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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

4 NEW Things We Learned From Mini-Camp

Amid the usual offseason notes, there were some unanticipated developments at the mandatory mini-camp that ended Tampa Bay's offseason training program last week.

Check out photos from the second day of mini-camp at One Buccaneer Place.

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wrapped up their 2015 offseason training program last week with a three-day mandatory mini-camp that was really a two-day mandatory mini-camp. Satisfied with his team's progress and pleased with the players' overall effort level, Head Coach Lovie Smith cancelled the third practice of mini-camp and took everyone bowling.

It's encouraging that Smith is confident in his team; on Wednesday, he flatly stated, "We are going to be a good football team."

Of course, this is the time of year for optimism in the NFL. Smith's words, while clearly sincere and definitely what Buccaneer fans would want to hear, are not terribly surprising. Nor were we shocked to hear that six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins is rapidly emerging as a team leader in his first offseason in Tampa, or that an undrafted rookie is making a good first impression. By now, we know that Gerald McCoy is going to do something nice for his teammates at the end of the program, as a matter of tradition. Heck, we even know what the players are going to say about their offseason development before they say it:

Players do try to get better every day, even if it doesn't make for the juiciest soundbite to say so. And we try to learn something new about our team as often as possible, even amid the encouraging but unsurprising notes. Here are five new things to consider that were uncovered by last week's abbreviated mini-camp:

1. Rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander may be more versatile than we originally thought, which could impact the depth chart come September.
The Buccaneers clearly went into the 2015 offseason with the intention of spiking depth on the defensive side of the ball through free agency, knowing they were going to use their premium draft picks to address key holes on offense. Free agency (and one trade) brought a key addition at every spot on the defense: safety Chris Conte, cornerback Sterling Moore, linebacker Bruce Carter, defensive tackle Henry Melton and defensive end George Johnson. That freed the Bucs to use their first three picks in the draft on quarterback Jameis Winston and two new blockers for him, Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet.

As such, there were surely some defensive players in the draft the Bucs coveted but knew they couldn't acquire. That's likely how they felt about LSU outside linebacker Kwon Alexander, who was high on their board at that position. When Alexander lasted into Day Three, the Buccaneers traded up a handful of spots to make sure they landed him. Since Carter was signed to play in the middle and weakside linebacker Lavonte David is about as entrenched a player can be on Tampa Bay's depth chart, Alexander was initially viewed as a competitor for the strongside spot.

The incumbent there is Danny Lansanah, insomuch that Lansanah started at all the linebacker spots last year and started the offseason focusing on the strong side. Lansanah's obvious versatility would also make him the ideal backup if Alexander were to win the SAM job.

Upon further review, Alexander may offer the Buccaneers the same kind of multi-position depth assistance. Smith pointed out on Tuesday that Alexander has been seeing plenty of reps at a spot other than SAM, and that he's been a nice surprise in a new role.

"It's hard for a young player at any position, but we've been playing Kwon at MIKE linebacker a little bit, and that really is [difficult] – making all the calls and all that good stuff," said Smith, referring to the middle linebacker spot. "He's picked it up well. We do like his athletic ability; that's why we drafted him. We had him ranked pretty high as a linebacker. We didn't think we would have an opportunity to really get him here, but we're pleased with what he's done."

The Buccaneers have used the offseason not only to install their offensive, defensive and special teams playbooks but also to try out a number of combinations at various position groups. That has been most obvious on the offensive line and at safety, but the experimentation has been going on all over the field. In training camp, the depth chart will really start to take form, and Alexander's versatility could help the coaching staff with some difficult decisions.

"A lot of information has gone his way," said Smith. "He needs that break now to kind of digest some of the stuff we've given him and get ready to come back. He's going to help us a lot this coming season."

2. As prepared as he was for the NFL, rookie quarterback Jameis Winston has still faced a steep learning curve in at least one aspect of the pro game.
Among the things that made Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston such a valued draft prospect – you know, beyond the 26-1 starting record and the bushel of awards – was his experience in a pro-like offense and his reputation as a football savant. The tales of his notebook full of Cover Two-busting plays at the age of 12 are now legendary. No quarterback prospect is ever a sure thing, but the Buccaneers probably didn't have to worry about the pro game being too big for Winston.

