in 2021 to challenge Murphy-Bunting for playing time, while Carlton Davis III and Jamel Dean were entrenched as the starters on the outside.

But Murphy-Bunting has become a big-time play-maker in Tampa Bay’s three postseason victories, recording a key interception in each game. Those three interceptions have been turned into touchdowns by the Bucs offense. Murphy-Bunting’s confidence is way up and so is his future in Tampa Bay right now. This doesn’t mean that the Bucs won’t draft a cornerback this year, as Davis is entering a contract year, but Murphy-Bunting’s improved play doesn’t mean that Tampa Bay has to.

TE Cameron Brate

Brate had to take a pay cut from $6 million to $4.25 million to remain in Tampa Bay this past offseason. Brate started the season third on the depth chart behind Rob Gronkowski and O.J. Howard, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, and he was seldom targeted in the first month of season, recording just one catch for a 3-yard touchdown. But once Howard went down with a torn Achilles, Brate was elevated up the depth chart and finished the year with 28 receptions for 282 yards and a pair of scores.

During the postseason, Brate has seen his number of targets and his production suddenly skyrocket. After being targeted 28 times in 13 games, the sixth-year tight end has been targeted 16 times in three playoff games, catching 11 passes for 149 yards (13.5 avg.) and a key touchdown in the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay last Sunday. By comparison, Gronkowski has just two catches for 43 yards (21.5 avg.) in the postseason.

Brate is not a lock to make the Bucs next year, especially if Gronkowski returns for another year to join Howard, who will be back from injury in 2021. In order for him to remain in Tampa Bay, Brate will need to once again take a pay cut from his $6.8 million salary. If not, the Bucs will have to part ways with him due to his high cap value. But given Howard’s penchant for injury, Gronkowski’s age (he turns 32 in May), and his rapport with Tom Brady, Brate’s stellar postseason may prove his worth to the team and he might be back in 2021.

FAB 3. Two Big Turning Points In Bucs’ 2020 Season

It’s been a tale of three seasons in Tampa Bay during the 2020 campaign, with each season better than the one before it. Those three seasons have been divided by two major turning points in 2020. Those two turning points came in a 20-19 loss at Chicago on Thursday Night Football in Week 5, and during the Week 13 bye week.

Let’s examine those two turning points and how they impacted the Bucs’ run to Super Bowl LV.

Tampa Bay’s Loss At Chicago In Week 5

Bucs QB Tom Brady

Bucs QB Tom Brady – Photo by: USA Today

Tampa Bay was 3-2 after a stunning loss to Chicago on a short week, 20-19. The Bucs raced out to a 13-0 lead but saw the Bears score two touchdowns in the last two minutes of the first half to take the lead, 14-13, at halftime. The Bucs struggled mightily in the red zone and with penalties, getting flagged 11 times for 109 yards – both season highs.

Tampa Bay was the most penalized team in 2019, the first year under Bruce Arians, and started the 2020 campaign the same way through the first five weeks. But when quarterback Tom Brady erupted on the field and on the sidelines after the Bucs’ self-destruction everything changed.

“When we came back and looked at the film, [we saw] 11 or 12 penalties, turnovers – it was us beating the hell out of ourselves,” Arians said. “We knew we were a good football team, [but] we couldn’t win that way. The players took it upon themselves to become one of the least penalized teams in the league from then on out.

“Nobody was happy with the Chicago game – especially the second half – and I think everybody has lifted their level of play since that game.”

It wasn’t just Brady who was upset at the team’s lack of discipline. Linebacker Lavonte David, a long-time team captain, spoke to the team after the game.

“I think it was a decision by the players to accept responsibility,” Arians said. “Lavonte spoke up about it after the Chicago game – ‘Just quit beating ourselves.’ The other team’s hard enough to beat without beating ourselves, and our guys made a concerned effort. It really has paid off.”

The Bucs didn’t record a single penalty the next week in a 38-10 win against Green Bay, and became one of the least penalized teams in the league the rest of the season. Tampa Bay had five penalties or less in 11 of the remaining 14 games, including the team’s three postseason wins, and have not had more than 65 penalty yards in any game. In fact, the Bucs have had 11 games with fewer than 40 penalty yards since the loss at Chicago.

What a tremendous turnaround by Tampa Bay.

“Like I’ve always said, you learn a hell of a lot more by almost losing than you do by losing,” Arians said. “We learned a lot in Chicago by losing, but I think we found a few things about ourselves now that we’ve won a ballgame like that and it wasn’t our best execution.”

Arians said that the key to the Bucs’ cleaner play on Sundays was cleaner play in practices during the week since the loss to the Bears.

Bucs CB Jamel Dean and Bears TE Jimmy Graham