Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota will be linked to some degree throughout their NFL careers, thanks to their 1-2 status in the 2015 NFL Draft. However parallel their careers remain through the years – whether they succeed in tandem or one out-shines the other – they will each have the same starting point.
That would be Raymond James Stadium, September 13, 2015.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2015 season-opener against the Tennessee Titans will be decided by much more than the pair of starting rookie quarterbacks, but there's no denying that Winston and Mariota are the top story on this particular Sunday.
The Buccaneers, who took Winston with the first pick, believe their young passer has prepared himself well for his NFL regular-season debut.
"I would just say that he's made pretty much daily improvement, which we wanted," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "He sat the bar right away. Everything we asked him to do – I'm talking grasping the offense, moving into the leadership role that the quarterback has to have, and then producing on the field, getting the respect of your teammates, there's an awful lot that a rookie has to go through – and he's met every challenge with flying colors."
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Meanwhile, Mariota had a strong preseason for the Titans and should give the Buccaneers' defense a strong test, despite his first-year status. The Bucs are well-versed in Mariota's skill set, having spent the winter and spring studying him and Winston relentlessly.
"First off, we did a lot of work on him – he's a good football player and a great guy," said Smith. "I know they're very pleased with what he's done. I had a chance of course to watch him in the preseason quite a bit. He made good decisions, you see that mobility that he brings from the quarterback position and he's throwing the ball well. So it's a big challenge for us. I know he's pretty excited like all rookies are that first game, and we are very excited about playing against him in front of our home crowd."
Winston will have to play his first game that counts without a player that is sure to develop into one of his favorite targets. Second-year receiver Mike Evans, who led the Buccaneers in his rookie season in receiving yards and touchdowns, will sit out the game as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury. Evans had made a limited return to practice on Friday but he needs a little more time to return to action without risking further injury.
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"He is getting better, also, but it takes a while with hamstring injuries," said Smith. "Mike will not play this week but he's right on schedule to come back soon. As far as how we compensate for it, Louis Murphy will move into that role, Russell Shepard will move up and we'll go from there. Adam Humphries had a good offseason and he'll be the fourth receiver."
Photos of the Titans' starters as listed on the team's depth chart from TitansOnline.com
Murphy excelled last season in the roughly two games that Evans missed due to injury, and Humphries had an impressive preseason, leading some to believe he could excel in the slot. The Bucs still have Vincent Jackson and his automatic 1,000-yard seasons, a rising tight end in Austin Seferian-Jenkins and a loaded stable of running backs, so Winston won't be hurting for targets. On the other hand, the offense is likely to go only as far as the front line allows it. After a rough season in 2014, a reworked Tampa Bay O-Line is ready to prove itself in 2015.
It will have to do so without its best player from a year ago, right tackle Demar Dotson, who sustained a knee injury in the preseason and is currently being replaced by veteran free agent pickup Gosder Cherilus. Cherilus and six-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins will help rookie starters Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet adjust to the NFL.
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"We'd like to have one offensive line that goes through an entire year, even starting from the offseason," said Smith. "Very seldom does it work out that way. We've had to make adjustments of course, with Demar Dotson going down early on, but we feel like we've kind of locked in with Cherilus at the right tackle position, Ali Marpet at the right guard position, Evan Smith at center, Logan Mankins at the guard spot, and Donovan Smith came back off the injury list and is ready to go. This is our group and we want to play those guys together as much as we can."
The Bucs essentially have two rookie quarterbacks starting, as the middle linebacker position is being filled by fourth-round surprise Kwon Alexander. The "MIKE" usually relays the defensive play calls for the rest of the crew and calls out adjustments, and the Bucs will find out if Alexander is up to the task. So far he's handled everything the team has thrown at him.
"As we talk about Jameis Winston, our signal-caller on the other side of the ball, Kwon Alexander, it's a big role for him," said Smith. "But both of these guys have earned it. They demonstrated right away that they were ready. They're rookies but they're ready for this challenge. Kwon will hit as hard as anyone, no one plays harder than he does. He's just excited about an opportunity. Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander playing together are going to bring a smile to Buccaneers fans for many years."
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The Bucs hope their play on the field Sunday brings out more than smiles from the crowd. Smith's team is eager to re-establish a significant home field advantage, and they know the fans in the Bay area will respond if given a good reason.
"Our crowd last year did their job," said Smith. "We as a team didn't show up. We get another chance at it. We're excited about Raymond James Stadium be full, and together we should be a tough combination. I know it's hard for offenses coming in, especially when we're really loud and cheering. But in order for that to happen we need to give the fans something to cheer about. And we will."
In addition to Evans, the Buccaneers declared the following six players inactive for Sunday's game: QB Ryan Griffin, CB Mike Jenkins, RB Mike James, C Eric Kush, DE Kourtnei Brown and DE T.J. Fatinikun. Evans, Fatinikun and Jenkins are out due to injury.
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Tennessee named the following seven players inactive: QB Charlie Whitehurst, RB Antonio Andrews, CB Jason McCourty, G Quinton Spain, TE Chase Coffman, DE Ropati Pitoitua and DT Sammie Hill. McCourty will be replaced at cornerback in the starting lineup by Coty Sensabaugh while former Buccaneer Al Woods will take over for Hill at nose tackle.
The Buccaneers take on the Titans on Sunday afternoon in the regular-season opener for both squads, with kickoff scheduled for 4:25 p.m. ET. The game will be played at Raymond James Stadium and will be broadcast by CBS and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.