Change is coming to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' depth chart.
Well, actually, it already did, even though the team hasn't yet released an official depth chart for 2019. The Buccaneers will now identify as a 3-4 defense, which means the front seven on the depth chart will include three defensive linemen, two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers. Accordingly, the front seven players all now have position designations of DL, OLB or ILB.
More important, of course, is how the names will be arranged next to those designations, and a team coming off a 5-11 finish the year before is bound to make some changes there. That's doubly true with a new coaching staff running things, and the Buccaneers are about to experience their first Bruce Arians training camp.
As always, training camp means the arrival of pads and actual contact in practice, after a useful but somewhat neutered offseason of "underwear football." While certain players have already caught the eyes of Arians and his coaches in the spring, it isn't until the contact begins that position battles truly get going.
There will be plenty of those on the AdventHealth Training Center this summer, beginning on July 26. The offensive line could have a change or two, there are opportunities at receiver after the departures of Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson, and it's safe to say that the entire defensive depth chart will be in motion. There's even an intriguing battle at kicker!
So what will be the best competition to watch at the Bucs' camp this year? As Carmen Vitali, Casey Phillips and I continue our annual pre-camp Roundtable Week, we've decided to tackle that question but to allow it to be answered in either of two ways. We can choose a battle because we think it will be the most interesting to watch, or because we believe its outcome is most important to the team's fortunes on the field this season. If the choice satisfies both of those criteria, even better.
This is the third of our five Roundtable discussions this week. Here's the schedule:
Monday: Which new addition to the team will have the greatest impact?
Tuesday: What is your bold prediction for the 2019 season?
Wednesday: What will be the most interesting or important position battle in training camp?
Thursday: In what area will the Buccaneers make the biggest statistical improvement in 2019?
Friday: Who will be the Buccaneers' breakout player in 2019?
A reminder that we are not duplicating each other's answers, which means order of selection can be important and we're rotating that order all week. It's finally my turn to go first! Casey will follow and Carmen will wrap it up.
So, here we go: What will be the most interesting or important position battle in training camp?
Scott Smith: Safety
Mike Edwards arrived in Tampa as a third-round draft pick and was thrown into a safety competition that includes…well, a lot of players about as old as he is.
Edwards will be a 23-year-old rookie this year, and if he happens to win a starting job, it could be next to third-year man Justin Evans, who is also 23. Evans will turn 24 near the end of training camp, which will make him the same age as fourth-year safety Kentrell Brice, a free agent addition from Green Bay. If Edwards happens to be paired with Jordan Whitehead, who started 11 games for the Bucs last year as a rookie, he'll actually be the older of the two. Whitehead won't turn 23 until next March.
In fact, the Buccaneers have nine safeties on their current roster and the oldest is 26-year-old Isaiah Johnson, who got a chance to play last year after spending most of two seasons on the practice squad. That group of nine does include 23-year-old M.J. Stewart, who is listed as a "DB" but could end up in a hybrid safety/nickel type of position; it does not include 26-year-old Deone Bucannon, whose position notation is LB/S but who has mostly been playing linebacker this offseason.
Edwards is one of three rookies in that group, as the team also signed undrafted players D'Cota Dixon and Lukas Denis. Orion Stewart has been on four other NFL rosters, and most recently played in the short-lived AAF, but he doesn't have a regular-season game played yet. That leaves five safety candidates who have played in the NFL. All five of them started at least four games last year; none of them started more than 11.
In other words, this is a wide-open position battle being waged by a lot of hungry young players, most of whom could reasonably be expected to have a shot at starting, none of whom should be considered a sure thing.
Evans and Whitehead are nominally the incumbents; they started 10 and 11 games, respectively, last year, and Evans was also a starter as a rookie in 2017. But they will almost certainly be pushed by Edwards, one of three rookie defensive backs who impressed throughout the offseason program. Edwards' advantage may be that he's the only one out of that trio who was drafted because he fit the specifications of the new coaching staff.
"Mike is exactly what we look for," said Safeties Coach Nick Rapone this offseason.
