How well and how quickly will Tom Brady establish a connection with his top receivers? That and other questions submitted this week by Bucs fans
On Wednesday I took a look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' current setup at running back - who's been added and subtracted, how that position fared last year and what questions it faces in 2020. Perhaps the most important question, and one that has also been addressed in recent mailbags, is how the Buccaneers will split the primary rushing load between third-year man Ronald Jones II and third-round rookie Ke'Shawn Vaughn.
That's difficult to predict with much precision right now, particularly with the players and coaches still awaiting the go-ahead to return to the practice field. However, given the big strides that Jones, a 2018 second-round draft pick, made last year and the reasonably large investment in Vaughn it seems likely that Buccaneer coaches plan to use both backs extensively. As General Manager Jason Licht noted on the evening Vaughn was drafted, it's important to have multiple options in the backfield.
"I think he's capable of playing on all three downs so you can't have too many good backs," said Licht. "You can't just rely on one good back. If you have a guy who can do multiple things, it makes him even more valuable to your team. We'll see how it goes. We have to get him here, and we'll get him in the mix and we'll see how it all shakes out. We're excited to have him, as well."
So we're still waiting on that mix, so it's not clear yet how that pairing will work. But there's little question that it can work. Most of the best rushing attacks in franchise history have been collaborative affairs.
James Wilder's 1,544 rushing yards in 1984 remain a single-season Buccaneer record but Tampa Bay only ranked 19th in the NFL in rushing that year. When Doug Martin challenged that record with 1,454 yards as a rookie in 2012 the Bucs' rushing attack ranked 15th in the league. The Buccaneers have finished in the top 12 in rushing yards eight times, and while five of those seasons have featured a 1,000-yard back they have mostly had productive second runners, too.
The Bucs finished fourth in the NFL with 134.3 rushing yards per game in 1998, their highest finish ever, and their leading rusher, Warrick Dunn, accounted for 47.8% of those yards. Mike Alstott produced 39.4% of the total. In seven of the eight seasons in question the Bucs' leading rusher accounted for less than 55% of the team's overall yardage total. In all but one of those seasons the Bucs had a second player produce 22% of the overall total or more.
Tampa Bay's best rushing season ever in terms of total yards was 1979, when Ricky Bell led the team to 2,437 yards, or 152.3 per game. Even then, however, Bell accounted for just 51.8% of the total, with Jerry Eckwood adding 28.3%.
Bruce Arians and the Buccaneers clearly want a more balanced attack than the 2019 version that ranked first in passing yards but 24th in rushing yards. A top-10 ground game would be ideal. Last year, the 10th-ranked rushing team, Denver, gained 1,662 yards on the ground. If we took that total and applied the percentages from the 1979 team, you would have the leading rusher with 861 yards and the second back with 470 yards. Do those seem like reasonable totals for Jones and Vaughn, assuming Jones remains the first option? I think so, and that's particularly true if Jones is adding another 400-500 yards in the passing game.
I don't know what the Bucs' rushing attack is going to look like, exactly, in 2020, but I have a feeling it's going to look better than it has in recent years.
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 email@example.com.
How do you think the chemistry with Brady and Godwin and Evans will look?
Hopefully like the classroom experiment of a really bad chemistry student: Explosive.
Look, mix Tom Brady with a really talented pass-catcher - or two, or five - and you're likely to get good results. When the Patriots picked up Raiders castoff Randy Moss in 2007, after a 533-yard season in 2006, Brady wasted no time making a connection, to the tune of 98 catches for 1,493 yards and 23 touchdowns. Twenty-three! Wes Welker? Eighty-six catches in his first three NFL seasons; 112 in his first year with Brady.
In his first year as the Patriots' starter, in 2001, Brady immediately connected with Troy Brown on 101 completions. Rob Gronkowski in his rookie year? Brady got him the ball 42 times for 546 yards, the start of a very prolific relationship. The Patriots didn't get Josh Gordon until the fourth week of the 2018 season but Brady still managed to find him 40 times for 720 yards. Brandin Cooks came over in a trade in 2017 and immediately had a 1,000-yard season.
Yes, I know this year is different. Brady acknowledged that himself during his introductory videoconference in March.
"There are some really talented players here on this offense that have very unique skill sets and it's really my responsibility - I have one ball and I've got to be able to deliver that ball to the guy who can do something with it," he said. "There is a lot of ground to make up because I haven't worked with these players. I'm going to have to learn what they do, and their body language and how they like things. That's part of the challenge. It's unfortunate what we're going through in our world. It presents different challenges for all of us, so again, as soon as we have the opportunity to all be together in one place, we can really start working toward that. That's what I'm going to do."
