Buccaneers Won… On Bye Week

“Tommy and Gronky” in their usual spots.

How the Bucs’ Season Outlook Improved Without Playing a Down

While Tommy and Gronky spent a rare off-Sunday kiddie-poolside, the rest of the league was busy doing them a few favors. No, the Buccaneers did not play a down this weekend, but the Bucs won the bye week. The Buccaneers’ seeding improved, and they got healthier. While other teams were fighting the war of attrition that is the NFL’s weekly punishment, Tampa Bay was finally getting some key pieces back on the field.

Reinforcements Have Arrived

Sean Murphy-Bunting has been sorely missed since suffering a dislocated elbow in Week 1. Tampa’s much-maligned secondary gains another returning reserve player in Dee Delaney.

The offense will welcome its primary speed threat, Scotty Miller, back into the fold. The Bucs are not short on receiving threats, but Miller makes defenses respect the deep ball. His speed opens up space underneath for other receivers while also pairing nicely with Mike Evans going deep on the opposite side. In either case, Miller’s mere presence puts stress on opposing safeties.

How the Bucs Won the Bye Week Without Winning

Week 9 is what we poetically refer to as “any given Sunday.” Underdogs league-wide proved that the lines between good and bad football teams are still very thin. Parity is what drives the NFL, and this weekend it was on full display. The Bucs won the bye week because almost every projected NFC playoff team lost.

The Atlanta Falcons almost Atlanta Falcons’d themselves to a loss yesterday. Thanks to a last-minute field goal drive, the Bucs staved off the Saints’ attempt at taking the first place spot in the NFC South. The Panthers remain in the picture, but Sam Darnold’s less-than-inspiring 3 INT performance last week has the entire franchise wondering if trading for Darnold was the right move.

Most of the NFC’s top threats looked beatable at best on Sunday. Dallas and Los Angeles are both looking in the mirror this morning and asking if this past week was who they really are. The Rodgers-less Packers notched a victory against the Chiefs, but these certainly aren’t the 2019 Chiefs.

The Cardinals did manage to defeat the 49ers without their two most important players on offense. Arizona has a clear path to home-field advantage, but after a jarring loss last week, and injuries piling up, they are far from invincible.

Plank or Plunder: Week 4

Lavonte David, handing out the game balls he secured. Photo: Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers escaped a blustery Foxboro with a victory, but the margin of victory was as wide as an NFL goalpost. The offense had a difficult time slinging the rock in the on-again-off-again rain. Tom Brady had arguably his worst night in a Tampa uniform; the infamous week 9 Saints game is the only other time Tom has failed to score a TD while wearing a Tampa uniform. In this week’s Plank or Plunder, none of the usual offensive stars make an appearance. Instead, it’s the much-maligned defense that earned the team a victory.

Plunder: Richard Sherman, CB

Photo: Tori Richman/Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Richard Sherman stepping onto the field on Sunday after being signed off the street on Wednesday is a miracle. That simply doesn’t happen in the NFL. Sherman, the former Seahawk all-pro, led the team in solo tackles (7) and recovered a fumble in the victory. Sherman did not play all-pro football, but anyone who expected him to is out of their mind.

Antonio Brown struggled mightily in his week 9 debut against the Saints last year, and he ended up just fine. Yes, a DB’s role is more complicated than a WR’s, but Sherman’s debut showed that he is not misplaced on an NFL field. We can expect more from him as he learns more about this defense and his role within it.

Plank: The rest of the Bucs’ Cornerbacks

The only other unit in the NFL with as many key injuries as the Bucs’ Cornerback unit is the Raven’s Running Back squad. Bill Belichick, noted Sith Lord and devoid of all emotion, took no pity upon the Bucs while making his game plan. The Patriots played assignment football all night. WRs were in tight bunch formations, pick plays were plentiful, and every snap featured a WR in motion to confuse the new faces in the Bucs’ secondary. This forced confusion created an open man for Mac Jones on nearly every pass play. Jones dinked and dunked his way through progressions on his way to completing over 75% of his passes. New England only ran the ball eight times, and they exited the game with negative rushing yards. The Bucs’ depleted CBs will certainly continue to be the focal point of opposing offenses until the three injured starters at the position are healthy.

