It was in May of last year that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coaching staff began to realize that the outside linebacker they drafted in the fourth round might actually be a candidate to start at middle linebacker.
The offseason is a learning process for NFL players, particularly the young ones. The coaches are the teachers, but they occasionally learn a thing or two about the roster and its possibilities. That's particularly true when the offseason program moves into Phase 3.
This year, the Buccaneers' offseason program began on April 11 with Phase 1. During the two weeks that followed, players were allowed to sit in meetings with coaches but the only permissible on-field activity was conditioning. The only coaches allowed on the field with the players during this time were the strength and conditioning coaches.
After a voluntary mini-camp that coincided with draft week, the Buccaneers picked back up in Phase 2 on May 2. This was a three-week segment of the offseason program during which coaches could run players through on-field drills, but with no contact allowed. This was focused primarily on individual-position work; no drills pitting offense against defense were allowed.
Phase 3 of the program began on Monday and will last four weeks. During the first three weeks, the Buccaneers will conduct 10 "organized team activity" days, or OTAs. Although there is still no contact allowed, these OTAs are the closest thing the team gets to a training camp or regular season-style practice. Each workout will last two hours and will include such traditional periods as seven-on-seven, nine-on-seven and even full 11-on-11 drills.
Tampa Bay will hold its first OTA on Tuesday. The team will run through three of its 10 OTAs this week, another three next week and the final four the following week. The entire offseason program will then be capped off with a three-day mandatory mini-camp from June 14-16. An extended break will follow before the team reconvenes for training camp in late July.
Phase 3 and the OTAs represent a significant ramping up of the team's preparations for the upcoming season. After spending the better part of two months getting into shape, working on technique and learning the playbook in meeting rooms, Buccaneer players will now get an opportunity to see what they've learned and how well they can put it into action on the field. Though training camp will be the true battleground for starting positions and roster spots, coaches can get some early clues in May and June.
](http://www.buccaneers.com/news/article-1/Complete-2016-NFL-Offseason-Calendar/c85de843-75d5-46a5-b21c-a384714056d6)That was the case last year with Kwon Alexander, the fourth-rounder out of Louisiana State and the only defensive player the Buccaneers drafted in 2014 or 2015. Fourth-round picks aren't often favorites to start on Day One in their rookie seasons, and it originally appeared as if Alexander would be battling Danny Lansanah for the strongside spot. However, Alexander also got some spring reps in the middle, where free agent pick-up Bruce Carter was the favorite to start, and the results were intriguing. By the time training camp arrived, the Bucs had moved Alexander to the middle for good, and he did indeed win the starting job. Alexander's promising rookie season included 93 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and nine passes defensed in 12 games.
Last year, rookie guard Ali Marpet used May and June practices to begin a very difficult transition from Division III football at Hobart to a potential starting role in the NFL. The Buccaneers didn't officially list Marpet as a starter on their depth chart until after the preseason was over, but he did in fact start the second and third games in August and was entrenched at right guard by opening day. It was an impressive achievement by Marpet, who got off to a very good start during OTAs.
Players who are making a different kind of transition, from one position to another, can benefit greatly from the work in OTAs. If rookie fourth-rounder Ryan Smith is going to make a successful move from college cornerback to NFL safety, it will start during the next four weeks. Fifth-round pick Caleb Benenoch mostly played tackle at UCLA but may have a brighter professional future at guard, where he got some work in 2015; the Buccaneer coaching staff will begin making that determination over the next few weeks.
For Smith, the goal would be to duplicate the path traveled by fourth-round pick Tanard Jackson nine years ago. Tampa Bay also drafted Jackson with the idea of moving him from corner to safety, and the switch worked so well that Jackson was in the starting lineup to start his rookie season. Benenoch could emulate 2008 third-round pick Jeremy Zuttah, who started at both tackle positions at Rutgers but also saw action at guard. Zuttah turned into a good, versatile lineman for the Buccaneers, making starts at all three interior positions, including a right-guard assignment to open his rookie campaign.
Even early-round picks with loftier expectations need good starts during OTAs to stay on track for opening-day starts. Vernon Hargreaves and Noah Spence are expected to be key pieces in the Bucs' defensive overhaul, but the team also added players at their positions in free agency. It is probably Tampa Bay's best-case scenario to have Hargreaves and free agent signee Brent Grimes in place as their starters, but the rookie must compete with some fairly experienced corners in Josh Robinson, Johnthan Banks and Alterraun Verner. Meanwhile, the coaching staff will be looking for the optimal alignment and rotation of such pass-rushers as Spence, free agent acquisition Robert Ayers and holdovers Jacquies Smith, Will Gholston and several others.
Ten OTA practices and three days of mini-camp adds up to 26 hours of on-field practice, potentially, plus plenty more time spent in meeting rooms and film sessions. Phase 3 is a critical part of the Bucs' preparations for the upcoming season, and it starts this week.