Photos from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday, October 28st at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa.
If there is one thing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coaching staff expected of Jameis Winston at the start of his rookie season – and one thing that Winston has absolutely delivered – it was steady improvement. Known to be single-minded in his football preparation, Winston has acknowledged any flaws in his game and worked hard to erase them, from improving his third-down accuracy to protecting the football better. The results are two straight games with zero turnovers and a passer rating north of 120.
What might be just as important, especially in the next couple weeks, is how Winston is developing in ways not reflected on the stat sheet. He arrived in Tampa with the reputation that he possessed innate leadership skills, but he pointedly did not try to assert himself in the early going. He preferred to let the team's veterans lead while he earned their respect.
Still, the quarterback almost has to exert leadership on the field by the nature of his job, and Winston is gradually proving that the aforementioned reputation is true. Now, with a potential shuffling of his wide receiver corps on the horizon and the likelihood of several more young players assuming larger roles, the Buccaneers are going to need Winston's leadership even more as they attempt to maintain their offensive momentum.
Wide receiver Donteea Dye, who caught his first NFL pass and scored his first NFL touchdown on the same play in Washington last Sunday, believes his fellow rookie can keep the Bucs' offense together and in synch.
"He's a natural-born leader," said Dye. "He's so natural, and he keeps everyone calm in the huddle. He never overreacts about anything – calling the plays the same and helping everybody out in the huddle. Basically, he's leading the way for us. That's one thing that I value about Jameis. Very cool under pressure … I love that about him."
Dye had just that one seven-yard TD catch against the Redskins Sunday, but he played extensively in the second half when both Louis Murphy and Vincent Jackson were lost to knee injuries. Murphy's proved more severe; he has since landed on injured reserve. Jackson's prognosis is not yet as clear, but he was not able to practice on Wednesday. Jackson rarely misses practice and has played in 54 straight games since signing with the Buccaneers in 2012, but the team may have to figure out how to replace his contributions for at least one game.
"He didn't practice today," said Head Coach Lovie Smith after Wednesday's field session. "He has a knee injury. As far as multiple [weeks], we're not ready to go into much more detail than that because we don't know a lot more. [It] hasn't been that long since the game. [He] wasn't able to finish the game, wasn't able to practice today, so that's where we are at right now.
"It does put you in a bind when you dress four receivers and two go down. It eliminates the three-wide receiver package. [It's] a whole different game when you can't go to a three-wide receiver package. It's where we are right now. It's always about the next guy stepping up."
To take Murphy's spot on the roster and push the Bucs' receiving corps back to five members, the team promoted another rookie, Adam Humphries, from the practice squad on Tuesday. Russell Shepard seems like a good bet to return Sunday from a hamstring injury that has cost him the last three outings, given that he practiced without limitations on Wednesday, he's a standout special-teamer and the team has a fresh need at his position. And, of course, the Buccaneers have Mike Evans, who is just starting to hit his stride in 2015 and is coming off a 164-yard performance in Washington.
Still, without Jackson, that's a group that consists of two rookies, a second-year player and a third-year pro who has seen a lot more reps in kick coverage than at receiver in his career. Evans has proved that he can put up big numbers against any opponent, but the trio of Shepard, Humphries and Dye has a total of eight NFL receptions between them.
"That's the thing about this league, we don't know about Vincent, we're just going to wish for the best," said Winston. "We know he's going to work hard and do his best, but guys have to step up. That's part of being in the NFL. Guys are taken here and being put there. This is how it works and we're not going to look back. We know Vince, who is one of our leaders, if he cannot play he's going to help us out more than he possibly could have if he was on the field. He is just that type of guy."
Of course, Dye know has about a half-game of experience of trying to fill the role Jackson usually handles, and the Bucs think he's got skills they can put to good use.
"[He's] explosive, excellent speed, tough and just one of those guys nobody knows much about him because he comes from a small school," said Offensive Coordinator Kirk Koetter of the Heidelberg product. "He's done nothing but improve since he got here. Some rookies, they start off strong in OTAs, made it through training camp and they kind of plateau out. 'D.D.' has continued to ascend throughout the season, so he'll do fine and if that's the case then he'll be fine."
If Dye and Humphries are both active against Atlanta on Sunday and both get into the game at the same time, the Buccaneers' offense could be operating with five rookies on the field at once. Winston, right guard Ali Marpet and left tackle Donovan Smith have all started each of the Bucs' six games so far this season, on an offense that ranks 13th in the league in both yards and points and has averaged 420 yards and just over 30 points a game in its last three outings.
A rejuvenated Doug Martin and the league's fourth-best rushing attack should continue to take pressure off the Buccaneers' rookie quarterback. Still, Winston's going to have to do his part, and he may have to do it with a rather green receiving corps, at least this weekend. For their part, those young pass-catchers are eager to step up and prove they can produce what the team needs.