Plunder: Antoine Winfield Jr., FS

photo: Tori Richman/Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The former Minnesota Golden Gopher has already become a fan favorite. In just his second season, Antoine Winfield Jr. is developing into a star NFL safety. In week 4, Winfield Jr. logged 5 solo tackles, a forced fumble, and an interception.

Winfield Jr. is a playmaker at the safety position, but he is not a liability to overextend either. Winfield Jr. can man the single high role, he can fill run gaps, and he excels at rushing the passer. This allows Todd Bowles to deploy him anywhere on the field knowing he has an intelligent ballplayer in that role.

Plank: Devin White, MLB

photo: Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Now, before we continue, put down the pitchforks. Devin White is the centerpiece of this defense, and he might even be the best player on the whole team. This week we just think he left a little meat on the bone.

The coaching staff has acknowledged that if Devin wants to continue on his path to being a premier defensive threat he will have to improve in pass coverage. White dropped what looked like a sure-fire pick-six that would’ve sealed the game. While White did register two QB hits, he missed a Mac Jones after screaming through the A-gap by being ole’d like a prized bullfighter. This week is far from a referendum on White’s performance, but he missed an opportunity to close out this game. Fortunately, the Buccaneers have more than one skilled linebacker.

Plunder: Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, OLB

phot: Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Speaking of skilled linebackers, find one Buccaneer player or coach with anything bad to say about Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

The rookie out of Washington has flashed speed and flexibility off the edge ever since his preseason debut. In week 4, with JPP still absent due to a shoulder injury, Tryon-Shoyinka was once again a starting pass rusher. Unlike in the Rams game, where he was held in check, Tryon-Shoyinka burst onto the scene with two sacks. Tryon-Shoyinka is a threatening pass rusher, but he doesn’t turn his motor off on run plays, either. He can be found chasing runners from behind on the rare occasion an RB breaks through the Bucs. imposing defensive line.

The 32nd overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft is making NFL GMs look foolish for passing on him. All indications are that Joe Tryon-Shoyinka has the talent to become a star in the NFL. It will be interesting to monitor how many snaps he is given week by week as he continues to grow into his role.

Plank: OJ Howard, TE

photo: Tori Richman/Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

If you’ve been so keen as to notice, I enjoy exclusively using the photos of established Buccaneers.com professional photographers Tori Richman and Kyle Zedaker. They do an excellent job capturing the emotion and physicality of the game, and they recognize which key players and plays merit being published to the website.

OJ Howard was afforded one single target for zero yards. Gronk was absent from the game from injuries sustained last week. This should have been the game where Howard was able to prove his value. There is no photo of OJ from tonight because he did nothing that merited having his photo taken. This is a contract year, and it looks like OJ will hit the open market.

Plunder: Lavonte David, MLB

photo: Tori Richman/Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Lavonte David had a relatively quiet night, at least compared to his standards. With only 7 total tackles and only one TFL, Lavonte struggled to make an impact during the game. Belichick correctly identified the piecemeal secondary as the Bucs’ coverage weakness, so the Patriots didn’t need to test Lavonte in coverage. But, on the Buccaneers’ final defensive snap, a big-time player made a big-time play in a big-time situation.

Bucs’ fans were screaming Lavonte’s praises into the clouds for nearly a decade. Finally, the league is putting some respek on his name.

I cannot stress enough how huge of a play this was. If this pass is completed, which was all but guaranteed, the Bucs may have never even got the ball back. Nick Folk’s 56-yarder with 50 seconds left could’ve been reduced to a chip shot as time expired. Lavonte wasn’t even in coverage on this play. He was rushing the passer and made a heads-up play to swat the ball when he saw Jones’ release. David didn’t stuff the stat sheet, but he made the play the Bucs needed when they needed it most.

