1. LBs Devin White & Lavonte David
These two guys (literally) the control center of the defense. Well, White is, at least. Though it will be his first regular season NFL game, White will don the green dot on his helmet – indicating that it's equipped with a headset that links directly to Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. He's therefore responsible for relaying the calls to the defense on the field. It's a lot of responsibility for a rookie, but White never shied away from it.
"I've always had a lot of pressure on me and I always did [well] with it," White said this preseason. "I am very comfortable with myself and knowing my abilities […] I feel like I asked for it, and I feel like I can handle it."
White also has the assistance now of David, who missed all four of the Bucs' preseason games but as a nine-year NFL veteran, doesn't require much time to catch up. He has been in White's ear from the sidelines the past few weeks and will now be there right alongside him when the Bucs open their regular season against the 49ers. In this defensive system, linebackers have a variety of responsibilities. David won't be relegated to just coverage. He'll be involved in blitzing and pressure as well as be instrumental in the run game. With the grasp he has on the system, he should be immediately effective in Sunday's game and Week 1 should be the start of some gaudy stats this season, hopefully putting his days of being overlooked in the past. The Lavonte David Pro Bowl campaign starts now.
2. S Mike Edwards
Edwards is another rookie with a lot of responsibility coming into his first regular season NFL game. Edwards has been sidelined that last few weeks nursing a hamstring injury. He's been limited in practice, but all signs point to him playing – and starting – especially with the health of safety Justin Evans in question. Though White wears the green dot on his helmet, safeties in this defense carry a tremendous amount of responsibility, too. They are also involved in more than just coverage. They can be the ones getting pressure on the quarterback or they can sit and help the cornerbacks. In a defense that thrives on disguise, you just never know.
From everything we've heard from the coaches, safeties are responsible for a lot of stuff on the fly, too. Their vantage point (at the last level of defense) allows them the ability to read and react in real time. It can be a lot for a first-year player to process and Sunday will presumably be Edwards' first real test. His trajectory prior to his injury during camp was one of steady improvement and proving he's the ball hawk he was back in college. It's those ball skills that impressed Head Coach Bruce Arians the most and will need to be on display against a quarterback like Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco.
"He is really such a versatile player," Coach Arians said of Edwards in training camp. "That first day, I don't know if you saw the interception he had the first day of rookie school. He's got great ball skills."
3. RB Ronald Jones
If you paid any attention during Bucs' training camp, you'd have been hard-pressed to find someone not talking about second-year running back Ronald Jones. After a rookie season that didn't go the way he – or the Bucs – had hoped, Jones looks like a new player in Arians' offense and under the tutelage of running backs coach Todd McNair. He, like all of the Bucs running backs, placed a major emphasis on their pass-catching skills and it's showed so far. Though Jones has had limited playing time in the preseason, his hands have looked more fluid in practice and he's seemed to have gotten a lot of confidence back. He's not listed currently on the depth chart as the starter, but if the preseason has been any indication, he and running back Peyton Barber will split time.
"I was pretty satisfied with how they played," McNair said of both Jones and Barber after the Bucs' first preseason game. "Of course, it was brief – they had only a few plays. I think [they had] three carries a piece. Peyton caught one [and] Ronald caught one. But, I'm pleased with their development and how they are coming along right now. We've still got a ton of work to do, but so far it's been pretty positive."
How exactly they end up splitting time remains to be seen and Sunday is our first chance to see how it all plays out.
4. WR Chris Godwin
Yes, a lot of people will be talking about wide receiver Mike Evans and his matchup with 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman. And that will definitely be a battle to watch. But if you take those two out of the equation for a moment, you'll realize that it's the door for Godwin to have himself a day. We've heard Coach Arians say how big of a role Godwin will have in his offense all offseason and preseason – even venturing to say he could feasibly tally 100 catches because he's used all over the field. We finally get to see that in action on Sunday. With San Francisco's best cornerback tied up, Godwin and even first-year Buccaneer Breshad Perriman could run free.
In his sophomore season, Godwin took a huge leap forward, ending the year with 842 yards and seven touchdowns. His rapport with quarterback Jameis Winston has only gotten stronger and that comfortability should come in handy on Sunday.
"It is just really something we work on at practice," Godwin said of his chemistry with Winston. "That is all we really have to do, don't have to go out there and try and do anything spectacular, nothing over the top. We just have to play like we have been practicing and have everything fall into place for us."
5. The Bucs O-line
The 49ers boast a front four that includes four first-round picks. They acquired defensive end Dee Ford in free agency this past offseason and with their first pick of the 2019 Draft at second overall, they took pass rusher Nick Bosa to shore up the other side. They also have DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. Each one individually can 'wreck a game' in the words of Coach Arians. Together, they are a problem.
It will be up to the Bucs' offensive line to prevent those guys from being effective and getting to quarterback Jameis Winston. Though Arians has flat out said that you can expect the quarterback to get hit in his offenses, especially when trying to let a deep ball develop, there's a fine line in what's sustainable. Winston can scramble out of the pocket with the best of them, and he's been working on getting the ball out quicker by taking advantage of his checkdown options, but he's going to need some time for that. Then there's the run game, which will have to go through the 49ers' defensive front, too. The left side of the Bucs' o-line, and Winston's blind side, are guys he's been with since he entered the league in Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith. Center Ryan Jensen is known for his protective instincts, shall we say, when it comes to his quarterback. How well the offensive line has gelled will be put to the test right away against top-tier talent opposite the line of scrimmage on Sunday.