The current version of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a completely different prototype than the one that delivered the franchise, and its fans, their first-ever Lombardi Trophy back in 2002.
If the team led by Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, John Lynch, and Ronde Barber was a Jeep Gladiator, then the Tom Brady led Buccaneers are a Lamborghini. Polar opposites in style but equally as effective in achieving their goal.
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The modern day Buccaneers present a sleeker, faster, more dynamic model than the original—at least on the offensive side of the ball.
Just like a sports car, the performance of the Bucs’ offense this season will be a direct reflection of the efficiency, functionality, and reliability of its many moving parts.
So like a mechanic, I want to break down this well-oiled machine, and focus in on a couple key parts that will be essential in determining the overall performance of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense.
In doing so, I’ll identify two key players that I consider to be well-positioned for a breakout season in 2022, and I’ll tell you why.
It’s certainly not conventional to identify an interior offensive lineman as a breakout player. Generally, those titles are reserved for skill position players. O-line play is boring. More challenging for the average spectator to evaluate. Offensive linemen are usually doing their best work when you don’t notice them. It’s when you do notice them that there tends to be a problem.
In the case of Aaron Stinnie, he’s already proven that he can blend in without drawing [negative] attention to himself. He achieved this during the Buccaneers Super Bowl run in 2021, after starting right guard, Alex Cappa, suffered a broken ankle—which he admirably tried to continue playing on—in the team’s wild card game vs. Washington.
It was then that Aaron Stinnie was thrust into the biggest opportunity of his life, on the game’s biggest stage, the NFL playoffs.
Stinnie didn’t miss a beat. He entered the game, immediately held his own against one of the most fearsome interior pass rushes in the league, and never looked back. He went on to start three consecutive playoff games, including the team’s dominant performance in Super Bowl LV, where the Chiefs defensive line was unable to penetrate the secure barrier created by Stinnie and the rest of the Buccaneers stout offensive line.
Stinnie was the unsung hero of Tampa Bay’s miraculous playoff run, where they managed to reel off road victories in three consecutive games, on their way to becoming the first team in NFL history to play in [and win] to Super Bowl on their home field.
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Shortly after that season, Stinnie signed a 1-year contract to run it back with the Bucs. With Alex Cappa returning to full health, Stinnie’s relegation to a reserve role was not unexpected. Despite all of the Bucs’ injuries last season, the offensive line managed to escape the year relatively unscathed. As a result, Stinnie didn’t have much of a chance to prove that his previous postseason performance wasn’t a fluke.
Although he doesn’t possess the impressive athletic profile, or physical traits that some of the league’s best interior offensive linemen do, Stinnie has proven to be a tough, gritty, and disciplined offensive guard.
Bucs fans have been granted a blessing simply by getting to watch their team’s offensive line unit operate with such a high level of consistency, cohesion and domination over these past few seasons. It’s a vital element of the sport, and one that Bucs teams sorely lacked for many years prior to the Tom Brady era in Tampa Bay.
So with Alex Cappa moving on to Cincinnati (since replaced with Shaq Mason via trade), and Ali Marpet retiring, Aaron Stinnie now stands as the most likely candidate to start at left guard for the Bucs in 2022.
Stinnie has familiarity with the protection schemes, the coaching staff, and his teammates. He has proven to have the attitude, work ethic, and determination needed to perform when called upon. As a player who has exceeded expectations with every opportunity he has been given, Aaron Stinnie is now facing his greatest one yet. The chance to start on a Super Bowl contending team for an entire season.
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Last season, the Buccaneers learned the hard way just how valuable quality depth at the wide receiver position is. After entering the 2021 NFL season with arguably the strongest trio of wide receivers in the entire league in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown, the Bucs found themselves with all three players in the lineup for just a handful of games.
After Godwin went down with a torn ACL in week 15 vs. the Saints, and Antonio Brown stormed off the sideline in week 17 vs. the Jets, the Bucs were down to Mike Evans and a cast of unproven pass catchers to carry them through the most important stretch of the season.
Tyler Johnson was unable to capitalize on his opportunities throughout the season. Scotty Miller did not receive anywhere near the amount of snaps most people expected, especially after providing a major spark at key moments the season prior. Rookie Jaelon Darden showed little to inspire confidence amongst his coaches and quarterback.
Despite spurts of production from players like Cyril Grayson and Brashad Perriman, the team’s reserve receivers were forced to deal with an assortment of injuries at inopportune times. The result of which was a depletion of the Bucs’ most precious resource for their aerial attack [outside of Tom Brady]the wide receiver position.
So once it became clear that Tom Brady would be back in the fold for 2022, and with Chris Godwin re-signed and optimistic for a full recovery at some point early in the season, Jason Licht still wasn’t satisfied. He knew that more needed to be done in order to ensure that the wide receiver position would be in good shape moving forward.
Enter: Russell Gage.
Coming over from Atlanta, not only is Gage a player the Bucs are familiar with because of the division schedule, but he’s also a player who has been very productive when facing Todd Bowles’ defenses in Tampa. Over the past two seasons, Gage has averaged 7.5 receptions, 79 receiving yards and 0.5 TD’s per game vs. the Buccaneers. The most notable of those games was an 11 reception, 130 yard performance in week 13 of last year.
Russell Gage is a receiver who may not be a household name to casual NFL fans, but he’s someone who’s definitely had the attention of those forced to watch the Falcons regularly over the past few seasons. He has steadily improved in a variety of ways in each of his first four seasons in the league, after being drafted in the sixth round. [194th overall] out of LSU by Atlanta.
Over the course of his rookie contract, Gage has established himself as a reliable, intelligent player, with a great feel for spatial awareness, especially vs. zone defenses. He has experience running a diversified route tree, where he can make plays on contested balls down the field, beat you over the middle, or work the boundary along the sidelines.
He was also a player that Atlanta chose to utilize in jet-sweeps and various trick plays due to his multi-faceted skillset.
Gage possesses the exact type of versatility that Byron Leftwich and the Bucs offense needs. His presence in the lineup is that much more valuable when you consider his ability to slide into Chris Godwin’s role as a slot receiver—a position he’s very familiar with—should Godwin be unavailable to start the season due to his injury recovery.
Quite possibly the most important voice within the entire Buccaneers organization, Tom Brady, proved to be one of Gage’s biggest fans after being introduced to the NFC South division two seasons ago. The fact that Brady called Gage himself to try and recruit the free agent wide receiver to Tampa Bay, before he shortly agreed to terms on a 3-year $30 million deal, makes that very clear.
Russell Gage is a player with the speed, versatility, hands, route-running, and football IQ to become a new favorite target for Tom Brady. Chances are that will result in him becoming a favorite for Bucs fans, too.
Brady has an incredible ability to get the most out of the players around him. You could argue that in spite of his encyclopedia’s worth of accolades, one of his greatest achievements of him has been turning unknown players into household names. Troy Brown, Deion Branch, David Patten, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman… the list goes on.
Russell Gage is definitely not an unknown player, but he’s a prime candidate to become a household name for the Bucs this season.
So of all the Buccaneers’ pieces on offense, I think Aaron Stinnie and Russell Gage find themselves in the best position to have breakout seasons, respectively, in 2022.
And if this version of the Buccaneers is, at least for comparison’s sake, a Lamborghini, then let’s hope that, unlike last season, there aren’t too many bumps in the road.
If you’re interested in hearing more of Collin’s thoughts and opinions on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, make sure to check out the Bucs Banter Podcast.