The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2022 training camp looms, ushering in competition during the summer. The club added talent during free agency and the draft to elevate the trajectory of the franchise heading into the 2022 NFL season. Position battles will dictate starting roles as the roster is trimmed from 90 to 53. Several perplexing questions remain for the Buccaneers and training camp will provide insight.
What are the most pivotal battles to monitor as training camp kicks off at the AdventHealth Training Center? Here is a breakdown of the Top Five:
Strong Safety: Mike Edwards vs. Keanu Neal vs. Logan Ryan
With the loss of Jordan Whitehead to the New York Jets in free agency, the Buccaneers allocated other resources to the secondary. Head Coach Todd Bowles expressed his desire for competition at strong safety alongside Mike Edwards and the club signed veterans Keanu Neal and Logan Ryan to solidify the position group. In 2021, the Bucs' secondary was decimated with injuries down the stretch, contributing to the offseason acquisitions to bolster the depth chart. Edwards will start off at the strong safety position according to safeties coach Nick Rapone but both Neal and Ryan have the opportunity to challenge for the premier spot opposite incumbent starter Antoine Winfield Jr.
Edwards, the Bucs' former third-round pick, has been utilized as a rotational safety and as a slot corner in nickel packages. The multi-faceted player is known for his "ball hawking" prowess, cementing the title of pass defense catalyst. He excels at reading routes, can blitz, possesses rare instincts/reaction skills, shuts down screens and effectively contains running backs in the flat. Edwards can step into the vacated role at strong safety in 2022 but Neal and Ryan present intriguing upside, adding pause.
After transitioning to linebacker last season with the Dallas Cowboys under the leadership of Dan Quinn, Neal will revert back to his natural position at safety with the Buccaneers. Prior to his stint in Dallas, Neal served as the prototypical Cover Three box safety for the Atlanta Falcons. He is physical against the run and his name has often been synonymous with the ability to neutralize running backs and tight ends. After posting a career-high 116 tackles, four tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2017, Neal earned Pro Bowl recognition. Injuries have since hindered his career. Neal sustained an ACL tear in 2018 and an Achilles tear in 2019, putting a halt in his ascension. The Bucs are hopeful for revitalization in 2022.
Ryan will reunite with his former teammate, Tom Brady, whom he won two Super Bowls with in New England. With the New York Giants in 2021, Ryan posted a career-high 117 combined tackles, eight passes defensed and two forced fumbles. During his tenure with the Patriots, Ryan tallied 705 combined tackles, 13 sacks, 18 interceptions, and 14 forced fumbles in 140 career games. With flexibility having played both safety and slot corner, Ryan has the flexibility to play inside and out. He is a tackling machine, posting the most in the league for a cornerback in 2019 for the Tennessee Titans (113). Ryan is a force against the run and effectively undercuts receivers on out-breaking routes. The Bucs currently have an embarrassment of riches at the safety position, sparking curiosity with training camp on the horizon.
Left Guard: Aaron Stinnie vs. Luke Goedeke
Throughout OTAs and mandatory minicamp, the battle for the left guard spot has drawn attention. Since the retirement of Ali Marpet, the question permeates: Who will start at the critical position? The Bucs drafted former Central Michigan right tackle, Luke Goedeke in the second round to compete with veteran Aaron Stinnie. Four starters are entrenched for the start of the season featuring Donovan Smith at left tackle, Ryan Jensen at center, Shaq Mason at right guard and Tristan Wirfs at right tackle. Left guard is up for grabs as both Stinnie and Goedeke vie to be the stabilizing force.
Stinnie has the advantage as the most experienced of the two. He originally joined the Buccaneers as a waiver claim in 2019 and has been invariably linked to his successful Super Bowl LV run, fortifying the offensive line while stepping in for an injured Alex Cappa. He was given esteemed recognition for his production at the line of scrimmage and battled Cappa for the starting role at right guard in 2021. Stinnie has played in 23 games with four starts, including the playoffs. This offseason, Stinnie re-signed with the Bucs on a one-year deal. He will now work towards a permanent role in Tampa Bay's well-regarded line protecting Tom Brady.
Goedeke, the club's 57th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, predominately played right tackle in Central Michigan's zone-blocking scheme. With great contact balance, Goedeke stays centered in blocks and possesses the developmental traits to become a future full-time starter. The biggest adaptation challenge for Goedeke will be hand placement and coordination. In addition to learning the playbook installs, shifting hand placement in pass sets has become the priority. At right tackle in college, Goedeke grew accustomed to shooting with his right hand. Now, he must adjust to working with his left. Defensive linemen can easily swipe an offensive lineman's hands to gain the advantage/leverage and Goedeke will take strides forward to engender the staff's trust throughout camp.
Tight End: How to replace Rob Gronkowski?
