Tue, 20 Oct 2020

S.S. Mailbag: Biggest 2020 Challenges

Buccaneers
30 May 2020, 19:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers This week, Bucs fans had questions about the toughest opponent on the team's 2020 schedule, the idea of adding a veteran running back, and more

Last week, we started a series of position-by-position reviews of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' current roster, and this Wednesday we focused on the tight ends. Barring any more changes, the Buccaneers will take five of the same six tight ends to training camp as they did a year ago. There was one minor change - 2019 attendee Donnie Ernsberger has been replaced by a guy named Rob Gronkowski .

As noted in Wednesday's review of the position, the Buccaneers had exactly two tight ends on the field for 28.5% of their overall snaps in 2019, with the "12" package (one back, two tight ends) accounting for 20% of the plays. The most common pairing on this plays using 12 personnel was O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. One imagines Gronkowski will be heavily featured in those sets this season.

The Buccaneers actually didn't get the level of production they would have preferred from their two-TE plays. Tampa Bay's success rate* with 12 personnel was 47%, which was actually equal to how it fared in its most favored grouping, which was "11" personnel, or three wide receivers. However, all plays utilizing two tight ends, including 12 packages, gained an average of 4.78 yards. Overall, the Buccaneers' offense averaged 5.86 yards per play in 2019, and 6.30 on all plays not utilizing exactly two tight ends. Moreover, the Bucs' 12 package only produced 2.80 yards per rushing play, which contributed to a below-average mark of 3.72 on all runs. Gronkowski and the Buccaneers will strive to improve those numbers in 2020.

(* Success rate refers to the percentage of plays run that were successful. A play was considered successful on first down if it gained 40% of the yards needed for another first down; on second down if it gained 50% of the yards needed for a first down; and on third down if it gained a first down.)

The Buccaneers gave snaps to five different tight ends in 2019 - Howard, Brate, Antony Auclair, Tanner Hudson and Codey McElroy. Auclair was mostly used as a blocker in two-TE sets, Hudson got most of his playing time during the two games Howard was injured and McElroy got a very brief late-season cameo. Auclair missed the last eight games with a toe injury.

The Buccaneers used seven different combinations for their two-TE plays (not all of which were strictly 12 personnel). Howard-Brate was the most common, with 172 plays, followed by Howard-Auclair (74), Auclair-Brate (21), Howard-Hudson (13), Brate-Hudson (13) and Howard-McElroy (1). In terms of yards gained per play, the most successful pairing was...Howard-McElroy?

That's misleading, of course. That one play (one of three snaps McElroy got overall) was the one in which McElroy caught a 30-yard pass against Houston down to the four-yard line, setting up a Ronald Jones touchdown run. It's safe to say that the Howard-McElroy per-play average would have come down if they had gotten more snaps together.

In terms of running the ball, the Bucs' best two-TE pairing was Howard-Auclair, as the team averaged 3.85 yards per carry with those two and no other tight ends on the field. That's not a great average in itself, but Tampa Bay didn't have much luck running the ball with any other two-TE combination. The Buccaneers also fared pretty well in the passing game when Auclair was on the field with Howard (9.59 yards per play) or Brate (18.33 yards per play) and no other tight ends.

The 2020 Buccaneers have a lot of talent at the tight end position, particularly with Gronkowski now in the mix, and have shown in the past they can thrive with Howard and/or Brate on the field. The results weren't quite what was expected in 2019 but there is a good chance they improve in 2020.

Now on to your questions for this week.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Who do you think the toughest opponent for the Bucs will be?

- @ewhotham_2005, via Instagram

I mean the obvious answer is the Kansas City Chiefs, right? There is this small matter of them being the defending Super Bowl champions and being led by 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes. I know that, New England aside, being the defending champs hasn't necessarily meant continued dominance the next year - the New York Giants went 9-7 in 2012, Baltimore 8-8 in 2013, Denver 9-7 in 2016, Philadelphia 9-7 in 2018. In this case, though, I'm willing to believe the Chiefs are going to be as tough of an out in 2020 as they were in 2019 until it is proven otherwise.

