The current Buccaneers regime seems to be moving into win-now mode with the acquisition of long-time Patriots QB Tom Brady, and the re-signings of aging defensive talent in Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul.
It seems that the biggest reason for this is the age window for Bruce Arians who has never won a Super Bowl as a head coach. It’s looking like there are about 2 years remaining for the quarterback whisperer, meaning that winning now is not only a priority, but a necessity for the veteran coach.
One of the largest contributors to Super Bowl ready rosters is good talent acquisition, mainly through the draft. While free agent signings are incredibly important for filling or upgrading roster positions, good teams build through the draft. This is based on the overall amount of money that is allocated to these players, with free agents warranting much more than drafted rookies.
For example, Vita Vea was a first round draft pick by the Buccaneers in 2018 and he signed a 4-year, ~$14.8 million rookie contract* and will fill a need on the cheap for 4 years. Compare this with the free agent signing of Ndamukong Suh, another defensive tackle, who signed contracts of around $9 million in 2019, and now around $8 million for 2020.*
The cap hits of these drafted players within their first few years in the league allow roster flexibility and make it so that teams can re-sign their free agents to contracts that fend away other teams from signing them first.
Since these players are so important to the success of a team during these rookie contracts, I wanted to see which players on these contracts made the biggest leaps in skill, statistics, and overall ratings, from the first time they stepped on the field, to now. The players on this list are invaluable not only for what they bring to the field, but also what they cost in cap space.
The pool of players I will be using here will consist of the 2017 and 2018 draft classes as the 2019 draft class only has one year under their belt and nothing to compare their year to year growth to. As a reminder, these classes are both pre-Arians, meaning that their first few seasons not only had them adjust to the growing pains of being an NFL athlete, but also showed that they were able to grow despite schematic changes.
The 2017 draft class consisted of: O.J. Howard, Justin Evans, Chris Godwin, Kendell Beckwith, Jeremy McNichols, and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. 2018 saw the Bucs take: Vita Vea, Ronald Jones II, M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis, Alex Cappa, Jordan Whitehead, Justin Watson, and Jack Cichy.
Now let’s take a look at which players in this group made the biggest leaps between 2018 and 2019.
Of all of the players on this list, Alex Cappa had the highest overall improvement according to the rating system of PFF. While I do not like to use PFF as the end all be all for statistical analysis, there aren’t a lot of stats to look at for offensive lineman.
Additionally, while we can see with the naked eye that Cappa improved immensely, the PFF grade really highlights just how much of an improvement he made.
The former 3rd round pick out of Humboldt State posted an overall grade of 40.1, with an absolutely mind-bogglingly poor 13.8 pass blocking grade in 2018. Known as being a nasty, tough-nosed mauler in college, this label seemed to have fallen off as he made the huge jump from D2 to the NFL.
On top of this, Koetter’s staff didn’t even trust him enough to start despite the poor guard play of Caleb Benenoch and Evan Dietrich-Smith.
In 2019, Cappa was given the opportunity to start and hasn’t looked back. While he was mostly just alright at the guard position, this was an immense upgrade from the turnstile play that was seen in years prior.
According to PFF, Cappa took around 700 more snaps than he did in 2018, and posted a grade of 62.7 overall with a 59.4 pass blocking grade. The overall jump was an eye-opening 22.6 points and now it looks as if Cappa will be entering 2019 as the penciled in starter at the right guard position.
If he is able to progress as he did from 2018 to 2019, he will most likely beat out any training-camp competition to start in 2020 and hopefully improve for years to come.
RONALD JONES II
The player on this list that benefited the most from a coaching change, and who made the largest overall improvement to his game is none other than Ronald Jones II. After beginning his NFL career under the label of “bust”, Ronald Jones II, turned everything around between 2018 and 2019 and exploded onto the scene.
His 2018 season was abysmal as it seemed as if he never had what it took to get going. Koetter didn’t do him many favors either as he relegated him to a bench role through the first few weeks of the season. The rookie 2nd round pick wasn’t even making the game-day roster. When he finally got his chances, he did not take advantage of them and finished the season with an underwhelming 23 carries for 44 yards and 1 touchdown, with a PFF grade of 48.8. Awful.
