No football team likes to have weaknesses, but not every position can be a team strength. But the reality is that every position has a weak link if one goes far enough through the depth chart. The Bucs are no exception.
Despite fielding a team that still has nine players who have made at least one Pro Bowl, the defending NFC South champions have weak links at every position — some even in the starting ranks. Some of these weaknesses can be turned into team strengths with more experience and development. And some weaknesses can simply be erased by better play or effort by the coaches.
Pewter Report’s Scott Reynolds looks at the Bucs’ weak links over the next two days in two articles: offense on Monday and defense on Tuesday. Let’s start with the Tampa Bay offense.
Bucs’ weak links on offense
Quarterback – Kyle Trask
Experience is the best teacher, and the problem for third-year quarterback Kyle Trask is that he’s spent too much time in the classroom. Aside from a handful of preseason appearances in his first two years in Tampa Bay, Trask only played in one regular season game. That came in the fourth quarter of a Week 18 loss to Atlanta, where Trask completed just 3 of 9 passes for 23 yards.
With Tom Brady gone, Trask finally gets a chance to compete for the starting job against newcomer Baker Mayfield. But Mayfield has 69 starts in the NFL and is the current favorite to be below center in Week 1 in Minnesota. The only way Trask can beat Mayfield is if he better protects the ball during training camp and preseason as new offensive coordinator Dave Canales demands his quarterback protect the football.
Even if he loses the QB league and gets demoted to backup, Trask’s lack of experience still makes him the weak link of the quarterback position. Because if Mayfield gets injured and Trask has to play, his inexperience won’t do him or the Bucs any good. Trask just won’t improve until he gets more chances under center.
And even some of the best quarterbacks in the league have to pass a trial by fire, whether it’s during their rookie year or when they get a chance to start. The fact that the Bucs don’t have an experienced backup like they’ve had with Blaine Gabbert for the past three seasons could come back to bite the Bucs if Mayfield gets injured or struggles to the point where Trask has to play.
Walking Back – Ke’Shawn Vaughn
Rachaad White will enter the 2023 season as the expected starter now that Leonard Fournette has been released. But the depth behind White is as thin as White’s own level of experience after sharing playing time with Fournette as a rookie last year. There is a noticeable decline in talent behind White with Ke’Shawn Vaughn, a third-round pick in 2020. Vaughn has seen limited playing time over the past three seasons and has just 79 carries for 342 yards and two touchdowns.
Still, he has a favorable 4.3-yard average and has shown some improvement over his Bucs career. Still, Tampa Bay would not be comfortable with Vaughn as the team’s starter if White was injured. Vaughn’s lone start came in the Bucs’ 2021 playoff victory against the Eagles, where he had 17 carries for 53 yards and a touchdown along with a 3.1 avg.
Vaughn has proven to be just an average back with minimal explosiveness. While his hands have gotten better, he’s still not seen as a great receiver from the backfield, where he can be trusted to play on third downs. The Bucs brought in veteran Chase Edmonds to compete with Vaughn for the backup job and that should be a good competition – and one that Edmonds could end up winning. Tampa Bay has only to hope that White can stay healthy for 17 games this season due to the lack of a proven, capable reserve runner.
Wide receiver – Russell Gage
Russell Gage disappointed in his first season in Tampa Bay, making only 51 passes for 426 yards and five touchdowns. His average of 8.4 meters was the lowest of his career. Gage suffered a hamstring injury during training camp and never fully recovered during the season. The Bucs were angry with the way he handled his recovery, which took longer than it should, and forced Gage to take a $3 million pay cut.
New Bucs offensive coordinator Dave Canales has shared his excitement about the team retaining Gage, and he could have a recovery year in Tampa Bay’s new offense. Gage’s most important quality is his speed. Gage is neither big nor fast, he is quick in and out of his breaks and can break away from defenders when he is healthy. But when he got hurt, as he was last year, Gage turned out to be an ordinary receiver.
The Bucs drafted speed receiver Trey Palmer in the sixth round and he could prove to be an immediate threat to Gage in terms of playing time. Even in the limited time in Tampa Bay with just the rookie mini-camp and first week of OTAs, Palmer has impressed and could run for the No. 3 wide receiver spot currently held by Gage. The problem for Gage is that he suffered an unknown minor injury that caused him to miss last week’s OTAs. If he can’t stay sane, Palmer could quickly usurp him and claim the No. 3 spot on the depth chart.
Tight End – Ko Kieft
The Bucs spent a sixth round pick on Ko Kieft in the 2022 NFL Draft to help with the team’s ground game. Kieft was primarily a blocking tight end in Minnesota, but proved his worth as an additional blocker in Tampa Bay’s first year in line, playing H-back along the way and also playing fullback. Kieft also shone on special teams as one of the top tackers.
But because of his limited skills as a receiver, when he was brought on by former offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, it was a giveaway for the opposing defense that the Bucs would run the ball. Kieft’s use was a sign that the Bucs wouldn’t throw the ball and led to some very predictable – and unsuccessful – running plays. For Tampa Bay to avoid that predictability this season, Kieft needs to improve as a receiver, and new offensive coordinator Dave Canales needs to get the ball thrown at him more often – or just throw the ball in general when Kieft is in the lineup.
The problem for Kieft is that the Bucs fielded another pass-catching tight end in fifth-round pick Payne Durham to pair with Cade Otton. Durham had 126 catches for 1,275 yards and 21 touchdowns at Purdue. By comparison, Kieft had 12 receptions for 166 yards and two touchdowns in Minnesota last year, and just seven catches for 81 yards and one touchdown as a rookie in Tampa Bay. Instead of potentially emerging as a No. 2 tight end with Cam Brate and Kyle Rudolph gone, Kieft will likely remain the No. 3 tight end with the arrival of Durham – a much better receiving tight end.
Line of Attack – Cody Mauch
Luke Goedeke, the expected starter on right tackle, could have been the choice here instead of Cody Mauch, the team’s second round pick this year. But Goedeke has already weathered the trials of his rookie season and is returning to a place where he had success in college, which is his natural position at right tackle. While he’s unproven there at the NFL level – except for one game in Week 18 – he’s not quite as green as Mauch will be in his first season in the NFL.
Not only does Mauch make the leap from the FCS level where he shined at North Dakota State, he also makes the position switch from left tackle to right guard. While Ali Marpet made a very successful transition from playing left tackle at Hobart College in 2014 to starting at right guard for the Bucs in 2015, Alex Cappa initially struggled to make that position change. A left tackle at Humboldt State, Cappa was called up to guard in the third round in 2018. He struggled tremendously with pass protection and did not emerge as a full-time starter until 2019 as he got stronger.
Mauch is more like Cappa than Marpet, and needs a lot of technical work in pass protection. While he should excel as a runblocker, his lack of soundpass protection could get him in trouble as a rookie. Couple that with him lining up alongside an inexperienced right tackle in Goedeke, and successfully picking up stunts and twists could lead to some serious growing pains. Mauch could develop into a very good guard in the future, but his lack of experience makes him the weak link in the offensive line.
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