Thu, 19 May 2022

Rookies, Return Men and SOS | S.S. Mailbag

Buccaneers
13 May 2022, 19:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay BuccaneersThis week, Buccaneers fans have questions about Zyon McCollum's rookie-year potential, the difficulty of Tampa Bay's 2022 schedule and moreScott Smith

The 2022 NFL Draft is in the books and with it goes the last great wave of roster additions across the league. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offseason roster currently stands at 76 players and will be right up against the 90-man limit as soon as a dozen or so undrafted free agents are officially signed this week. The Buccaneers essentially have the team they will take to training camp, and from which they will try to whittle out the best 53-man roster for the regular season.

Still, there will be some more roster moves between now and the start of training camp. About 30 free agents will take part in this weekend's rookie mini-camp at the AdventHealth Training Center on tryout contracts. In most years, a couple of those players will impress enough during mini-camp practices to get contracts, which usually means a couple corresponding subtractions from the roster.

Chances are, the names of those players will only be familiar to the most avid of college football fans. The more interesting moves in May or June or early July are the ones involving recognizable NFL names. For instance, the Giants released cornerback James Bradberry, a Pro Bowler in 2020, on Monday, meaning some other team will surely be signing him in the weeks to come. That's a high-profile addition.

Of course, 31 other teams won't be signing Bradberry, and most of those clubs won't make any other veteran addition of particular note before the start of training camp. By the odds, that will probably include the Buccaneers, especially if we don't count the potential return of Rob Gronkowski as an "addition." Post-draft additions of starting-caliber players who do indeed become starters for the Bucs are simply not that common in franchise history.

I have easy access to the Bucs' transaction logs, ordered by date, for the last quarter-century, back through the 1997 offseason. I looked through them all and found nine signings that would fit into the above category. They are, in reverse chronological order:

* May 23, 2019: DL Ndamukong Suh...The Buccaneers signed Suh nine days after releasing Gerald McCoy, coincidentally replacing the third overall pick of the 2010 draft with the second overall pick of that draft. Suh started every game of the 2019 season, as well as the 2020 and 2021 campaigns after subsequently signing two more one-year deals. He is currently an unrestricted free agent again.

* May 19, 2017: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick...Fitzpatrick was signed to back up Jameis Winston but had already made 116 NFL starts before arriving and would go on to start 10 more games for the Buccaneers over the next two years, replacing Winston at times due to suspension, injury or ineffective play. In 2018 he set a Bucs single-season record with a 100.4 passer rating, since broken twice by Tom Brady.

* May 21, 2012: TE Dallas Clark...Kellen Winslow Jr. had hauled in a team-leading 75 catches for the Bucs in 2011 but the following season the team traded Winslow to Seattle for a conditional seventh-round pick in 2013 and signed Clark. Clark had nine very productive seasons for Indianapolis but had been cut that March. He would play just one season in Tampa, starting seven of 16 games and catching 47 passes for 435 yards and four scores.

* May 6, 2005: WR Ike Hilliard...The Bucs added Hilliard in 2005 after he had started 92 games over eight seasons with the Giants. He wasn't expected to start as the team had Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton coming off a big rookie season. Hilliard in fact only started two games his first season with the Bucs but ended up playing four productive years in Tampa, particularly in 2007 when he opened 10 games and caught 62 passes.

* April 28, 2004: LB Ian Gold...This one actually happened in late April but it was after the draft so it qualifies. The 2004 season ended up being a one-year blip in the middle of an eight-year career otherwise spent completely in Denver. He started 13 of 16 games for the Bucs as the strongside linebacker next to Shelton Quarles and Derrick Brooks and had 71 tackles, one interception and a half-sack.

