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Buccaneers
16 Apr 2021, 19:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers This week, Bucs fans have questions about ascending players, reserves who might see more time in 2021 and more Scott Smith

A lot of really cool stuff happened along the way as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chased down Super Bowl glory in the 2020 season. For instance, Mike Evans became the first player in NFL history to begin his career with seven straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Also, Tom Brady became the most prolific touchdown thrower the league has ever seen.

There's plenty more, like Leonard Fournette becoming the third player ever to score a touchdown in four different games in the same postseason. Or Rob Gronkowski becoming just the third tight end in league annals with 100 touchdown catches, counting the postseason. Or Ryan Succop breaking the franchise's single-season scoring record. Or Tristan Wirfs playing every single offensive snap for 20 straight games. Or Devin White becoming just the fourth player since 1982 to have 200-plus tackles and 10-plus sacks by the end of his second season.

When these things occur, I'm usually one of the people trying to get those notes out to the public, along with the Buccaneers' excellent Communications staff, the team's radio broadcast, Staff Write Carmen Vitali and others. It's one of the more fun aspects of the job, especially when you happen to be one of the first to realize a milestone has been achieved.

But, man, I really missed one this past fall. Just last week, I discovered a note about Buccaneers history that absolutely fascinated me. It happened on November 23 and at the time I didn't even notice. I wish I had, as it would have been more fun to point it out at the time. Oh well, better late than never. Here it is:

When Tom Brady connected with Mike Evans on a nine-yard score in the second quarter of the team's Week 11 game against the Los Angeles Rams, it was the 862nd regular-season touchdown pass in Buccaneers franchise history. At that point, the Buccaneers also had an all-time total of 861 interceptions thrown in the regular season. The significance: This marked the first time at any point in franchise history that the team had a positive all-time touchdown pass-to-interception ratio.

It's really quite a comeback story, though it is also another example of how the game has changed over the decades, with passing numbers rising steadily. From 1976 through 1996 - the first 21 years for the NFL's 27th franchise - the Bucs only finished four seasons with a positive TD pass-to-INT ratio. By the end of 1996, the team's all-time ratio was -140. However, the Bucs then reeled off nine straight positive seasons and are currently on another streak of nine straight positive campaigns.

By the end of 2017, that number had been trimmed to -29, and it would improve to -19 by the end of 2018 and -16 by the end of 2019. I checked all those seasons, game by game, to make sure the Buccaneers never got back to even at any point in that span, and they did not. Thus, when Tom Brady took over to start 2020, the Bucs needed him to throw 16 more touchdowns than interceptions to get back to even. After 10 games, he had 23 touchdown tosses and seven interceptions and - though, again I failed to realize at the time - the Bucs all-time mark was 861-861.

After putting the Bucs in the black for the first time ever with that pass to Evans against the Rams, Brady would throw one more touchdown pass and two interceptions in that game, making the franchise even again at 863-863. The Bucs played the Chiefs next and Brady would finish the game with three touchdowns and two interceptions. He had one scoring toss and two picks through the first three quarters, so the franchise was down again at that point, 864-865. Then he connected on two more scores in the fourth quarter, the second of which was also to Evans, a seven-yarder. That made it 866-865...and then Brady went on a monstrous tear. After the Week 13 bye, he would throw 14 more touchdown passes and just one interception in four regular-season games.

And that's how the Buccaneers find themselves at plus-14, all-time, in their ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions. Given that the team hasn't had a season with a ratio of -14 or worse since 1996, it's a good bet the Bucs have turned that corner for good. Oh, and also, Tom Brady is back for the next couple years and has never had anything close to a negative TD-INT ratio in any season. I think we're safe.

Anyway, I found that interesting. I hope you did, too. Now, on to your questions.

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 would you predict has the biggest improvement next season?

- @dinamachina2 (via Instagram)

The answer, of course, is Tom Brady. When is that guy going to start pulling his weight around here? I mean, he's not even the NFL's all-time leader in regular-season passing yards yet. Come on, man.

Lukewarm jokes aside, for my number-one choice I'll go with a guy who definitely believes he is destined for greater things and quite clearly is going to work to make it happen. That would be @MrSeanyB1:

You've got to love that!

Sean Murphy-Bunting, a second-round pick in 2019, is heading into his third season but possibly the first full offseason of his career. Most players get that in between their first and second campaigns but the pandemic wiped all of that out in 2020, making it harder for players to take that proverbial second-year leap. Keep an eye on all of the Bucs' 2019 draftees - Devin White, Jamel Dean, Mike Edwards, Anthony Nelson, Scotty Miller - if this year's offseason returns to some semblance of normality.

