State of the 2022 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tom Brady's return keeps Super Bowl well within reach

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization, Buccaneers fans around the world and those who are glad they didn't purchase that Blaine Gabbert jersey just yet:

It's been a wild offseason for the Bucs. For a few weeks, it looked like the G.O.A.T. was gone. Then fate intervened, and Tom Brady returned. Then coach Bruce Arians stepped down and took a front-office job. Arians and Brady denied this was the result of some sort of mutiny on this ship, and everything seems copacetic now. Are the Bucs the best team in the NFC? Let's examine.

2021 rewind

One high from last season: Beating the Bills in Week 14. The Bucs and Bills were popular picks to make the Super Bowl last season -- and we nearly got that matchup in February. When the two teams did meet, in the Bucs' dramatic overtime win against the Bills on Dec. 12, it was one of those instances where the game exceeded the hype.

One low from last season: Losing to the Saints, 9-0, in Week 15. I mean, are the Bucs ever going to solve this thing with the Saints, who have won all four regular-season matchups with Tampa since Brady arrived in 2020 (plus three straight before that)? Maybe it was reasonable to expect a bit of a letdown a week after scoring 33 points to beat the Bills in overtime. But getting shut out against the Saints (who are good) was kind of bad. (On top of all that, this week also marked the end of stud receiver Chris Godwin's season, thanks to a torn ACL.)

2022 VIPs

Head coach: Todd Bowles. Think about this for a moment. Every head coach who has won a Super Bowl with Tom Brady was on his second stint as a HC when capturing the title (I'm not getting into whether Arians' tenure as interim Colts head coach counts as his first head-coaching job, instead of his time leading the Cardinals, nor whether Bill Belichick's dalliance with the Jets between coaching the Browns and Pats actually counts as his second). So, I guess what we're saying here is, Bowles, now in his second time around as a head coach after helming the Jets from 2015 to '18, is guaranteed a Super Bowl win with Brady.

Maybe that's a bit of a stretch. But Bowles does deserve another opportunity. I mean, he's the only coach who has led the Jets to a winning season in the past decade, and as defensive coordinator, he was instrumental to the Bucs' Super Bowl run two years ago. Brady obviously generates a lot of the headlines, but it was that defense that harangued Patrick Mahomes for most of Super Bowl LV, serving as the driving force behind that victory. And when Brady returned this offseason, Arians felt good about handing the keys over to Bowles to take over, a move he recently said he might not have made if Blaine Gabbert was the quarterback. No disrespect to Blaine, of course.

Quarterback: Tom Brady. Did anybody really believe Brady had retired for good? It was like one of those movies where you had to sit through the end of the credits because you were certain Brady was going to return from the dead to haunt everyone once again. Like Matthew Stafford was going to see the words "I know what you won last February" scribbled on his bathroom mirror or something. It seemed weird that Brady would step away, because he was as productive as ever in 2021. In fact, he became the fifth player in NFL history to post at least 5,000 passing yards, 40 touchdown passes and a passer rating of 100 or better in one season.

Honestly, he keeps getting better. Brady has more passing yards and passing touchdowns in his 40s than he did in his 20s. And I'm sure you've all seen the memes where Brady, who is turning 45 in August, somehow looks younger now than he did in his 20s. Hell, if he throws 39 touchdown passes this season, he'll be the Bucs' all-time leader in passing TDs, despite only joining them two seasons ago. It's absolutely wild that he's still this good at this stage of his career. He's unbelievable. No wonder he decided against retiring.

Projected 2022 MVP: Brady. Look, I pride myself on choosing players other than the starting quarterback for this spot. But how did your feelings about the Buccaneers change once Brady came out of retirement? The Bucs were just another mid-card team without him, but now they're back in main event status. And honestly, they should now be considered the Super Bowl favorites. The Bucs are 24-9 in two seasons with Brady. They are 5-1 in the playoffs. Those five playoff wins are huge, considering Tampa Bay had not won a single playoff game since Super Bowl XXXVII.

New face to know: Russell Gage, wide receiver. Brady was talking Gage -- a free-agent signee from the Falcons -- up recently, saying he's going to need to have a huge season. And it's easy to see how well Tom has done over the years with receivers who can do damage in the slot. There's Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, to name a couple. One wouldn't have to connect random dots to suggest Gage has the potential for a big year. I know a lot of the fantasy heads loved Gage in Atlanta last year, and you should get on board with him. He has notched 90-plus targets in consecutive seasons. He caught four touchdown passes in each of those years. Dude is ready for a big role.

2022 breakout star: Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, outside linebacker. It seemed like everyone made such a huge deal about all of the starters that returned to the Bucs last year, but they did add some young talent along the way for the future of the organization. Tryon-Shoyinka, a first-round pick in 2021, is expected to take over for Jason Pierre-Paul at outside linebacker, and he could be on the cusp of a major leap. He posted four sacks last year, despite playing just half of the defensive snaps. This is mostly me forecasting here, but I could see him getting double-digit sacks playing in this system, given his talent.