* June 13, 2003: RB Thomas Jones...This wasn't technically a signing but a swap of two disappointing players that needed a change of scenery. The Buccaneers sent failed 2002 third-round pick wide receiver Marquise Walker to Arizona for running back Thomas Jones, a former first-round selection who had 1,264 rushing yards in his first three seasons. Walker never played a snap in the NFL but Jones revived his career with 807 yards from scrimmage and 4.6 yards per carry in Tampa in 2003. That eventually earned him a big free agency deal in Chicago and he would end his NFL career with more than 10,000 rushing yards.

* May 20, 2002: T Roman Oben...Jon Gruden added a lot of veteran players to the Bucs' offense during his first offseason as the head coach, and this one and the next one came after the draft. Oben had started 77 games over the previous five seasons with the Giants and Browns, and he would step right in at left tackle for the Super Bowl-bound Buccaneers, with Kenyatta Walker sliding to right tackle in a largely reworked O-Line.

* June 8, 2002: WR Keenan McCardell...McCardell was a widely-anticipated post-June 1 cut by Jacksonville for salary cap reasons, and the Bucs were ready to pounce. McCardell already had four 1,000-yard seasons under his belt when he arrived in Tampa, and he would post another one and make the Pro Bowl for the Bucs in 2003. In his first year with the team, he paired with Keyshawn Johnson as the starters, with Joe Jurevicius a very effective third receiver.

* July 20, 1997: CB Anthony Parker...This one came just before training camp. Parker had started 45 games for the Vikings and Cardinals over the three previous seasons and he would immediately replace Martin Mayhew in Tampa as the starter opposite Donnie Abraham on a team that would break the Bucs' 14-year playoff drought.

So, adding a potential veteran starter between the draft and training camp does happen, but not terribly often.

And now on to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

What kind of impact do you think Zyon McCollum can make as a rookie?

- joeyperz (via Instagram)

There's apparently a very good chance he'll make a major impact on special teams this season, at the very least.

There are basically three starting cornerback positions, including the nickel, and the Bucs appear to be covered at all three spots with Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting. They also have other slot options in safeties Logan Ryan and Mike Edwards. With his size, length and catch-up speed, McCollum is probably best suited for an outside corner role, and the Bucs are in pretty good hands, at least to start the season, in Davis and Dean.

That would leave McCollum competing to be the fourth cornerback, but while he does that he can also try to carve out a number of roles on defense, most notably at gunner. The Bucs had a fourth corner, Ryan Smith, in that role from 2016-20 and he brought a lot of value that way even when he wasn't factoring in the defense. McCollum's size and speed profile - he's 6-2 and he ran a sub-4.4 40 at the Combine - suggest he would be a good candidate at gunner. That's pretty much what Vice President of Player Personnel John Spytek said the night McCollum was drafted.

"Yeah, I think we certainly would expect that with the three corners that we have that he goes in and competes to be a four-phase special-teamer," said Spytek. "We're certainly looking for gunners - it's as important of a position as there is on special teams. With that speed, that size, and that strength that he has - we would expect him to compete and probably take one of those roles. He's a great kid - he's a team guy. I know he will embrace that challenge and be willing to do that while he learns the defense and grows as a corner. We'll see if he can grow into a starting corner for us someday."

The Buccaneers drafted McCollum in the fifth round and, Richard Sherman aside, there aren't a lot of fifth-round corners who step immediately into starting roles. Spytek's remarks about McCollum being able to "grow into" a starter "someday" certainly make it sound like the team believes he will need a relatively significant learning period in the NFL.

That said, the Bucs did make a pretty dramatic move to land the Sam Houston State product on the third day of the draft. After picking tight end Cade Otton and punter Jake Camarda in the fourth round, Jason Licht and company looked like they would have about five hours to twiddle their thumbs, with no fifth or sixth-round picks to their names. The fifth-round pick had been well spent in the trade for guard Shaq Mason, but the Bucs found themselves wishing they had another one when they saw McCollum's name blatantly sticking out as the best corner left on their board. Licht chose to spend some 2023 draft capital to get him, trading a fourth-round pick next year to get back into the fifth round and nab McCollum.