And it hasn't been. Winston has drawn rave reviews from his offensive teammates for how quickly he has absorbed the offense. Still, that doesn't mean the transition to Dirk Koetter's offense has been easy for the rookie passer. It has taken work. And the part he's had to work at the hardest is getting everybody in the right place at the line of scrimmage when the offense is in hurry-up mode.

"One thing I've gotten better at is just controlling the line of scrimmage," said Winston. "We do a lot of no-huddle things and the way I communicate that to the offense is clutch."

Winston is the football version of a gym rat, often staying late to look over film, or pulling out his playbook for some late-night studying at the hotel. That helps during a compressed offseason that limits the amount of time teams can work with their players.

"You would like a lot more [time], but that's how it's always been," said Smith. "I know just talking about our rookie quarterback; he has come a long way in a short period of time. I'm very impressed with the amount of knowledge he has now about our offense. I'll make the statement again, he's right on track."

3. Defensive tackle Henry Melton could be the key to the different looks the Buccaneers' defensive line will throw at opposing offenses this season.Henry Melton is obviously a very adaptable athlete. He started his collegiate career at Texas as a running back, playing two seasons at that position before moving over to defense. He played both end and tackle for the Longhorns' D-Line and was listed as a DE when he was drafted by Lovie Smith's Chicago Bears in the fourth round in 2009.

Smith helped Melton find a home at three-technique tackle in a Cover Two defense, so much so that the former ballcarrier made the Pro Bowl in 2012 and had 13 sacks over the 2011-12 seasons combined. Smith spent four seasons in Chicago, three under Smith, and one in Dallas as he contributed five sacks to the Cowboys' efforts last year despite not yet being fully recovered from a 2013 knee injury.

The Buccaneers signed Melton as an unrestricted free agent in March, not only reuniting him with Smith but also adding him to what was already a productive interior D-Line in Tampa. With three-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy leading the way, the Buccaneers got more sacks out of their DTs than any other team in the league. Adding Melton to that mix allows the Buccaneers to swap players in and out of the lineup regularly and hopefully keep a constant amount of pressure coming up the middle of the field.

That's the plan on paper, and it's a good one. But it may go beyond simple rotational depth at defensive tackle. If the Buccaneers want to get their best pass-rushers on the field as often as possible, or simply give the opposing offense an unexpected look, Melton could be the key. McCoy certainly thinks so. Asked what Melton brings to the Bucs' D-line, McCoy answered, "Everything."

"Henry used to be a running back, defensive end and now he is a defensive tackle," said his new teammate. "He can play three-technique, nose guard, five-technique, six-technique, whatever you need. He's that type of guy. It's rare to find that kind of guy. We have a couple guys in the room like that. A guy of his caliber and his talent that has a Pro Bowl under his belt is going to be huge for us."

Melton has played defensive end in the NFL on occasion, for most of one game in Chicago and for about 25 snaps last year in Dallas. But it's less about positional labels and more about the Bucs' ability to move their new pass-rusher all over the line. And if anybody knows how to get the most out of Melton, it's Lovie Smith.

4. The Bucs might tweak their training camp schedule a bit in Lovie Smith's second year at the helm, but they have no intention of running from the Florida summer heat.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will convene for their 40th training camp at the end of July, and it will be their 40th camp conducted in the state of Florida.

It's safe to say that an NFL training camp in Tampa is a different experience than one in Buffalo or Minneapolis. Technically, the Buccaneers could seek out a cooler location for their camp; that was a common approach by some teams in the 1990s. Instead, from administration to administration, the team has steadfastly insisted that training in the intense Florida heat and humidity is an advantage that extends into the regular season.

Smith's staff feels the same way, as reflected in the schedule for last week's mini-camps. Both practices ran from 1:30 to 3:30 in the afternoon, and both days were oppressively hot and muggy. That was a little indoctrination for the new players who should be ready for more of the same – and probably worse – in August.

"That's why [we did that], for minicamp, for the players to see exactly what time we're going to be practicing and kind of start getting used to that," said Smith.

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