National Football League
Bucs coach Todd Bowles on young squad: 'They'll be known pretty soon'
National Football League

Bucs coach Todd Bowles on young squad: 'They'll be known pretty soon'

Published Aug. 31, 2023 3:48 p.m. ET

For the past three years, the Bucs have had the most recognizable football player in the world in quarterback Tom Brady.

He's now retired, and far beyond just that, this will be a much younger Bucs team in 2023, with 13 rookies on their 53-man roster. But head coach Todd Bowles said that doesn't change his confidence as the Bucs seek a fourth straight playoff appearance.

"We feel comfortable with the guys we've got. We have guys on the team that can play ball," he said Thursday. "Just because their names are not known doesn't mean that they can't play. They're just unknown at the time. They'll be known pretty soon. It's up to us to get them ready and up to them to play, and we feel confident in that."

Tampa Bay won the NFC South last year with an 8-9 record, and the post-Brady era greets the Bucs with some of the lowest expectations in the league. Oddsmakers have the over-under on their season win total at 6.5, and the vast majority of public bettors are taking the under on that line.

Outside the building, they're seen by many as a team that will struggle enough to compete for a top draft pick, but inside, there's an NFC South title to defend and optimism it's within their reach.

"We are very excited about our roster, our young guys, second and third-year guys, too," general manager Jason Licht said Thursday. "It's probably more excitement [about rookies] at this point than we've had in the past, not to say we haven't had some great rookie classes. Overall, it's collectively a great group of ... players and talent."

On offense, 10 of the 11 oldest players from last year are gone, with receiver Mike Evans the lone holdover, and there will be rookies making an impact all over that side of the ball, from second-rounder Cody Mauch starting at right guard to sixth-rounder Trey Palmer likely stepping up as the No. 3 receiver after Russell Gage was lost to a season-ending knee injury. The starting nickel will be an undrafted rookie in Rutgers' Christian Izien, with first-round defensive lineman Calijah Kancey and third-round outside linebacker Yaya Diaby expected to be part of the rotation in the front seven.

Some of that is a talented rookie class, but there are more opportunities because the Bucs were financially strapped, with about $75 million in "dead money" counting against this year's salary cap from contracts of players no longer on the team, including $35 million from Brady alone. That made for an extremely limited budget for free-agent spending, with no newcomer getting more than $4 million or more than one year to join the Bucs.

"We knew there would be a lot of opportunities for new faces," Licht said. "But if you had told me back in April that we'd keep six undrafted rookies, I probably would have thought you were crazy. It worked out. All of these guys, they really exceeded our expectations, and we're excited about every single one of them. I think a lot of them are going to play big roles for us."

So many of the veterans from last year the Bucs are seeking to replace are old enough they aren't on NFL rosters right now. In running back Leonard Fournette, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, safety Logan Ryan, receiver Julio Jones and tight end Cameron Brate, you have more than 2,000 snaps from last year from players who aren't on the NFL radar for one reason or another.

There are veteran newcomers as well. Former No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield won the starting quarterback job, former Chargers lineman Matt Feiler is the new starting left guard, former Seahawks safety Ryan Neal will now start next to Antoine Winfield, and they'll have a new kicker in Chase McLaughlin

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But the wild card in the Bucs' success or failure might be how well they can get meaningful production from all those rookies, and Bowles is most pleased by the smarts they've shown in picking up new schemes and understanding what they need to do.

"They're very gifted, mentally," Bowles said. "They've grasped the system so well. [Receiver Rakim] Jarrett and Palmer on offense and [running back] Sean [Tucker] as well. Cody was plugged in as a starter. The defensive guys have a good grasp of it and are letting their ability show. We don't distinguish between age — if you can play, you can play. We can teach you some football, and those guys have earned it."

Operating on a budget this spring wasn't easy, at a time when division rivals were actively upgrading. The Falcons were among the most active spenders in free agency, the Saints added a $100 million quarterback in Derek Carr and the Panthers traded enough assets to score the No. 1 overall pick, used on quarterback Bryce Young. There wasn't flash or splash to what the Bucs did, but that doesn't take away from their overall optimism.

"It was challenging for us, but it was fun," Licht said. "Any time you challenge your staff to find gems at the Dollar Store, there's an excitement to it. That's what we get paid to do. That's how we earned our bones early, trying to kick the weeds and find things. It was a lot of fun for all of us."


Greg Auman is FOX Sports' NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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