The 2022 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are undoubtedly a “veteran team.” Their quarterback is 45 years old, a fact that should elicit shock every time it is mentioned but has somehow been normalized by the anomaly that is Tom Brady. They have 14 players on the 53-man roster who are 30 or older and another seven who are 29.
This is not surprising for a team that signed Brady in 2020 and has since been in full-bore all-in mode chasing Super Bowls. That kind of team re-signs its veteran standouts when free agency approaches to keep the core intact and supplements it with late-career guys who can still contribute significantly, most recently with the likes of Akiem Hicks and Julio Jones.
And yet, despite all this, there is still room for some very young players not only to crack the 53-man roster but to make significant contributions right away. One of the reasons the Buccaneers landed in a spot that made signing Brady and adding other veteran contributors a good idea is that many of their recent drafts have gone very well. It’s far, far too early to say the same thing about the 2022 draft, but we can say this: The Buccaneers got some very encouraging contributions from their eight rookies in the season-opening win at Dallas.
That includes seven draft picks (one of whom was inactive due to injury) and one undrafted free agent. Let’s take a look at them in order of where they were picked/signed.
Logan Hall, 2nd-round pick: Hall was part of a five-man rotation on the defensive line that substituted frequently. Akiem Hicks and Vita Vea started as the Bucs opened the game in a sub package, and Will Gholston, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Hall all rotated in throughout the night. Hall actually saw the fewest snaps of those five, with 20, as he was getting his NFL feet wet. He had one tackle, but it was a tackle for loss on the game’s first drive that helped stall the Cowboys outside the red zone, leading to a field goal.
Luke Goedeke, 2nd-round pick: Goedeke started the game at left guard and played all 62 snaps. The Bucs’ running game was strong all night and was particularly good when running to the left. The O-Line allowed only two sacks in the game, and both came around the edge against tackles Donovan Smith and Josh Wells.
Rachaad White, 3rd-round pick: Leonard Fournette had a huge night in Dallas and the Buccaneers understandably rode his power game throughout the night. Still, White was the clear number two and the only other back to get a carry. He finished with six carries for 14 yards and two catches for seven yards, but almost all of his action came late in the second half when the Cowboys knew the Buccaneers were going to run it on almost every down. He did convert a third-and-one in the fourth quarter that allowed the visitors to run two more minutes off the clock.
Cade Otton, 4th-round pick: Otton’s debut became more significant when the Buccaneers chose to make veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph inactive for the game. That essentially made the rookie from Washington the team’s second tight end, and he ended up playing 48% of the offensive snaps. Tampa Bay’s rushing attack was particularly good when running towards the strong side, which is where the tight end is aligned in an unbalanced line, and Otton had a part in that. Beyond that, however, he was a beast on special teams, with two solo tackles, one assist and a number of impressive one-on-one encounters in kick coverage.
Jake Camarda, 4th-round pick: Camarda was working without a net as the Bucs’ new punter and he turned in a very encouraging debut. One of his punts was rendered obsolete because it hit the gigantic hanging scoreboard in AT&T stadium, but his other three resulted in a gross average of 50.7 yards per kick along with a 43.0-yard net. He blasted a 63-yarder on his first official NFL punt for a touchback and then got more hang time on 46 and 43-yarders.
Zyon McCollum, 5th-round pick: McCollum was inactive due to a hamstring injury.
Ko Kieft, 6th-round pick: Kieft ended up with 16 snaps on offense and made his mark early in the game with some powerful blocks in the rushing attack. He appears to have carved out a significant role in the offense.
Olakunle Fatukasi, undrafted free agent: Fatukasi did not play on defense as Devin White and Lavonte David handled all the ILB snaps, but he was a core special-teamer, taking 50% of those snaps.
Again, it’s way too earlier to be making any serious proclamations about the Bucs’ rookie class. But there’s no denying it got off to a good start Sunday night and should be an important part of what the team is trying to accomplish this season.
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 email@example.com.
We elevated Genard Avery from the P.S. But who did he actually replace?
– @frederederede (via Instagram)
That’s a good question, but the answer is that Avery didn’t replace anyone.
The NFL and NFLPA agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement in March of 2020 and it included some new rules for the practice squad. The COVID-19 pandemic hit only days later and led to some additional changes in roster rules, but this particular one was planned all along. It was essentially a compromise, as the active roster limit stayed at 53 players but teams could potentially have more players available on game days.
This is the “practice squad elevation” rule. Basically, each team is allowed to activate up to two players from its practice squad for each game. These players don’t have to be signed to the active roster and then released after the game; they are simply elevated and they revert back to the practice squad after the game without having to pass through waivers. That means each team can have up to 55 players available to them on game days.
These elevated players are not replacing anyone. They are added to the list of available players. Each team must still choose 48 active players from however many they have available, so they name between five and seven players inactive, depending upon how many were elevated from the practice squad. The Bucs had 54 available players on Sunday night and kept Avery active to help out on special teams.
