Buccaneers didn’t have particularly high hopes going into 2023 – the first year of the Post-Tom Brady era. The team that won a Super Bowl ring at home in February 2021 was fading from view, and most in the media and the Bucs fandom were anticipating a ‘rebuilding’ year at best.
However, three games in, and Tampa looks like a better side than many might have thought. The team sit at 2-1, holding a share of the NFC South division lead. New quarterback Baker Mayfield has performed better than expected, and on the whole Tampa looks like a tough out for most teams in the league.
While they look quite far from going deep in the playoffs, they could well make it there in a relatively weak NFC South. Tampa has shown enough so far to suggest that they will be competitive in a lot of games this year – even if they aren’t likely to make a huge mark in January.
The biggest move in Tampa during free agency was the acquisition of quarterback and former number one overall pick Baker Mayfield. Mayfield was at one point the next big hope in Cleveland, and did win a playoff game in Pittsburgh in 2021 – the first playoff win for a Cleveland side in twenty-seven years.
Since then, Mayfield had a rough two years, struggling on the field due to injuries, and spending last season split between Carolina and the Los Angeles Rams, neither of which were great successes. Thus, the Bucs called his number and offered him $4,000,000 this year to fill their Tom Brady-shaped hole under center.
So far Mayfield is having his best year in a while, with his highlight game coming in week 2, with a 114.5 rating against Chicago, as he led the Bucs to a 27-17 win. Unsurprisingly his two favorite targets have been Mike Evans and Chris Godwin – two men who have been key to the franchise in recent times.
The offense has also been helped by the addition of nine-year veteran Matt Feiler on the offensive line. Left Guard Feiler was released by the Chargers in March, and the Bucs snapped him up to replace Shaq Mason, who was traded to Houston. Feiler has played every snap in the first three weeks and is already an important part of the unit.
Also added, was long-time Seahawk defensive back Ryan Neal. Neal has also been almost ever-present this year on defense, as the Bucs defensive unit sits at 9th in the NFL in scoring. Neal himself has contributed somewhat to this effort, making 25 tackles, including two for loss so far.
Finally, the Bucs made a change at kicker, bringing in former Indianapolis Colt Chase McLaughlin to replace long-time kicker Ryan Succop. McLaughlin so far is five from six on field goals, with his one miss being a block in Chicago. Solid performance so far, but hard to tell yet if Tampa have upgraded at the position.
Moving onto the draft, where the Bucs had eight selections in April, after various trades up and down the board. Their first pick came at number 19, where they selected DT Calijah Kancey out of Pitt. Kancey did feature week 1, before a reoccurrence of a calf injury led to him leading the game after just eleven snaps.
However, further down the board there have been substantial successes for Tampa. Offensive tackle Cody Mauch was a 2nd round selection, and so far he has looked solid at Guard, doing much better in pass protection than in the rushing game. It should also be noted that Mauch is adapting to a new position, now playing right guard rather than left tackle. As the year progresses, we might expect Mauch to improve further as he adapts to the realities of Pro Football.
At receiver, Tampa has benefited from the output of sixth-round pick Trey Palmer. Whilst Godwin and Evans are still the main men at receiver, Palmer has been the third man so far, with four receptions for 36 yards, and his first big league touchdown coming in Minnesota.
The biggest surprise though has probably been safety Christian Izien, who has been a key part in both victories this season. Izien went undrafted out of Rutgers and impressed enough in training camp to make the final roster. In week 1 his interception in Minnesota ended a drive at Tampa’s own 13-yard line, denying the Vikings at least 3 points, in a game that Tampa won by three.
And the following week, he iced the game with a pick with 1:17 left in the game, sealing the victory over the Chicago Bears, at the time giving Tampa Bay a surprising 2-0 start. Bucs fans will be impressed so far, and excited to see what this young safety can contribute going forward.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @New Orleans Saints
This Sunday sees Tampa travel to the Superdome in New Orleans to face the New Orleans Saints in their first divisional game of the year. The Saints remain – narrowly – favourites to win the NFC South this year, and currently share the divisional lead with the Bucs and Falcons. The Bucs swept the season series last year, including a comeback 17-16 win in week 13 which ultimately decided the division title.
