The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are once again positioned to be a very serious Super Bowl contender this year. the presence of Tom Brady alone can do that for a team, but the Bucs have surrounded him with plenty of talent (enough to have already won a Super Bowl) but the window of contention for this team may be shrinking.
Just this offseason the team lost tight end Rob Gronkowski and guard Ali Marpet to retirement. They also lost outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, although they best remain free agents. There are also several other important players that are over the age of 30, including the 45-year-old Brady. This team has to win now because there they might not have the option to win later.
And if Tampa Bay wants to get back to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, the defense is going to have to regain its dominant form. The Bucs were still good on that side of the ball but not nearly as good as they were when they won it all in 2020 after completely shutting down Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. The key to the defense getting back to that level is linebacker Devin White.
White is undoubtedly a very talented player but he didn’t continue his ascension last year after his fantastic second season in 2020. He still had a great year but it wasn’t what many expected from the former fifth-overall pick. White needs to play better this year so he can reach superstar status and cement himself among the best linebackers in the league.
It is also important that White improves because his running mate at the position, linebacker Lavonte David, is declining. He is still a great player to have in the middle of the defense but he is clearly past his peak and trending downward in his career. In 2020, David was the lead guy in the middle with White supporting him, now the roles are reversed. So White has to get to the next level in order for the transition from David to him to go as smoothly as possible.
Starting alongside those two will be outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett. He will lead the pass rush once again, after racking up 37.5 sacks in his three years in Tampa Bay. With Barrett in place, the Bucs know they can at least count on having pressure from one side of the defense.
Whether there will be anyone producing opposite Barrett will be the big question. There are a few options for the position and all the team needs is one of them to pan out. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka is likely the favorite to earn the role after he was selected with the 32nd-overall pick in last year’s draft. But they also have Anthony Nelson and free agent signing Carl Nassib to compete with Tryon-Shoyinka or at least contribute as part of a rotation.
It would also help if the defensive line could aid them in the pass rush, although that may be unlikely since the team is only returning a combined nine sacks from that last year’s group. Defensive tackle Vita Vea is a fantastic player on the d-line for the Bucs but he is a more traditional run-stopper with the athleticism to occasionally get to the quarterback.
That will put pressure on defensive linemen William Gholston, Akiem Hicks, and rookie Logan Hall. Hicks, a veteran the team signed in free agency, is more similar to Vea so he may end up more impactful on rushing downs. That leaves Gholston, who had 4.5 sacks last season, and Hall as the options to step up. Both are very capable of doing so and good seasons from them would go a long way toward the Bucs having an elite defense again.
The last piece of the defense is also the one that inspires the most confidence, the secondary. The Buccaneers have a secondary so loaded with talent that it may be difficult to get them all on the field this year. Although Tampa Bay did struggle against the pass last year, it was more due to significant injuries in the secondary than it was poor play.
At cornerback, the Bucs have a trio of Jamel Dean, Carlton Davis, and Sean Murphy-Bunting that can rival just about any other trio at the position. All three players are young (each is 25 years old) and productive (15 interceptions across 10 seasons). When all three players are on the field at the same time it makes it incredibly difficult for opposing quarterbacks to complete passes.
It also doesn’t help that the safeties playing behind them are just as good. Antione Winfield Jr. has lived up to his name, playing a fantastic free safety position for the Bucs in his two seasons with the team. He is already among the top safeties in the game and he is still getting better.
Tampa Bay brought in veteran safety Logan Ryan to add another player with elite pass coverage skills that can play over top, freeing up Winfield to wreak havoc all over the field. The team also has safeties Keanu Neal and Mike Edwards, who could start for a lot of teams in the league, but will be quality backups or see the field as part of different personnel groups.
With the defense on track to regaining its top-tier play in 2022, it is just up to the offense to remain elite in order for the Buccaneers to stand atop the league again. Even with Brady setting a bunch of “oldest quarterback ever” records last year, Tampa Bay still finished second in total points and yards on offense last year.
Now, most of that credit goes to Brady, who led the top passing offense in the league, but head coach Bruce Arians also deserves a ton of praise. But Arians also retired over the offseason, so it will now be up to offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich to keep the offense producing at the level it was last year.
