TAMPA — You can call it a sequel. You can call it a reunion.
Best of all, you can call it unprecedented, because the NFL hasn’t seen anything like it in the era of the salary cap.
Seven months after winning the Super Bowl in a rout, the Bucs are returning to the regular season with every single starter back in uniform. Every lineman, every receiver, every linebacker, every defensive back.
Things like this just don’t happen in the modern world. Jodie Foster didn’t return for the Silence of the Lambs sequel, and Robert Plant has avoided every attempt at a Led Zeppelin reunion tour. And when it comes to the NFL, free agency and the salary cap have ruined more good teams than injuries or retirements.
In the days before the salary cap, it was common to see a team hoisting the Lombardi Trophy two years in a row. In the first 28 seasons of the Super Bowl era, which started with the 1966 season, the NFL had six repeat champions. Yet in the following 27 years, there have been only two repeat winners. And no team has repeated since Tom Brady and the Patriots in 2003-04.
That makes this the longest stretch without back-to-back champions since the NFL was formed in 1920.
Does that mean the Bucs have a better shot in 2021? Well, the last Super Bowl champion to return every starter from Week 1 of the previous year was the 1979 Steelers, and they went on to win the Super Bowl again.
So, yeah, it matters. It matters simply from the standpoint of talent. It matters for continuity’s sake on the offensive line. It matters that everyone comes in on the same page as far as understanding the game plan, and it matters that expectations are all understood.
Of course, the Bucs had to borrow from future salary caps in order to re-sign all their free agents, so this will come back to bite them down the road. But those are problems for another day.
Right now, you could argue that the Bucs have the most star-studded roster in the NFL. With that in mind, we’ll rank 22 players in terms of value — which is not the same as talent — to this season.
22. Alex Cappa, G
The second-year starter did not play poorly in 2020. In fact, he was graded close to the top-quarter percentile of guards in the league. But considering Aaron Stinnie was pushing him for the starting job in training camp, Cappa’s overall value is somewhat lessened.
21. Sean Murphy-Bunting, CB
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The playoffs completely changed Murphy-Bunting’s season. Battling injuries for much of the regular season, Murphy-Bunting gave up a fair chunk of yardage. That narrative was forgotten in January when he got interceptions in three consecutive games.
20. Ronald Jones, RB
This spot could also be occupied by Leonard Fournette. Both players are solid runners but limited in the passing game. Neither is a great blocker and Jones has problems as a receiver.
19. Ryan Jensen, C
If the offensive line is a brotherhood, then Jensen is the sibling that slightly scares everyone else. He’s got a mean streak on the field and is probably the best run blocker on the line, although he hasn’t performed as well in pass blocking situations.
18. Ndamukong Suh, DT
He has the longest active streak of consecutive games started (147 in a row dating to 2011) and remains a quality run stopper. But, at age 34, the difference between Suh and the rest of the NFL’s defensive linemen is starting to narrow.
17. Jordan Whitehead, S
In retrospect, Whitehead had one of the biggest plays of the postseason for the Bucs. He forced a fumble on Packers running back Aaron Jones in the opening drive of the third quarter. It led to a touchdown that ended up being the winning score.
16. Antoine Winfield Jr., S
One of four players to get votes for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award last year, Winfield was one of the very best run stoppers from the safety position. His coverage skills were not as advanced but he turned 23 just three weeks ago.
15. Antonio Brown, WR
His average yards per reception (10.7) were the lowest of his career, but that had more to do with how the Bucs utilized him with Mike Evans getting the bulk of downfield routes. Brown is still an elite receiver, one of only three in the NFL with at least 45 receptions and no drops last year.
14. Jamel Dean, CB
Carlton Davis had more interceptions in the regular season and Sean Murphy-Bunting had more interceptions in the postseason, but Dean had the lowest passer rating (85.4) on balls thrown his direction among Bucs cornerbacks.
13. Ali Marpet, G
A pretty close second to Tristan Wirfs as the highest-rated offensive lineman in Tampa Bay last season. Marpet, who missed three games at midseason with a concussion, was ranked seventh among 80 guards in stats website Pro Football Focus’ grades in 2020.
12. Rob Gronkowski, TE
For a guy coming out of retirement after a series of injuries, Gronkowski was remarkably durable last year. He was third in the NFL in offensive snaps for a tight end and, half the time, was used as a blocker. Still, the Bucs are deep at tight end with Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard.
