It’s been quite a while since we’ve done one of these - so what better way to kick off the first week of the NFL season than with the return of Pick Six? For those unfamiliar, here’s how this works; after every Buccaneers game, I will take six topics and give a list of six things based on that topic. For this iteration, I will be taking a look at the upcoming season as the Buccaneers and Cowboys will get this season started this Thursday inside a sold out Raymond James Stadium as the banner commemorating Tampa Bay’s 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV is raised.
Now, enough of the preamble - let’s get started.
Six Topics Suitable For Conversation
1.) Can the Buccaneers go for two? In short, absolutely. You all know they’ve brought back all the starters from the Super Bowl. Players took less money for one year deals (the cap restraints playing a part in that) for the opportunity to come back and win it all again. Tom Brady played all of last season on a torn MCL while learning the offense on the fly. Now, another year in the system and back to full health, Brady and the offense are expected to be on another level this time around. Here’s the issue - repeating as champions is much, much easier said than done. In the Super Bowl era only seven teams have been able to repeat. The Green Bay Packers (Super Bowl I-II), Miami Dolphins (Super Bowl VII-VIII), Pittsburgh Steelers (Super Bowl IX-X, XIII-XIV), San Francisco 49ers (Super Bowl XXIII-XXIV), Dallas Cowboys (XXVII-XXVIII), Denver Broncos (Super Bowl XXXII-XXXIII), and the New England Patriots (XXXVIII-XXXIX). Yes, the last team do repeat as champs were indeed the Tom Brady led Patriots back in 2004. So accomplishing this feat is not only extremely difficult but very uncommon. Every team in the league will be gunning for the Bucs and they’ll have their hands full each and ever week.
2.) Can the defense stay at the top? The Buccaneers had the top running defense in the NFL in 2020 but it was their passing defense that stepped up down the playoff stretch. With the chip on their shoulder being ranked the 32nd - or, dead last - secondary in the league, Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, and Jordan Whitehead set out as men on a mission. Add in Antoine Winfield Jr. and the secondary became a force late in the season. Now, all the eyes are on them to replicate - and improve - on that success. Linebacker Devin White was a liability in the passing game early in the season only to become a playmaker with two interceptions during the playoffs. Going up against high-octane passing offenses like the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Rams, and potentially the Jameis Winston led New Orleans Saints will be a test for this still very young secondary. Not only will they have to maintain the status they achieved in 2020, but they’ll have to raise it to the next level if this team is going to “go for two.”
3.) What roles will the rookies play? It’s pretty impressive that a championship team that brought virtually their entire roster back managed to find space for six rookies to make the initial 53-man roster. First round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka is already showing that he is going to create chaos for opposing offenses. Now, he will be a rotational guy spelling Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett, but defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will find a way to incorporate all three players into certain packages. Kyle Trask is essentially getting a red shirt year, allowing him to sit and learn behind Brady and Blaine Gabbert while refining his skills during practices. Meanwhile, Jaelon Darden has taken over as the return man from Jaydon Mickens who took on those duties in 2020. Darden is a sneaky good talent that can create plays with his quickness and speed, so don’t expect to only see him during special teams. Mostly, fans are excited to see what Tryon-Shoyinka can do, but there are other rookies on this roster that will make an impact throughout the year.
4.) A crowded receiving corps. Can you really have too much of a good thing? We’re about to find out. The Bucs have, easily, the best receiver room in the NFL. People want to pump the tires of the Cowboys but there’s no question that Tampa’s receivers are better. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown headline the group that also includes a burner in Scotty Miller, rookie Jaelon Darden, and second year receiver Tyler Johnson. Throw Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, and Cameron Brate into the mix and Brady has a Vegas-style buffet of weapon choices he can exploit a defense with on any given week. But how much is too much? If you’re a fantasy player, it makes the water a little murky, but these guys don’t care about individual stats. They came back to win a championship. In past years, on other teams, we’ve seen receivers become publicly frustrated and vocal when they weren’t getting the ball. Here in Tampa, it’s all about the greater good. Mike Evans broke his idol Randy Moss’ record for consecutive years to start a career with 1,000 receiving yards so that’s not going to be a factor this season. Chris Godwin looks to be the most versatile of the receivers, and AB now has a full off-season learning the offense and getting back into shape rather than learning on the fly. At the end of the day, the defenses have to pick their poison and hope to live with it. There are just too many reliable weapons that can win any one-on-one battle for defenses to stop. You just have to hope you lure Brady into making a mistake or that you overpower the offensive line and get to Brady before he throws. Again, easier said than done.