Most people seem to agree. ESPN's May 4 Power Poll had Kansas City at number one. Same thing for NFL.com on April 26, Sporting News on April 30, NBC Sports following the draft, CBS Sports on May 5, Sports Illustrated on May 28...you get the idea. All of these power polls were created after at least the first round of the 2020 draft and there was a common theme: The first-round selection of LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire could make a scary Chiefs offense downright nightmarish for opponents.

That's the Buccaneers' opponent in Week 12, and we should know by then if the 2020 Chiefs are as good as the 2019 Chiefs, or possibly even better. If so, they're probably the right answer here. Keep in mind that this will be the Bucs' 12th straight game, with the bye coming the next week. A late bye is a good thing, to be sure, but if there's any week you could expect the team to be particularly fatigued or beat-up, this would be the one.

However, Kansas City isn't the only reasonable answer to this question, and I think I actually might choose a different one. The Saints and Packers both jump off the page as teams that went 13-3 last year and are led by MVP-caliber quarterbacks. Both of those teams also have robust pass-rushes that could make things more difficult for Tom Brady in a matchup of top-notch passers. The Vikings are another 2019 playoff team on the schedule and if the Chargers get good quarterback play from either Tyrod Taylor or rookie Justin Herbert I think they could be a sneaky challenge on the schedule.

It's the Saints that I keep coming back to, and particularly that Week One matchup in the Superdome. The Chiefs, Packers, Vikings and Chargers are all coming to Tampa, as are the Saints in Week Nine. But the Buccaneers have to start off the season in the home of the defending division champs, a team that will likely be considered one of the main favorites to win the NFC. The Saints are three-time defending NFC South champs and the obvious hurdle for the Buccaneers to overcome in order to break their playoff drought.

With Tom Brady making his Buccaneers regular-season debut and going toe-to-toe with Drew Brees, the only quarterback who has more career yards and touchdowns than him, this game is going to have a huge spotlight on it. The Buccaneers are confident group and Brady can obviously handle the pressure, but the team's defense is young and will have to prove it can do the same. The Buccaneers' pass rush was dominant at times last year and they were able to keep the gang together in free agency, but the Saints' offensive line might be the best one it faces all year. Last year, New Orleans had an 8-1 edge in sacks in the two games between the Bucs and Saints, and the Saints won them both.

As for the Brady-Brees matchup, our current situation has to at least be considered as a factor. Brees knows pretty much his whole offensive personnel, save for 2020 addition Emmanuel Sanders. Brady has to integrate himself into a new cast of offensive players. There's little doubt he can handle it, but if a shortened preparation window makes that process take a little longer than it normally would, the Bucs might not be as efficient on offense in Week One as they are in, say, Week Five.

Obviously, to be the toughest opponent on the Buccaneers' schedule, a team is almost surely going to need an elite quarterback; I don't think there's a 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense out there right now. There are plenty of those teams on the Bucs' schedule, including the Saints and Chiefs. But remember: Both Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes missed chunks of last season with injuries. There's no reason to believe that misfortune will befall either of these two again in 2020, but some quarterbacks around the league are going to get hurt and when they do they become a less formidable opponent. There's very little chance, however, that Drew Brees will miss Game One. Add it all up and it looks like the Buccaneers might get their toughest test of the 2020 season right out of the gate.

How about getting Rosen to sit behind Brady as our #3?

- @terry_apoel05, via Instagram

I assume we're discussing Dolphins quarterback Josh Rosen because of this NFL Network report in which Michael Giardi spoke about the possibility of Miami trading the third-year passer after drafting Tua Tagovailoa in the first round in April. I think the most important thing to note about Giardi's report is that he says teams have called Miami to inquire about Rosen, rather than the Dolphins putting out trade feelers.

