The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play their second 2021 preseason game (out of only three!) on Saturday night against the Tennessee Titans. Head Coach Bruce Arians has already made it clear that his starters will be mere spectators for the entire game, believing the competitive reps they got over two days of joint practices with the Titans to be sufficient for this week.
That is actually great news for a bunch of Buccaneers who are younger, newer or farther down the depth chart than those starters. There will be more reps to go around on offense, defense and special teams, and depending upon what Mike Vrabel decides about his starters perhaps even more challenging reps.
Some of the beneficiaries of this non-starter policy are obvious. Running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who had a nice showing in the preseason opener, should get a heavy workload and a chance to show he deserves the fourth running back spot and a key role on special teams. Fellow 2020 draftee Khalil Davis is trying to elbow his way through a ridiculously crowded defensive line group but on Saturday night probably won't have to wait for Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and Will Gholston to be finished.
That's a couple of young Bucs who should get a brighter spotlight on Saturday. Here are five other Buccaneers who will be worth watching while the starters take a seat:
1. OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka
The Buccaneers' 2021 first-round pick, who recently added the hyphenated second part to the name on the back of his jersey, had one of the most thoroughly-discussed plays of the preseason opener. Near the end of the first half, he shot around the Bengals' right tackle without being touched and quickly buried quarterback Brandon Allen for an apparent five-yard sack. However, Tryon was flagged for unnecessary roughness because his helmet made some contact with Allen's helmet.
That was one of three defensive penalties on that Bengals drive, which resulted in a touchdown, so it wasn't a positive play for the Buccaneers in terms of the game's outcome. But the bad part of the play was correctable and the good part showed what the young defender can bring to the Bucs' pass-rush rotation. Tryon delivered on what has been a solid three weeks of buzz in Tampa Bay's training camp.
"He's gotten better every single day," said Head Coach Bruce Arians after one of the two joint practices this week. "That's what he needs to see is guys that play at this level. Play a little bit more under control, you know? The hit he had on the quarterback, he did hit him in the head, so whether he was a runner or a quarterback – we've got to lower that target. He's good enough to do that. He's learning on the job."
Tryon only played 22 snaps in that opening game but with Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul held out he may start and should definitely be more heavily featured. That includes special teams, where he is expected to have a role during the regular season. He stood out in that regard during a punt session in Thursday's practice.
Inside linebacker Devin White, likely to be on the sideline as well, will get a chance to focus on Tryon's efforts against the Titans and hopes to see him apply some of the lessons he's been learning in camp from Outside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote and teammates like Barrett and Pierre-Paul.
"Right now, so far, he's just a relentless effort guy," said White of Tryon. "That was the kind of guy I was as a young guy before I started learning even more. I would think if I don't know everything, I am going to go full speed and let my effort in and let itself take over. That's basically what he's doing right now but he has a great coach in Coach Larry Foote. I think eventually the game will slow down and he'll be able to use those intangibles with his coaching. I would say that's the number-one thing. That's what separates the boys from the men are the ones that can take great coaching."
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice vs. Tennessee at the AdventHealth Training Center.
2. QB Kyle Trask
Even with four quarterbacks in the rotation, the Buccaneers managed to get Trask a good amount of playing time in last week's game. He led four drives (plus one additional play to end the game) and threw 15 passes. His numbers weren't overwhelming by any means – four completions and 35 yards – but he looked poise and in control. Arians praised the rookie for a couple of deep passes that did not ultimately connect.
"The one thing I really like about him – and he showed it in practice every day – the rush gets up in his face, there's no panic and he's really accurate," said Arians. "I mean, he threw that ball 60 yards down the field with guys right up in his face. He's growing every day. The game isn't too big for him. He's going to be fine."
This particular day is probably the best one remaining in the calendar year for Trask to experience some growth. Tom Brady and the starters are expected to get their biggest chunk of playing time in the third week of the preseason and there is no longer a fourth game that is dominated by reserves. During the regular season, Trask is most likely to serve as the third quarterback behind Brady and either Blaine Gabbert or Ryan Griffin. Trask will get plenty of practice reps, of course, but he may not see too many more live snaps in 2021 after Saturday night.
Gabbert will start the game against the Titans but the Buccaneers don't really have much they need to learn about the veteran reserve. Even if Griffin is next in after Gabbert, there should be a large portion of the game available to Trask. The rookie can continue his steady development by continuing to show poise while also leading some more successful drives.
3. ILB K.J. Britt
The Buccaneers had one of the best starting off-ball linebacker duos in the NFL in 2021 in White and Lavonte David, but they carried little depth behind those two and trusted veteran reserve Kevin Minter. They took a step towards filling out that depth in the spring by drafting both Auburn's Britt and Houston's Grant Stuard. Britt, a fifth-round pick, is currently listed as a second-teamer alongside Minter on the Bucs' depth chart.
White and David are back, of course, and should remain one of the league's premier ILB duos. But they won't be playing on Saturday night, so Britt could start and might be asked to direct the defense. He has impressed in training camp with his retention of the playbook and he was already known to be a hard-hitter and rugged run defender. He'll need to show that latter ability on Saturday night to solidify his spot on the depth chart. There is a good battle for the reserve ILB spots with Britt, Stuard and veteran addition Joe Jones, who recorded a pick-six in the preseason opener. As with Tryon, Britt should also see a lot of action on special teams.
