Bucs' Most Important Backups for 2020
Depth is a vital ingredient for any Super Bowl-caliber team. The Buccaneers may have a formidable starting lineup, but it will be the backups that get Tampa Bay over the playoff hump.
Good backups are not simply benchwarmers. They offer production and utility in rotational capacities, spelling the starters while keeping the heat on the opposing team. They also need to be able to slide into starting roles in the frequent case of injury.
Tampa Bay's biggest question marks heading into this season are all about the depth. Their key backups are all relatively new arrivals, either as recent draftees or newly acquired free agents.
Here are the Bucs' most important backups heading into the 2020 season:
OL Joe Haeg
Offensive linemen are by nature underappreciated, so the backup linemen really don't get their due. Swing OL Joe Haeg is not likely to be the exception unless something goes terribly wrong with the starting offensive line.
Tampa signed Haeg this offseason to a one-year, $2.3 million contract. After four years with the Indianapolis Colts, Haeg joined the Bucs as their primary swing lineman. His experience playing multiple positions on the line makes him the go-to backup in case of any injury on the line.
Last year, the Bucs battled through multiple injuries on the line, often overlapping one another. A recurrence of those injuries this season could be catastrophic for a line protecting a 43-year-old Tom Brady.
History tells us that Haeg will find himself in the Bucs starting lineup at some point this year. Since 2015, at least one Tampa offensive lineman has missed a start during the regular season.
Haeg may not get any headlines for his work, but he is no less indispensable to the Bucs' championship aspirations this season.
CB Jamel Dean
As the NFL has transitioned into a "pass first" league, the value of quality cornerbacks has risen at a commensurate rate. Defenses cannot just have two good starters anymore—they need a third corner like Jamel Dean who can keep pace against the aerial onslaught of modern NFL offenses.
Dean started slowly last year as a rookie but finished with a bang. Playing less than a third of the Bucs' defensive snaps, he recorded two interceptions and 17 pass breakups, earning Pro Football Focus' second-highest cornerback grade in the final eight games of the season:
Dean could very well develop into a starting-caliber defensive back. The prevalence of three- and four-wide receiver sets in the NFL makes that possibility all the more necessary.
OLB Anthony Nelson
Playoff teams rarely get far without a healthy rotation of pass-rushers harassing opposing quarterbacks. While the Bucs have two of the best in Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, it could be backup outside linebacker Anthony Nelson who makes or breaks the Bucs' pass rush.
Nelson did not see much action last season, playing just 13 percent of the Bucs' defensive snaps, and had little to show for it, recording no sacks or pressures. A knee injury limited his time on the field, but the Bucs will need much more from Nelson in 2020.
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is among the best at manufacturing pressure, but Tampa still needs Nelson to be a worthwhile rotational pass-rusher to give Barrett and Pierre-Paul a break.
RBs Dare Ogunbowale and Ke'Shawn Vaughn
Third-down backs have risen in prominence in the NFL, due both to their pass-catching and pass-blocking responsibilities. The Bucs' current third-down back, Dare Ogunbowale, could very well keep the same role he carved for himself last year, but he faces competition from 2020 third-round pick Ke'Shawn Vaughn.
Pass-blocking was the make-or-break skill for running backs last year. Starter Ronald Jones simply was not good at it, clearing a path for Ogunbowale to assume the third-down responsibilities. He helped his case with solid work as a receiver, catching 35 passes for 286 yards and 14 first downs.
However, Ogunbowale's pass-blocking was not so great that the Bucs felt the need to go get some potential competition. Ke'Shawn Vaughn is a potential sleeper at running back not only for his ability to get yards after contact, but his pass-blocking.
The former Vanderbilt running back earned a higher pass-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus than any of the Bucs' running back did last season (via NFL Network's Michael Florio):
Still, Vaughn is just a rookie and without a preseason has a bigger gap learning Tampa's offense than Ogunbowale. Vaughn may not start the season as the third-down back, but he could well earn it later in the season.