For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, their players are busy resting and getting their minds right for the rest of the 2019 NFL season, while coaches are trying to figure out the formula needed to turn a 2-4 start into a strong finish.
In April, the Bucs drafted eight players in the NFL Draft and all of them except for seventh round pick Terry Beckner Jr. (DT, Missouri) have had time on the active roster this season.
Some undrafted players have also spent time on the active roster like offensive linemen Zack Bailey and Nate Trewyn, and most recently, linebacker Noah Dawkins.
With a chance to reset, the rookies are getting ready for their next chance to impact this Tampa Bay franchise. Unlike the team, we’re looking backwards - not forward - for this bye week rookie recap.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR (SO FAR): K, MATT GAY
For the first time in a while, the Buccaneers look to have a kicker with the potential to have some staying power. Of course, we’re six weeks in, so it’s not even close to time to crown Gay the savior of the Tampa Bay kicking game.
Still, through six weeks, the rookie from Utah is 11-for-13 (84.6%) with a long of 58-yards. He’s also made 88.9% of his extra points missing just two out of 18 opportunities with one blocked earlier this season.
Leaguewide, Gay has the Bucs sitting eighth in the NFL among teams who have tried at least ten field goal attempts. He’s also tried the second-most field goals from 50+ yards, and is one of three kickers with three or more attempts from that distance yet to miss one. The others being Greg Zuerlein (Los Angeles Rams) and Matt Prater (Detroit Lions).
ROOKIE LET DOWN OF THE YEAR (SO FAR...MAYBE): CB, SEAN MURPHY-BUNTING
When the Buccaneers drafted Sean Murphy-Bunting out of Central Michigan with the 39th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, there was a lot of confusion. At the time cornerback wasn’t considered the team’s biggest need by most.
Having seen Byron Murphy (CB, Washington), Rock Ya-Sin (CB, Temple), Jawaan Taylor (OT, Florida), Greg Little (OT, Mississippi) and Cody Ford (OT, Oklahoma) taken ahead of Jason Licht’s first selection on day two, it’s possible one of those names was on their list as their preferred candidate. But with them gone, some expected to see a trade back, while others clamored for an offensive lineman like Dalton Risner out of Kansas State (me). If you’d have told Bucs fans they were about to get a cornerback, Greedy Williams (LSU) would have likely been the name they threw back.
In the end, Licht went with Murphy-Bunting and Williams landed with the Cleveland Browns seven picks later. Risner ended up with the Denver Broncos and has started every game this year. Williams has missed the past four games due to injury, so not exactly shining where Murphy-Bunting has faltered, but for different reasons.
No matter, it’s highly unlikely Licht and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles thought they were drafting a special teams player with this Top-40 pick. But that’s what they’ve gotten.
Through six games, Murphy-Bunting has played in each one appearing on 227 combined snaps. 52% of those have come on special teams. Through the first four weeks of the year, he appeared on just 14 defensive snaps while playing on 100 with the special teams.
The gap between special teams and defense has come together over the past two weeks aided in part by the ejection of Carlton Davis III against the New Orleans Saints in Week 5. In that game, Murphy-Bunting played 59 defensive snaps replacing the second-year starter. By far his most action on defense this year.
Nobody came out of the game happy of course, but Murphy-Bunting came out more experienced if anything else. With his first taste of extended play on defense, the rookie came up with four tackles (three solo) and had his first career interception along with another pass defended.
Last week, against the Carolina Panthers, Murphy-Bunting played on 35 defensive snaps despite the return of Davis. More than he had any week prior to Week 5.
With the Central Michigan rookie getting increased playing time, the Buccaneers defense held Carolina quarterback Kyle Allen under 250-yards passing and helped in stopping eleven Panthers possessions from gaining more than 20-yards.
Carolina also finished with a 20% third-down conversion percentage. But all of this has been overshadowed by the offensive nightmare turned in by Jameis Winston and company.
Murphy-Bunting lacked his trademark physicality and press man expertise that got him drafted as high as he did during the pre-season, and it led to his having a minimal role to start the year. He’s gotten more snaps over the past two weeks, and is coming out of the bye as a member of a secondary nowhere near to solidified.
If he can re-locate his confidence and tenacity there’s still time for him to avoid an early ‘bust’ label prior to closing out his freshman campaign in the NFL.
The entire team has been up and down in 2019, so it’s no surprise that the rookie class has had some as well.
While Murphy-Bunting has failed to impress, third-round safety Mike Edwards has played in 91% or more of the team’s defensive snaps starting in Week 2, and likely would have in Week 1 as well had he not been coming off a pre-season injury.
Anthony Nelson has been a late-round contributor appearing on more than 20% of the defensive reps since the season began and contributing on special teams as well.
Devin White and Jamel Dean have shown a lot of promise while dealing with injuries, and many expect to see Dean get more opportunities if the secondary continues to struggle as they have up to this point.
In ten games we’ll revisit the class and see how they impacted the entire 2019 regular season. Until then, we’ll keep our eyes on the young guys week-to-week in hopes they can help this franchise break the losing streak they took into the break.