"I prepare for [a larger role] the same, just as hard," said Dye. "Practice hard, play hard. I'm still getting into the swing of things in the position that I'm in and I've still got a lot of veterans looking to help me. Now I've got a little bigger role, so I'm going to step up to the plate and accept the challenge."
Dye first got a chance to prove himself in Week Five when he was promoted from the practice squad. The team completed that maneuver by sending Humphries in the opposite direction after he had played in three of the first four games and pitched in with two catches for 14 yards. That move was based on Dye's good work on the practice field, but Humphries hasn't done anything to make the team value him any less than they did when they made the undrafted rookie one of the 53 men on the roster to start the season.
"Just talking about Adam, he earned himself a roster spot from what he did in the preseason when he got an opportunity to play," said Smith. "It's not like he played himself out of position or anything like that. We just kind of like what Donteea Dye did to get himself an opportunity to play. We've seen Adam perform the last time when we really kind of featured him a little bit, he made plays. We're not quite there yet. We have some options we're looking at, but we have to go to some of our young players. We feel pretty comfortable playing them."
- Other than wide receiver, the position on the Buccaneers' depth chart that is currently facing the most pervasive injury issues is defensive tackle.
Tampa Bay came into the season with excellent depth at that position – namely Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald, Henry Melton, Tony McDaniel and, if needed inside, defensive end William Gholston – and got a little more last week when Akeem Spence was activated from the reserve/PUP list. However, McCoy has been dealing with a shoulder injury for a month and was limited in practice on Wednesday while McDonald (pectoral) and McDaniel (groin) didn't practice at all.
Spence played 15 snaps on Sunday in his first game action since suffering a back injury prior to training camp and could see his role expand on Sunday if either McDonald or McDaniel, or both, are unavailable. A fourth-round pick out of Illinois in 2013, Spence played in all 32 games with 19 starts in his first two seasons and is very strong at the point of attack. He also contributed three sacks last year, as the Buccaneers got more sacks out of their defensive tackle position than any other team in the league.
"He was rested and had a fresh body," said Lovie Smith of Spence's first game of the year. "As a nose guard, that's a big thing this time of the season. Akeem Spence has played good football for us, so to have a player to fall back on like that meant a lot for us. Of course, there's a reason why he's one of our guys and we were waiting for him to be able to be active and we got him out there right away. He'll play better this coming week than he did this past [week]."
Smith said that reserve offensive tackle Reid Fragel remains in the league's concussion protocol, and Fragel did not practice on Wednesday. On the bright side, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins donned pads and practiced for the first time since suffering a shoulder injury in Week Two, albeit on a limited basis. Even if the Bucs' receiving corps hadn't taken several hits on Sunday, the team would still be eagerly awaiting Seferian-Jenkins' return to the field. That won't necessarily happen this weekend.
"Once we get him back – disregarding the receivers – it's going to help our offense in its own," said Smith. "We're not there yet. Austin practiced on a limited basis. He was in pads today, but when he does come back that will help. It would have helped of course if he had him this past Sunday."
- Andre Davis reported for his first day of work at One Buccaneer Place on Wednesday. He definitely didn't have any trouble finding the place.
Davis, a rookie wide receiver who starred at the nearby University of South Florida, was one of four players signed to the team's practice squad in Week Eight, along with guard Ryan Groy, defensive tackle Derrick Lott and linebacker Julian Stanford. The Buccaneers are the second NFL team to sign Davis, but even though his professional career began in Buffalo he seemed destined to make it to Tampa at some point. After all, that's where he's spent his whole life playing football.
"It's definitely a major opportunity for me, a great opportunity that I thank God for," said Davis of the Bucs' interest in him. "Just to be able to be in my hometown and play football – I played college football here, high school football here and now to be able to live my dream and be in the NFL and play in Tampa is definitely a mind-blowing experience."
Davis was a prep star at Jefferson High School, which is a three-mile drive from One Buccaneer Place. It's not much further to USF, where Davis set a slew of career receiving records for the Bulls, playing half of his games at Raymond James Stadium, the Buccaneers' home field. Given his current practice-squad status, Davis will be doing most of his work at One Buc Place during the week, but the team has already promoted two other rookie receivers from the practice squad so there is reason to believe he could be playing on Sundays in the near future.
"My mindset is no different than it's been in the past," said Davis of a potential promotion down the line. "Just come in and do what I can for the team, come in day-in and day-out and work hard, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to do whatever I can for the team. If they need me to step up, I will.
"I just learned [in Buffalo] to take advantage of the opportunity every time you go on the field, because opportunities in the NFL are limited. You really don't get too many, so just make the most of your opportunities."