Ronde Barber, who has been taking most of the first-team snaps at free safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason, is the oldest player on the 90-man roster. Mark Barron, his current running mate at strong safety, is the ninth-youngest, and potentially the youngest starter on the team come September (though Lavonte David, if in the starting 11, would have him by 88 days).
That's an unusual but extremely intriguing pairing at the back end of the Buccaneers' defense, which was handled last year by Sean Jones and (mostly) Tanard Jackson, both now departed. Barber has 225 games of NFL experience and the sharply-honed instincts that come with that. Barron is a huge bundle of athleticism and aggressiveness. Barber says his rookie teammate has "a presence," which would certainly be an apt description of Barber himself.
How that safety pairing works out in the long run is still anyone's guess, but it certainly seems to have the potential for great things. Since it's hard to imagine Barber not being at least a solid force at his spot, and possibly more, the extent to which that potential is reached probably rests on Barron's shoulders. The good news: Barber is already a believer.
"Mark, he's a stud, now," said the 16th-year veteran. "Obviously, he's running in shorts right now, but we've all seen Alabama play and we know what he brings to the table. I think we're all excited to see him come August and September, see what he really has."
The Bucs finished their Wednesday mini-camp practice with a series of game-situation, two-minute drills, the last of which gave the offense seven seconds to get a touchdown from the nine-yard line. That was time for two plays, and Barron personally snuffed the first one with a last-second tip of the football in the end zone. While Barron has a well-deserved reputation as a hard hitter, he also displayed a nose for the football at Alabama. Barber is beginning to see some of the instinctive plays that made Barron the seventh overall pick in the 2012 draft.
"He's learning the defense, obviously, still, but his since of urgency is starting to pick up," said Barber. "That's the same thing with all rookies; their urgency starts to pick up at this time, and I think we're all excited about it."
Of course, it's hard to judge the physical nature of Barron's game because offseason rules prevent any contact in practices. That's true of a lot of position, obviously, and one reason why Head Coach Greg Schiano has repeatedly said it's too early to assume any lineup or depth chart decisions. Still, the team clearly would like its first-round draft pick to step right into the starting lineup, particularly given the openings that happen to exist at safety. Schiano will be looking for more significant examples of what Barron can do when the pads go on in training camp, but at least for now he has been pleased with what he's seen in recent weeks.
"I think he's getting more comfortable with what we're doing," said the coach. "I think he's now been able to let it fly a little bit more. You know how it is when you're thinking; it slows everything down. He's becoming more comfortable and I see him playing better."
McCoy Plans to Play Even Harder
Third year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is still looking for his first 16-game season, having seen his rookie campaign cut short by five weeks and his second year clipped after Game Six. In both cases, the culprit was a torn biceps.
The flukiness of two identical injuries occurring 10 months apart – and the slog of rehabilitation that both required – might lead some players to be more cautious on the field. McCoy says his two mishaps have pushed him in the other direction.
"That's going to make me play harder, because people get injured when you slow down," said the former first-round pick after an extra running session at the end of Wednesday's practice. "People going full-speed usually don't get hurt, so to prevent injuries you're going to go harder. That's enough of a motivation: two injuries, back-to-back years. Motivation to finish a full season? I love it, I love it."
McCoy doesn't think there are any technique issues in his play that made him susceptible to such injuries, and he also doesn't consider the back-to-back tears to be a matter of bad luck. Therefore, there's no reason for him to be particularly worried about such a thing happening again.
"I don't believe in luck," he said firmly on Wednesday, insisting upon it when the question was lobbed back in several different ways. "Luck doesn't exist for me; God does. I'm just going full-steam ahead. Whatever's behind me is behind me. All I can see is the future. Whatever comes my way, I'm just going to attack it full-steam ahead."
That said, McCoy does agree that some of the technical aspects of his game can be improved, and in fact Schiano's staff has helped him make strides in that direction.
"It's just me playing hard," he said. "I don't think I have to change my technique [to avoid another injury]. One thing I will say, though, Coach Schiano, we do a tackling circuit before every practice. I've never done anything like that, so it's teaching me how to tackle. I was just playing football, but him putting us through a tackling circuit is really, really helping."
The tackling circuit is just what it sounds like: Small groups of players are sent to different areas on the field where they work, in a very fast-paced environment, on one specific part of tackling technique. After a few minutes, a horn sounds and the groups rotate to different stations. It's a staple at Schiano's practices.
"He says, if anything, we're going to be the most football-smart team," said McCoy. "Everybody wants to talk about football smarts? He's actually teaching us the game of football and how to play it. If all else fails, if you can't do it, at least you're going to know how to do it. He's making us a smart football team. Smart football teams win those championships. They always say, 'This team won because they're a smart football team.' Well, that's what he's turning us into."
Blount Wants a Piece of the Passing Game
One of LeGarrette Blount's most productive plays of the 2011 season was also his most costly. Early in the second half of the team's Week Five game at San Francisco, the jumbo Buccaneer running back began a 29-yard ramble down the right numbers in his signature tackle-breaking style. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury at the end of the play and missed the rest of that contest plus two more.
What's notable about that play is how it began: with a short pass from Josh Freeman.
Blount made a huge splash as a rookie in 2010, cracking the 1,000-yard mark despite beginning the year as an undrafted free agent in Tennessee and not joining the Buccaneers until early September. He was the Bucs' leading rusher again last year, and even though the 2011 season wasn't as satisfying as the previous one, Blount still was good for an incredible highlight-reel hurdle or pinball run from time to time.
What Blount has not been given much credit for is as a pass receiver. In two years, he has hauled in 20 passes, though as with any pass-catcher his numbers are largely dependent on how often the team decides to throw it his way. Blount insists he could do more in that area of the game and is hoping he gets an opportunity to prove it this fall. He has been doing his best to get that opportunity by showing off good hands all spring.
"It's definitely underrated," said Blount of his pass-catching abilities. "I've shown people that I can catch the ball, obviously, last year, and I'm hoping to be able to catch a lot more this year.
"I haven't dropped any passes in the offseason. Also, when we have specialist groups, I go over with the receivers and the quarterbacks and catch extra balls. That's another thing that helps me. I'm definitely looking to be a receiver."
There will be plenty of competition for that role in the Bucs' offense. Both of the rookie backs the Buccaneers drafted in April, first-rounder Doug Martin and seventh-rounder Michael Smith, are considered natural pass-catchers with big-play potential. Plenty of NFL offenses see more than one back put up good numbers both on the ground and in the air. That was the case last year in New Orleans (Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas), San Diego (Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews) and Buffalo (C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson), to name a few.
The Bucs are not yet close to defining how their running back corps will be used, but Blount has at least displayed a good set of hands this offseason.
"I think he did a pretty good job," said Schiano. "Just watching what I saw here and on tape, does he have good hands? Yeah, his hands were fine. I don't know how that will translate into our game plan and all that, but he can catch a football. That's a plus."