Tom Brady, captaining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ ship? Who could have imagined such a turn of events?
TB12 to TB – I’m copyrighting that one.
Yes, in a world turned inside out, it’s just the latest surreal twist – the greatest player in NFL history choosing the creamsicle-adorned pirates in pewter pants.
We’re decades removed from the club’s ignominious 0-26 start, the Errol Flynn-esque logo winking from the helmet. Yet the Bucs’ recent history isn’t much more distinguished. Only the Cleveland Browns have been absent from the postseason longer than Tampa Bay, which last appeared in 2007, Jon Gruden’s penultimate campaign. The Buccaneers haven’t won a playoff game since thumping the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII following the 2002 season, Gruden’s maiden voyage in Tampa.
It’s certainly been a minute since Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch were spearheading a championship team underpinned with defense.
And yet the obvious objective in wooing a 42-year-old quarterback to town is to win a second Lombardi Trophy. Immediately.
Clearly, this is no time for GM Jason Licht and coach Bruce Arians to rest on their laurels. Brady owns an unprecedented six rings, but he’s not going to secure a seventh without additional help.
Here are seven things the Buccaneers should consider to make TB12’s abbreviated Tampa tenure sterling:
1. Make a deal with the Patriots
Arians’ attack, which ranked third in both points scored and total offense in 2019, features Pro Bowl WRs Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, a tandem that was doubtless a major selling point in luring Brady.
But they aren’t enough. There’s no reliable third-down back or slot receiver here. Why not call up New England’s Bill Belichick, who needs draft picks for his post-Brady reboot, and inquire about RB James White or inside receiver Julian Edelman, the only targets Brady truly trusted last year? Not only would one of them bring a comfort level while patching a hole in this roster, either Edelman or White could help illuminate Evans, Godwin and TEs O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate on the ways TB12 likes to operate, within and outside the parameters of a playbook.
With Edelman about to turn 34 and coming off knee and shoulder problems, he could be the more realistic option.
2. Sign a lead back
Productive as the Bucs offense was last year, Arians’ first with the organization, it only ranked 24th running the ball. Not good enough for Brady, who thrives with play action and, at his age, shouldn’t be asked to chuck the ball a league-high 626 times as Jameis Winston did in 2019.
Even if White were to come aboard, Licht should set his sights on a player like Melvin Gordon, Devonta Freeman or even Carlos Hyde given all the cap space that remains available. All are capable of shouldering a significant workload, including pass protection when warranted – another crucial consideration given Brady will be 43 when Week 1 arrives.
3. Obtain a left tackle
Donovan Smith has been a dependable player during his five seasons with the Bucs but has never really graduated beyond adequate in the context of blindside blockers. That may prove inadequate if Arians is going to safeguard his immobile prize long enough to let his precious late-developing plays unfold downfield.
One elegant solution would be liberating Trent Williams from Washington, an outcome that would allow Smith to man the currently vacant right tackle post or perhaps serve as part of the compensation package for the ‘Skins.
However, the Bucs also own the 14th pick of April’s draft and might not have to move up to get a member of this year’s bumper crop of O-linemen, which includes Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs and Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr.
Whatever the route, this is imperative but not necessarily difficult.
4. Re-sign Ndamukong Suh
He’s 33. He wants a ring. The interior dirty work he does is a big reason the Bucs racked up 47 sacks last year, including Shaq Barrett’s league-leading 19½. And Suh can also still shut down running lanes.
5. Target New Orleans
The Saints are still the bullies to beat in the NFC South, and Brady alone won’t necessarily allow Tampa Bay to dethrone them.
Despite all those sacks from Barrett, who was just franchised, and newly re-signed veteran Jason Pierre-Paul, the Bucs still ranked 30th against the pass last year despite playing quite a few teams that were hamstrung under center. Adding some DBs who can better neutralize New Orleans WR Michael Thomas or TE Jared Cook is a must.
One thought: Sign free agent safety Vonn Bell, who could bolster Tampa Bay’s secondary while serving a message and blow to the Saints, who drafted him four years ago.
6. Solidify the kicking game
Licht can be accused of malpractice here, trading into the second round for Roberto Aguayo four years ago – a massive failure – and cycling through various veteran options before drafting Matt Gay last year. As a rookie, Gay proceeded to miss five extra points and nearly a quarter of his field-goal attempts, including an infamous 34-yard misfire against the Giants that handed rookie QB Daniel Jones a victory in his first start.
Maybe Gay settles in as a sophomore. But Licht better have a short list of options – hello, Adam Vinatieri? – in case things go south again … or merely wide left.
7. Reach out to Winston
Clearly Winston, now a free agent, will want a team of his own after throwing 33 TD passes and for an NFL-best 5,109 yards last year. If the Chargers, Patriots or some other club offer a starting gig, he should definitely pounce.
Barring that, the number of open quarterback jobs around the league is quickly dwindling, and the top pick of the 2015 draft may find himself assessing backup opportunities.
Arians seemed to firebomb the Winston bridge after a season in which the signal-caller served up a league-high 30 interceptions and a record seven pick-sixes. But the straight-shooting coach also seemed to extend an olive branch at the scouting combine.
Winston remains a talented player, but one who could greatly benefit from the wisdom of a master like Brady. And the Bucs would be wise to have a more capable and experienced fallback than Ryan Griffin if Brady suffers any kind of temporary breakdown.
So is this seven-point checklist one that can be feasibly aced? Unlikely.
But for Brady, Arians and Licht, no reason not to mortgage the future with near-sighted maneuvers for a franchise that’s just shoved all of its chips into the middle of the table.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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