As was the case with the Buccaneers' defense as a whole, Murphy-Bunting came on strong in the second half of the 2019 season, setting the stage for it to develop into one of the league's best in 2020. The rookie out of Central Michigan even led the team in interceptions in '19, with three, including two in the last five games and one that he returned for a touchdown to clinch a win in Detroit, his hometown.

Murphy-Bunting did struggle a bit more in 2020 and finished the regular season with just one interception. He and Dean essentially traded the starting job opposite Carlton Davis a couple times during the season, though that was largely masked by how often the team was in the nickel and Murphy-Bunting was in the slot. Late in the season, Head Coach Bruce Arians revealed that Murphy-Bunting had played a good portion of the season at less than 100%, and he occasionally landed on the injury report with a groin ailment.

The postseason was another story. He made huge plays in each of the three games that got the Bucs back home for Super Bowl LV, becoming just the fourth player in league history to intercept a pass in each of his first three playoff contests. His pick shortly before halftime in the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay was probably the most memorable of those three picks as it set up Tom Brady's stunning touchdown heave to Scotty Miller with seconds remaining.

Murphy-Bunting has talent, he has confidence (as some of his other tweets demonstrate) and he now has a much better opportunity to develop his game than he did last offseason. What he'll seek in 2021 is more consistent play from Weeks One through 18 (and maybe beyond), and I think he will achieve that, thereby making a big Year Three Leap.

I won't spend too much time on this, but my alternate choices would be the two University of Minnesota rookies from last year. Second-round pick Antoine Winfield, Jr. was already a revelation in his debut campaign, so it's not like we're starting at a low bar here for his second season. Like Murphy-Bunting, though, he has a chance to produce more consistently throughout the season and hopefully provide even more splash plays from the secondary. He did that frequently in his first month in the NFL, earning Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for September but later had a number of quiet games. I mean, you're not going to get a pick or a sack or a forced fumble every game even if you're a superstar, but I think it's reasonable to expect more of them for Winfield in Year Two. Think of his critical, momentum-swinging forced fumble against Jared Cook in the playoff game at Northwestern.

The other former Gopher is wide receiver Tyler Johnson, a fifth-round pick last year. Playing time wasn't easy to come by for Johnson on the Bucs' loaded receiver depth chart; he ended up with 292 offensive snaps during the regular season and had fewer than 10 in seven games. He did, however, occasionally pop up with a big play at a big time, like his spinning sideline grab on third-and-11 in the Divisional Round game against the Saints. Johnson could see improvement simply by seeing the field more, which would likely be in the cards if Antonio Brown does not return to the Buccaneers.

Is there a player from last season that you'd like to see get more time on the field this season? More of an opportunity?

- @daniel_albert2005 (via Instagram)

Though it's related to the discussion above, this is actually kind of a loaded question. Here's why: For one player to get more time, someone else is going to see less time. That's a natural occurrence and not in and of itself a bad thing, but when we're talking about a team that just won a Super Bowl and then made a huge (and successful) effort to keep virtually the whole roster together, you're talking about a team that probably isn't looking for a lot of change.

For instance, General Manager Jason Licht said two weeks ago that the team is really excited to see more of first-year cornerback Herb Miller, who spent all of last season on the practice squad but did get to play in four late-season games. Cornerback depth is critical and hard to develop and keep, so I would like to see more of Miller, too. But for that to happen, the Bucs would likely be missing at least one of Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting or Jamel Dean due to injury. I don't want that. Or, one of those three could be unexpectedly underperforming, and I certainly don't want that to happen. And that's before we even get through Ross Cockrell, who just re-signed with the Bucs and seems likely to be the fourth cornerback.

For that reason, the two easiest answers are O.J. Howard and Vita Vea. Howard didn't play again after a Week Four Achilles tendon injury last year and Vea didn't play from Week Six through the second round of the playoffs due to an ankle fracture. Obviously, I would like to see both of those guys see a lot more playing time in 2021 simply because they play in a lot more games. Vea changes the way the Bucs' defensive front operates, in a very good way, and Bruce Arians says "the sky is the limit" for Howard in his offense.

That's probably cheating, though, because I don't think that's the kind of answer you were looking for. So let me throw out a couple guys that I think could get some more action in 2021 without it meaning that some other player who is critical to the team's success is hurt or playing poorly. I've got three names for you: Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Mike Edwards and Cam Gill.

