When Alterraun Verner cleaned out his locker, along with the rest of his teammates, at the end of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2015 season, he wasn't sure if he would be back. Verner still had two years left on the contract he had signed as a highly-regarded unrestricted free agent in 2014, but significant changes were looming for a secondary that had struggled mightily for the previous four months.
Like nearly every cornerback on that 2015 roster, Verner had seen his role change several times during the season. He started the first two games of the season and the last two, plus two others in between, but he also had a couple games in which he hardly played at all. He had one interception, four passes defensed and the most tackles (53) of any of the Bucs' cornerbacks, but Tampa Bay's secondary allowed an opposing completion percentage of 70%. As that season closed with a four-game losing streak, Verner graciously acknowledged that his immediate future in Tampa was uncertain at best.
"The statistics, the record, a lot of things, pointed against certain point. It's the NFL, there are never hard feelings at all, like I said at the end of that season. This team was going to do what it was going to do that it felt would help the team. I was prepared for any type of situation. I am fortunate enough that I am back and hopefully they see me as a piece that can help out still with this team. I'm going to come out and work every day. But, yeah, I was braced for whatever circumstance [at the end of last season]. It's a blessing to be out here, it's a blessing to go into a seventh year and there are no complaints on my part. I've got to just keep on working, no matter the circumstance."
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Verner made those comments early eight months after his uncertain departure from One Buc, on the first day of the team's 2016 training camp. Not only is Verner's name still over his One Buccaneer Place locker, but he is seeing first-team reps at right cornerback. Just a few plays into the first camp practice on Thursday morning, Verner nearly picked off a pass, then punished himself for not hanging onto the ball with a set of 10 sideline push-ups. The Bucs want more playmakers in the secondary in 2016, and Verner clearly wanted that particularly play, but being in the right place to make it was a good start.
And, of course, those big changes to the secondary did come to pass. The team did not move on from contracted players like Verner and Johnthan Banks but did let Sterling Moore and Mike Jenkins leave via free agency. The Bucs then made a talent infusion at cornerback by signing three-time Pro Bowler Brent Grimes from Miami and using the 11th-overall draft pick on University of Florida star Vernon Hargreaves. Grimes is expected to start at left tackle and Hargreaves is certain to see significant playing time, but Verner clearly has a shot to regain his status as a starter. He'll get competition from Hargreaves, Banks, 2015 holdover Jude Adjei-Barimah and 2016 free agent acquisition Josh Robinson, among others.
"I think it's fair to say it's a second-chance and I think we all relish that because in life you don't get these types of chances to prove yourself all over again," said Verner. "We're all thankful for the opportunity and that's why we're going to compete because we know it's going to be cutthroat at the end of the day."
- Late in the Buccaneers' offseason program, the team believed it would be able to open training camp with all 90 of its players ready to practice. That didn't quite happen, as wide receiver Louis Murphy and guard J.R. Sweezy were placed on the active/physically-unable-to-perform list while rookie safety Elijah Shumate landed on the active/non-football-injury list.
For Murphy and Sweezy, that meant their recoveries from a 2015 injury and an offseason procedure, respectively, didn't progress as rapidly as expected, though they can be activated from the PUP list at any time. Shumate, as the name of his list would suggest, was hurt during a non-football activity and isn't ready to take the practice field yet.
Of course, that means the Bucs are still starting camp with 87 players in action, and that's actually quite encouraging. The New England Patriots, as a contrastingly example, placed seven players on the active/PUP list before start of camp, including a handful of offensive starters. Star wideout Jordy Nelson headlines a list of six PUP-ers in Green Bay. Baltimore pass-rushers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs top a six-man PUP list for the Ravens.
In other words, while the Bucs' roster availability wasn't quite as good as the team had been hoping for in June, it could certainly be a lot worse.
"It's unfortunate in both cases that those two guys aren't able to be out here," said Koetter of Murphy and Sweezy. "We were hoping that everybody would be full-go. But, what we have to realize with injuries … every team is putting guys on that active/PUP list, multiple guys, and we're no exception. When you get to guys coming off ACLs, guys coming off different procedures that they had done in the offseason, the timetable to get back isn't always the same and sometimes there are setbacks. What we can't do is rush guys that aren't ready to go. That doesn't do us any good because then all they do is they're fighting it the whole year. I would hope that J.R. and Murph are both out here as quickly as they can, but that's what we have team doctors for."
The Buccaneers' 53-Man roster.
Murphy, who has been productive when healthy and when needed over the past two seasons for the Buccaneers, is looking forward to joining the battle for the third receiver spot behind Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. Sweezy arrived as an unrestricted free agent from Seattle in March and was immediately named the replacement for the retired Logan Mankins at left guard. He is still Plan A for that spot but the Bucs are comfortable with Plan B in his absence. That would be Kevin Pamphile, who performed well in one game at left guard last year and is considered a very valuable part of the overall O-Line group.
"Kevin plays all the spots," said Koetter. "Kevin's a valuable guy because he can play everywhere. If we started the season today and J.R. was out and Kevin was in there, we'd be happy with it."
- On Wednesday, as the veterans reported for training camp, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy shared some details – though purposely not all of them – about a conversation he had with second-year quarterback Jameis Winston on the topic of leadership.
Given McCoy's tenure in the league and long list of accomplishments, one might have expected such a talk to be initiated by McCoy with the idea of helping his younger teammate find the way. Instead, according to the veteran defender, it was Winston who came to him with an idea of how McCoy could make an even bigger impact on his teammates.
Winston spoke about that get-together with McCoy after the first practice of training camp on Thursday, and it's clear the conversation was a two-way street, with the younger player both looking for advice and urging his teammate to continue to bear the mantle of leadership.
"I just talked to him after the season, just to get his insight on how I was as a leader," said Winston. "I believe Gerald is a great leader to this team, and he's not the only leader that we've got. I just know that he has a little bit more in him. You should've seen him out here working with (defensive ends) Noah Spence and Kourtnei Brown, the things that he put into these players. Even me, when I first got here he put so much into me. I just asked him, 'Keep doing it, bring it up a notch, step it up,' just like I have to do, just like we all have to do."
"Just continue to step up, continue to be who you are. He's a [four]-time Pro Bowler defensive tackle, he's a great voice and everyone will listen to him on our team."
As for his own role as a leader, it appears that Winston will continue to let it develop naturally, an approach that was successful for him in his rookie campaign.
"'m coming with the same mentality [with] leadership because you can't force leadership, that's just who I am," he said. "The different thing is, basically, the offense - being more comfortable with everything, being more comfortable to step up out there and speak up. So, I think that's the main thing."