There are no starters, said Bruce Arians. This is a new Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team, said Bruce Arians. This is a team yet to achieve anything, said Bruce Arians.
It is all very Sunday League a player warning his team-mates ‘it’s still 0-0!’ after scoring to make it 3-0, but the cliched sentiment resonates; one Super Bowl-winning campaign does not meet the criteria for a franchise that has unloaded the treasure chest in pursuit of sustained relevance.
The Bucs will raise the curtain on the 2021 NFL season against the Dallas Cowboys riding a franchise-record eight-game winning streak and as the first team since the salary-cap era began in 1994 to retain all 22 Super Bowl starters, the 1977 Oakland Raiders having been the last to do so as they went on to reach the AFC Championship game the following year.
From both an organisational and roster standpoint the ‘new’, ‘starter-less’ champion Bucs embody envied security and cohesion. Once doubted ‘offseason winners’, the sun-kissed Brady bunch will feel they are primed for SoFi Stadium in 2022. Just don’t call it a ‘run it back’ tour around Arians – he’s not a fan.
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Owner Jerry Jones could look at his Cowboys’ opening-day bow in one of two ways. One, a nationally-televised opportunity for America’s Team to bludgeon the champions and set the tone for their own assault on the Lombardi Trophy; two, a less than welcome ‘welcome back’ for Dak Prescott and a Dallas team still nursing the wounds of a nightmare 2020.
Either way, the star-studded, quick-hitting Bucs with the finesse and ferocity are everything he would like his team to be next season.
The rich stay rich
Besides digging out an extra few million from the wallet here and there, general manager Jason Licht need not say much when it came to convincing out-of-contract players to come back.
First off, it always helps when your quarterback is prepared to play on reduced money, Tom Brady signing an extension through the 2022 season that saves the Bucs $19m against the salary cap.
While Arians cultivated a seductive winning product on the field, between Licht, Director of Football Administration Mike Greenberg and Director of Football Research Jackie Davidson they cartwheeled and balance-beamed around the finances to unanimous scores of 10 in order to keep this unit intact.
In addition to locking in their age-defying quarterback, Tampa applied the franchise tag to wide receiver Chris Godwin, saved $10.65m while extending left tackle Donovan Smith on the back of his best season yet, rewarded edge-rusher Shaq Barrett with a four-year $72m deal, ensured Devin White kept his partner-in-crime by making Lavonte David the eighth-highest-paid non-edge-rushing linebacker in the league, made Rob Gronkowski the second-highest paid tight end in the 2021 season, reworked tight end Cameron Brate’s deal and managed to retain defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, playoff star Leonard Fournette, wide receiver Antonio Brown and kicker Ryan Succop.
They also re-signed defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches and linebacker Kevin Minter and introduced running back depth with the acquisition of former Cincinnati Bengal Giovani Bernard, while bidding farewell to safety Andrew Adams, offensive lineman Joe Haeg and cornerback Ryan Smith.
Former sports agent Joel Corry noted how Barrett, David, Fournette, Gronkowski, Succop and Suh combine for just $21.1m in 2021 cap space, despite earning $53.75m between them per year. That is some fine and dandy cap acrobatics.
Such a purposeful and transparent ‘win-now’ policy is unequivocally the right move to make for the time Brady is still under center; the Bucs are treating the 43-year-old like the seven-time Super Bowl champion he is. A ‘win-now’ approach is also far easier to justify when you do, you know, win now.
Speaking of those 22 starters – not one had a full offseason in which to prepare, notably including Brady as he walked into an entirely new offense and coaching set-up after 20 years in New England. The Bucs also spent extended periods without tight end OJ Howard and run-stuffing defensive tackle Vita Vera, while Brown did not play his first game until November. This team will be better. And that is pretty scary.
Todd Bowles’ effervescing defense can never have too many pass rushers, and the Bucs not only strengthened for the present but cast an eye towards the future as they drafted outside linebacker Joe Tyron with the No 32 overall pick last month.
