The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will begin their 2019 offseason training program on Monday, marking the on-field beginning of Bruce Arians' first season as the team's head coach.
Arians won't be on the field. In Phase I of the program, as mandated by NFL rules, the only activities players can do on the grass are of the conditioning variety, with Anthony Piroli and the strength staff overseeing the action. The rest of the coaches will get some limited classroom time with the players, and as the offseason progresses into Phases II and III they'll have the opportunity to run more advanced practices.
Eventually, all of that field work will lead to some critical lineup and strategic decisions. That's a more involved process with a new coaching staff, so we shouldn't expect the team's starting lineup or its playbook to be fully formed for some time. That said, Arians and his staff have done a thorough film evaluation of all the players on the roster, and they've made some tweaks to that roster that should inform what is to come.
As such, there are some roster, depth chart and scheme developments to which we can make some informed guesses. Here are three of them based on the ideas that Arians shared on Tuesday during a lengthy media session at the NFL Annual Meeting in Phoenix.
1. Lavonte David should get to rush the passer more often.
Actually, this was already likely given that new Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles has always favored creative blitzing schemes that can and will utilize any defenders on the field. Still, David more specifically could see his pass-rush opportunities rise.
The Buccaneers will have a lot of front-seven looks under Bowles but we can assume the typical base defense is a 3-4, with two "inside" linebackers and two outside men who are primarily pass-rushers but also sometimes provide coverage. David, who has been an outstanding 4-3 weakside linebacker throughout his seven-year career, would be called an inside 'backer in this approach but it wouldn't change the fact that he's patrolling a big part of the field and making plays on the run.
But David also will have his opportunities to invade the backfield.
"Lavonte's always been a stack 'backer, you know?" said Arians. "Let's see what he can do in a situation where we're rushing him more, with his speed."
Actually, we have seen that already, to some extent. In 2013, David earned Associated Press All-Pro first-team honors when he put together the rare combination of seven sacks and five interceptions. David joined 1980s Chicago safety Dave Duerson as the only players ever to combine at least seven sacks with at least five picks in the same season. David had another five-sack campaign in 2016, and he tallied 3.5 more last year.
There are more changes to come in the Bucs' linebacking corps. Kwon Alexander is gone but Deone Bucannon, who played such a flexible role for years in Arizona under Arians, has arrived. And players such as Carl Nassib, Jason Pierre-Paul and Noah Spence may be reclassified as linebackers instead of defensive ends. Jack Cichy and Kendell Beckwith are trying to return from serious injuries. The Bucs also added outside linebacker and edge rusher Shaq Barrett in free agency, along with Bucannon. They may still add more to the position, but Arians is already comfortable with what he has.
"Everybody loves Kwon, total respect," said Arians. "But, Deone has played a lot of football. He was a guy, he didn't have a position. I talked to Todd and [said], 'Look, he's one of our best 11. Get him out there somehow.' We created that money linebacker position and he just took off. Everybody started copying it. He's a passionate, powerful guy in a small body. Those four [including Nassib and Pierre-Paul], if you told me that's all I have, let's roll."
2. Chances are, the Bucs will continue to keep three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster.
The Buccaneers have used three roster spots on quarterbacks during the regular season for most of the last four seasons, ever since Ryan Griffin arrived as a waiver claim in September of 2015. During that entire time, that was a testament to how the team felt about Griffin's potential, because roster spots are precious when limited to 53 and a third quarterback might go the whole season without ever playing a snap.
In fact, that has been the case with Griffin, who has yet to throw a pass in a regular-season game. Jameis Winston essentially never left the field in 2015 and 2016, and veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick got the call when Winston missed time in the next two years. Still, the Buccaneers' new regime may very well follow the same path at the position because it, too, sees potential in Griffin and because the team recently signed more experienced veteran Blaine Gabbert.
Arians conceded on Tuesday that, ideally, he'd like to keep just two quarterbacks on the active roster but suspects it will go the other way.
"I see us keeping three right now because I really like Griff, what he's shown seen on tape in practice," he said. "I want to see him in ballgames more. I know Blaine, I know Jameis. I don't think you can have enough."
Arians became the Arizona Cardinals' head coach in 2013 and immediately helped them jump to 10-6 after they finished 5-11 the year before. A big part of that improvement was the import of quarterback Carson Palmer, who started all 16 games and had a very productive year. However, injuries forced the Cardinals to start three different passers in 2014 – Palmer (six games), Drew Stanton (eight) and Ryan Lindley (two) – and they still won 11 games and made the playoffs. Arians' Cardinals also had to start three different quarterbacks in 2017 en route to an 8-8 finish. One of those three was Gabbert, who was 2-3 in five starts.
"We went through years [in Arizona] with three guys starting and it's not an excuse to lose," said Arians. "We still won with those guys."
3. The safety position is wide open.
The Buccaneers have a pair of young safeties in Justin Evans and Jordan Whitehead who were, through a myriad of injuries, their most used starters in 2019. Evans was in his second year after a promising rookie season and he was having an up-and-down campaign before landing on injured reserve. Whitehead was a fourth-round rookie pressed into service who saw his play improve as the season wore on.
The only other safety on the current roster with a signed contract is Kentrell Brice, the former Packer signed by the Buccaneers last week. Brice started 10 games in Green Bay last year. Like Evans and Whitehead, he has a reputation as a hard-hitter. Tampa Bay essentially has a fourth safety under contract in Isaiah Johnson because he is an exclusive rights free agent who did receive a tender offer from the team. He is almost certain to sign the offer and return for another season. And while key free agent signee Deone Bucannon is likely ticketed for a linebacker job, he is also capable of playing safety, his original NFL position.
"They all bring something to the table: They all hit you," said Arians of that group of players. "At safety, you've got to hit. I'm going to see their man-to-man skills, breaking-on-the-ball skills. I can't wait to get out in OTAs and see these guys on the field."
Arians agreed when asked if the position was wide open as the offseason begins. But that also mean that's open to all of those players making an impact in some way or another. Arians says he would like to announce 13 or 14 players as starters on defense in pregame ceremonies.
"We'll have schemes with four safeties on the field," he said. "We've got personnel groups with four linebackers and four safeties on the field."
There will be competition at safety for the Buccaneers, but there will also be quite a bit of opportunity.