One note: Any individual player can only be elevated three times during the regular season (there are some additional rules regarding COVID but hopefully those won’t be particularly relevant this year) so Avery only has two options left. After that, if the Bucs want him active on a game day they’ll have to sign him to the 53-man roster.
By the way, Avery ended up playing 16 of a possible 24 plays on special teams Sunday night.
Why did we leave Rudolph out of the cowboys game?
– @bucs_uk (via Instagram)
I think it’s an indication that rookies Cade Otton and Ko Kieft are performing exactly as the Buccaneers would hope in their respective roles.
As noted above, Otton was on the field for roughly half of the team’s offensive snaps, which is very encouraging sign for what the Buccaneers expect of him this season. The Bucs used “12” personnel (two tight ends, one back, two receivers) over 30% of the time on Sunday night, which is more than they typically did during the past two seasons. And that clearly led to good results in the running game, as the Bucs gained 152 yards on the ground and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Throughout training camp, coaches raved about how Otton, a football lifer, simply did everything right. We’ll see if he becomes a threat in the passing game but Otton has obviously shown enough for the Bucs to trust him as part of their base offense. He’s also a budding special teams star.
Meanwhile Kieft is just doing exactly what the Bucs hoped he would do when they traded up to get him late in the sixth round of the draft: Blocking the hell out of people. As noted earlier, he made his impression felt early in the game with some rugged blocks and ended up being on the field for 16 total offensive snaps.
Receiving-wise, here’s the complete total for Tampa Bay’s tight ends in the opener: one catch for seven yards, that provided by veteran Cam Brate. I have been saying for months that the Bucs’ offense is going to be receiver-driven in 2022, and that certainly seems to be the case after one game. There is no one-for-one analog of Rob Gronkowski coming along. The Bucs are using their tight ends in a different way in 2022, and it worked just fine in the season opener. That formula apparently didn’t include Kyle Rudolph.
How do you feel about D line depth? I feel like we should add some.
– @brayden_long_56 (via Instagram)
I feel just fine with it and I’m surprised you would feel otherwise, Brayden.
The defensive results were obviously fantastic in the season opener, and that included allowing only 71 rushing yards to what is a very good running team with two outstanding backs in Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. What about this game made you feel like the D-Line depth was lacking?
The Buccaneers kept six down linemen on defense, as compared to just four outside linebackers and four inside linebackers. That’s obviously a nod to the fact that you need more of a rotation for those rugged snaps up front than you do for the linebacker spots, particularly the off-ball linebackers. They kept all six of those D-Lineman active, although only five of them were involved in the rotation on defense. Patrick O’Connor only played on special teams.
Starters Vita Vea and Akiem Hicks played 42 and 40 defensive snaps, respectively, or 61% and 58% of the total, respectively. That hardly seems excessive. Remember that the defense only plays two down linemen in nickel packages, and that’s what the Bucs were in for 61% of the snaps against the Cowboys. That puts the very productive Will Gholston into something of a reserve role, and that’s a really nice piece to have in the rotation. He played 36% of the snap on Sunday.
Meanwhile, rookie Logan Hall played 20 snaps and I would expect his role to continue to grow over the course of the season. I think they are bringing him along gradually, but if he develops as expected the Bucs will essentially working with four starters for 2.5 spots. Honestly, I think the Bucs have better depth at defensive line than almost anywhere else on the depth chart (except receiver, obviously).
Who is your most improved player right now?
– @colinthompson380 (via Instagram)
Among the answers I considered but rejected: Robert Hainsey, Jaelon Darden, Brandon Walton, K.J. Britt, Anthony Nelson and Mike Edwards. Of those, I’m sorely tempted by Nelson, who has been a surprisingly productive edge rusher since about midseason last year. Did you know he has a sack in four straight regular season games, dating back to last season? The team record is six straight games.
Instead, my answer might surprise you because he is already one of the team’s best players. I’m going with Devin White.
Admittedly, I’m projecting a little bit here. I know that White isn’t going to have two sacks and a near pick-six every game. The Bucs won’t be up by two scores late in the second half every week, so White won’t be able to roam free in pass defense as often. But I think he’s primed for a huge season.
This comes down to what White himself was harping on during the offseason. He made it very clear that he was not satisfied with his 2021 season and that he felt he had to hone the mental side of his game. He used the great Luke Kuechly as an example, citing Kuechly’s understanding of the game and how it frequently put him in position to make big plays. White is very confident in his athletic abilities, for good reason, but he also clearly felt like he had strides to make in the mental side of the game.
Well, after Sunday’s victory, Head Coach Todd Bowles suggested that the key to the Bucs’ defensive dominance in Dallas was the communication among the team’s defenders. And he pinpointed White and Lavonte David as the players who made that great communication happen. That’s extremely encouraging. Imagine if White had held onto that pass he broke up – which, by the way, was essentially a turnover in that it came on fourth down. Two sacks a defensive TD? Defensive Player of the Week, y’all.
I kind of think we’re going to see some weeks like that from White. He made the Pro Bowl last year, but I think he’s going to be a far more impactful player this year.