Vaughn is a borderline choice on this whole give-and-take snap situation because the Bucs still have Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette and have now added Giovani Bernard to the backfield mix. If Fournette's postseason explosion leads to him getting a larger share of the action in the regular season in 2021, that's already taking snaps away from Jones, who was the team's most productive runner for most of last year. Still, I think there's room to get Vaughn a little more of a look; he had just 26 carries and five catches last year. Vaughn averaged 4.2 yards per carry and scored a touchdown on one of those five grabs, so by no means did he whiff on his small rookie-season opportunity. Maybe the solution here is for the Buccaneers to run the ball more as a team in 2021, creating more opportunities for all the backs. I think Arians would like that. He speaks of wanting offensive balance but Tampa Bay's rushing-play rate of 36.3% in 2020 ranked 30th in the NFL.

And yes, any additional snaps for Edwards probably means a few less for Jordan Whitehead, who is clearly a very good player in his own right. When Edwards played last season it was usually him being subbed in for Whitehead on obvious passing downs. The main exceptions were the Week Three Denver game when Antoine Winfield moved into the slot after Murphy-Bunting was knocked out of the game, and the NFC Championship Game, for which Winfield was unavailable due to an ankle injury. I don't think the Bucs will be looking for any reason to take Winfield off the field in 2021.

The Bucs did play the trio of Whitehead, Winfield and Edwards together for 50 regular-season defensive snaps last year, so we could see some more of that to get Edwards on the field, too. Mainly my reason for wanting to see the 2019 third-round pick on the field a bit more is that he sure seems to have a nose for the football. He picked off three passes last year, including the playoffs, despite being on the field for just 320 snaps. That's just one fewer than Whitehead and Edwards combined for on their 2,365 combined snaps. Perhaps this will be a case of Todd Bowles getting more and more creative with his players and personnel groupings.

Finally, there's Gill, the 2020 undrafted rookie out of Wagner College in Staten Island. The Bucs started the season with both Gill and 2019 undrafted rookie Quinton Bell on the active roster, keeping Bell active on game days for the first month or so. Then those two switched rolls and Gill got to play on Sundays while Bell went to the practice squad. Gill appeared in each of the last 16 games, mostly on special teams but he did get a snap here and there in the edge-rush rotation. He played three defensive snaps in the Super Bowl and used one of them to combine with Ndamukong Suh on a sack of Patrick Mahomes. Gill got credit for the forced fumble on the play when Mahomes put the ball on the ground.

If the Buccaneers do not pick up an edge rusher in the upcoming draft, they'll once again be looking elsewhere to deepen that edge rotation behind Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. The player most likely to get snaps in that rotation is third-year man Anthony Nelson, a former fourth-round pick out of Iowa, but maybe Gill can play his way into a more significant role. I'd like to see what he could do with the extra playing time as a designated pass-rusher.

After the Bernard signing, are there any obvious spots we need to fill in free agency?

- @cleo.beagle (via Instagram)

There's really only one obvious spot that is currently not filled: Backup quarterback. Both Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin remain unrestricted free agents at the moment, which leaves the team with exactly one quarterback on the roster right now. (I mean, if you can only have one, it's nice that it's Tom Brady.) That issue could be resolved by re-signing either or both of Gabbert and Griffin, but it's possible that the Buccaneers turn elsewhere in free agency. They have to add somebody to that line on the depth chart, and would probably still like to have a veteran as the main backup to Brady even if they find a developmental quarterback in the draft.

There is another handful of spots on the depth chart that need to be addressed, though some of that could happen in the draft and you're asking specifically about free agency. The four free agents from the 2020 team who have signed elsewhere so far are reserve tackle Joe Haeg, fourth tight end Antony Auclair, fourth safety Andrew Adams and fifth cornerback Ryan Smith. Smith was also one of the team's best special teams players so the Bucs will likely be looking for a fifth corner who can also help in that regard. However, as noted above, the team is high on Herb Miller so that could be an internal replacement.

So the Bucs could look for another safety to flesh out the depth chart, although they may like 2020 rookie Javon Hagan enough to slide him in there. The Bucs are still deep at tight end especially with both Tanner Hudson and Codey McElroy still around. The team did manage to re-sign its other backup offensive tackle, Josh Wells, but would probably like to add another veteran to that mix. The Bucs could probably also use an experienced backup to center Ryan Jensen. They liked having A.Q. Shipley in that role but Shipley is transitioning from the locker room into coaching.

Finally, it looks like there's a little bit of a hole at inside linebacker. The Bucs ran pretty thin there for most of 2020 but were fortunate that Devin White and Lavonte David only missed two games between them. They had Kevin Minter to fill in while White was out, and they still do but they don't have a fourth inside linebacker, not even a developmental one. Deone Bucannon and Jack Cichy took turns in that role last year but both are free agents who have not re-signed.

The only player who had a prominent role in 2020 (or at least for about half of it) and who has not yet re-signed is Antonio Brown. I suppose the Buccaneers could look for another veteran receiver in free agency if Brown ultimately does not re-sign, but they also have a couple of players who could step into more prominent roles in Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson.

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