One way to ensure that the offense stays amazing is to give Brady more weapons to throw to. Because Mike Evans and Chris Godwin clearly aren’t enough to get the job done (I hope you recognize the sarcasm in that sentence, it can be hard to properly get sarcasm across in writing sometimes). So, the Bucs added future Hall-of-Famer Julio Jones and signed Russell Gage, who might be the best fourth wide receiver in NFL history.
The Buccaneers’ wide receiver group is now easily the most talented bunch on paper. Now it is their job to translate that from paper to the field, which is actually not as easy as it may seem.
Godwin is recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered at the end of last season so his ability and availability are a little uncertain at the moment. Jones, while a legend at the position, is not the All-Pro version of himself. The Bucs could be getting a resurgent season from the veteran but they could also be getting a player that can no longer stay healthy and fails to deliver on the hype. And Gage is an intriguing breakout player but he was also a potential breakout player last year, and being that type of player two years in a row means the previous season left a lot to be desired.
The one constant will be Evans. He is as reliable and consistent as it gets at the position. He hasn’t had a season under 1,000 receiving yards in his career and he has also never played less than 13 games in a season. Brady and Evans alone could produce a great passing offense and if the rest of the receivers are more best-case-scenario than utter disaster then the air attack will be elite again.
Brady will also need the offensive line to be effective again in order to have another great season. When your quarterback is nearly as old as the franchise itself, it is pretty important to give him the time to sit in the pocket without giant defensive linemen bearing down on him.
The Bucs do have most of the line set. With tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs handling the left and right side of the line, respectively, Brady can at least count on good pass protection on the edge.
The interior o-line is a different story but really only because of some recent injuries. Even with the loss of Marpet and fellow guard Alex Cappa, who left in free agency, the Bucs were looking pretty good on the inside of the line until both center Ryan Jensen and guard Aaron Stinnie suffered season-ending injuries in training camp.
Now that leaves guard Shaq Mason, a veteran that played with Brady in New England, left with some unproven options next to him. Robert Hainsey, Sadarius Hutcherson, and Luke Goedeke are all very inexperienced but may have to play an important role this season unless Tampa Bay brings in some reinforcements between now and the start of the season.
The troubles on the line could also negatively impact the Bucs’ running game, which had finally found some life with running back Leonard Fournette. He was a surprising revelation during the run to the Super Bowl in 2020 after coming in as a midseason addition and he continued his success into 2021.
Fournette had his most efficient rushing season last year, clearly demonstrating that he is a great fit in the offense. He does everything required for a running back, from running between the tackles to catching passes out of the backfield. He has truly experienced a resurgence in his career after his time in Jacksonville looking like a bust that could never match his rookie season.
Effective rushing from Fournette will be very important to the offense again in 2022. He will be needed to take pressure off of Brady, especially if the line or receivers struggle. It will also be integral for the rest of the running backs to excel in their roles in order to keep Fournette fresh and effective. With Giovani Bernard, Ke’Shawn Vaugh, and rookie Rachaad White, the Bucs certainly have the guys in the backfield to maintain a great ground game.
Fortunately for the Buccaneers, they can have some issues at a few positions and will still be in good shape because the rest of their division is not much of a threat. Yes, Brady has failed to beat the Saints in the regular season during his time in Tampa, but that was with Sean Payton as the coach and he is no longer with New Orleans. Even with some stiff competition from the Saints, the Falcons and Panther should result in four easy wins for the Bucs.
Tampa Bay will face a few more difficult challenges on the schedule. With games against the Packers, Chiefs, Ravens, Rams, 49ers, and Bengals, it won’t be a cakewalk for them. I still see them going 13-4 and securing the top seed in the NFC due to a head-to-head win over Green Bay.
Even with the potential struggles this team could have, the strengths still heavily outweigh the weaknesses. With great play from the secondary, linebackers, wide receivers, and running backs, the Bucs will be in great shape regardless of how the other positions do. And then there is also Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, to lead the way.
The Buccaneers are a legitimate Super Bowl threat this year unless something unforeseen happens and Brady actually plays like you would expect a 45-year-old to play football. They will need some young players to step up in order to reach their ceiling, but this Bucs team could end up as the best in the sport. I don’t think they will go that far, they will probably lose in the NFC Championship game, but with a roster that loaded, anything is possible.