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Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2021 Preseason Predictions and Preview

Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After bringing every starter back, Tom Brady and Buccaneers have one goal in mind — repeat as Super Bowl champs

Tom Brady’s first season in Tampa Bay ended with a celebration worthy of a true pirate — staggering into port after a drunken Super Bowl boat parade. By then, he had secured his seventh Super Bowl title and completed his final pass when he threw the Lombardi Trophy over the Hillsborough River to tight end Cameron Brate, who was stationed on another vessel.

Blame it on the avocado tequila, Brady said, that he consumed on his $2 million, 55-foot Viva a Vida — the GOAT boat. He is no stranger to winning Super Bowls, but he never did anything like this in icy Boston.

“If I had dropped that? I think I would’ve had to retire,” Brate says of Brady’s trophy pass. “That was amazing. He pointed it at me. We talked about it earlier. It was a great throw. I mean, what do you expect from Tom Brady? A great throw.”

At 43, Brady made enough great throws to pass for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns with 12 INTs during the regular season in head coach Bruce Arians’ offense. He added another 1,061 passing yards and 10 TDs in three road playoff games and the Super Bowl — the first one won by a team in its home stadium.

The Bucs return all 22 starters, signaling they’re not ready to toss a chance at back-to-back Super Bowls overboard.

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OFFENSE

The Bucs should be even better after getting the band back together. Chris Godwin received the franchise player tag, and the Bucs re-signed free agents such as Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown. Brate agreed to restructure his contract, and tight end O.J. Howard is returning from a ruptured Achilles. The Bucs also added a sure-handed pass-catching running back in Bengals free agent Giovani Bernard.

It was no surprise that the Bucs needed some time to get the offense going last season. They were 7–5 heading into a bye week when Brady and Arians ironed a few things out. They agreed to an enhanced commitment to the run game, play-action and pre-snap motion. The result was an offensive explosion that led to eight straight wins to close out the season. The Bucs averaged 33.9 points per game in those eight contests, twice scoring more than 40 points and only once failing to tally 30.

Arians has said he believes the Bucs could average 40 points per game in 2021, given Brady’s familiarity with the system and his teammates.

A full season with Brown, who agreed to a one-year contract, could also pay big dividends. He joined the Bucs after serving an eight-game suspension and still produced 45 catches for 483 yards and four TDs in the regular season, adding another eight catches and a pair of touchdowns in the playoffs. Those totals could easily be doubled.

The Bucs may need to play with two footballs. But they have selfless receivers such as Mike Evans, the first player to start his career with seven straight 1,000-yard seasons, and Scotty Miller, whose TD catch just before halftime in the NFC Championship Game doomed the Packers.

Fournette, dubbed Playoff Lenny and Lombardi Lenny for his impressive run during the playoffs, will battle it out with Ronald Jones II for the starting tailback role. That’s one to watch. Fed up with his attitude, Arians asked Fournette if he wanted to be released following a game vs. Minnesota in which he was inactive — a moment that apparently lit a fire under the LSU product.

Bernard gives Brady what he lacked, a sure-handed target out of the backfield a la the Patriots’ James White. The Bucs also added a receiver/kick returner with game-breaking speed in North Texas rookie Jaelon Darden.

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Much of the credit for the Bucs’ success belongs to offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who has worked hard to collaborate with Brady. Leftwich didn’t receive a single offseason head-coaching interview, which Arians calls “a farce.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2021 Schedule

Athlon Sports' 2021 Pro Football Magazine

DEFENSE

By the time the Bucs’ defense faced Kansas City in Super Bowl LV, they were one of the best units in the NFL. Tampa Bay held Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to no touchdowns in a 31–9 rout. The Bucs sacked Mahomes three times and tallied 22 pressures.

Everyone is back after the team negotiated new contracts for Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David and Ndamukong Suh. Perhaps just as important, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles did not get plucked in the 2021 head coaching cycle after interviews with the Eagles and Falcons.

The biggest break the Bucs got last year may have been the return of defensive tackle Vita Vea from a gruesome broken leg in a Week 5 loss at Chicago. Vea was cleared to return from injured reserve and played 33 snaps in his first game back — the NFC Championship Game. Although he didn’t record a stat, he pushed the pocket into Aaron Rodgers’ lap. Left with one-on-ones, Jason Pierre-Paul and Barrett combined for five sacks. Joe Tryon, a 2021 first-round pick from Washington, will add to that rotation.

The secondary blossomed, with Sean Murphy-Bunting posting an interception in three straight playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl. Rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. was highly effective. His forced fumble in the NFC divisional playoff game and interception in the Super Bowl were two of the biggest plays of the season.

Cornerback Carlton Davis III led the Bucs with four picks and proved capable of locking down the opponent’s best receiver. Safety Jordan Whitehead has been a key component to the NFL’s top rushing defense the past two years.

The leader of the defense is Devin White. He’s a budding superstar in the league, a player who never comes off the field. Big, fast and powerful, White is the only voice in the huddle and is just scratching the surface with his play. The bigger the game, the bigger he plays. He had a game-sealing interception vs. the Saints in the divisional playoff and another pick in the Super Bowl.

SPECIALISTS

There’s no way to quantify what it means for the Bucs to have a reliable placekicker like Ryan Succop, who stabilized a position that has bedeviled Tampa Bay for more than a decade despite their best efforts to solve it. The arrival of Succop late in training camp was one of the biggest reasons for the Bucs’ Super Bowl run. He went 28-of-31 on field-goal attempts (90.3 percent) and was perfect on all nine tries in the postseason.

The Bucs rewarded Succop with a three-year, $12 million contract. They also will have the same battery with long-snapper Zach Triner and punter Bradley Pinion as the holder. Pinion averaged 45.2 yards per punt and placed 19 inside the 20.

Where the Bucs need some help is in the kick return game. To that end, they drafted Darden, a 5'8" speedster who led the nation with 19 receiving touchdowns last year.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Arians says, “We’re going to two!” He means winning back-to-back Super Bowl titles, something that hasn’t been done since — ahem — Brady did it with the Patriots in the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Don’t bet against them. The Bucs are the first Super Bowl winners to return 22 starters since the ’77 Raiders. The NFC South is weaker. Saints QB Drew Brees threw his final NFL pass (an interception) against the Bucs in the playoffs. Carolina is rebuilding, and Atlanta is in transition. The biggest advantage is that the Bucs return their entire coaching staff, including Bowles and Leftwich.

Brady will be 44 in August but showed no signs of slowing down despite minor offseason knee surgery. But it’s the defense that found another gear in the playoffs last year. The Bucs are the defending champs and are among this season’s favorites.

Brady recently purchased a new 70-foot vessel. Having captained one water parade, he knows he’s going to need a bigger boat.

Prediction: 1st in NFC South