He was the luxury, shrewd and steal pick wrapped into one, many analysts having projected the Washington product to be out of sight by the time the Bucs were on the clock at the end of day one. But there he was, beckoning as an ideal candidate to succeed veteran Jason Pierre-Paul, whose contract is due to expire next year.
With the No. 32 overall pick in the 2021 @NFLDraft, the @Buccaneers select LB Joe Tryon!
?: 2021 #NFLDraft on NFLN/ESPN/ABC pic.twitter.com/B8JApaHJSZ
“He’s a very fluid athlete,” said Licht. “He’s got very good feet. He’s got good lateral quickness. He plays with tremendous effort, which raises his game speed in my opinion because he never gives up. We just thought his workouts really jumped off the tape, just the way he can move his feet, move laterally and play with balance in his drops. He’s going to be a very versatile guy for us.”
Standout speed, lateral mobility, versatility to drop into coverage, the power to bull-rush. He will fit in just fine.
Beyond that they reinforced a defining factor to their 2020 success by adding third-round offensive tackle Robert Hainsey to Brady’s pass protection options. The Notre Dame product committed a staggering zero penalties while playing 836 total snaps at right tackle last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
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He comes with the potential to slot in at right tackle should Tristan Wirfs be shifted over to left tackle in the event of the Bucs eventually moving on from Smith further down the line.
In fourth-round receiver Jaelon Darden they snagged a prototypical slot option with exceptional yards-after-catch ability to back up an already stacked armory, while former Florida quarterback Kyle Trask has the opportunity to come in and shadow the greatest to do it having been well-drilled in the art of patience while sitting behind Feleipe Franks for two years at college.
“Everything about the guy, he’s accurate, he’s smart, he’s tough, he knows how to move inside the pocket,” said Arians. “People always want to compare people. To me he’s a lot like Brad Johnson and he’s pretty damn good.
“We actually talked about Kyle in the first round. For us it’s processing information, Tom Moore, Byron (Leftwich), those guys have been around a long time and when you watch this guy process information he’s quick to first, second, third, fourth reads and he slides in and out of the pocket like the guys we’ve coached in the past.”
Anthony Nelson and Cam Gill offer highly-regarded depth at linebacker, running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn is still to be tried-and-tested in the NFL having been drafted in 2020 following back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons at Vanderbilt, Arians deems cornerback Ross Cockrell as one of the Bucs’ best pick-ups last season and second year wide receiver Tyler Johnson looms as yet another contributor in-waiting after successive 1,000-yard receiving campaigns with Minnesota in 2018 and 2019.
There is life beyond those 22 starters.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2021 schedule
The message stays the same
While the roster remained unchanged, so did the principle. Protect 12. It seems a little blase, a little simple, but the Bucs’ glory was built on giving their farm animal play-caller a clean enclosure in which to strut.
It is a principle Jerry’s Cowboys should, scratch that, rather have to abide by for the sake of their own talismanic quarterback as he returns from injury, particularly having seen the punishment Patrick Mahomes endured behind a decimated offensive line at the Super Bowl. The minds of those previously unable to comprehend Dak’s influence on that team were quickly changed upon his absence. He needs security.
Brady was only pressured on 23.7 per cent of his drop backs across the 2020 regular season and playoffs, marking the third-lowest among starting quarterbacks according to PFF, whose 82.2 regular season grade for rookie right tackle ranked second in the league among his position group.
February’s Super Bowl saw Mahomes pressured on 37.5 per cent of dropbacks while Brady was pressured on just 16.7 per cent of his. It all but tells the story.
What’s more, Bowles’ defense enters the new season having found its identity with heavy pressure and disguised coverages, along with the ability to adapt as evidenced in against the Chiefs when the Bucs employed heavy zone to cut out Mahomes’ primary reads.
The defensive coordinator, potentially working towards another head-coaching job of his own in the NFL, will also take encouragement from the continued room for progress from a young secondary that made significant strides in 2020.
Nasty pass protection, high-octane, canny and maximum effort defense, and aligned stars finding a way to excel as one.
There is every chance of an encore for a band that is here to stay.
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