The Buccanneers Should Run More Two Tight End Sets in 2016
It’s mid-July and NFL training camps have yet to open. They’re close enough that we can start thinking about them but not close enough to where there’s any real football to analyze.
But it’s hard to get out of that thinking mode. We don’t know exactly what players are going to look like and what teams are going to run, but that doesn’t stop us from imagining what those teams should and could do.
For some reason one of those teams on my mind right now is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight ends.
Maybe that’s a bit of a nice thought, but there is a reason -- Tampa Bay’s tight ends were really good last season. In this case we’re talking about Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Cameron Brate. The two tight ends only combined for 69 targets last season, but those plays were highly efficient.
By our Reception Net Expected Points metric (NEP), Seferian-Jenkins and Brate were two of the top five tight ends in the league on a per target basis with a minimum of 30 targets. Seferian-Jenkins topped all tight ends with a Reception NEP per target of 1.09 -- the only tight end over 1.00 -- and Brate was fourth (0.92) behind Tyler Eifert (0.98) and Brent Celek (0.97). For those new to NEP, you can read more about it in our glossary.
This could and should lead to more two-tight ends sets with Seferian-Jenkins and Brate in 2016.
Tampa Bay didn’t lack formations with two tight ends or other heavy packages in 2015, but those plays were rarely run with the two best playmakers on the field. Much of that was due to injury. Seferian-Jenkins only played in seven games last season -- three started -- and his absence was one of the reasons Brate was able to see the field after getting just one target in his rookie season during 2014.
Another part of this was how often the Buccaneers liked to have an extra blocker out on the field. Tampa’s tight end leader in snaps last season was Luke Stocker, who was on the field for 44.3 percent of the Buccaneers’ offensive snaps. He wasn’t much of a passing threat when he was on the field, either. On those 485 offensive snaps Stocker participated in, he saw 13 targets and 9 receptions.
He was essentially another offensive lineman in the formation. Tampa also liked to have an actual sixth lineman out on the field too, with a sixth lineman on the field on 12.9 percent of plays -- the second-highest rate behind Washington.
Having Stocker and an extra lineman definitely helped accomplish the goal the strategy was trying to achieve. Jameis Winston was 12th among qualified starters in sack rate at 4.8 percent, and the running game was efficient, seventh in the league by Adjusted Rushing NEP per play. It even helped out the passing game, to an extent, where the Buccaneers ranked 13th.
That could improve in 2016 given the potential playmaking weapons the Buccaneers can unleash in the passing game.
When Lovie Smith came to Tampa Bay with Josh McCown at quarterback, the idea was to pair Seferian-Jenkins with Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson to recreate the trio of 6’5”-plus pass catchers McCown had during his stellar half season with the Bears in 2013.
The Bucs, now, could add a fourth 6’5” option to that mix by putting Brate on the field more often with the other three. That could continue to help create a massive combined catch radius for a quarterback who isn’t always the most accurate on his throws. And that catch radius will be big. (Videos courtesy NFL Game Pass.)
All Together Now
Late in the season, the Buccaneers tried to get these players on the field at the same time when they were both available, which wasn't often. Unfortunately, the results weren’t great, but there was potential for something that could grow with more practice time and reps.
The first glimpse of this came in Week 14 against the New Orleans Saints. If you’re going to try something new on offense, there’s no better defense to practice on than the Saints, the worst defense in the league by Adjusted NEP per play -- not just last season but since 2000.
All of the elements one would want from this type of personnel were here. In a 2x2 set, the two tight ends are out in the slot with Tampa’s top two receivers on the outside, and it’s basically a four verticals play with only Vincent Jackson needing to adjust on the top of the screen to get around press and to the sideline.
Three of the four get open -- with Jackson as the exception -- with Evans the most open on the other side. Winston identifies Seferian-Jenkins early but rips an overthrow.
It’s an incompletion, but the individual success of most involved before the throw is made shows the potential that could be there. That’s in the middle of the field, but where the most damage could be done is in the red zone. The Buccaneers tried this too, most notably against the Carolina Panthers in Week 17. Going from the Saints to the Panthers, who ranked second in Adjusted NEP per play on defense, is like switching from rookie to All-Madden mode in video games.
Here the Buccaneers run a play from the three-yard line with Seferian-Jenkins out wide to the right of the formation with Donteea Dye lined up alongside him, Brate in the slot, and Evans alone on the left. It’s supposed to be a “legal pick” play to set up a Seferian-Jenkins slant into the end zone.
Brate does his job in the middle carrying his defender away from the goal line, but the Panthers defenders covering Seferian-Jenkins and Dye don’t bite on the switch, which leaves a clear path to stop the pass for an incompletion. Again, nothing came of the play, but it could be built into something better.
Individually, Seferian-Jenkins and Brate were two of the most efficient tight ends in the league last season, albeit in small doses of playing time. But if both can stay on the field, the Buccaneers could have one of the most intriguing personnel groupings in the league with those two on the field together.
Match those two with Evans and Jackson on the outside, and the Buccaneers could be a nightmare to match up with on the offensive side of the ball in 2016 and, given the youth of three of those four, beyond.