2022 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 2 at New Orleans Saints. I mean, the Buccaneers can't afford to lose to the Saints again, can they? Honestly, I can't imagine Tampa winning any of the first four games of the season -- against the Cowboys, Saints, Packers and Chiefs -- if Brady wasn't the quarterback.
  • Week 9 vs. Los Angeles Rams. Here's a matchup between the last two Super Bowl winners. One thing to note, even as we talk about the Bucs' futility against the Saints: The Rams won both matchups against Tampa Bay last year. And the second of the two meetings (in the Divisional Round of the playoffs) required a furious second-half rally from Brady for it to even be close. I know we like to talk about the Bucs being the top contender in the NFC, but they need to clean this up, too.
  • Week 15 vs. Cincinnati Bengals. I'm not predicting any passing-of-the-torch moments between Joe Burrow and Brady, or anything like that. But this could be a huge offering, as both teams figure to be challenging for division titles and perhaps the top seeds in their respective conferences at this point. The Bucs will be coming off a road game against the 49ers in Week 14.

Will the Bucs be able to ...

... replace two starters on the offensive line? I know a lot of the fantasy heads will be thinking about Godwin's status, but Ali Marpet retired after last season. The underrated Alex Cappa left for Cincinnati as a free agent. That leaves two holes on an offensive line that seemed to be a crucial element of the team's success over the past two seasons, ranking fifth at the end of 2020 and second at the end of last season, according to Pro Football Focus, while allowing Brady to be sacked just 43 times in that span, 23rd-most in the NFL. The Bucs drafted Luke Goedeke in the second round and traded for Shaq Mason to fill those spots. Mason is penciled in at right guard, while Goedeke is behind Aaron Stinnie on the depth chart in June. There is a lot of time left before training camp, but this is a situation that warrants monitoring.

... fill some of the holes on the defensive front? Tryon-Shoyinka stepping in for Pierre-Paul won't be the only change up front on D. The addition of veteran Akiem Hicks -- one of the best signings of the offseason -- seems to indicate the team is turning the page from free agent Ndamukong Suh. Hicks, 32, battled injuries during his final years in Chicago, but there is no doubting what his presence means in terms of leadership. Not to mention that he's still a dominant force when he is on the field. Between Hicks and second-round pick Logan Hall, it feels like the answer to this question I'm asking here is going to be "Yes." The Bucs should be very good up front once again.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overthink: Leonard Fournette's weight. All right, you guys; that's enough of that. Maybe an unflattering photo or two of the running back has emerged, but that's all right. I'm not about to doubt my guy Lenny at all. Dude pushed Ronald Jones out the door, inking a three-year deal in March while Jones moved on to the Chiefs. Fournette also flashed his pass-catching ability last season (69 receptions), like he was Larry Centers or something. I'm a huge fan of what he's been able to do for the Buccaneers over the past two years. On second thought, keep overthinking those Fournette pics. Then you will all sleep on him again in your fantasy drafts, and I can scoop him up, laughing the entire way.

... people shouldn't overlook: The Bucs dropped a lot of footballs last season. It's crazy. Tampa Bay registered 35 drops in 2021, tied for fourth-most in the NFL, per PFF. And yet, Brady was first in completions, pass attempts, passing yards and passing touchdowns. I mean, maybe if these guys try holding on to the ball a bit this season, it might help. Just saying. A lot of that will come down to players like Gage. Godwin's return is also important. He led the Buccaneers with 98 receptions for 1,103 yards last season, and he ranks sixth in the NFL since 2019 with 81.9 receiving yards per game. He was their best receiver in the 2020 playoffs, and he could have made a difference in last year's postseason loss. I love Gage, but Godwin needs to come back strong. So does Rob Gronkowski, but I'm putting that down as a given. (UPDATE: Gronkowski announced his retirement (again) from the NFL after 11 seasons.) I'll also take this chance to shout out Mike Evans, who never seems to get the respect he deserves, either. (Although, Mike, if you happen to catch one of Tom's milestone passes again, hold on to it this time.)

For 2022 to be a success, the Bucs MUST:

  • Win the Super Bowl. Divisional titles are cool and all, but Tom Brady does not unretire just to compete for the top spot in the NFC South. This is all-in for what could be Brady's final season in the NFL. OK, so it's probably not that -- maybe he'll be throwing passes to Tyreek Hill in Miami next year. Still, I wonder if Brady thinks about how, say, Peyton Manning walked off a champion (or, more precisely, was carried off by that Broncos defense) and feels like he needs to go out with an eighth ring.

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