The dust is finally settling on the 2021 offseason with organized training activities well underway across the league, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin their second week of OTAs today.
Now, we can begin projecting what the Buccaneers' roster will look like as the team aims for a Super Bowl repeat. Camp performances - for better or worse -, injuries and additional signings can (and probably will) make the final Buccaneers' roster look a bit different than this prediction, but this is how we picture the final roster if the 2021 preseason were to end and roster cutdowns began today.
Buccaneers 53-man roster prediction
QB (3): Tom Brady, Blaine Gabbert, Kyle Trask
Tom Brady returns for a 22nd pro season and second with the Buccaneers. No drama to be had about Tampa Bay's starting quarterback.
Instead, the attention is placed on a battle for Brady's backup gig. Second-round pick Kyle Trask is a lock to make the roster, but the Buccaneers do not want to rush him onto the field. Should Brady go down with an injury, the team would prefer to insert a veteran signal-caller into its offense over a rookie.
In which case, there will be a battle between Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin in training camp. Both re-signed with the Bucs on one-year deals this offseason but Gabbert's salary nearly doubles Griffin's, which could be an indication of preference.
RB (4): Ronald Jones II, Leonard Fournette, Giovani Bernard, Ke'Shawn Vaughn
It will be very interesting to see who earns the starting role at running back for the Buccaneers this preseason. Ronald Jones is a favorite of head coach Bruce Arians, but Leonard Fournette's strong showing at the end of the 2020 season and throughout the playoffs can't be ignored. Either way, the power rushers are certainly a difficult one-two punch to bring down.
Expect Giovani Bernard to eat into Jones and Fournette's reps quite a bit, however. He's a far stronger passing-down option at running back, both as a receiver and a blocker, which Tampa Bay was in desperate need of adding this offseason.
This scenario doesn't leave many opportunities for Ke'Shawn Vaughn to take the field, but only so many running backs can make an impact and he has yet to prove himself as Jones, Fournette, and Bernard have.
WR (6): Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Jaelon Darden
Antonio Brown's return solidifies wide receiver as the strongest position on the Buccaneers roster, and after an entire offseason with the team following a strong end to the 2020 season, Brown could very well see his production spike on a per-game basis in 2021.
It's hard to imagine Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson's roles expanding much further beyond what they were in 2020 with Brown, Mike Evans, and Chris Godwin set to start in three-receiver sets. Jaelon Darden will make the roster as Tampa Bay traded up for him in the fourth round. Darden is AllBucs' current favorite to emerge as the team's return specialist but could be in line for occasional playing time at receiver, both outside and in the slot.
TE (3): Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard
The Buccaneers utilize 12-personnel but not nearly as much as they do 11-personnel, so while our decision to carry three tight ends in this projection is a bit unusual after the Bucs rostered four last year, there is an argument for it.
Tight end is another very strong position for Tampa Bay, with O.J. Howard set to return from a torn Achilles suffered early in the 2020 season. His return as a strong pass-catcher, paired with the versatile talents of Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate, makes it easier for the Buccaneers to carry three tight ends and utilize an additional spot on offensive line depth.
OL (9): Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa, Tristan Wirfs, Josh Wells, Aaron Stinnie, Robert Hainsey, Sadarius Hutcherson
Tampa Bay's starting five offensive linemen are set after Brady was sacked just 11 times in the final 11 games of the year (including the playoffs). The backups, however, are set to shuffle a bit.
With Joe Haeg no longer on the team and A.Q. Shipley joining the coaching staff after his medical retirement, the Buccaneers' offensive line depth needed to be addressed this offseason. Ryan Jensen and Alex Cappa are set to become free agents in 2022, furthering the need for a potential future starter or two.
Therefore, Tampa Bay selected Robert Hainsey in the third round and signed Sadarius Hutcherson to an undrafted free agent contract with $130,000 in guarantees included. At that rate, Hutcherson is viewed highly by the organization and should have a solid shot at making the team.
Stinnie played well in the playoffs while Cappa nursed a fractured ankle, while Wells is the only backup lineman with NFL tackle experience. Although Tampa typically carried eight linemen last season, nine feels like a real possibility in 2021 for the betterment of the team's depth and long-term starting line.