"He can do a lot of things, and I think he fits in well here with the things we’ll ask him to do," added Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles.
Brice, who started 10 games in Green Bay this year, is an interesting candidate as well, one who, like Whitehead, likes to hit. Johnson showed what persistent hard work can do last year and could still be on the rise. Stewart earned another shot at the NFL with his good work in the AAF before it shut down. Dixon and Denis are unproven but can't be counted out.
I think this is the most interesting battle in camp because I could name at least a half-dozen two-man combinations at safety that would not come as a surprise when it's all said and done.
Casey Phillips: Right Guard
I chose to take the "important" route rather than "interesting." I’m all for giving offensive linemen love when they don’t tend to get a lot of attention or glory, but this is definitely not one of the more exciting battles to watch at camp. It’s just so much harder to know what they are being asked to do on any given snap, and winning can be about small technical advantages down in the trenches that are hard for us to recognize. It’s not like a secondary battle where you can see how many passes defensed or interceptions each guy has. I do have to admit I love watching the one-on-one defensive line-vs.-offensive line drill because there are plays you can identify a clear winner and loser in the battle. Plus it can get pretty testy as guys get tired of going against the same people every day in the Tampa heat.
In terms of importance, we knew the left side of the line is strong. But fortifying the right guard spot, which was a trouble area last year, would open up directions and options in the run game, plus buy Jameis so much more time for that "no risk-it, no biscuit" deep ball Bruce Arians wants to crank out. No other unit needs cohesiveness like the offensive line, and plugging that one hole could change the whole offense from the inside out.
I actually hope it isn’t much of a battle. I hope Alex Cappa comes out year two showing he has learned how to rise to the level of NFL competition from his DII background. I hope he puts that physically imposing frame of his together with a year of NFL playbook absorption and the game slows down enough for him to impose his will the way he did at Humboldt. But I’m also excited to see Earl Watford, who Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin called his Swiss Army Knife, take a swipe at that starting spot. Watching the young up-and-comer from a small school vs. the veteran with experience in Bruce Arians’ offense in Arizona could make for some fun days in pads at camp.
Carmen Vitali: Receiver
Notice I didn’t say ‘wide receivers’ because I think this position battle extends beyond the wideout room and into the tight end room with two pass-catching tight ends on the roster in Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. The personnel that will be deployed should vary with those two components in the mix. You’ll see times where there are three wideouts on the field with one tight end but there are also packages that include two wideouts and two tight ends. If those two tight ends are the two I just mentioned, that could potentially mean four receivers for all intents and purposes – all while showing only two true wideouts to the defense. Tricky.
However. In an offense that incorporates its fair share of deep shots, tight ends aren’t a 1-to-1 replacement for a true wide receiver. The Bucs signed Breshad Perriman to be a part of a lot of those deep shots. At 6-3, he has 4.2 speed and can get down the sideline quickly. There’s of course the ever-reliable Mike Evans, who even when covered, is still probably going to get one of those big plays on you. With a move to the slot, third-year receiver Chris Godwin looks poised to have a breakout year too. Head Coach Bruce Arians has gone on record not once, but twice now, saying Godwin could have close to 100 catches in 2019. That’s a huge uptick in production and a huge vote in confidence.
From there though, how that fourth receiver position shakes out is kind of a conundrum. It’s worth noting too that Perriman may be used more situationally, so counting him as the third receiver may not even be quite accurate. The question lies with how much rookie Scotty Miller, whom the team took in the sixth round of this past draft, performs in camp and how much he can handle. While a lot of people have speculated he has an NFL comp in Adam Humphries, he may have more success on the outside with his speed. Being in the slot like Humphries was often comes at a great peril. You have to be able to block and you also have to be comfortable in traffic where you’re probably going to take a few hits. Miller’s 5-9, 174-pound size works against him there. However, get him to play a game of tag at the line of scrimmage and you’re golden - he’ll zip past defenders easily given the space. You also have a developing Justin Watson, the team’s sixth-round pick last year, who has an incredible work ethic and will be looking to solidify himself as a go-to target in his sophomore campaign. It all starts with Training Camp.