To me, that suggests a player that the team really believes can develop into more than just a special teams ace. He certainly fits the profile of what Todd Bowles likes in his corners, with his size and length. And with both Dean and Murphy-Bunting potentially hitting free agency next year, the Bucs may have to start thinking about developing new starters.

"He has excellent size, speed [and] good change of direction," said Cornerbacks Coach Kevin Ross last week. "He seems to be a very smart player and he fits into our scheme and how we do things here, so he should be a good fit for us."

Also, if McCollum does emerge as the fourth corner, and therefore the "next man up," we all know he would have a very good chance of seeing action on defense as a rookie. It's rare for your top three corners to all make it through the entire season without missing time due to injuries. We certainly saw that last year, when Davis, Dean and Murphy-Bunting combined to miss 17 games with various ailments, beginning right away with SMB's dislocated elbow in Week One. The Bucs eventually had to turn to such 11th-hour additions as Sherman, Dee Delaney and Pierre Desir.

Sherman and Desir are gone but Delaney is still around, as is Ross Cockrell, who proved to be a super-sub during the 2020 Super Bowl run. McCollum won't be gifted that fourth corner spot; he'll definitely have to earn it and that might not happen right away. But between his likely role on special teams and the inevitable attrition during the season, I would expect the rookie to have a decent-sized impact in 2022.

Do the Bucs have the hardest schedule in the NFL in 2022?

- _nbawad (via Instagram)

By the most commonly used measuring stick, no, but it's close. And I think I can make the argument that the Bucs' schedule is at least in the argument for the single-most difficult 2022 slate.

We start with "strength of schedule" (SOS) which is the term used for the combined winning percentage in the previous season of a team's upcoming opponents. The 14 teams the Buccaneers are schedule to play in 2022 (including each division foe twice) combined for a 154-134-1 record last year that produces a .535 SOS. That's the fourth-highest SOS in the league this year behind the Rams (.567), Cardinals (.543) and Bengals (.536).

I would tout the fact that the Buccaneers have eight games against 2021 playoff teams, including four on the road, but the Rams actually have 10 games against 2021 playoff teams, seven of them on the road. The main difference, the deciding factor making the Rams' schedule look more difficult than the Bucs', is the divisions the two teams play in. Three of the four teams in the NFC West made the playoffs last year and two - the Rams and 49ers - played in the conference championship game. The fourth team, Seattle, has been in the playoffs eight of the last 10 seasons and had a winning record in nine of those 10 years. The Buccaneers were the only playoff team from the NFC South and only two of the division's four teams had winning records in 2021. Given the uncertain quarterback situations in Atlanta and Carolina, you will be hard-pressed to find many analysts predicting big rebound seasons for those two teams.

You might not find a tougher out-of-division schedule, though. The Buccaneers are matched up against the NFC West and AFC North, which produced five playoff teams combined last year. That does not include Cleveland and Baltimore, both of which were in the playoffs the previous season and are good candidates for rebounds. Baltimore finished with six straight losses, almost all of them nailbiters, due mostly to a wide rash of injuries. Cleveland and Baker Mayfield regressed after an impressive 2020 but now it appears Deshaun Watson will be the quarterback.

Meanwhile, the Bucs' two matchup games with the other NFC divisions produce Green Bay and Dallas, so no break there. And the formula for the new 17th game spat out a Super Bowl LV rematch with the Kansas City Chiefs. Yikes! It's a great, great, great schedule, the kind you want to see with all kinds of marquee matchups, but it doesn't look like it's going to be easy by any means.

There are many, many challenges ahead for the Buccaneers; here's a look at some of them. And if you think travel factors into the difficulty of a schedule, than you can bump the Bucs up a little bit towards the top of the list. Tampa Bay is scheduled to travel 23,764 miles for their nine games not at Raymond James Stadium, including the long trip to Munich in Week 10. That's the sixth highest number of travel miles among NFL teams this year, and the most among teams that made the playoffs last year. The Rams will play nine home games; the Bucs will technically play nine home games, too, but one of them will be in a neutral site in Germany. The Rams are 16th on the mileage list at 17,204.