The Saints were victim to another comeback last week in Green Bay, blowing a 17-point 4th quarter lead to ultimately fall 18-17 to the Packers. Derek Carr’s injury was key in that one, and with former Buccaneer Jameis Winston at the helm, the Bucs D will see this as an opportunity to pick up a road win in a crowded, competitive division. Divisional games are always huge in the NFL, this one is no different.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Atlanta Falcons
Speaking of divisional games, the two matchups with Atlanta Falcons are also likely to go a long way to decide who wins this most intriguing of divisions. The Falcons are another side whose unbeaten run came to an end on Sunday, with a disappointing loss at home to Detroit. Arthur Smith’s men looked good in the first two games and boast a strong rushing attack, with exciting rookie Bijan Robinson amongst it.
The Falcons also possess the league’s 7th best scoring defense, with stars like AJ Terrell, Jessie Bates and Calais Campbell amongst the reasons for this strong start. The series was split last year, with both teams winning their home games, and a repeat of this is definitely a possibility this year.
However, if the Bucs can shut down the Falcons rushing attack and Baker Mayfield can find Godwin and Evans enough, maybe they can secure a road win in Fulton County, which could have a huge impact on the division title (and its playoff berth) this season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @Green Bay Packers
The Bucs have a week 15 matchup in Lambeau Field against a Green Bay Packers side who have been quietly impressive so far this year. The post-Rodgers era in Wisconsin seems promising so far, with the Packers sitting at 2-1, having pulled off an improbable comeback against the Saints last week.
Lambeau Field in December is not necessarily a fun place to go for any team – let alone one based in Florida – but games like this can prove a good litmus test for sides with playoff ambitions. It’s impossible to tell how either side will be getting on come December time, but if the Bucs can win some of the more straightforward games on the schedule, then shutting down Jordan Love and Matt LeFleur’s strong offensive unit could be their ticket to more January football.
Forecast for the rest of the season & Prediction
The Bucs were given a projected win total of 6.5 at the beginning of the season by Vegas, amongst the worst in the league, but so far they’ve starting working on proving the oddsmakers wrong. Although they did fall to defeat on Monday Night Football in Philadelphia, the Eagles are one of the league’s elite, and it won’t necessarily do too much to dampen hopes in Hillsborough County.
The Bucs won the division with an 8-9 record last season, but so far it looks like the target to win the South will be a bit higher this year. While none of the sides in the division particularly look like Super Bowl contenders, three of them sit at 2-1 with non-divisional wins, and even the Panthers – who bring up the rear in the division – don’t look like a pushover at this stage.
The issue that Tampa Bay face as division winners from last year is a tougher schedule as a result. The Bucs have to play Buffalo, Philadelphia and San Francisco; three teams not on the schedule of either the Saints or Falcons. In a division that was decided by a single win last year, this might prove to be the difference.
While Mayfield has been decent so far, and the Bucs still possess real defensive star power like Shaq Barrett, Lavonte David and Vita Vea, this is still a relatively inexperienced roster for the most part. Expect the Buccaneers to have a decent year – and pick up a few surprise wins – but still fall just short of making the playoffs.
Prediction: 8-9 (3rd in the division)
The Buccaneers went 8-9 in 2022, winning the NFC South before falling to the Dallas Cowboys in the Wildcard round. In 2021, the Buccaneers went 13-4, also winning the South, before losing 30-27 to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round.
The Buccaneers signed ex-Browns, Panthers and Rams quarterback Baker Mayfield in free agency this year, replacing NFL legend Tom Brady. The Bucs also added OL Matt Feiler, Safety Ryan Neal and Kicker Chase McLaughlin in free agency to name three other league veterans, as they strengthened across the field.
Wide receiver duo Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are likely to be key to Tampa Bay’s success this year, as they aim to return to the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. Other important players include defensive tackle Vita Vea and linebacker trio Lavonte David, Devin White and Shaq Barrett.
The most important games in the Buccaneers season are likely to be the divisional matchups with the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, which are likely to help decide which team wins the NFC South this year. Other important games on the schedule include matches against the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers.