The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will conclude their abbreviated 2021 offseason training program this week with a three-day mini-camp from Tuesday through Thursday. Unlike the rest of the spring work, this camp is mandatory for all players, which means the Buccaneers could have close to 90 men on the field on those three days.
Here are five storylines to follow this week as the Buccaneers do their last bit of on-field work before a six-week break:
1. The Tom Brady Play/Coach Ratio
Tom Brady has already won a Super Bowl as a Buccaneer but he has yet to take the field for a full-squad offseason workout with the team. That will change on Tuesday…at least technically.
Brady signed with the Buccaneers last March almost exactly at the point that the COVID-19 pandemic was accelerating to the point that many activities were being shut down. That eventually included the NFL's offseason program, which became virtual meetings and, in some cases, small off-site workouts organized by players. Brady did some of that last year, and has also brought teammates together for similar practices this year. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers conducted two weeks of OTAs leading up to the mandatory mini-camp but they were mostly attended by the team's youngest and newest players.
A year ago, a series of OTA practices at the AdventHealth Training Center would have been very valuable for Brady and the Buccaneers' starters on offense. Some foundational work on the playbook and then a bit of preseason action might have kept that offense from being such a "work in progress" during the first three-quarters of the 2020 season. Brady and company jelled in time to reel off an eight-game winning streak that ran through Super Bowl LV and now there's every reason to believe they can start the 2021 season at the same level of play.
Thus, training camp and a three-game preseason will likely be enough for Brady, who is also in the end stages of recovering from offseason knee surgery. All of that points to caution this week, and Head Coach Bruce Arians suggested last week that he was leaning in that direction.
"I don't know how much I'll let him do with guys chasing him around," said Arians. "We will see what the doctors say. He might be doing a lot of coaching."
Brady has reportedly been working without a brace on his knee and moving around well in his organized workouts, so he could take part in some individual drills and "on air" work with the receivers. It sounds unlikely that he'll take many reps against the defense, however. The Buccaneers will have three other quarterbacks to split reps, so the workload isn't an issue and Brady could be quite valuable as an extra "coach" on the field. That's particularly true for rookie passer Kyle Trask, the Bucs' second-round draft pick this year.
View the best photos from the sixth day of Bucs OTAs.
2. Kyle Trask and Jaelon Darden Try to Fit In
Speaking of Trask, he was one of just three offensive players the Buccaneers selected in the 2021 draft, along with third-round offensive lineman Robert Hainsey and fourth-round wide receiver Jaelon Darden. Hainsey has been working at center and is almost certain to serve as a reserve interior lineman who also has tackle flexibility in his rookie season. For Trask and Darden, their 2021 roles aren't yet as clear.
Most likely, Trask will be the third quarterback with one of two veterans, Blaine Gabbert or Ryan Griffin, backing up Brady on game days. And since there is no rush to get Trask on the field in the regular season, he and the coaches are taking a slow and steady approach to his learning. Darden will get a shot to win the punt and kickoff return jobs, which would be a path to being active on Sundays and possibly getting some play in the offense.
Both Trask and Darden drew praise for their work during the rookie mini-camp and the two weeks of OTAs, which is obviously a good start for the two rookies. But this week will mark the first time that Trask is potentially throwing to the likes of Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski, and it will be the first opportunity for Darden to match routes with Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown.
Bucs rookies have still only had nine practices so far, so they will be well behind their veteran teammates in terms of understanding the offense. Trask and Darden are almost sure to make some mistakes, which is an expected part of the learning process. But how they look in terms of physical skills when compared side-by-side with those veterans will be interesting to watch.
3. Hey, Who's the New Guy?
Arians and Jason Licht famously had an offseason for the ages after the Bucs' Super Bowl win, facing down a long list of potential free agents and somehow keeping virtually the entire championship roster intact. That includes an offense that returns the players responsible for every single point scored in 2020 and almost every single yard produced.
There is one new guy, however. The one notable veteran addition of the offseason was running back Giovani Bernard, who was released by the Bengals after eight productive seasons in Cincinnati. Bernard essentially takes the spot of LeSean McCoy, who was not re-signed, but he might end up playing a significantly larger role in the offense in 2021 than McCoy did in 2020.
At one OTA practice last week, Bernard was the only running back on the field, which means he got plenty of reps. The veteran looked impressive among the group of mostly inexperienced NFL players, as might be expected. The third-leading pass-catcher among NFL running backs over the last eight years, he unsurprisingly was smooth in the passing game.
Now he'll be sharing reps with Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette and Ke'Shawn Vaughn. It is already difficult to guess how the Bucs will divvy up touches between those three, given that Jones was an effective starter for most of the 2020 regular season, Fournette turned into a star in the postseason and Vaughn has mostly untapped potential. Bernard is probably the Bucs' best option as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, but Fournette certainly proved capable in that role last year, too. Jobs and offensive roles will be won in training camp, not this week's mini-camp, but it will still be the first opportunity to see all four of those backs in action at the same time.
4. And the Momentum Belongs To…
The arrival of Tom Brady made the rest of the Buccaneers believe they could go all the way to the top, and Brady's 50 touchdown passes had a lot to do with the team's eventual championship, too. The Bucs probably don't have a second Lombardi Trophy to display without Brady. However, any objective observer would have to concede that, on the biggest stage, it was Tampa Bay's defense that truly dominated, somehow keeping Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs out of the end zone for all of Super Bowl LV.
That defense is now understandably swelling with confidence and ready to take its swagger to another level in 2021. As Carmen Vitali noted last month, the Buccaneers' defense is "coming for that number one spot" in 2021.
This week will mark the first time that defense has come together for a full practice since the Super Bowl. Just like the rest of the offseason work, mini-camp practices are non-contact and sans pads, so you won't see Shaq Barrett or Devin White throwing quarterbacks and running backs to the ground this week. You will see if they are carrying any of that Super Bowl momentum forward with as many disruptive plays as the rules allow.
It is not uncommon for the defense to be ahead of the offense at this point in the calendar year, and even at the beginning of training camp. That phenomen might be lessened quite a bit, however, when the defense is facing an offense that, as mentioned above, returns intact and had quite a bit of momentum of their own to close out 2020. The real battles will come in training camp in July and August, but this week's camp is the first opportunity for one side or the other to seize the upper hand.
5. And Now, Back in Action…
We've discussed Brady and the caution the Buccaneers will take with his repaired knee. There are a handful of other Buccaneers whose progress in recovering from injuries will become clearer with how much action they see on the practice field this week.
First-round draft pick Joe Tryon had a minor scope on his knee a few weeks before the draft and has not yet practiced as a Buccaneer, though he's been on the field every day getting valuable mental reps. Arians has indicated on several occasions that Tryon was on pace to make his practice debut in the mandatory camp, so he could be in the mix with Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul this week.
There was about a month between reports of wide receiver Antonio Brown's new deal with the Buccaneers was in place and when he actually signed the contract late last month. As Arians revealed about midway through that time period, the delay was due to a knee procedure, after which Brown had to pass a physical. Shortly after Brown inked his deal, Arians said that the veteran receiver was "ready to roll," but it's not yet clear if that refers to mini-camp or training camp.
Tight end O.J. Howard suffered an Achilles tendon injury in Week Four of the 2020 season, forcing him to injured reserve. On March 31, with the shape of the offseason program still up in the air, Arians said that Howard was "real close" to getting back on the field and would be "ready to go" for that program. With most veterans choosing not to participate in the voluntary OTAs, this week's mini-camp is the first opportunity to see if Howard is full-go or will be waiting until training camp to get back in the mix.
Wide receiver John Franklin, who was opening eyes in training camp last summer, missed the 2020 season due to a torn ACL suffered in that camp. He was in attendance at last week's OTAs but was not yet back in action.