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Rapid Reaction: Bucs 48 – Falcons 25

Game Ball: Mike Edwards scored 2 TDs on the afternoon

Bucs Secondary Shines

After a shaky week 1 debut that saw Dak Prescott slinging the ball all over the defending champion’s yard, the Bucs defense stepped up to the challenge and sealed the game late today against Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons. Despite being rushed and hurried from all angles throughout the game, Ryan maneuvered and manipulated the pocket to near perfection, only taking one sack on the afternoon. l

Today it was the secondary that led the Bucs to victory. In addition to Sean Murphy-Bunting suffering a gruesome injury in week 1, Carlton Davis was questionable to suit up entering the contest. CB depth was thought of as the major weakness on the Super Bowl defending Buccaneers.

In the words of the great Lee Corso, “not so fast my friend.”

Mike Edwards: 4 solo tackles, 3 Passes Defended, 2 INTS, 2 TDs

Former Kentucky Wildcat and 2019 3rd-round selection Mike Edwards had a career day in front of the home crowd at Raymond James Stadium. The ball game was very much in flux at the end of the 3rd quarter, with the Buccaneers nursing a 28-25 lead and momentum at a standstill. Edwards put the game away singlehandedly by scoring two pick-six touchdowns across only three possessions in the fourth quarter.

Edwards’ first pick came in coverage, and his second was on a blitz with his DB compadre, Carlton Davis. The young safety is among the league’s leaders in INT % per snaps played since entering the league, and he was a major factor in the three-safety game plan that secured last year’s SuperBowl Championship.

Another Day, Another 30 Points

Brady: 24/36, 276 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs

Oh, by the way, Tom Brady and the offense put up another 30 point performance. This was the Bucs’ sixth consecutive game scoring over 30 points, dating back to the 2020 playoff run.

Tom Brady, notably good at football, threw for 5 TDs and 276 yards on only 36 passing attempts. This adds up to a 129.2 passer rating and makes him, as we’ve noted, good at football.

Rob Gronkowski: 4 REC, 39 yards, 2 TDs

Gronk and Evans each secured buy-one-get-one deals on tuddies today. The Falcons had no answer to the embarrassment of riches that Tampa has on the offensive side of the ball. Godwin reached the endzone in the contest as well thanks to a dime from Tom Brady. The Buccaneers had their first 5 TD passing performance since Jameis Winston beat the Eagles in Philly in 2015. Mike Evans scored a touchdown in that game as well.

The Bucs looked like the Bucs on offense today. Brady was efficient, receivers got open, the RB corp was maddeningly inconsistent, and the offensive line effectively protected Brady on all but a few snaps. The Falcons did manage three sacks and five total QB hits against the offensive line today, but it wasn’t enough to rattle the man with all the jewelry under center.

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Plank or Plunder? Buccaneers 31 – Cowboys 29

The UNDEFEATED Tampa Bay Buccaneers have ripped victory from the jaws of defeat on the NFL’s opening night. Captain Brady and his shoulder-padded krewe once again slipped the surly grasp of defeat with no time to spare. For those who fare the choppy seas, plunder be the prize. For those who slip or stumble, the plank awaits.

Plunder: Carlton Davis, CB

Carlton Davis: 3 PDs, 1 INT

In my Must Watch Matchups pregame post, I noted how excited I was to watch the Cooper and Lamb match up against Carlton and Murphy-Bunting. Bad news first: Murphy-Bunting injured his arm on a friendly fire hit in the first half. On the plus side, Carlton Davis was shutting down whichever side of the field he roamed.

Davis logged three passes defended and one interception tonight. The 2018 second-round product out of Auburn is one of a long list of players due for contracts next year. With Murphy-Bunting likely out several weeks (or longer, I’m not a doctor) Carlton may prove to be indispensable on the boundary.

Plank: Both Starting Running Backs

Plank running backs
Buccaneers RBs: 1 FUM, 1 tipped INT

On back-to-back drives in the first half, egregious turnovers handed the Cowboys excellent field position. A Peanut Punch from Demarcus Lawrence knocked the ball from Rojo’s hands. Before the coaches could finish telling Rojo to go to the doghouse, Fournette flubbed a perfectly delivered screen-pass with room to run. This sequence kept the game within reach for the Cowboys when it should have been put away.

Each back only managed between 3.5 and 3.6 yards per carry respectively, and neither had more than 32 yards individually running or receiving. While Fournette did end up securing several critical flat release catches down the stretch, neither player was able to make up for their first half mishaps this week.

