The NFL is all about turnover and parity, so it’s an absolute must that coaching staffs know how to develop their players.
Not only is it a big part of keeping a roster healthy and competitive, but the proper development from year-to-year will add a big boost to the overall performance of a team and it will also catch opponents off guard. I mean, think about it: How much tape did teams actually have on Ronald Jones II after his rookie year? I’m sure a lot of the things he did in 2019 caught opponents off guard because he took the proper steps development-wise in his second year.
So, whose development will be most key to Tampa Bay’s success in 2020? We decided to take this question to the roundtable to figure this one out.
Bailey: RB Ronald Jones II (Year 3)
Before we get to my actual pick, I’m going to take you through my thought process. I was first tempted to go with Matt Gay here. I mean, when you’re in extreme win-now mode x1000000 like the Bucs are this year, you likely aren’t going very far without a reliable kicker. But if Gay doesn’t pan out early, his development won’t matter much, as the team would likely make a change at the position.
I also considered Scotty Miller. He showed potential as a rookie in 2019 and he could figure into the plans a bit more in year two, but there are so many receiving options for Tom Brady to throw to. With Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate and possibly rookie Tyler Johnson (not to mention the running back group) all likely ahead of Miller in terms of targets, his development probably isn’t the MOST essential.
So, I ultimately chose Ronald Jones. For the record, I was extremely impressed with Jones’ development from 2018 to 2019 and I think he is far better than people have given him credit for. But in 2020, he’s going to have to prove it on the field. In year three, he’s going to have to take the next step in the passing game.
Jones’ abilities as a runner are probably the least of anyone’s worries, as Jones’ 724 rushing yards and 4.2 yards per carry in 2019 behind a bad run-blocking offensive line were pretty impressive. If the unit collectively gets better in the run game this year, I expect that he’ll more than take advantage. But where the biggest leaps need to happen are in the passing game. He averaged 10 yards per reception last year, catching 31 of his 40 targets for 309 yards, but the addition of Brady will put extra pressure on him—as well as the Bucs’ other running backs—to up their games a bit when it comes to producing as receivers out of the backfield. If Jones develops even further in that aspect of his game, he’ll be in for a massive season.
But we can’t forget about the final aspect of being a reliable running back in the NFL. Jones’ pass-blocking has been the major stumbling block in terms of his ability to become a three-down back. And with such an emphasis being placed on protecting the soon-to-be 43-year-old Brady, Jones will have to step up in his pass pro. If he doesn’t, the Bucs will be forced to rely on the other guys in their backfield—which brings me to my final point.
From Jason Licht down to Bruce Arians, the Bucs’ leaders have frequently expressed how much they trust Jones. And by letting Peyton Barber walk and then waiting until the third round to select a running back in this year’s draft, they let their actions match their words. Jones is their guy. So, that’s why his development in the passing game is so important. If he doesn’t step up, Tampa Bay will have to rely on rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn or Dare Ogunbowale more heavily, which would be risky. If RoJo becomes fully becomes the guy the Bucs drafted him to be, though, this offense could truly be unstoppable.
Ben: OT Donovan Smith (Year 6)
One of the most important things needed for Tom Brady to have success this season is a strong offensive line. While in New England, his tackles played a huge part in his success.
Drafting an offensive tackle was the number one priority for the Bucs as they traded up to select Tristan Wirfs with the 13th overall pick. This gives the Bucs an experienced left tackle and a right tackle who was arguably the best tackle in the draft. Smith allowed just five sacks last season which ranked 27th in the NFL. However, with Jameis Winston gone, there won't be a mobile quarterback who could get out of the pocket and make a play like Winston. At 42 years old (43 when the season starts), Tom Brady’s mobility is not all there and getting out of the pocket frequently will not work too well. Brady still finds ways to get out of the pocket at times and make plays nobody thinks he can, however it won't be happening all the time.
Tom Brady’s accuracy with protection With the receiving core that has developed in Tampa Bay, giving Tom Brady time in the pocket will be more than dangerous. In New England, Brady benefited off of a ton of big plays that came from him having more than enough time in the pocket and a dump off to the running back or tight end that goes for 25+ yards.
Throughout his NFL career, Smith has improved in each season that he has played. If Smith can continue to improve heading into the 2020 season, depending on how some other pieces of the line pan out, the Buccaneers could evolve into one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. With the expectations for the Bucs this season, Smith will need to play a huge role for the team to play in a Super Bowl in their hometown.
Chris: CB Carlton Davis (Year 3)
While the media has now latched onto the Buccaneers as Super Bowl contenders, they mainly do so based on the addition of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and the overall firepower that this offense has to offer. What they often fail to discuss is the defense.
