Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2023 NFL Preview: Hoping to rebound quickly in life after Tom Brady

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Tom Brady, there was no guarantee it would work out. There was no track record of a 43-year-old quarterback changing teams and it's not like Brady's last season with the New England Patriots was great.

They did everything they could to get the most out of the Brady era, and it worked spectacularly. The Buccaneers won a Super Bowl in Brady's first season. They won two more division titles after that, though last year's division title came with a losing record in a putrid NFC South. The Buccaneers gambled on Brady and got three memorable seasons with a Super Bowl ring out of it. That's a great success.

The ride ended when Brady retired, this time for good (or so he says). Now comes the cleanup from an epic party.

The offseason was about what you'd expect. They took their medicine for past signings with a staggering $74.3 million in dead cap space this year. The Buccaneers were mostly quiet in free agency. Their solution for replacing Brady was signing Baker Mayfield to a one-year, $4 million deal. It's not like they had the resources to make a much bigger splash. There are still some stars from the Super Bowl team but many are aging. Perhaps the Buccaneers will be a seller at the trade deadline.

"This was part of the plan going back to 2020 when we signed Tom, that at some point we’re going to have to pay our bills," Buccaneers general Jason Licht said, via the Tampa Bay Times.

It's reasonable to look at a roster that still has top-end players like receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, defensive tackle Vita Vea, linebackers Devin White, Lavonte David and Shaquil Barrett and defensive backs Carlton Davis III, Jamel Dean and Antoine Winfield Jr. and expect good things. But the Buccaneers were pretty bad last season with those players. Their 8-9 record belied how bad they were at times.

They were an inept team kept afloat by a few ridiculously close wins and one of the worst divisions in NFL history. The Buccaneers started 2-0 and didn't have a win of more than six points the rest of the season. It ended with the Buccaneers looking overmatched in a blowout wild-card playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys. A few days later, the staff was purged of nine coaches including offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich.

And now the Buccaneers go from Brady, with the best résumé an NFL quarterback has ever put together, to Mayfield.

Mike Evans is one of the remaining stars the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have for the post-Tom Brady era. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)
Mike Evans is one of the remaining stars the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have for the post-Tom Brady era. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

The Buccaneers will try to get younger after having the oldest roster in the NFL the past two seasons. They seemingly wanted to get a bit younger on the coaching staff too. The transition from the core of the Super Bowl team to a new era might not be that bad — if Mayfield looks more like early in his Cleveland Browns career or at brief moments with the Los Angeles Rams late last season rather than the floundering QB who got benched by the Carolina Panthers, that will help — but there will still be some bumps along the way.

The Buccaneers knew this was coming when they signed Brady. No matter how bad things get this season, there won't be any regrets over how it all played out.

Offseason grade

The first big question in the Bucs' post-Tom Brady world was how they would fix their QB problem. It seems their final answer will come in another year or two. For now the Buccaneers took a shot on turning Baker Mayfield around as he beat 2021 second-round pick Kyle Trask for the starting job. Most likely, their QB of the future will be playing on Saturdays this fall. The Buccaneers managed to retain cornerback Jamel Dean on a four-year, $52 million deal, which was a nice win for a team that had little cap flexibility. Dean is 26 years old and the type of player the Buccaneers want around for the long haul. A lot of veterans were let go or not re-signed, like running back Leonard Fournette, tight end Cameron Brate, receiver Julio Jones, offensive tackle Donovan Smith, defensive linemen Akiem Hicks, Carl Nassib and William Gholston and kicker Ryan Succop. They also traded guard Shaq Mason and a seventh-round pick for just a sixth-round pick from the Houston Texans. In the draft the Buccaneers focused on the lines, taking defensive tackle Calijah Kancey in the first round and offensive tackle Cody Mauch in the second. There wasn't going to be any magic solution with the Bucs swimming in dead salary-cap space.

Grade: D

Quarterback report

It's hard to know what to make of Mayfield after the past couple seasons. The Cleveland Browns were so excited to dump Mayfield that they paid $10.5 million of his 2022 salary to trade him to the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers ended up benching Mayfield for Sam Darnold. Last season Mayfield's Pro Football Focus grade was 37th among 39 qualified QBs, ahead of only Taylor Heinicke and Zach Wilson. Mayfield posted a miserable 74.4 passer rating with the Panthers before they cut him. Then Mayfield had one of the most improbable moments of last season, leading a huge comeback for the Los Angeles Rams over the Las Vegas Raiders just two days after the desperate Rams claimed him off waivers. Mayfield played a little better with the Rams late in the season, and he still has some pedigree between his Heisman Trophy/No. 1 overall draft pick status and a couple of good seasons early on with the Browns.