Plunder: Bradley Pinion, P

“Punters are people too” – Rich Eisen

As foot-to-ball legend Pat McAfee would say, Bradley Pinion showed out for the brand tonight. The third-year Buccaneer pinned three different punts within six yards of the endzone. His first punt, which happened to be the first punt of the season, traveled from his own 22-yard line to the Cowboys’ 2-yard line. If Bradley Pinion had just an average night, the Bucs would have lost the field position battle thanks to back-to-back RB turnovers.

Plank AND Plunder: Chris Gowdin, WR

Plank and Plunder Chris Godwin
Chris Godwin: 9 rec, 105 yards, 1 TD, 1 FUM

Chris Godwin had a very Jameis Winston night at WR against the Cowboys. The promising wideout out of Penn State alternated between putting up and shutting up all night.

Godwin logged the first TD of the NFL season with a motioned slant route, and he made it look easy. Then, he logged a critical drop inside the 5-yard line after beating the Cowboys over the top. With five minutes left to play and only up two points, Godwin coughed up the ball in the redzone and gave the Cowboys chace to take back the lead. Fortunately, with less than 30 seconds left in regulation, Brady goes to, of all people, Godwin with a back shoulder pass to lead the Bucs into scoring range and out of bounds. Brady’s faith was rewarded, Godwin secured the catch and stepped out of bounds comfortably in field goal range.

All is well that ends well in Tampa tonight, but I don’t think Jason Licht will be texting Godwin’s agent about finishing up that rumored contract extension postgame.

Plunder: Ryan Succop, K

Plank or Plunder Ryan Succop
Ryan Succop hitting the game-winning FG.

Tampa, we have a kicker. After years of toying with Matt Gay and He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, the much maligned position of the Tampa Bay packekicker has finally be solved. Succop, just as he did at every junction last season, delivered the goods tonight. After nailing every extra point in a game that ended up needing them, Succop drilled a 36-yard attempt with six seconds left on the clock. The moment was not too big for the former Mr. Irrelevant, and his heroics in the clutch secured the 2021 Buccaneers their first victory.

Honorable Mentions


Antonio Brown – 5 receptions, 121 yards, 1 TD

Rob Gronkowski – 8 rec, 90 yards, 2 TD

Shaq Barrett – 1 sack, 1 TFL, 2 QB hits


CB Depth – Allowed both DAL starting WRs over 100 yards each

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Must Watch Matchups – Bucs vs Cowboys

Week 1, Dallas Cowboys

photo: Calenna Williams/Dallas Cowboys

The 2021 NFL season kicks off in Tampa with a highly awaited contest between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Dallas Cowboys. When America’s best team and America’s Team face-off much will be made about Brady vs. Prescott. This makes no sense to us at PFP because here we believe matchups make fights. The games within the game are going to decide who wins. Here are the must-watch matchups for the Bucs Cowboys 2021 NFL season opener.

Vita Vea vs. Connor McGovern

photo: Tori Richman/Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Zack Martin, one of the league’s top guards, will be on Dallas’ COVID list for week 1. If Jerry Jones could’ve picked one week where he could’ve guaranteed you this guy would be to be available to play, he might’ve picked this week. Martin is one of the few interior linemen who stood a fighting chance of blocking Vita Vea 1v1, and this is Dak’s first game back after a major leg injury. In steps Connor McGovern, a third-year backup guard with some big shoes to fill. Without Martin’s dominant presence Vita will see double teams on nearly every play, and Vita may even still drive the pocket back. If McGovern proves to be a liability, Jerry Jones and the Cowboys’ faithful will be sweating bullets until the final whistle.

Davis/Murphy-Bunting vs. Cooper/Lamb

photo: Tori Richman/Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

While Zeke and the run game have defined Dallas in the past, I’m not so scared about him lining up against the best run defense in the league two years running. It’s the addition of former Sooner CeeDee Lamb that has me worried about the potential of the Cowboys’ offense. In fact, it’s my opinion that it won’t be long before CeeDee is the number one receiving threat instead of Amari Cooper.