What does Arians want to see from all those competitors on Saturday night?
"Do a better job of tackling on defense," said Arians. "Again, it's going to come down to special teams – who are the core special teams guys? When you talk about special teams, you're talking about 20 to 35 plays a game that those guys are out there. They're a huge part of it. It's not just defense, but in those instances, it's probably tackling and just good assignment football – staying in your gap and making it happen."
With White and David out, Britt will be hoping to show the main lessons he has already learned from that pair of veterans.
"Really and truthfully just patience – [I] never knew how patient this game was, and then just reacting," said the rookie. "I feel like that's something that I was aggressive with early – just in some situations I'm very aggressive so I'm learning how to be patient and then how to react. And then just helping myself too with concepts. They really know concepts like pass-scheme concepts, run-game concepts. Really and truthfully just soaking up all I can – I mean it's so much and a lot that I can learn from those guys."
4. WR Tyler Johnson
The amount of reps available to the six or seven reserve receivers on the Bucs' current roster will be determined in part by how Arians defines "starter." That will surely include Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but will it also apply to Antonio Brown? And how much will Scotty Miller play?
It would be no surprise to see Brown held out and Miller limited to relatively small role. After those top four, the next two receivers on the Bucs' depth chart are Johnson and Jaydon Mickens. That makes Saturday night a very good opportunity for Johnson, a fifth-round pick from 2020 who already played the most snaps (30) of any Buccaneer wideout in last week's game. If Johnson is on the field with Gabbert to start Saturday's contest there will already be plenty of familiarity between quarterback and receiver. In a "last play of the game" drill in practice on Thursday, Gabbert hooked up with Johnson for a touchdown.
And, though it sounds repetitive, Johnson needs to make his mark on special teams. When the starters are involved, the Bucs' receiving corps runs very deep, but Johnson can get on the field more by helping in the kicking game and replicating the kind of work that Godwin does in the run game.
"The one thing that Tyler gives us is he gives us another blocking wide receiver," said Arians. "There's a lot going into that sixth receiver if he dresses or not."
Johnson had a slow start to this year's training camp, in part because he arrived a little bit below his peak physical condition. He committed to resolving that issue and in the second half of camp reeled off more than a week of very good practices, according to Arians. In the Cincinnati game, he attracted two targets and caught one pass for 11 yards. He should have a very good chance to produce more this weekend.
"Oh yeah he made his weight this week," said Arians. "He did a good job, he just had too much fun this summer, but he's done a good job of being very, very consistent. The one thing I like about Tyler is he's really consistent."
5. S Javon Hagan
Like Jones, Hagan snared an impressive interception in the Cincinnati game, but unlike Jones he didn't end up in the end zone. In fact, he didn't even end up with the ball. After making a dazzling one-handed interception of a high pass that required his fullest possible extension, Hagan turned to advance the ball up the field only to bobble it out of his hands and straight into the clutches of Bengals wideout Mike Thomas.
Hagan still got some good marks from the coaches for that play but also turned it into a learning experience.
"It was a very athletic play," he said in the most recent episode of the Salty Dogs podcast. "They praised me about the athleticism displayed on that play. It was a perfect play and a perfect place to be [but] like I said, just finish it off. Just finish the play. You work so hard to get interceptions, so just finish the play.
That's something we can learn from and get better from. Definitely a lesson learned, but that's why we go through things, so we can correct them and move forward so it won't happen again."
Overall, it was a positive sequence for a player who has been in the thick of one of the few truly intriguing battles on the Bucs' roster. The top three safeties are set in Antoine Winfield, Jr., Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards, though Whitehead has missed a lot of camp due to COVID and an injury. Over the course of camp the safety position has thinned out, most recently with the waiver of Raven Greene. Now those top three safeties are followed only by Hagan, Chris Cooper and undrafted rookie Lawrence White, which makes Hagan's odds look pretty good. However, there is also the issue of cornerback Ross Cockrell playing at safety in this training camp – and looking good doing so – which may inform how the Bucs divvy up their 53-man roster spots between those two positions.
Regardless, Hagan is enjoying the competition.
"Oh man, I love it," he said. "I love having the heat on and not being complacent. Coming from Jacksonville, a very competitive city, just coming from Florida that's all we do. All we do is compete. We love competition and why not compete? It gives that edge and at the end of the day the best man will win the job. So there's no reason to shy away from competition, especially in a league such as the NFL where there are elite players all around. There's competition everywhere. Competition's great."
Hagan already played the most snaps of any Buccaneer defender last weekend, getting the call on 47 of a possible 64 defensive plays. He also earned 13 reps on special teams, third on the entire roster to only Davis and rookie cornerback Chris Wilcox. If none of the Bucs' top three safeties play this Saturday, which seems likely, Hagan may go nearly wire to wire. Few competitors for the team's final roster spots have more to gain on Saturday than the former undrafted rookie out of Ohio University.