Welcome to The Hook, my weekly column that hooks you into a different Tampa Bay Buccaneers topic each Thursday, as well as some of my thoughts on the Bucs and the NFL at the end in a section called Cannon Blast.
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Tampa Bay’s 2020 season ended in spectacular fashion with the Buccaneers winning Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium, beating the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, 31-9. With the 2021 offseason nearly upon us, let’s dish out the Bucs’ 2020 Unit Grades and list some of the team’s top performers from each unit.
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What else is there really to say? Tom Brady came to Tampa Bay and exceeded even the most optimistic expectations with 4,633 passing yards in the regular season to go along with 40 touchdown passes and just 12 interceptions. He capped off his first year with the Bucs with a Lombardi Trophy and Super Bowl MVP honors. We knew the Bucs would be better with Brady under center, but not many people can say they predicate this is just his first season in Tampa Bay.
TOP PERFORMER: Tom Brady
The two-headed monster approach used by the Buccaneers in 2020 worked perfectly. While Tampa Bay didn’t wow anyone with an explosive running game, it was efficient, and that efficiency and balance was key to much of Brady’s success as opposing defenses had to respect the run game even if they might not have feared it.
Ronald Jones II led the teams in rushing, falling just short of his first 1,000 yard regular season, but totaled 978 yards and seven scores despite missing two games. Leonard Fournette filled in admirably, and especially in the playoffs where he was a big part of the the team’s success in winning three straight road games in the postseason to reach the Super Bowl.
Rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn had a mostly forgettable rookie year, plagued with turnovers in his limited action. He added just 109 yards rushing and five receptions for 34 yards, while veteran LeSean McCoy was inactive for a good part of his lone season in Tampa Bay
GRADE: B TOP PERFORMER: Ronald Jones II
The Bucs didn’t have a single dominant receiver in their unit, and Bruce Arians has called it the most unselfish group that he has coached. Brady didn’t show favoritism all and spread the ball all over over the field. Still, Mike Evans was able to put up his NFL record-setting seventh straight 1,000-yard season with 1,006 yards on 70 catches, while also leading the team with 13 touchdowns. Chris Godwin battled injuries for most of the year, but still contributed 840 yards on 65 receptions to go along with seven touchdown grabs.
Scotty Miller saw his snap counts shrink with the addition of Antonio Brown, but was still clutch in the playoffs, coming up with timely plays including a crushing, 39-yard touchdown catch as time expired in the first half against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Brown stayed out of trouble off the field and created some on the field for opposing defenses, finishing with 45 receptions for 483 yards and four scores.
GRADE: B TOP PERFORMER: Mike Evans
When O.J. Howard went down early in the season the addition of Rob Gronkowski became a brilliant move by general manager Jason Licht in hindsight – with some prodding by Brady. We all talk about Brady finding the “Fountain of Youth,” well Gronkowski certainly sipped from the same water bottle as the talented tight end ended up playing all 16 regular season games and all four in the postseason. That’s something he had struggled with in previous years and part of the reason for his one-year retirement.
Gronkowski nabbed 43 passes in 2020 for 623 yards and seven scores in the regular season, then was part of an excellent offensive line that kept Brady upright and clean in the pocket throughout the playoffs.
Cam Brate was also a beneficiary of Howard’s injury as he was a forgotten man early in the season but came on late and finished the 2020 regular season with 28 catches for 282 yards and two scores, then added another TD in Green Bay to help the Bucs advance to Super Bowl LV.
GRADE: B TOP PERFORMER: Rob Gronkowski
The Bucs’ offensive line ended the season as one of the best in the NFL and probably the best unit in franchise history.
Going into the season this group knew much of the success of the offense would revolve round how well it would play, especially with a soon-to-be 43-year old immobile quarterback under center.
The O-line accepted the challenge and excelled, particularly after the bye week.
Rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs was outstanding all season, playing every offensive snap and surrendering just one sack all season. The much-maligned Donovan Smith put together an impressive second half of the season and likely secured his spot on the roster at left tackle for 2021 and beyond. Guards Alex Cappa and Ali Marpet hardly ever heard their names called during the year, which is a good thing for offensive linemen. Center Ryan Jensen set the tone with his physical and solid play, while Aaron Stinnie filled in admirably for Cappa in the postseason. GRADE: A TOP PERFORMER: Tristan Wirfs
Losing Vita Vea in a Thursday night loss to the Bears was a big blow to this unit, and the run defense suffered to a degree although the Bucs still led the NFL in that category in 2020. Another area that was hurt by Vea’s injury was the pass rush. It was no surprise after Vea’s return in the postseason that Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul began getting to the quarterback in a big way.
Hat’s off to Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Steve McLendon for stepping in and trying to fill the size 15 shoes of Vea, but the fact is, both combined weren’t the player that Vea is. That shouldn’t diminish their work and the credit they deserve for holding down the fort.
Ndamukong Suh was better than a year ago and ended the season with 44 tackles and six sacks. Like Jensen on the other side of the ball, he really set the physical tone in games. William Gholston, who added 44 tackles and three QB takedowns, will never be a sack master in the NFL, but he was his usual dependable self and did so much of the dirty work that allowed others behind him to shine. GRADE: B+ TOP PERFORMER: Ndamukong Suh
Outside of the Bucs’ star duo of Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett, Tampa Bay’s outside linebackers were largely pedestrian this season as Cam Gill, Anthony Nelson and Pat O’Connor combined for just 17 total tackles, two sacks, 12 hurries and six quarterback hits.
Luckily for the Bucs, Barrett and Pierre-Paul were durable enough and productive enough to not need large-scale production from their reserves. Pierre-Paul and Barrett finished the season with 9.5 and eight sacks, respectively, good for the sixth- and 18th-best marks in the league. In addition, Barrett led the league with 61 hurries.
This was a solid season from the unit, even without Barrett’s league-leading and franchise record-setting 19.5 sack production from 2019, as it played a major factor in the team’s 48 total sacks in 2020, which ranked the Bucs tied for fourth-best in the NFL. Tampa Bay’s 48 sacks were one more than a year ago, and the second-most in Bucs history. GRADE: B TOP PERFORMER: Shaq Barrett
The Bucs’ dynamic inside linebacker duo of Lavonte David and Devin White were leaders and anchors for the Bucs’ defense over the middle of the field. While White had his struggles in coverage at times throughout the season, one would be hard-pressed to find a faster, more talented and more productive unit than Tampa Bay rolled out this year.
White and David both finished the season among the league’s Top 10 tacklers with 140 and 117, respectively, while also making unique, game-changing impacts in their own ways. White racked up a career-high nine sacks in 2020, the league’s best mark for off-ball linebackers, while David finished second among all off-ball linebackers with five pass breakups. GRADE: A TOP PERFORMER: Devin White
Through trial and error and a major amount of draft capital, it seems as though the Bucs have finally completed the construction of their secondary of the future. Tampa Bay’s defense finished 2020 ranked seventh with 15 interceptions and 14th with 70 passes defended. Despite pouncing off to a strong start in 2020, the Bucs’ secondary went through what safeties coach Nick Rapone could only describe as “growing pains” over the second half of the year for an extremely young unit.
But despite their struggles, the unit stood tall when it mattered most in the playoffs, toppling divisional rival Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in back-to-back games before forcing Patrick Mahomes into the worst game of his professional career and holding an already legendary Chiefs offense without a touchdown in Super Bowl LV.
Carlton Davis III proved himself to be Tampa Bay’s true No. 1 lockdown corner this season, even with a disappointing Week 12 performance against Kansas City, allowing a completion percentage of just 61.3 percent in coverage while hauling in four interceptions and racking up 15 pass breakups, good for second-best in the league.
Jamel Dean took a step backwards after eventually earning the starting job in Tampa Bay’s two-cornerback base defense, but still put together a decent campaign. Dean finished the year with six pass breakups of his own and hauled in an interception – an electrifying pick-six against the Packers – while allowing just 7.9 yards per reception.