So there are some more obstacles for a new quarterback learning the ins and outs of his teammates this year, to be sure. But I don't think we have to worry specifically about "chemistry," which is obviously hard to quantify and not something Arians worries about.
"I hate that word, chemistry," said the Bucs' coach during his first offseason in Tampa. "What is chemistry? It's accountability to each other. Make decisions to become accountable to each other in the street, on the field, in the locker room, every decision you make had better be helping the team win a championship."
And that, my friend, is not going to be a problem with Brady. During that same introductory call, the Bucs' new quarterback riffed on variations of that accountability thing multiple times. Here's one:
"Great offenses aren't about one player," he said. "Great offenses are about every guy being on the same page and playing with confidence and anticipation. ... I'm just going to do it the only way I know how to do it, which is just to fully engulf myself in what is done here. It's a new program that I'm a part of and they have their way of doing things. They're committed to winning and I've got to come in and do my part. That's why I'm here."
Things like "chemistry," or a locker room that is all one page, aren't necessarily causes of success, at least not at first; I think they start out as effects. If a team starts winning and they can see the tangible and good results of their team's programs and philosophies, the players buy in more and more. That in turn leads to more success and more "chemistry." I'm sure Brady has seen that happen many, many times before as the cast around him has changed over 20 seasons.
Bottom line, Brady, Godwin and Evans are all extremely good football players and I can't see why they would fail to produce well together. It may take a little time for it all to be working like a well-oiled machine, with Brady having a perfect feel for how each guy runs his routes and so on, but I wouldn't think it would take too much time.
Who are some likely FA's the Bucs may still pursue prior to training camp?
I don't think there is any single player still available who the Buccaneers are likely to sign, but I will concede that another cost-effective addition is possible between now and training camp. The Bucs sure seem to be in win-now mode, so if there is a veteran available at the right price who could add helpful depth at a light position, I don't think we can discount that possibility.
So I'm not going to make any specific predictions but we can look at who is still on the market at some positions that could make some sense on the Bucs' current depth chart. Just remember that this is your humble writer pointing out these names, not Jason Licht or Bruce Arians.
The Buccaneers could possibly look to add depth at outside linebacker. They were able to retain their excellent starting duo of Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, who had 28 sacks between them last year even though Pierre-Paul missed the first six games. But Carl Nassib took a good opportunity in free agency, heading to Las Vegas, and the rest of the Bucs' depth chart at OLB is made up of very untested players. Second-year man Anthony Nelson, a fourth-round pick in 2019, seems like the most likely to pick up the slack but it wouldn't hurt to have another proven veteran in the mix.
The secondary free agency market has been slow this year, for obvious reasons, and Clay Matthews, Markus Golden and Terrell Suggs are all still looking for their 2020 landing spots. Matthews was let go by the cap-strapped Rams but he had 8.0 sacks last year while playing about 56% of the team's defensive snaps. Golden is a former draft pick of Arians' Cardinals who had a bounce-back year for the Giants last year but might be looking for a relatively rich contract. Suggs, who will turn 38 in October, won a second Super Bowl after landing with the Chiefs late in 2019 but said afterward that he was open to continuing his playing career. He had 6.5 sacks in 2019 to push his career total to 139.
The Bucs used a third-round pick on Vanderbilt's Ke'Shawn Vaughn, as noted above, and are likely to split most of their carries between Vaughn and incumbent starter Ronald Jones. However, it wouldn't be out of the question to bring in a veteran running back to compete with Dare Ogunbowale, T.J. Logan and Aca'Cedric Ware. Devonta Freeman might be a little pricey but Lamar Miller, LeSean McCoy, Carlos Hyde, Theo Riddick and Isaiah Crowell are also still available. Among that group, only McCoy is 30 or older.
As for the Buccaneers' offensive line, the starters are set (assuming first-round rookie Tristan Wirfs wins the right tackle job) and the depth at tackle is good with Joe Haeg and Josh Wells. However, the interior-line depth is made up exclusively of players with little NFL experience. The Buccaneers were high on 2019 undrafted rookie guard Zack Bailey before he suffered a season-ending injury in practice, and 2020 undrafted rookie Zach Shackelford might have a shot at being the backup center behind Ryan Jensen. But if the Bucs wanted to bring in some veteran presence, like they did last year with Earl Watford, they could still sign...well, Earl Watford. Larry Warford, a multiple Pro Bowl selection, was recently released by the Saints, though he may be looking for another sizeable deal. Former Viking Josh Kline, former Bronco Ronald Leary and former 49er Michael Person are also still on the market, and all three were starters last year.