5.) But what about the run game? Ronald Jones missed two games in 2020, which cost him a 1,000 yard rushing season. Leonard Fournette was the target of fans’ frustrations until the postseason came and he morphed into “Playoff Lenny.” Now, Giovani Bernard is in the mix. So how is this all going to play out? My belief is that RoJo is still the top dog. Fournette will get his touches, sure, but RoJo is the player the Bucs leaned on last season and nothing should change on that front. Bernard will be the third down, pass catching back and that will surely cut into the touches that RoJo and Fournette see, but their catch rate last season wasn’t very impressive so I should probably say Bernard’s targets will cut into their opportunities but not necessarily much into their production. It was well publicized that Fournette was frustrated with his role during the regular season last year but he was sat down by Bruce Arians and told buy in or get out. Fournette bought in and the rest is history. It will be similar this year. Bernard knows he was brought here for a specific role. RoJo and Fournette know they’re splitting time and have to share their playing time with one another. In the end, as long as the offense is putting up points, it doesn’t matter whose turn it was. They want another ring - and both will have the opportunity to hit the open market after this season with the potential of putting “back to back champion” on their resume, which will earn a few extra dollars.
6.) Biggest hurdle? Health. Hands down, the answer is health. The Bucs have a lot of depth in a lot of places, but they were able to make their run in 2020 due in large part to the team staying healthy. The losses of O.J. Howard and Vita Vea early in the year hurt, but Vea returned in the postseason and made a massive impact. They were able to overcome an injury to Ali Marpet - though it cost A.Q. Shipley his playing career when he went down - and an injury to Alex Cappa in the playoffs. However, there are certain players on this team that Buccaneers can not afford to lose. Tom Brady goes without saying, but if the Bucs were to lose either of their starting offensive tackles it could breed disaster. Their secondary depth can overcome a little, but nothing long term. It’s not coincidence that the Super Bowl champion at the end of the year is typically the team that stays the most healthy and battling COVID yet again adds another layer to the complex injury marathon. This team is all in on the Bruce Arians Covid Rules and are 100% vaccinated - but there are still things beyond their control and those are the things that can derail a promising season.
Six Numbers To Consider
215 - Days since the Bucs won Super Bowl LV come kick off Thursday night
1,154 - Yards passing Tom Brady needs to pass Drew Brees for the all-time passing record
17 - Years since a team won back-to-back Super Bowls
.400 - Bucs’ opening week record in the last ten years
126 - Combined tackles needed by Lavonte David to pass Ronde Barber for second all-time in Buccaneers history
9 - Touchdowns needed by Mike Evans to tie Mike Alstott for the most in team history
Six Toughest Games
(These appear in chronological order, not in order of difficulty)
1.) vs. Dallas Cowboys (Week One - 9/9) - Opening week jitters are certainly a thing. The Cowboys will be amped to have quarterback Dak Prescott back and the Bucs will be feeling the pressure after the banner is raised. Jerry Jones has also been giving his team some bulletin board material calling his team “David” getting ready to face off against “Goliath.” And I don’t want to harp on this too much, but the Bucs weren’t exactly nails in prime time last regular season.
2.) @ Los Angeles Rams (Week Three - 9/26) - The Rams are the sexy pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season. Head coach Sean McVay handpicked quarterback Matthew Stafford to run his offense, which has the potential to be one of the most potent in the league. Long travel, high octane team. Going to be a tough one.
3.) @ New England Patriots (Week Four - 10/3 SNF) - Back to back road games and the return of Brady and Gronk to Foxboro in prime time. Now, I don’t have high expectations for Mac Jones and the New England Patriots, but they do have some missing defensive pieces coming back this season and you know Bill Belichick is going to dial some things up to try and make Brady as uncomfortable as possible. The two long time Patriots are sure to get a warm welcome from the fans, but this game isn’t going to be as easy as many people believe.
4.) @ New Orleans Saints (Week Eight - 10/31) - Spooooookyyyyyyy. Halloween against the New Orleans Saints and Jameis Winston at the helm. Now, what makes this one even more difficult is that this may be the first home game the Saints actually play in the Superdome thanks to Hurricane Ida. There’s going to be a lot of emotions in this one for the players and certainly for the fans. Last year’s playoff game and the offseason vitriol spewed on social media between Bucs and Saints fans has given this rivalry a violent shove into the one of the most bitter heading into the 2021 season.
5.) @ Indianapolis Colts (Week Twelve - 11/28) - The Indianapolis Colts’ defense is no joke. Some believe linebacker Darius Leonard is the best in the league and he’ll be out to prove he can hang against the best qurterback to ever do it. To add a little more excitement for the Colts, they’ll be inducting one of the most feared pass rushers of a generation into the Ring of Honor - the one and only Dwight Freeney. Lucas Oil Stadium can be a hostile environment to play in and it will be really interesting to see how the Frank Reich/Carson Wentz chemistry is playing out that late in the season.