In 2019, we were all told that Peyton Barber would be the starter, despite not being any better than average. Bucs fans stood by confused, knowing that an explosive young player was sitting right behind him ready to get his chance. Arians cited that this was because of RoJo’s inability to pass protect or catch out of the backfield, but with the lackluster running of Barber, we all still wanted to see Jones as the primary ball-carrier.
Despite the back-up role for a good amount of the season, Jones put together a solid sophomore campaign with 172 carries for 724 yards and 6 touchdowns, with 31 catches for 309 yards. This overall improvement also garnered him a 67.6 overall PFF grade, which is an astounding 18.8 points higher than his 2018 season.
If the former USC Trojan builds upon these successes heading into 2020, he should see these number rise all around and be a good contributor for years to come.
It should come as no surprise that Chris Godwin is on this list. The former Penn State standout was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2017 draft, and will actually be the only player on this list from that underwhelming class.
Godwin’s first season saw him being relegated to the third or fourth receiver role behind Mike Evans, Desean Jackson, and Adam Humphries. Despite this, he still finished his rookie season with 34 receptions for 525 yards, 1 touchdown, and an 81.9 overall grade according to PFF.
Entering the 2018 season, we all knew that Godwin was going to be a bigger part of this offense, especially with the lack of chemistry between Jameis Winston and Desean Jackson. He finished this season with an uptick in production by catching 59 passes for 842 yards and 7 touchdowns with another pretty good PFF grade of 80.4.
Once the Bucs landed Bruce Arians, it was immediately known that Godwin would produce, especially with Arians using him in a similar fashion to Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. But man, I didn’t think he would produce THIS much.
Godwin finished his 2019 Pro-Bowl season with 86 catches for 1333 yards and 9 touchdowns despite pulling a hamstring and sitting the last 3 games of the season, he finished with a PFF grade of 90.7.
Not only did the production take a huge leap, but his rating did as well. Talk about rising above the circumstances of playing with two different regimes through the first 3 years of a career. Godwin will hopefully carry this improvement into 2020 and we can all only hope he dominates as he did in 2019.
Cornerback is one of the most challenging positions for young players to adjust to at the NFL level. The receivers are faster, the quarterbacks are more accurate, and the level of play is so much higher that many young corners have trouble in their first few seasons.
This was definitely evident with Carlton Davis’s rookie season as he finished the season with only 4 passes defensed and no interceptions, posting an overall PFF grade of 61.2. He often looked out of position, too slow to compete with faster receivers, and too handsy to limit holding and pass interference penalties.
Even through the first few weeks of 2019 Davis looked as if his struggles would continue. Yet, towards the end of the season he was locking down the likes of Deandre Hopkins and Julio Jones. So how did this look with his season grades and overall stats?
Well, his overall PFF grade in 2019 was 70.4, jumping almost 10 points season to season, which is a difficult feat to accomplish. He finished with 19 passes defensed and finally took in his first career interception that seemed all too elusive through his first season and a half.
With Davis improving like this from season to season, we can only hope to expect an even better performance in 2020, hopefully locking down each opponent’s number one receiver as he did towards the latter end of 2019.
While I would like to put more players on this list, none of them really cut it. The 2017 draft class, with the exception of Chris Godwin, didn’t bring a lot to the team in 2019. With players like Justin Evans and Kendall Beckwith struggling with injuries, and Jeremy McNichols and Stevie T not even being on the team, the class is looking more and more underwhelming by the season.
For the 2018 class, a lot of fans may be citing the improvement of Vita Vea, or Jordan Whitehead to be worthy of this list, but Vea played much the same as he did in his rookie campaign, and Jordan Whitehead regressed quite a bit in his coverage abilities according to PFF.
Guys like Justin Watson, Jack Cichy, and M.J. Stewart played very limited roles in 2019 and I don’t expect them to make significant jumps in their game anytime soon. While they are not all worthy of being ousted from the roster, they just aren’t the best young contributors.
With the huge improvement of the 4 players listed in this article, the Buccaneers have a good base of young talent that will hopefully make even bigger leaps than they did between 2018 and 2019. Plus, with the 2019 draft being the most promising draft in a long time, we can only sit back and wait to see the leap that this class makes in 2020.
Which 2nd or 3rd year player do you think made the biggest leap from 2018 to 2019?
This poll is closed
Ronald Jones II
*According to Spotrac.com