11. Donovan Smith, T
He sometimes gets a bad rap for getting called for too many penalties (he was tied for first in the league last year) and allowing too many sacks (he gave up six), but Smith routinely faces an opponent’s top pass rusher. The advanced metrics at Pro Football Focus say Smith has gotten better every year he has been in the league since being drafted in 2015, and the Bucs could face a serious dropoff if he gets hurt.
10. Chris Godwin, WR
On most teams, Godwin would be irreplaceable. He’s one of the top slot receivers in the NFL and the Bucs are paying him that way this year with a $15.9 million deal under the franchise tag. The only reason his value is not higher on this list is because Tampa Bay is stacked at receiver. Godwin was slowed in 2020 with a broken finger, but should return to the 1,000-yard ranks this season.
9. Jason Pierre-Paul, LB
Too low? Yeah, probably. Pierre-Paul is just the fourth Buc in history (after Lee Roy Selmon, Simeon Rice and Gerald McCoy) to register at least eight sacks in three consecutive seasons. But his importance does not end with the pass rush. Pierre-Paul has brought confidence and swagger and accountability to a defense that was sorely lacking all three just a few years ago.
8. Carlton Davis, CB
The Bucs went from 29th in points allowed in 2019 to eighth in 2020. Some of that was a by-product of fewer offensive turnovers putting the defense in bad situations, but a lot of it was the growth of the secondary. And Davis was in the middle of that. He had 18 passes defended, which was tied for second in the league, and led the Bucs with four interceptions.
7. Devin White, LB
If you’re grading by splash plays, White is close to the top of the list. The Bucs’ first-round pick in 2019 is ridiculously quick and can get in the backfield in the blink of an eye. He’s good in coverage and has perfected the inside blitz. In the four games that White missed due to injuries the past two years, Tampa Bay has allowed an average of 32.5 points. If there’s a knock against him, it’s a few too many missed tackles.
6. Mike Evans, WR
Yes, last season was probably the weakest of Evans’ stellar seven-season career. No, it does not mean he is slipping. Evans fought through injuries, had to get acclimated to a new quarterback and saw fewer balls thrown his direction than ever before. And despite all that, he still posted another 1,000-yard season. What you are seeing is a future Hall of Famer in his prime.
5. Shaquil Barrett, LB
You could make an argument that the Bucs overpaid Barrett when they signed him to a four-year, $72 million contract in March with $34.5 million guaranteed. While he’s second in the NFL in sacks the past two seasons, Barrett is probably not in the Khalil Mack/T.J. Watt category of edge rushers. But his value on this roster is undeniable. The Bucs had eight sacks in the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl, and Barrett accounted for half of them.
4. Tristan Wirfs, T
Right tackle may not be a glamor position, but Wirfs is fast becoming an NFL star. Videos of his insane combination of strength and flexibility are already the stuff of legend, and his 2020 rookie season was practically flawless. You think that’s an exaggeration? Wirfs was on the field for 702 pass plays in 2020. He allowed just one sack. Heck, his opponent hit Tom Brady only seven times the entire year. If you’re math challenged, that works out to 1 percent.
3. Vita Vea, DT
He will never lead the team in tackles or sacks, but Vea’s importance to the defense became clear last season when he went down with a broken ankle in Week Five. Vea is so disruptive in the middle of the line, he forces opponents to change their game plans. By attracting double teams, the 350-pound Vea makes the job of linebackers and edge rushers that much easier. The Chiefs gained 543 yards against the Bucs in a regular-season win in which Vea was hurt; they gained 350 yards in the Super Bowl with Vea back in the lineup.
2. Lavonte David, LB
Nine years after he was drafted, the world finally discovered Lavonte David. Since he came into the league as a second-round pick out of Nebraska in 2012, David has been a beast in pass coverage and run defense. But because the Bucs were so rarely on the national stage, hardly anyone knew it. They do now. David is the only player in the league with at least 10 interceptions, 20 sacks and 20 forced fumbles since 2012. He’s also third in the NFL in tackles.
1. Tom Brady, QB
You were expecting someone else? Let’s face it, Brady is the most accomplished quarterback in history and there would be off-the-chart value in that for any team. But, beyond that, Brady changed who the Bucs were in 2020. He gave them purpose, he gave them an identity. The Bucs dropped from No. 3 in the NFL in total yards in 2019 to No. 7 last season, yet scored more points. Why? Because Brady controlled games and didn’t turn the ball over. He wasn’t just Tampa Bay’s MVP last season, Brady very well could have been the most valuable player in the NFL.
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