6.) vs. Buffalo Bills (Week Fourteen - 12/12) - Outside of Patrick Mahomes, there may not be a more exciting quarterback in the NFL to watch than Josh Allen. His connection with Stefon Diggs last season was one of the best QB/WR connections in the league. Allen can kill you with his arm or his legs which makes him one of the most difficult players to game plan for. This team was knocking on the door of a Super Bowl berth last year so this could wind up being a Super Bowl LVI preview in early December. Certainly one of the toughest games on the schedule this season.
Six Bold Predictions
And by bold, I mean BOLD. We’re not playing it safe here. Laugh if you like, but this is all about having some fun.
1.) The Buccaneers will have three 1,000 yard receivers. Evans, Godwin, and AB are all going to hit the 1,000 yard plateau this year. Sound crazy? Well, thanks to Bucs Nation Site Manager Gil Arcia, I was made aware of the fact that this hasn’t happened since the 2008 Arizona Cardinals. Guess what? I don’t care. Think about it - in order for all three guys to hit the 1,000 yard mark they only have to average 59 yards receiving per game. You mean to tell me you don’t think those guys can average a measly 59 yards per game? Poppycock! This team could easily have the number one offense in the NFL and it will certainly be the most dangerous in franchise history. No reason that three receivers hitting 1,000 yards is crazy with this team.
2.) The Buccaneers will have the number one offense and defense in the NFL. Let’s take it up a notch, shall we? Not only will my previous bold prediction come true thanks to the number one offense, but the defense is going to hold up their end of the deal by being the best in the league as well. Another year under Todd Bowles, the addition of Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, the continued emergence of Antoine Winfield Jr. in the back end - this defense is going to be terrifying. And if they have a healthy Vita Vea all season? Woof - that’s all she wrote for opposing offenses.
3.) Jaelon Darden will return two kickoffs to the house. Yep. The running joke for so long was that the Bucs were the only team in NFL history to not return a kickoff for a touchdown until Michael Spurlock did it against the Falcons back in 2006. This year? The explosive rookie Darden will get two house calls on kickoffs. And in an age where kickers can boot it into the seventh row, it’ll make Darden’s returns all the more exciting.
4.) Devin White will win Defensive Player Of The Year. After his colleagues named him to the top 30 on the NFL’s Top 100, it’s about time White starts being talked about alongside guys like Leonard and San Francisco’s Fred Warner. White will assert himself as the best defensive player in the league - which is a tall task for a non-pass rusher. However, White will get the sacks, the takeaways, and I’ll even double-down and say he gets in the end zone four times this season. Shades of 2002 Derrick Brooks - who also won Defensive Player of the Year.
5.) Antonio Brown will lead the team in touchdowns. Tom Brady made it abundantly clear in practices and against the Houston Texans in the final preseason game that he loves passing the ball to Antonio Brown. With AB’s elite route running ability and the chemistry the two of them have shown, it won’t be the least bit surprising if AB leads the team in touchdowns. Evans had a career high last season and Godwin is certainly going to have his fair share, but that TB-AB connection is just different. We even saw it with Brown’s final touchdown of last season where he ad-libbed his route and Brady hit him with a dart for a touchdown at the end of the first half in Super Bowl LV. Some players just have connection that allows them to be of one mind - Brady and Brown seem to be those kind of players.
6.) The Buccaneers will be undefeated in Prime Time. After some of their most atrocious games coming under the bright lights in 2020, this year’s Buccaneers team will be an unstoppable force when the sun goes down. They have five prime time games - vs. Dallas, @ New England, @ Philadelphia, vs. NY Giants, vs. New Orleans. Now, I know what you’re saying - “James, their prime time games aren’t really against a lot of difficult teams.” Yeah, I know, but neither was last year’s slate. They barely beat the Giants, lost to the Bears, lost to the Saints, lost to the Rams. Luckily they got it together for the playoffs, but Bucs fans had an overwhelming sense of dread every time Tampa Bay was on Thursday, Sunday, or Monday night. This year? Not so much.
Six Super Bowl Bets
1.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers - To be the best, you gotta beat the best (Woooooo!) and the Bucs are still the best.
2.) Kansas City Chiefs - They’re out for revenge with a revamped offensive line
3.) Buffalo Bills - Can they take the next step?
4.) Green Bay Packers - Imagine being a Packers fan where your Hall of Fame quarterback is trying to stick it to his own team by...winning a Super Bowl? What a mess
5.) Los Angeles Rams - Matty Stafford is going to have some fun in Hollywood
6.) Cleveland Browns - Ugh. That made me feel icky just typing it. But hey - they’re good.