I’m interested in how Todd Bowles will attack the Cowboys’ passing attack in the secondary. Will either corner follow a receiver across either side of the field? Will the Bucs lean more on man or on zone coverages to slow down the receiver duo? In any case, we will have some combination of Davis/Murphy-Bunting vs Cooper/Lamb play out the entire time Dallas is on offense. I think this matchup, not Zeke and the run game, will determine Dallas’ success.

Wirfs/Smith vs. Demarcus Lawrence

photo: Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Even though Demarcus Lawrence hasn’t notched a 10 sack season in the last two years, he is still the straw that stirs the Dallas defense’s drink. The linebacking core, with the additions of Penn State stud Micah Parsons and former Falcon safety Keanu Neal this offseason, may eventually grow to become the most formidable unit on Dallas’ defense, but in week 1 Demarcus is the only established threat to Tom Brady in the pocket.

Lawrence is capable of rushing on both sides of the defensive line, and it will be interesting to see where the Cowboys deploy him. Tristan Wirfs has proven to be a top 100 player in the league as a rookie. It may be wiser to line Lawrence up on Tom’s blindside and against Donovan Smith, but either way, Demarcus makes for a must-watch matchup.

BONUS: Joe Tryon-Shoyinka vs. the Bench

photo: Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

In an article earlier this offseason, I predicted that Joe Tryon-Shoyinka may only see the field 35% of the time. I based these numbers off of other #3 pass rush options and how much they played recently.

Ladies and gents, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka is here to ruin all that math I did.

After an impressive training camp, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka upped the ante with an equally impressive preseason performance. The first-round selection out of Washington looks blazing fast off the ball. More than just physical tools, he has shown an impressive repertoire of pass rush moves for a rookie. I’m interested in watching how much action he gets in his first game, and where he lines up when he’s in because Tryon-Shoyinka might just become the next great Bucs defender.

Last Years as Buccaneers? Way-too-early 2022 Salary Cap Predictions

These free agents could be potential casualties for the Buccaneers Salary Cap 2022.
Image: Douglas R. Clifford, Tampa Bay Times

The 2022 Buccaneers retained every single starting player from the 2021 team.

This will not happen again next year.

I’m sorry, fellow Bucs fans. We’ve had far more than our fair share of good news lately. Now it’s time for some medicine. This time, it’s in the form of the 2022 Buccaneers’ salary cap predictions.

The Bucs are currently in 16th place in terms of free cap space available in 2022 with just over $23 million available. Own it’s own, this is not a terrible place to be. In a normal free agency period, $23 million could be enough to re-sign your key players and maybe even make a splash in the free agency pool.

For the 2022 Buccaneers, $23 million won’t even get them their own players.

Image: https://www.spotrac.com/nfl/free-agents/2022/all/tampa-bay-buccaneers/

NOT PICTURED: Carlton Davis, Jordan Whitehead, Alex Cappa

Mo money mo problems, indeed. From this list, we can produce my official way-too-early Salary Cap Predictions.

Players We Can Assume Are Gone:

Ndamukong Suh – Suh enters the 2022 season as the second oldest DT in the NFL behind fellow Buccaneer reserve Steve McLendon. His $9 million dollar cap number is high, and Suh entertained long and actual retirement thoughts this offseason.

Ronald Jones OR Leonard Fournette – The Buccaneers are about as non-committal as it gets when it comes to the RB position. Think of this year as a tryout for next year’s RB. There is a much higher chance of letting both Jones and Fournette walk than there is re-signing both of them next offseason.

OJ Howard – This is the first one that really stings. The 2017 first-round selection has shown plenty of potential on his rookie contract. But, as my previous article on Howard lays out clearly, OJ simply hasn’t been healthy enough. With three out of four of his professional seasons ending on IR, OJ needs to see the field in all 16 games in 2021 to be worth taking on his next contract.

Will Gholston – I’ve been wrong about this one before. Gholston was drafted by the Bucs the same offseason as Mike Glennon (!). He has managed to find a role stuffing the run on every team since then. Next offseason, Gholston will either have to take a pay cut or find a new team.

Jordan Whitehead – Whitehead is a cap casualty expectancy due to the other players at his position already on the team. Antoine Winfield Jr. and Mike Edwards have both shown so much promise as the safety spot that Whitehead simply isn’t worth breaking the bank over.

Alex Cappa – GM Jason Licht has displayed a fondness for inserting random small-school lineman into his guard spots. Next year’s RG is going to be whichever small school lineman blows up at the Senior Bowl.

Players That Are Safe

Chris Godwin – The Buccaneers will have spent a full year in contract negotiations with the budding Penn State product by next year. All indications are that an agreement will be reached, but Godwin should take up at least $15 million of that $23 million available.

Here’s another rough part, that’s the end of the safe list.

What To Do With The Rest

That means there’s only $8 million left to sign Carlton Davis, JPP, Ryan Jensen, Gronk, and AB. Yikes.

By next year Robert Hainsey will have had a year of backing up Jensen at OC, or he could be the starting RG if Jensen is the one returned. Carlton Davis may be worth signing due to the value of his position, but his contract would necessitate clearing up even more cap space. If the team deems him worthy of a true CB1 contract then he’s worth making room for, but GM Jason Licht has been unafraid to draft and start rookie DBs in the past.

If I were the GM, I’d try my damnedest to free up enough space to bring back JPP. Without that vicious defensive front, there is no second Super Bowl ring. But, if Joe Tryon proves to be a legitimate starting OLB, it may be more beneficial to try and squeeze one more year out of Gronk and AB.

Truly, this is the definition of NFL first-world problems. 2021 will be the apex of this Buccaneers’ squad in terms of roster talent. There is officially zero chance that all these Buccaneers fit under the 2022 salary cap.

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Buccaneers Preseason: What to Watch For

What to Watch For, Besides the Score

Welcome to the Buccaneers’ Preseason, where the starters are already decided and the points don’t matter.

Preseason is a time to whet your football appetites. No amount of missed check-down throws or absolute shankapotamus kicks can shake us from our giddiness when football is so undeniably close.

In most seasons, the preseason will settle at least one starting job dispute. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for the first time since 1977, have returned every starter and role player to the roster. That means starting position battles have gone by the wayside, at least for this year.

Fortunately, starters play very little through the course of the Buccaneers’ preseason. The players contending for prominent backup and special teams roles will have a real opportunity to shine. These non-starting players are the ones that Bucs’ fans should be most excited to see this preseason.

Kyle Trask

Kyle Trask attempts a pass during Buccaneers preseason
Image: Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The second-round pick from UF is currently listed as the fourth QB on the depth chart. This is largely symbolic of the other QB veterans’ established careers and not an indictment of Trask’s training camp impression. The upside to this placement is that we may get to see more than an entire game of Kyle Trask over the course of three preseason contests. Trask still has plenty of time to develop, but fans want to know that the franchise won’t be floundering for a QB once Brady hangs up the cleats.

Joe Tryon

Image: Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Through his first training camp, Tryon has garnered nothing but praise from coaches, linemen, and pass rushers alike. The only thing keeping the UW first-round product off the field is two returning pass-rush Pro Bowlers. If Tryon proves he can dominate in the preseason, he might earn the coaches’ trust and blow my snap count prediction out of the water.

Ke’Shawn Vaughn

Can Ke'Shawn Vaughn stand out during the Buccaneers preseason?
Image: Tori Richman/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

First things first, Ke’Shawn’s new helmet makes him look like a Power Ranger.

Second, Ke’Shawn Vaughn is the only RB currently signed to the 2022 Buccaneers roster. If Rojo and Fournette are tandem starters like they were last year, Vaughn should benefit from the majority of preseason touches. A successful preseason could mean an enhanced role for the second-year back out of Vanderbilt, as well as a lock on the RB2 spot going into next year.

Jaelon Darden

Jaleon Darden during the Buccaneers' Preseason
Image: Tori Richman/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jaelon Darden is the rookie causing the most buzz among fans this offseason. While only listed as the second returner and the seventh WR, many fans think Darden has mid-round gem written all over him. The best way for Darden to make the roster this year is to prove he can reliably return punts and kicks during the Buccaneers’ preseason. Then, if Darden can also show the coaches he has the ability to improve as a wideout, he will be worth a roster spot.