It is no secret that the Bucs have had lackluster defenses over the years, mainly due to the secondary. We’ve all seen the game winning drives from all star quarterbacks, picking up 60-70 yards in only 50 seconds or less. My biggest concern is seeing average quarterbacks do the same, like Andy Dalton’s comeback against the Bucs in 2018.
Well, I don’t foresee this happening as often as it has in the past now that this secondary has finally found some footing. With the release of Vernon Hargreaves III, the Buccaneers improved immensely, not only because he was often giving up big gains, but because we got to see Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting shine.
However, with all of the talk about the rookie corners in this secondary, Carlton Davis III sort of flew under the radar and quietly had himself a much improved season.
The third year corner out of Auburn had himself quite the sophomore campaign, racking up 19 passes defensed and his first NFL interception. While he improved immensely from his rookie season, he will need to take an even bigger step to ensure that every team’s number one receiver is locked down while Jamel and Sean work through the struggles that all young corners face.
We saw him do this against Deandre Hopkins, arguably the best receiver in the NFL, and I hope to see the same in 2020. If he does, I think this defense will be one to be reckoned with.
David: OT Tristan Wirfs (Year 1)
Of course the team’s first-round draft pick is important in terms of how successful the team might be in 2020. I think the same can be said every year for every first-round pick except for maybe Jordan Love.
This year though, Tampa’s first-round pick has a little more riding on it than years past. Not only has Wirfs’ arrival signaled a changing of the...tackle on the right side of the offensive line, it’s coming at the same time the team is making a change at quarterback. Tom Brady is not Jameis Winston (duh). But there are some negative differences to go along with the positives. Winston is much more mobile than Brady has ever been, and certainly now on the cusp of 43. We aren’t going to see this Bucs quarterback escape some of the situations Winston did for the past five seasons.
That fact alone puts a ton of pressure on the entire offensive line, and escalates the need for Wirfs to become an NFL caliber lineman faster than it would had the team moved forward with Winston.
The predominant thought on Brady is, it’s best to pressure him up the middle. But believe me when I tell you, if Tristan Wirfs can’t secure the right side for Brady, he won’t have time to worry about pressure up the middle, and things could get knocked off track very quickly.
It doesn’t matter how good your receivers are, or how improved your defense is from year one to year two. If your quarterback is firing under duress, it’s bad news for your team.
Evan: DT Vita Vea (Year 3)
The mammoth defensive tackle made tremendous strides during his sophomore campaign after an injury scare during training camp. After last year, it was easy to see why Jason Licht decided to take Vea in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. He showed the power, explosiveness, and athleticism that defined his career at Washington while making plays on a routine basis throughout the 2019 season.
His development was a major reason the Bucs finished with the league’s top-rated run defense, but he wasn’t just a run stuffer. Even though Vea finished with just 3 sacks on the season, he continually pushed the pocket and made life a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks and interior offensive linemen. According to Sports Info Solutions, he tied for fourth in the NFL among interior defensive linemen (who recorded at least 400+ pass rush snaps) with 39 total pressures. In fact, Vea finished with a higher pressure rate (8.5%) than DeForest Buckner (7.7%), Fletcher Cox (7.0%), Kenny Clark (8.4%), and Geno Atkins (6.9%) in 2019.
Vea still hasn’t reached his ceiling, which is scary. If he continues to develop his game in 2020, then it will be a massive boom for the Bucs’ defense. He doesn’t even have to get to the quarterback in order to make life harder for opposing offenses. His presence alone will force teams to double him, which will continue to allow Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, and others to reach the quarterback. It will also take some pressure off of Barrett and Pierre-Paul, who will be relied upon heavily in their second year together.
And all of that would obviously help a young secondary that will likely see some growing pains this year.
It all starts up front in the NFL. It’ll be no different for Vea and the Bucs in 2020.
Gil: HC Bruce Arians (Year 2)
Head coach Bruce Arians doesn’t play on the field. But he most certainly has the biggest impact on the turf. Why? His coaching and the personnel he puts together will be huge.
The so-called quarterback whisperer was unable to fix former quarterback Jameis Winston which was shocking considering the two had a mutual likeness and respect for each other. The plays that were allowed to be called at times by offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich were often questionable. The team looked like they were not prepared to play certain weeks.
That’s all on coaching. That was all on Bruce Arians in 2019.
When Arians signed on to coach the Buccaneers, there were reports and “feels” that he wouldn’t coach beyond a third year. If all true, that means this season’s end will already put him beyond the halfway point and based on that, what exactly has been accomplished?
This season will present many challenges. He let his quarterback walk in free agency (right or wrong) so consistency on offense will now be a big question mark. That will try to be fixed by future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski, but that’s never guaranteed nor will they be around forever (maybe not even beyond 2020?). So consistency for the very near future will again be a potential issue. Factor in the reality of how the COVID-19 pandemic is limiting the team’s ability to come together to prepare for this season and Arians along with his staff will have a huge task in getting this team ready for any kind of success in 2020.
