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Buccaneers' Safety Rotation Picking Up

Posted Aug 7, 2017

Rookie Justin Evans and new addition J.J. Wilcox are going to start getting first-team snaps alongside Chris Conte and Keith Tandy…Plus, the kicker battle, NFL officials and more.

Through the first 10 days of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2017 training camp, Chris Conte and Keith Tandy have been taking most of the first-team snaps at the safety position. That makes sense because both Conte and Tandy are incumbent starters from the previous season.

Of course, it's not really as simple as that. Conte and Tandy are returning starters, indeed, but essentially incumbents at a single position. Bradley McDougald, since departed in free agency, started all 16 games at one safety spot for the Bucs in 2016, while Conte and Tandy combined to log the 16 starts at the other one. Meanwhile, the team used both free agency (J.J. Wilcox) and the draft (second-rounder Justin Evans) to add potential starters at safety.

VIEW: BUCCANEERS' TRAINING CAMP SCHEDULE

Thus, the two-man safety combo was seen as a four-man battle entering training camp. To their credit, Conte and Tandy have done nothing to suggest they should lose their front-line positions, and when the Buccaneers put out their first "official" depth chart on Monday afternoon they'll both likely have first-team designations. That said, in service of that four-man competition, and to make sure any of the possible two-man combinations will be able to work together smoothly, the first-team snaps are going to be divvied up a bit more this week.

"We're trying to even out the reps at some positions," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter as the Bucs began another week off work after a Sunday of rest for the players. "We had a day off yesterday so the coaches, we could kind of see where we were at on the reps. We also want to get J.J. Wilcox and Justin Evans, instead of always working as a pair, rotating them in with Keith [Tandy] and/or Chris [Conte] so they can get the communication down. So we'll be doing that all this week."

On Monday, it was Evans who had a notable run with the first-team group. Evans and Wilcox have been working together on the second-team defense, but instead of simply swapping out the two pairs of safeties the coaches want to mix-and-match among the four so that the newcomers can benefit from the experience of the holdovers.

That's a worthwhile approach for Evans, in particular, as he's still in the process of learning the defense and its in-game adjustments after being drafted out of Texas A&M in April. Holdovers from last year's defense, like Conte and Tandy, can easily recall how much better the unit performed when they were able to improve their on-field communication.

"Definitely communication," said Evans, citing the most important thing he's learning. "There's a lot of different terminology coming from college. That's definitely the biggest thing, the little details like where certain people line up [leads to] certain checks. I'm still coming along in the playbook. I still mess up here and there. But that's why we practice, so I can mess up now."

Evans said he fully expects to make a mistake or two when he plays his first NFL game on Friday in Cincinnati, too. However, his confidence remains high and he knows it's all part of the learning process. Getting a chance to run with the first-team defense should speed that process along.

* Neither of the Bucs' two kickers, second-year incumbent Roberto Aguayo or veteran free agency acquisition Nick Folk, had a particularly strong practice on Monday. That said, one or the other could end the competition sooner than observers of the team had anticipated.

READ: 5 STANDOUTS FROM PRACTICE

"There's no reason they should have to go all the way to the [cuts to] 53," said Koetter. "If it does, it does, but we don't have to take it that long. We're looking for a guy to win the job."

The cut to 53 occurs after the fourth and final preseason game, which for the Buccaneers is on August 31. With a 90-man roster throughout the entire month of August (in previous years, teams had to cut from 90 to 75 before the fourth game) it would not be particularly difficult to reserve two spots for kickers until the end. But a competition that lasts down to the wire could indicate that neither competitor has done enough to fully seize the job.

"We'd like to make a decision sooner rather than later, but it's just hard right now," said Koetter. "We've got to get better at that position. We've got to get better at every position but that's one of them.

"It's kind of day-to-day. Neither one of them was very good today. I mean, it's a simple process. You're a kicker in the NFL – inside 50 yards you've got to make your kicks. I'm not being [mean] or anything, that's just what it is. That's what it is in this league. They know it, I know it, everybody here knows it. It is what it is."

* Rookie WR Chris Godwin continued his strong training camp with several more big plays on Monday, including a long touchdown pass down the middle of the field near the end of the final drill. That rep will live on through practice tape as the coaches make roster and lineup decisions in the weeks ahead. Had it occurred in a game, however, it wouldn't have counted.

That wasn't Godwin's fault; the play would have been called back by a holding penalty at the line of scrimmage. That was inarguable because on Monday the Buccaneers actually had game officials on hand to point out such infractions, and a flag was thrown to negate that play. A crew led by long-time NFL referee Ed Hochuli will be working the Bucs' training camp all week, adding another helpful dimension to the Bucs' preparations.

"Just sort of by chance, some unbelievable situations came up today," said Koetter. "You never know exactly how it's going to play it. That's one of the reasons we have the music so loud, like crowd noise. We handled a couple of them good, a couple of them not good, but [it was] awesome work, awesome work for us. We've been pointing out penalties in practice. A good example: That great catch Godwin had at the end would've come back with a hold. That's the stuff when I'm telling them in a meeting they don't always believe me, so to see those yellow flags out here is just another thing to try to make it as game-like as you can."

READ: HARD KNOCKS WISH LIST, EPISODE 1

* Another long pass by Jameis Winston nearly resulted in an equally big play earlier in practice, but cornerback Brent Grimes was able to knock it away from its intended target, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, at the last moment.

It was another eye-opening play by Grimes, who also intercepted a pass over the middle late in practice, but it was perhaps more important as a step in Winston and Jackson forging a connection in the passing attack. The Buccaneers hope that the addition of Jackson, who has led the NFL in receptions of 50 or more yards over the last nine years, will bring out the strengths in Winston's deep-passing game, but it may take the young quarterback a little time to get adjusted to his new target's speed.

"Brent Grimes is doing it every day, but that play he made, knocking it away on the deep one, that was a fantastic play," said Koetter. "That's another good learning situation because D-Jack had him beat but Jameis hasn't had a guy that can run like that. If Jameis puts that out there another five yards, that's a touchdown. Brent Grimes was beat by a step and made a superhuman effort to knock it away. That's the kind of competition…there's two of our best players and that's what you're talking about when you're saying compete in practice to make each other better. That's making us better. Jameis is learning a lesson there."