BetMGM odds breakdown

The BetMGM win total for the Buccaneers is 6.5. I could see them somehow getting to seven wins in a bad division, though I'd lean to the under. Anyone who watched Tampa Bay last season knew that everything was a struggle. Maybe it was all offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich's fault, but that seems unlikely. There are still enough blue-chip players around that the Bucs will be competitive, and the division is still bad. The total of 6.5 is a pretty fair number.

Yahoo's fantasy take

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Mike Evans is likely headed to the Hall of Fame, posting 1,000 receiving yards or more in nine straight seasons. But sometimes the fantasy angle is to get out a year early rather than a year late, and maybe it's time to shy away from Evans entering his age-30 season. Evans slipped to WR16 last year, despite being in a Tom Brady offense and tied to a team that threw a whopping 751 passes. Surely that passing volume is going to drop, and when the Bucs do throw the ball this year, it will likely be Baker Mayfield at the controls. Evans has slipped to WR32 in early Yahoo ADP, and I think the market is doing the right thing."

Stat to remember

The Buccaneers were impossibly bad running the football last season. They rushed for 1,308 yards, last in the NFL. The second-worst mark was Houston at 1,476, and no other team was under 1,500 yards. The Buccaneers' NFL-worst average of 3.4 yards per carry was far below the second-worst mark of 3.7. They rushed for just five touchdowns, with no other team having fewer than seven. They had three 20-yard runs all season, which was last in the NFL, and no 40-yard runs, tied for last. The Buccaneers moved on from Leonard Fournette, and Rachaad White will presumably take over starter duties, but the biggest change will come from the scheme. New offensive coordinator Dave Canales will use a wide zone scheme, which will be new to the Buccaneers. Even if that doesn't solve everything, it can't be any worse than last season.

Burning question

Does Todd Bowles need a winning season?

In Bowles' first full season as a head coach he went 10-6 with the New York Jets. In four seasons as a head coach since he's 22-43 with four losing seasons. Last year he took over a Bucs team that went 13-4 the season before and posted an 8-9 record. That wasn't all on his shoulders, but Bowles didn't seem to have a lot of answers either. The worst moment for Bowles last season might have been when he mismanaged the end of what proved to be an overtime loss at the Cleveland Browns. The Buccaneers turned over a lot of their coaching staff, and usually when that happens it means the head coach is under pressure the upcoming season. Bowles did a great job leading the Buccaneers defense in 2020-21 and deserved another shot at a head coaching job. He should get some leeway given the transition from the Tom Brady era, However, the NFL is an impatient business.

Best-case scenario

You can talk yourself into the Buccaneers being pretty good. They should have an elite secondary with a few top players still in the front seven. On offense, Chris Godwin and Mike Evans help any quarterback and maybe a scheme change in the run game helps the Bucs vastly improve in that area. It's still a team that won a division title last season, and it's not like the rest of the NFC South got dramatically better this offseason. If the Buccaneers get reasonable quarterback play, it's possible they win another division title. That wouldn't be a bad outcome in their first season after Tom Brady.

Nightmare scenario

There were some bad signs for the Buccaneers last season. If anyone in the NFC South was decent, the Buccaneers would have missed the playoffs in Tom Brady's last season and we would remember it as an absolute failure. What if the Buccaneers take a step back with terrible quarterback play and some of the veterans suddenly falling off a cliff? Because the Bucs still have a lot of players from the Super Bowl team, maybe this isn't the actual start of the post-Tom Brady rebuild, and that comes next season after there's more cleanup of the roster and coaching staff. The Buccaneers want to have a seamless transition after Brady but maybe that will take a few years.

The crystal ball says

It's hard to imagine the Buccaneers, who weren't even as good as their 8-9 record last season, get better without Tom Brady. Though, it's possible we overestimate what Brady really was last season at age 45. Baker Mayfield has his ups and downs, the supporting cast around him is fairly good (though with more depth issues than last season) and the Buccaneers manage to win enough games to keep them from a top-five draft pick. Though the Bucs are probably in for another losing season. Then the team will have to make a call on Todd Bowles' future.

Other team previews

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Houston Texans

30. Chicago Bears

29. Tennessee Titans

28. Los Angeles Rams

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Indianapolis Colts

25. Washington Commanders

24. Las Vegas Raiders

23. Carolina Panthers

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20. Green Bay Packers

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18. New York Giants

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12. Jacksonville Jaguars

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2. Philadelphia Eagles

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