If Darden flubs a couple of punts it may be hard to justify keeping a developmental WR on a stacked roster. However, if Darden shows he has reliable hands while still making people miss he can make a bid for more playing time. We’re betting he has those hands, and that he will be an eletric gadget package player in year one.

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Jaelon Darden: Rookies on the Rise

Jaelon Darden during his time in North Texas.
Jaelon Darden, Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 4th round selection.

The Pride of the University of North Texas

Jaelon Darden is already looking like the Meanest Green we’ve ever seen. After only a week in pads, the diminutive rookie receiver out of North Texas has quickly impressed onlookers at training camp.

GM Jason Licht sent the fanbase back to YouTube after trading up for Darden in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The University of North Texas isn’t exactly a hotbed for football talent, and most fans had never even seen Darden play. Cody Spencer, UNT’s last draft selection, was picked in the sixth round by the Raiders in 2004. He never started an NFL game in five seasons.

What Makes a Small-School Draft Gem

In the NFL Draft, size really does matter. First-round picks are supposed to check all of the boxes between desirable superior performance, measurables, and intangibles. If there are any first-round picks that don’t meet the NFL’s expectations in any of these three categories, they must make up for it by being superior in another category. That is how knucklehead pass-rushers and purely intangible-based QBs get drafted so highly.

Jaelon Darden checks the boxes in both performance and intangibles. Darden exits North Texas as its’ leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving TDs. After running a 4.44 40 yard dash and excelling in all the acceleration drills at his Pro Day, Darden erased any doubt that he has NFL athleticism. Then, the interview process revealed Darden to be a humble, well-spoken young man whose football inspiration is his late father. It only takes one listen to determine that Darden is not your stereotypical #1-wearing cocky wideout.

Where Jaelon Darden does not impress NFL Gm’s is in the size category. At only 5′ 8″ and 174 lbs, Darden is exactly as big as Cole Beasley. His career outlook may be similar to Beasley, at least in terms of deployment. PFF says Beasley ran 88.4% of his routes from the slot last season, and Darden’s physical limitations may limit him to the same inside role. While Beasley produced 938 yards in this role last season, Darden is unlikely to see the field that much in his debut season.

Where does Jaelon Darden Fit?

It’s no secret that Darden will have an uphill battle for playing time as a rookie. The highly touted trio of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown are obviously not leaving the field for anything but injury. Scotty Miller has already clearly earned the trust of Tom Brady on the deep ball, and that one lethal trick secures his roster spot. That leaves Darden in a battle with Tyler Johnson, Jaydon Mickens, and Justin Watson for what is likely the final WR roster spot.

Fortunately for Darden, he has an alternate path to the roster. He is electric with the ball in his hands, and he has experience as a punt and kickoff returner. This makes him an incredibly valuable fifth or sixth WR compared to those who aren’t playing special teams. Anyone who isn’t starting or playing special teams is wasting a roster spot.

Sadly for fans, this means we may only see Darden on fourth down to start his career. Darden’s best bet is to inspire coaches to install gadget plays or slot bubble screens with his shiftiness on returns. These plays would allow Darden to display his athleticism in space where he almost always makes the first defender miss.

In almost any other offseason these remarkably promising rookies, namely Joe Tryon and Jaeldon Darden, could earn a chance to prove their ability to play full-time during the offseason. Sadly for them, every starting player is returning to a championship roster. That means these young Bucs will have to patiently wait their turn.

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OJ Howard – Plank or Plunder?

OJ Howard at practice.
Photo credit: Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

“The most important ability is availability.” – Bill Parcells

From a first-round steal to Super Bowl LV absentee, OJ Howard and his pro career have gotten off to an inconsistent start; so inconsistent that he may not even remain a Buccaneer after 2021. Many thought OJ would step in and become the Bucs’ clear number two passing option. A day later, the Buccaneers would select combine standout Chris Godwin in the third round. As they walked off the NFL Draft stage, their career outlooks seemed very different.

Flash forward four seasons, and Chris Godwin has become an NFL star and a dynamic number two receiver. OJ, even after all this time, remains an unknown quantity. A big part of this has to do with the old trusty Bill Parcells quote about availability, and how it’s the most important ability. OJ has been snakebit with injury for a large portion of his pro career so far. Chris Godwin, on the other hand, sustained multiple injuries in one year for the first time in his professional career last year. However, even after undergoing surgery following a finger fracture suffered during a touchdown catch against the Raiders, Godwin was only sidelined for a single game. At wide receiver.

This isn’t to suggest Howard should simply play through an Achilles tear, but this may be OJ Howard’s last chance to prove he can play all 16 games. 2021 represents OJ’s fifth-year extension, and unrestricted free agency is on the horizon. Through four seasons, OJ has only played in 66% of the Buccaneers’ total regular-season games. This means Howard’s career missed-game percentage is lower than Godwin’s single worst season as a pro.

Sorry OJ Howard, there’s only so much to go around.

OJ Howard still has the potential to be a Travis Kelce-level TE in the NFL. The only things keeping Howard from maximizing his potential are the five separate foot/leg injuries he’s sustained since entering the league. Even if these injuries haven’t had a cumulative effect on OJ’s body and future career output, they have drastically affected his availability. If OJ stays healthy and has a tremendous year there will be some real difficult talks come contract time. Top-end TE’s are expensive, and it would be difficult to justify those payments at OJ’s current level of production. Unless OJ sees a tremendous increase in usage and production he’ll remain the Bucs’ fourth target. A team with cap space to spare could covet an offensive threat like OJ and try to feature him in their offense, and Tampa may not have the cap space to keep up.

This doesn’t mean that there’s zero chance Godwin and Howard reunite in 2022, but it sure seems close to zero. The Buccaneers do have $22 million in cap space already freed up for next year, which is good news. They also have waaaaaaay too many players than they can afford to sign with that money becoming free agents next year, which is bad.

Just glancing over the list of free agents, it is unlikely that they deal with OJ before Chris Godwin or Carlton Davis. Ryan Jensen and JPP are both older than OJ, but letting either one of them walk drastically affects their respective units more than letting OJ walk would.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is the NFL is a cutthroat business. Unless OJ Howard proves he can be productive across 16 healthy games, he may be more likely to find a plank than plunder next offseason.

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What to Expect from Rookie Joe Tryon

Joe Tryon has been “whipping a lot of guys’ asses” in training camp week, but what does that mean for the 2021 Buccaneers?

Photo: Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

As if there wasn’t already enough to celebrate in Tampa, the 2021 Buccaneers are bringing the band back together. Every single starter and major role player from last years’ team is back on board. For fans of the team, this is an unusual luxury. For 2021 Buccaneer first-round draft pick Joe Tryon, it’s a major hurdle.

Joe Tryon is set to back up two of the stingiest pass rushers in the league. Shaq Barrett played in roughly 82% of the snaps during the 15 games he participated in, and Jason Pierre-Paul was on the field for 89% of all 16 regular-season games last year. This left last year’s third OLB, former 3rd round pick Anthony Nelson, with a measly 30% of the defensive snaps.

No matter how many asses Tryon whips in training camp this summer, it’s going to be difficult to convince newly extended defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to take one of his star pass rushers off the field. Tryon will likely replace Nelson for third on the 2021 depth chart, but that doesn’t guarantee any more snaps than Nelson got last year.

So, we’re benching a first rounder?

Tryon will only see the field for the majority of a game this season due to injury, plain and simple. The 2020 Buccaneers were one of the most fortunate teams in regards to injury, but injury luck is fickle. With no major holes on the roster to fill, General Manager Jason Licht wisely decided to spend his first-round selection on pass rush insurance for 2021. This has the added benefit of allowing Tryon to comfortably grow into his role as a potential starter over the next few years.

This doesn’t mean Jason Licht reached for a pick or that Tryon is terrible if we don’t see much of Tryon this year. If Shaq and JPP are healthy for 16 games they will start all 16 games, and this is a good thing. If Shaq twists an ankle or JPP reaggravates any of his various injuries then Tryon will play full time.

Until then, we should expect to not see much of Joe Tryon in the regular season. My prediction: 35% defensive snap count, barring injury.

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