Just some thoughts. Overall, though, I wouldn't expect any more high-profile additions.
You often say on your show with Casey that it was really important that the Bucs bring all those defensive players back and that it was a big priority and everything. I'm not arguing with that- I'm glad we got Shaq and JPP and Suh back, too. But I kinda feel like our passrush was good but not great last year. I mean, were the Bucs even top 10 in sacks? It seemed to me like there were some games where if Shaq wasn't getting sacks nobody was. Also as you also said, Carl Nassib did not resign. So, does the passrush need to be even BETTER in 2020 and if so, who's going to get more sacks?
Thanks - Josh S., Fort Myers (via email to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Yes, Carl Nassib, who was third on the team last year with 6.0 sacks, left for the Raiders via free agency, but if you had told me in February that the Bucs would be able to get three of four back out of Nassib, Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh, I would have happily taken that deal.
Was the Bucs' pass rush good or great in 2019? Well, at times it was great but there were indeed some lulls, which is to be expected. Sometimes the opposition just does a really good job of blocking or schemes to try to limit pressure opportunities. Sometimes you have a lot of near-misses, which is really a flawed phrase if you think about it. But the Buccaneers' defense had five different games last year in which it produced five or more sacks, tied for the second-most in the league. The only defense with more was the Patriots, with six, and we all know how much love was showered on that group last year.
And, yes, the Bucs were in fact a top-10 sack team, as their 47 tied for seventh in the NFL. Perhaps more to the point, Tampa Bay's tallied 117 quarterback hits, second-most in the league and just one behind Pittsburgh. A QB hit doesn't always kill a play like a sack does, but a lot of them do, and the Bucs' total is an indication that they were getting to the quarterback a lot.
Also, the Buccaneers were clearly better at rushing the passer after Pierre-Paul returned from the neck injury that cost him the first six games of the season. Pierre-Paul famously celebrated his return with a sack on his very first defensive snap in Tennessee, but it's probably fair to say that he got more disruptive as he gradually got his legs back. He had five sacks in the last two games and the Bucs got five or more as a team in four of the last six contests.
But yeah, sure, it could be better. One reason the Buccaneers got a lot of sacks is because they faced a lot of pass plays, thanks in part to their top-ranked run defense. Tampa Bay's opponents threw a league-high 664 passes in 2019, 53 more than the next team on the list. In terms of sacks per pass play, the Buccaneers only ranked 18th, at 7.08%.
I think you'd like to see that rate go up. So where could more sacks come from in a defense that lost Nassib and didn't really add a pass-rusher (at least not yet). Well, it probably won't be from Barrett. The Bucs are banking on the league's 2019 breakout pass-rusher having another great year but it would be awfully aggressive to predict he'll get more than 19.5 sacks in 2020. Before he did that, no Buccaneer had ever had more than 16.5 in a season. And you also have to replace Nassib's six sacks.
The most obvious answers to provide a few more sacks are Pierre-Paul and Anthony Nelson. JPP has 21 sacks in 26 games as a Buccaneer; if he can duplicate that rate over a 16-game season he would rack up 13 more in 2020. Nelson doesn't have an NFL sack yet but the Buccaneers were awful high on him when they nabbed the Iowa product in the fourth round of the 2019 draft. A persistent hamstring injury limited the rookie to nine games and 155 defensive snaps last year but he seems like the favorite to soak up a lot of the 650 or so snaps Nassib left behind. Nelson was actually compared to Nassib somewhat when he was drafted; if he can replicate that go-hard-on-every-snap approach of Nassib's he might be able to replace those six sacks, too.
Otherwise, I would look to the inside linebacker duo of Lavonte David and Devin White. Sacks aren't their main job but I wouldn't be surprised to see them going after the quarterback more often in 2020. David has shown in previous seasons that he can be an effective pass-rusher and White had a promising 2.5 sacks last year. They had 3.5 between them; let's pencil them in for seven or eight.
Also Vita Vea could be a candidate to add a couple sacks to his total this year. He had 2.5 sacks last year but showed the ability to penetrate up the middle, especially with Suh occupying blockers next to him. Vea had 12 QB hits total; in contrast, Nassib's six sacks came on 11 QB hits. Vea might just need a little more luck to get to five or so sacks.
Finally, the defense could get a smattering of sacks from the secondary as a whole if Todd Bowles decides to blitz aggressively. Buccaneer defensive backs only had two sacks last year, one each by Mike Edwards and Sean Murphy-Bunting. That could end up more like five or six.
That's a lot of "coulds" and "mights," I know. Certainly not all of it is going to happen. But to summarize the Bucs' pass rush was really pretty good in 2019 and there are ways it can be better in 2020