Tom Brady's arrival has the Buccaneers thinking playoffs... and more
A few days after Tom Brady arrived in Tampa, he navigated his way from the waterfront Davis Islands mansion he is renting from Derek Jeter to a house owned by Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. Brady carried a couple duffel bags through the door and stood in the entrance for a minute before his senses told him to signal timeout.
He wasn't in Leftwich's house. It was the one next door belonging to a neighbor, David Kramer. "I literally was just sitting here, and I watch this tall guy just walk into my house," Kramer said. "He just like dropped his duffel bags down on the floor and just kind of like looked up at me, and I'll never forget the look on his face."
Brady's decision to go a different direction and leave the Patriots after 20 seasons to join the Bucs won't be without some moments of confusion or anxiety.
Nevertheless, at 42, he didn't merely pack his family and six Super Bowl rings and head south. The team he chose hasn't reached the playoffs since the 2007 season. But he's well equipped for the transition. He has the use of a pair of 1,100-yard receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to go with tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. And a couple of days before the NFL draft, the Bucs traded for the rights to Rob Gronkowski.
Head coach Bruce Arians' "no risk it, no biscuit," scheme applies to his penchant for having his quarterbacks take a lot of shots downfield. That's not necessarily Brady's game, but there are good reasons why Brady was attracted to the Bucs: Arians' reputation for coaching elite quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer; and the team's target-rich environment. Evans and Randy Moss are the only two receivers to start their careers with six straight 1,000-yard seasons. Godwin also made the Pro Bowl last season with 86 catches for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns.
Tampa Bay drafted Minnesota receiver Tyler Johnson, who may not be a burner but makes big plays. Johnson had 204 yards receiving and two TDs in the Outback Bowl.
Luring Gronkowski out of retirement will provide a security blanket for Brady but also should raise the level of play by Howard and Brate. Expect the Bucs to use more 12 personnel — one running back and two tight ends — something Brady did well with the Patriots with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
The Bucs have an explosive running back in Ronald Jones II, but he's not much help in the passing game. To that end, the Bucs selected Vanderbilt running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn. "Aw, man! I can't tell you how long I was waiting on that one," Arians says about waiting to take Vaughn in the third round. "I was shaking on that one." But Tampa Bay wasn't done remaking its backfield, first signing six-time Pro Bowler LeSean McCoy in late July and then bringing in Leonard Fournette, the fourth overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft, shortly after he was released by Jacksonville. Arians professed his confidence in Jones during training camp but Fournette's addition to the mix means the head coach won't lack for options and it could come down to which back has the hot hand.
Over the past five seasons, Brady has completed more than 100 passes per year to his running backs.
The offensive line will be helped by Brady's quick release and decision-making, but Iowa rookie Tristan Wirfs must hold up at right tackle, where he'll be plugged in immediately. The Bucs allowed 47 sacks last season, partly due to Jameis Winston holding the ball too long.
It may take some time, but sooner or later the Bucs will adapt to Brady, who still is pretty good at hitting the home run ball. According to ESPN Stats & Info, last season Brady completed 43 percent of his passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield, which ranked seventh among quarterbacks. His seven deep touchdowns were his most since 2006.
Shaquil Barrett led the NFL in sacks with 19.5, forced six fumbles and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season. Not bad for a guy who had only one other workout in free agency (with the Cincinnati Bengals) before signing a one-year, $4 million deal with the Bucs in 2019. The Bucs used their franchise tag on Barrett, guaranteeing him a one-year contract worth at least $16 million.
What helped Barrett was the return of outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul. After missing six weeks with a cervical fracture, JPP registered 8.5 sacks in 10 weeks. He signed a two-year deal to return in 2020.
With Ndamukong Suh, back on a one-year deal, and defensive tackle Vita Vea, the Bucs are tough to run against. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' defense was No. 1 against the run last season, allowing 73.8 yards per game. It's important in a division that features running backs like Carolina's Christian McCaffrey, the Saints' Alvin Kamara and the Falcons' Todd Gurley II (formerly of the Rams). None of those backs eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark in a combined five games against the Bucs last season.
However, the Bucs aren't very deep up front. Rookie defensive tackle Khalil Davis will add some speed and athleticism inside in a rotation with William Gholston.
Linebacker Devin White got off to a slow start. The fifth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft played his first pro game with tonsillitis and then suffered a hamstring injury. However, he returned with a vengeance, finishing with 91 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one interception, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries, including two returned for scores.
Bowles believes in a pressure defense. When healthy, White can be used in a lot more blitz situations because veteran linebacker Lavonte David is so good at covering ground. David is maybe the most underrated defensive player in the league.
The front seven is the strength of the defense, but the Bucs have length at cornerback in Carlton Davis III and Jamel Dean. Together they combined for 26 passes defended, the most of any duo in the league.
Bowles loves to play man coverage, freeing up others to blitz from all angles. Safeties Mike Edwards and Jordan Whitehead have good range and instincts, but they can't catch the football. A huge upgrade arrived with the drafting of Minnesota's Antoine Winfield Jr. Like his father, who played 14 years in the NFL, Winfield is a joker-type player for Bowles who can play center field, hold up at the point in the running game or blitz. Arians says he reminds him of Tyrann Mathieu or Budda Baker. The Bucs could use another playmaker in the back end with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Teddy Bridgewater gunning for them.
In a division ruled three straight years by the Saints and Brees, this has to be the year the Bucs get back to their identity of dominating on defense.
This is not an area of strength for Arians' team. Placekicker Matt Gay has one of the strongest legs in the NFL and tied for third for the most field goals of 50 yards or more with five as a rookie. He's an automatic touchback when used on kickoffs. Unfortunately, he may also have cost the Bucs two games with key misses. While Gay's ceiling is very high, he needs to avoid the catastrophic games where he misses in bunches.
Punter Bradley Pinion had a 43.2-yard average, and 90.7 percent of his kickoffs went for touchbacks. Meanwhile, the Bucs didn't get very much from their return game. T.J. Logan did some nice things before a season-ending injury, but the Bucs have to get better in all areas. To that end, Winfield should be a big asset. The Bucs will give Dare Ogunbowale a chance to handle kickoffs, but he will be challenged by speedy receiver Scotty Miller.
The Bucs became instant contenders in the NFC with the signing of Brady and are expected to break their streak of 12 seasons without making the playoffs, second longest only to the Browns. Brady has a cache of weapons and a familiar target in Gronkowski. Brady will protect the football, but will the Bucs be able to protect Brady? If so, this Last Dance could be at Raymond James Stadium in Super Bowl LV.
Prediction: 2nd in NFC South
(Top photo by Matt May/Tampa Bay Buccaneers, courtesy of buccaneers.com)