DL (7): Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea, William Gholston, Rakeem Nuñez-Roches, Steve McLendon, Khalil Davis, Patrick O'Connor
The Buccaneers' defensive line is one of the older positions across the team, but Ndamukong Suh and Co's age surely didn't hold the unit back throughout the 2020 season. After Tampa Bay decided against drafting a young defensive lineman in this year's draft, the group of veterans will be counted on once again in 2021.
Even though Vita Vea missed the majority of the season with an injury, Rakeem Nuñez-Roches and Steve McLendon had no issue filling in at nose tackle, helping Tampa Bay hold onto the league's No. 1 run defense bragging rights through the end of the year. With Vea now back in the fold after he returned to the field in a limited role late in the playoffs, the defensive line isn't expected to slow down any time soon.
OLB (4): Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Joe Tryon, Anthony Nelson
After combining for 17.5 sacks in the regular season last year and another six in the playoffs, Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul return as Tampa Bay's starting edge rushers.
On top of that, the rich get richer with the addition of first round pick Joe Tryon.
The battle for the fourth edge-rushing spot should be interesting as Anthony Nelson, Cam Gill, and Ladarius Hamilton can all make a case for the gig, but we'll go with Nelson for now due to his experience and production outweighing Gill's and Hamilton's. Special teams prowess is sure to be a factor in the training camp competition.
ILB (4): Devin White, Lavonte David, Kevin Minter, Joe Jones
The starters here are obvious as Devin White and Lavonte David may be the league's best inside linebacker duo. Kevin Minter, a seasoned veteran, should be locked into the No. 3 role too, leaving fifth round pick K.J. Britt, seventh round pick Grant Stuard, and four-year veteran Joe Jones fighting for the fourth spot.
Although both Britt and Stuard offer some potential, Jones' experience should give him a leg up on the competition, particularly his over 1,100 special teams snaps logged at the pro level. Like the No. 4 edge rusher role, special teams expertise is of the utmost importance for these depth positions.
CB (6): Carlton Davis III, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, Ross Cockrell, Antonio Hamilton, Herb Miller
Another position where starters are clearly locked in, but depth must be sorted out. The Buccaneers carried five cornerbacks last season, but after Ryan Smith signed with the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency, outside cornerback depth emerged as a significant need.
Ross Cockrell signed a one-year contract this offseason after signing in 2020 and impressing in a depth role, primarily at nickel corner. The outside backup gig, however, should end in a heated competition between recently-signed veterans Antonio Hamilton, Nate Brooks and Dee Delaney, former undrafted free agent Herb Miller who played for Tampa Bay last season, 2021 seventh-round pick Chris Wilcox, and undrafted free agent Cameron Kinley.
Kinley quickly made a name for himself in the Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp and has some fans in his corner, including this reporter. But unless he continues to put up a good fight, it's easier to slot a veteran like Hamilton into the No. 5 CB spot given his vast experience on special teams as well as time spent on defense in the pros. As Miller made a strong impression across his limited reps last year, he could make it as a sixth corner.
S (4): Antoine Winfield Jr., Jordan Whitehead, Mike Edwards, Curtis Riley
Antoine Winfield Jr. certainly didn't play like a rookie during the 2020 season, and is on track to develop into one of the league's better safeties if he's not already firmly in that conversation. Jordan Whitehead improved his play alongside Winfield as the season went on, and the arrow is pointing up for the fourth-year pro once he returns from an offseason surgery on a torn labrum.
Edwards could also push for playing time defensively in 2021 after stepping up the playoff run, intercepting a pass against New Orleans and deflecting three in total.
With three worthy contributors defensively at the position, you guessed it, spot No. 4 comes down to special teams ability. Curtis Riley and Raven Greene have a solid amount of special teams experience under their belts and some defensive production, which could give them an edge over Javon Hagan. We'll roll with Riley as he has nearly double the number of special teams snaps in his career as Greene.
Special teams: 3
Kicker: Ryan Succop
Punter: Bradley Pinion
Long snapper: Zach Triner