Sean Murphy-Bunting had his struggles, allowing a team-high 78.3 percent completion percentage, 804 receiving yards and six touchdowns in coverage among Tampa Bay’s starters. On the bright side, Murphy-Bunting added an interception, a forced fumble and two pass breakups while finishing the year on the highest of high notes in the playoffs, becoming just the the first player to record three interceptions in his first three postseason games since Hall of Fame defensive back Ed Reed.
At safety the Bucs got extreme production from Jordan Whitehead – one of the secondary’s elder statesmen as a third-year player – and rookie Antoine Winfield, Jr. Whitehead was free to play where he’s best suited in 2020 as a box safety and added two interceptions. Winfield was a game-changer from day one, totaling an interception, four pass breakups, three sacks and two forced fumbles.
The Bucs even got solid production from their reserves. Veteran cornerback Ross Cockrell was forced to step in due to injuries and did a great job filling in, as backup safety Mike Edwards proved to be one of the Bucs’ most productive reserve defensive backs. GRADE: B TOP PERFORMER: Carlton Davis III
– Taylor Jenkins contributed to this report
• The Cannon Blast section has always been for the most part a light-hearted look at the Bucs and the NFL but I would be remised if I didn’t mention the passing of Vincent Jackson. The team’s fourth-leading receiver in franchise history was found deceased last Monday alone in a motel room in Brandon, Florida under mysterious circumstances with conflicting reports about his cause of death including possible alcohol abuse and possible CTE issues.
But despite the possible troubling cause of death, we can’t undervalue Jackson’s contributions on and off the field.
Jackson was named a captain in just his first season after signing a five-year, $55.5 million deal as a free agent in 2012, and was one of the few free agents who actually lived up to the hype. Jackson managed 1,000-yard seasons in his first three years with the Buccaneers, doing so with Josh Freeman, Josh McCown and Mike Glennon as quarterback.
While his on the field accomplishments are impressive, what he did while a member of the Buccaneers and then after retirement are probably even more impressive. Four times he was the Bucs nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. His work in the Tampa Bay community particularly with the military nd other charities showed a side to Jackson that proved the love for his hometown and the people in it. Besides his community endeavors he was a business man dabbling in real estate and was co-owner of Cask Social a terrific Tampa restaurant and popular hangout.
I spoke to Jackson on the phone a couple months back for an article I was writing on Mike Evans and after a few missed calls back and forth we finally connected and had a nice conversation. We ended it with, let’s catch up in the offseason, as Jackson was going to be a subject of a Thursday Throwback feature this spring. Sadly that didn’t happen. My last communication with Jackson was the week prior to the Super Bowl when I texted him about a charity event. He unfortunately told me he was unavailable and had another commitment.
Sadly, we now know Jackson was already living in the motel where he would pass away less than two weeks later, and dealing with God knows what. It broke my heart when I heard the news and then later realized the last time we spoke he was likely dealing with some sort of demons.
I hope and believe the Buccaneers will honor Jackson next season in some capacity. And perhaps consideration for Ring of Honor induction should be on the table. His stats prove his place in Bucs football history and his life proved a significant place in the Tampa Bay community’s history.
Rest easy, Vincent, and thanks for the memories. It was an honor covering you for your five seasons in Tampa Bay.
Mark Cook currently is the director of editorial content and Bucs beat writer and has written for PewterReport.com since 2011. Cook has followed the Buccaneers since 1977 when he first began watching football with his Dad and is fond of the 1979 Bucs team that came within 10 points of going to a Super Bowl. His favorite Bucs game is still the 1979 divisional playoff win 24-17 over the Eagles. In his spare time Cook enjoys playing guitar, fishing, surfing and family time at the beach. In addition, Cook can be found in front of a television or in Doak Campbell any time the FSU Seminoles are playing. Cook is a native of Pinecrest in Eastern Hillsborough County and has written for numerous publications including the Tampa Tribune, In the Field and Ya'll Magazine. Cook can be reached at email@example.com
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