After nine seasons with the Patriots and two with the Buccaneers, tight end Rob Gronkowski retired. One of the greatest to ever play the position and a surefire Hall of Famer, Gronkowski finished with four Super Bowl rings, five Pro Bowl appearances and over 10,000 yards. That level of dynamic play will not be easily replaced. Currently, the Bucs have a reliable veteran in Cameron Brate, who has amassed 33 career touchdowns, and the club brought in an external candidate to offset the loss of Gronkowski and O.J. Howard. The Bucs signed Kyle Rudolph to a one-year deal, solidifying the tight end corps. Rudolph is a potential three-down player and a stout blocker. He has been a consistent red zone threat and poses an upside as a pass-catcher. Rudolph spent the 2021 season with the New York Giants after a decade spent with the Minnesota Vikings. He is effective in the trenches, opening up rush lanes and can elevate the Bucs' short-to-intermediate passing game with physicality at the catch point. Rudolph has career totals of 479 receptions for 4,745 yards and 49 touchdowns.
The rest of the unit collectively has just one career catch, with Codey McElroy posting one in 2019.Tampa Bay added two tight ends in April, Washington's Cade Otton in the fourth round and Minnesota's Ko Kieft in the sixth. Gronkowski - Brady's favorite go-to target over the middle of the field and in the end zone – redefined the position, leaving a giant void that must be filled. Recalibration commences.
Brate initially signed as an undrafted free agent out of Harvard and spent the previous eight seasons with the Buccaneers. Since joining the team in 2014, he has become a reliable receiving threat. Last season, he accumulated 245 yards on 30 receptions and four touchdowns. Now, Brate has an unprecedented opportunity in front of him to become a featured tight end. In the five games Gronkowski missed due to injury last season, Brate registered seven receptions (18 targets) for 63 yards and a touchdown. Although Brate has not eclipsed the 500-yard marker since 2017, he will have an increased role alongside Rudolph.
Otton is a disciplined route runner but spent the majority of his collegiate career with his hand on the ground at Washington. Tight end coach John Van Dam confirmed Otton will be considered an in-line Y tight end and will "hold point in the run game." He will serve as an extension of the offensive line as a blocker but creates an upside with pass-catching ability to finish at the catch point.
Ko Kieft, the Bucs sixth-round pick, is a bulldozer in the trenches and self-proclaimed in-line blocker from Minnesota. "I'll get down and dirty with the worst of 'em," Kieft stated shortly after being drafted on his expertise in the trenches. He is a blocking specialist with a high motor and the athletic capability to quickly get to the perimeter, blocking at the second level to extend run lanes. McElroy is a former minor league baseball player and former college basketball walk-on. He spent time on the practice squad over the previous few seasons learning the offensive system. The Bucs heavily utilize multiple tight end sets to create mismatches, and this will be a position to watch as training camp kicks off.
Kicker: Ryan Succop vs. Jose Borregales
Not only is this a battle for a starting gig but a roster spot as well. Veteran Ryan Succop has been a mainstay, including his Super Bowl LV contribution, but he has a challenger in Jose Borregales. Last season, Succop had his lowest success rate since 2013 at 83 percent, while attempting only one kick from the 50-plus yard range. Borregales will vie for the starting role as competition heats up in July.
Borregales spent last season on the Bucs' practice squad, classifying as a redshirt year. Despite his lack of proven accolades on an NFL stage, he shows tremendous promise. At Miami, Borregales won the Lou Groza Award as college football's best kicker in 2020. During his final campaign for the Hurricanes, Borregales nailed 52 and 57-yarders. As camp commences, keep an eye on the kicker contest.
Backup Running Back Role: Rachaad White vs. Giovani Bernard vs. Ke'Shawn Vaughn
The Bucs lost Ronald Jones II to the Kansas City Chiefs in free agency, further cementing Leonard Fournette as the definite starter and three-down back. Third-round pick Rachaad White, third-year pro Ke'Shawn Vaughn and nine-year veteran Giovani Bernard will compete for the No. 2 spot behind Fournette.
Known as the shiftiest back in the Pac-12, Rachaad White averaged 6.4 yards per carry during the past two seasons as the Sun Devils' leading rusher. With a slashing running style, White possesses the agility to bounce runs outside. He accelerates quickly post-cut and is a dependable pass-catcher with solid body control. Acclimation to the NFL will translate to application as he absorbs the scheme in Tampa Bay.
Vaughn, the Bucs' 2020 third-round pick, has been a dependable option in the backfield as a change-of-pace rusher. He rushed for 53 yards and a touchdown in the NFC Wild Card victory over the Philadelphia Eagles as an injury replacement for Fournette. With a low center of gravity, Vaughn hits another gear in the open field. With straight-line speed, he has posted 289 rushing yards on 62 carries in 22 games played (one start) over the previous two seasons.
Bernard spent the first eight years of his pro career with the Cincinnati Bengals before joining the Bucs in 2021. He tallied eight carries for 58 yards and caught 23 passes for 123 yards in 12 games. Bernard has primarily served as the club's pass-catching back, occasionally replacing Fournette on third downs. As injuries piled up, Bernard posted 83 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in the Wild Card playoff victory versus the Eagles. He adds another dimension to Byron Leftwich's aerial attack and a threat for Tom Brady. Who will emerge during camp? The Bucs running back corps will be one to evaluate.