However, it’s not just about the step Arians needs to take this year. That step taken has to be big enough to build the foundation for some kind of a future. Will that happen? Who knows.
Many thought this team was already built for a run of success even before acquiring Brady. Success didn’t happen. Arians has a big job this season. Much bigger than even he may realize.
James: CB Carlton Davis (Year 3)
Carlton Davis is the “old vet” in the cornerback group now, which is wild to think about. However, someone has to establish themselves as “the man” in that room. While he, Jamel Dean, and Sean Murphy-Bunting all showed flashes in 2019, there has to be the one guy to step up and assert themselves as the top dog.
Davis has all the talent and ability to be able to stop - or at the very least, slow down - the likes of Michael Thomas and Julio Jones. It’s a matter of putting together everything he learned last season, having trust in the system, having trust in himself, and putting it all on film. He has to take the time and the effort to piece together all the great things he’s done and make that his game week in and week out.
This team has shown they have no patience for players in the secondary that can’t make the leaps necessary to stop opposing receivers. Just because you were a day two pick doesn’t mean you’re safe. Vernon Hargreaves was drafted eleventh overall and was shown the door midway through last season. He didn’t “get it.” I believe Davis does. He’s just got to show the rest of the NFL that he’s a number one corner and he’s got to do it this season.
Jon: CB Jamel Dean (Year 2)
This is asking too much, I know, but it’s what needs to happen in my opinion. Jamel Dean is only just coming off his rookie season. He suffered multiple serious knee injuries in college, including a torn meniscus and two torn ACLs. Not to mention, possibly because of the massive lost development time, Dean was a project coming out of Auburn when the Bucs drafted him in the third round, with bad-to-sloppy technique and poor awareness. It’s too much too fast.
But Dean flashed his rookie year. Despite only playing just under one-third of the defensive snaps last season — 230 less than Vernon Hargreaves despite Hargreaves being cut in early November — Dean still registered 17 pass deflections and two interceptions. Clearly, opposing offenses targeted Dean when he was on the field, and it was pretty up and down performance-wise. Lots of defended passes but also touchdowns allowed — no shame for a rookie, as most cornerbacks often take several seasons to mature.
But with the acquisition of Tom Brady, the timeline for the Bucs to become a winning team has accelerated substantially, and that includes Dean’s — and other players — development. While Dean seemed to slowly get better every week he played, the Bucs can no longer afford to wait. Dean possesses incredible physical talent, which gives him a sky-high ceiling. He’s in the 81st and 92nd percentiles for height/height among corners respectively, as well as the 92nd, 95th, and 98th percentiles for broad/vertical jumps and the 40 yard dash, respectively. In short, Dean is a physical, explosive athletic freak.
Carl Davis is a solid player and Sean Murhpy-Bunting looks like he could be a very good player. But this secondary is still missing that elite impact defender in the secondary, and nobody — corner or safety — has the athletic potential Dean has. If he can put it together, and I would argue this team needs him to, it could launch this pass defense into elite status. A team with an aging Tom Brady behind center could ride that kind of dominance deep into the playoffs.
Kyle: LB Devin White (Year 2)
I went back and forth a bit on who needed to take the biggest step and ultimately it came down to Ronald Jones and Devin White for me. In the end, I had to lean towards White as he should begin blossoming into the quarterback of the defense. White was drafted 5th overall by the Buccaneers in the 2019 draft with expectations of him developing into a great linebacker.
When you go back and look at Devin White’s 2019 season, there is a lot to like about the young LSU product when you take into account the rough start with injuries and playing catch-up for most of the season. With Tom Brady in town, there is going to be a new level of accountability and this is where I expect Devin White to shine brightest. White already has the physical tools to be an outstanding player, it’s why taking him 5th overall wasn’t a reach. With another very good offensive mind taking snaps this year for the Buccaneers, White should continue to grow and develop his skills in reading the offense and setting his teammates up for success.
If Devin White can take the next step in his preparation and put himself and his teammates in better positions, there’s a great chance that he can help generate more turnovers and get the ball back to Tom Brady and the offense. With Brady in Tampa, the offense will be more efficient but that isn’t to say it will be more explosive. Less volatility will mean better starting position for the defense, but it still needs to do it’s job in stopping opposing offenses and creating turnovers for the offense to work with.
The growth of young talented players like Vita Vea, Jamel Dean, and Carlton Davis to name a few, will rely partially on what the quarterback of this defense does pre-snap. Big growth from Devin White should mean big growth from the whole defense.
Who needs to take the next step for the Bucs in your opinion? Let us know in the comments below!