Giardi says that, so far, the Dolphins don't appear to be in any hurry to trade Rosen, whom they acquired from the Cardinals last offseason for second and fifth-round picks. Rosen became available a year after being drafted 10th overall because Arizona and new Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury had the first pick in 2019 and a shot at Kyler Murray. It's interesting to note, as well, that Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim has insisted his team would have been fine holding into both Murray and Rosen. In the end, he felt the second and fifth-round picks he got back for the former UCLA standout were of more value to his team.

I would suggest that Miami is in the same position as the Cardinals were pre-trade a year ago. Tagovailoa is obviously their future and they have a potential veteran mentor in Ryan Fitzpatrick, but that doesn't mean another young and ostensibly talented passer is of no value to the Dolphins. Rosen's cap hit is only about $2.1 million, which isn't too much to pay if he can be a useful reserve quarterback, particularly if he beats out Fitzpatrick for the number-two spot. Is that more valuable than assets that could be acquired in a trade? In the end, it wasn't for Keim and the Cardinals but I'm not sure the Dolphins can get a second and a fifth for Rosen like Arizona did. Also, keep in mind that there are still some concerns about Tagovailoa's injury history, so another good option at quarterback might be more important to Miami than it was to Arizona when Murray arrived with a clean bill of health.

So, to be clear, I don't think the Buccaneers would be in the Rosen market because they wouldn't want to give up draft picks of any significance for a quarterback that, at best, would be their plan (or their hope) for 2022 and beyond. Tampa Bay is obviously committed to Tom Brady for at least the next two years, and it can currently choose between Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin as his primary backup. Whatever their relative value on the quarterback market, both Gabbert and Griffin have a valuable trait to the Buccaneers and that's knowledge of Bruce Arians' offense. No mid-summer import is going to have that. And the Buccaneers have signed a quarterback in San Diego's Reid Sinnett that they're interested in seeing if he can be a developmental type.

I'm rooting for Rosen. It sure doesn't seem like he's gotten much of a chance yet, though you can't blame the Cardinals or the Dolphins for wanting Murray and Tagovailoa, respectively. Hopefully he'll land with a team where he has a legitimate chance to develop into a starter. I don't think that's going to be in Tampa.

Any possibility of the Bucs signing Devonta Freeman?

_- @finneran__

Okay, so before the Falcons released Freeman he was playing on a contract that was paying him an average of about $8.3 million per year, which came on the heels of Pro Bowl seasons in 2015 and 2016. He's had some injury issues since, particularly in 2018 when he only played in two games. Last year was his least productive in terms of yards per carry (3.6), though he did also catch 59 passes in 14 games. Freeman is 28, and I would think that means he's looking for one more decent-sized multi-year contract. We'll see if he gets it or if he eventually has to settle for a one-year prove-it deal for now.

In either case, this just doesn't seem like a 2020 cap commitment the Buccaneers are in good position to make. Thanks to all their aggressive and important moves in free agency (Tom Brady, Shaq Barrett, etc.), the Buccaneers have a fairly small amount of cap space to work with right now, and that's before getting contracts in place for the 2020 draft picks. If there was a glaring hole at running back, maybe the team would find a way to make it work, but I don't believe that's the case.

In fact, I think Jason Licht and Bruce Arians and the rest of the Bucs' staff are perfectly comfortable with their current stable of running backs. That starts with the belief that Ronald Jones is going to take another big step forward in his third season like he did last year. Then add third-round draft pick Ke'Shawn Vaughn to the mix, which also includes Dare Ogunbowale, T.J. Logan and seventh-round draft pick Raymond Calais, and the Bucs are ready to roll with what they have in an offense that is absolutely loaded everywhere else.

Two things Licht said after the second evening of the 2020 draft:

1. "Well yeah, we love Ronald. We think Ronald's going to take another step this year."

2. "[Vaughn] just matched up with what felt like we needed, which was another running back to get in the mix with RoJo, Dare, T.J. - we feel like we've got a pretty good group right now."

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