The thing about the teams at the top of the SOS list is that they are almost all playing each other this year, and that's driving the SOS up for everybody. But it's the Bucs that face the biggest gauntlet in that group. There's a tie for fifth on the SOS list between San Francisco and Kansas City. It's worth noting that the Buccaneers are the only team in that top six that is scheduled to play each of the other five.

Will any other players be given the opportunity to handle kickoff/punt returns or is that job Jaelon Darden's to lose?

- tjhark 1 (via Instagram)

On Tuesday, Wide Receivers Coach said that, after the obvious roles waiting for Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, it's "open season" for jobs among the rest of the team's wideout assembly. I think that could factor into the return jobs as well.

With the likes of Russell Gage, Tyler Johnson, Scotty Miller, Cyril Grayson, Breshad Perriman and Darden all battling for playing time, it might be hard for one or two of them to routinely get a helmet on game day. If Darden carves out a role of any significance in that battle, it would definitely make it easier for the Bucs to continue using him in the return game, too. If there are five other receivers the team wants to keep active on a given game day, will they gave that position a sixth spot just to be a return man?

On the other hand, the most obvious other candidate to return kicks on the roster is Kenjon Barner, who probably ranks as the fifth man in the running back room right now behind Leonard Fournette, Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Giovani Bernard and rookie Rachaad White (in some order). If Barner could, say, take Bernard's spot on game day with White heavily involved in the passing game, the Bucs could keep four backs up with one of them contributing on special teams.

Other players that have occasionally been listed on the Bucs' depth chart during the regular season as return possibilities include Scotty Miller, Antoine Winfield Jr. and Sean Murphy-Bunting. But, man, I don't know. I've seen Miller fielding punts in practice for three years but he just never seems to get the ball during the actual games. And I'm a bit skeptical the Bucs would risk injury to Winfield and Murphy-Bunting in a separate role like that.

So we are probably going to wait a bit to find out which of the Bucs' newcomers are considered possible return candidates. It's worth noting that White returned six punts and kickoffs during his two season at ASU, so he's done it a bit. His size, speed and open-field moves could make him an intriguing candidate.

Anyway, medium story short, I think both halves of your question are probably true. The return jobs will probably start as Darden's to lose but I do think the Bucs will give some other guys a chance, particularly in the preseason.

Could the Bucs possibly go after any more free agents now that the draft is over? (ex. James Bradberry)

- Bryce_bhtp

I wrote the intro to this mailbag before getting the questions, or otherwise I probably would have just included that information in the answer to this question. If you skipped the intro to get to the questions, I'll summarize by saying that additions of starting-caliber veterans between the draft and training camp are not terribly common but they do happen, as with Ndamukong Suh three years ago.

I'd like to say that I doubt it will happen this year, but after all the aggressive moves Jason Licht and company have made over the last two years while in all-in mode I'm a little gun-shy about taking that stance. And I do think there are a few places the Bucs could use some help. Even after drafting Logan Hall, if Suh does not re-sign for a fourth year in Tampa I think that unit could use some depth. It appears that Logan Hall is earmarked for a pretty big role right away, but the Bucs may not want to rely exclusively on a rookie. I also think the outside linebacker room could use a little more depth if Jason Pierre-Paul is no longer in the picture. The Buccaneers did draft edge rusher Andre Anthony in the seventh round, and he could be the answer, but there are a lot of seventh-round picks that don't end up making much of an impact. Another off-ball linebacker would potentially make sense, too, depending upon how comfortable the team is with second-year man K.J. Britt as the next man in if either Devin White or Lavonte David are unavailable.

My guess is the Bucs are done making high-profile veteran additions (not counting the possibility of Gronkowski, Suh or Pierre-Paul), but I don't feel as strongly about that guess as I might have in previous years.

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