View photos of the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp practice Tuesday at One Buccaneer Place.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wrapped up practice a little before 11:30 on Tuesday morning, and now they won't return to work on the fields at One Buccaneer Place until next Monday. Training camp isn't over, it's just going on a little road trip.
The Buccaneers' second preseason game, after a Week One win in Miami, will take place at Nissan Stadium in Nashville on Saturday, but the team is headed for Tennessee on Tuesday night. For the third year in a row, the Bucs will hold joint practices with their upcoming opponent prior to that second tune-up game. It was the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016 and 2017 and this year the Bucs will share a field with the Tennessee Titans.
The Buccaneers aren't purposely trying to get away from their own facilities for practice each summer. Rather, the location of the annual joint practices have been dictated by the schedule. The Bucs could have returned the favor with the Jaguars but those two teams don't meet until Week Four, which is not a common time for teams to practice together. Head Coach Dirk Koetter said the Dolphins were willing to meet up but the first week was earlier than the Bucs wanted. Tampa Bay happens to be on the road in Week Two for the third year in a row, and the Bucs are fortunate that their opponent liked the idea of a couple joint workouts.
It didn't hurt that the team's general managers used to work together at Buccaneer headquarters. When Jason Licht took over as Tampa Bay's G.M. in 2014, he brought on Jon Robinson as his director of player personnel; the two had previously worked together with the New England Patriots. Robinson left the Buccaneers in 2016 to take over as the Titans' general manager. Koetter said that Licht and Robinson had a plan for joint practices worked out before the Titans hired Mike Vrabel as their new head coach, and Vrabel chose to stick with the agreement.
Thus the Buccaneers will spend Wednesday and Thursday morning happily hitting players in blue jerseys instead of the same red ones every day. The primary advantage of a joint practice, in Koetter's estimation, is this element of unfamiliarity.
"I think mostly when we go work with Tennessee, [it is] two days of practice working against different schemes and different players," said Koetter. "What happens when you practice against yourself this much is guys start to cheat off the script a little bit. They know each other's tendencies. It's always really good to go against someone you haven't seen before. That will just carry over from the two days to the game on Saturday night."
The Titans, who made the playoffs last year with a 9-7 record and won a Wild Card contest in Kansas City, will offer Buccaneer players some specific challenges. Tampa Bay's young cornerbacks, who have been trying to figure out how to keep Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson in check now must do the same with Corey Davis and company. The Buccaneers' new-look defensive line will contend with talented left tackle Taylor Lewan and a mobile quarterback in Marcus Mariota. Tampa Bay's passers will try to keep the ball away from safety Kevin Byard, who tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions in 2017.
And Koetter and his coaching staff will contend with the unknown when they match their players up against the Titans' offensive and defensive schemes.
"You don't have the script. When I have my daily script, I have what both sides of the ball are doing, but when we go to Tennessee I only know what one side is doing. So, that's how you have to adjust. That's how it is in real life."
ANTONY AUCLAIR ON THE A-LIST: When the Buccaneers take the field with the Titans on Wednesday, they'll see at least one familiar face. Tight end Luke Stocker is in his eighth NFL training camp, but his first one not held in Tampa. The Buccaneers drafted Stocker in the fourth round in 2011 (out of Tennessee, fittingly), and though his career never included a high volume of catches he developed into a strong enough blocker to earn a second contract with the team and eventually play in 80 games with 55 starts.
Stocker's fine run with the Buccaneers came to an end in late November of last season when he was released. The impetus for that move was essentially the play of rookie Antony Auclair. It was a passing of the guard, as Stocker left for the Titans and Auclair took over his role as the Bucs' third tight end and blocking specialist.
Auclair came to the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent out of Université Laval in Quebec City, which is obviously not known as a football hotbed. The Bucs actually went into the 2017 draft with the notion of possibly drafting the French-speaking prospect but shelved those plans when Alabama tight end O.J. Howard fell into their laps in the first round. Still quite interested, however, the team made him a priority target when undrafted free agents were signing around the NFL.
On Tuesday after the last camp practice before the team heads to Nashville, Koetter said the Buccaneers were "fortunate" to land Auclair. The young tight end impressed in his first NFL camp, progressed enough during the season to grab that Stocker role and now looks like he is taking his game to the next level after a full year in the pros.
"[He's] more of your blocking, 'Y' type of tight end," said Koetter. "But all these tight ends, they don't want to be categorized. They want to do everything. They want to be part O.J. Howard, part Cam Brate. Antony's working hard on his game. He's been getting some more reps lately and he's taking advantage of them. His best thing right now is probably his blocking but he's working to become all-around."
Indeed, that is exactly Auclair's goal. With a size-speed profile similar to that of Howard, the first tight end taken in the 2017 draft and obviously a more polished prospect coming out of Alabama, Auclair has the skills to potentially be more of a two-way performer, blocking and catching passes.
"My route-running is way better than last year," said Auclair, who says he feels like he's in a 'completely different world' this summer. "I keep working on that, and catching balls. I'm a good blocker but I still have a lot of work to do. I just want to improve overall in everything I'm doing, whether it's run-blocking, pass-blocking or running routes."
The Buccaneers' tight end position is considerably deep and talented. Howard, scored six touchdowns and averaged 16.6 yards per catch as a rookie and is in the middle of an outstanding second training camp. Cam Brate is a serious weapon in the passing game and a favorite target in the red zone. Third-year man Alan Cross can help as an H-back and a lead-blocker but also knows how to play all of the tight end positions. Throw Auclair into that mix and you've got a man for every job, and another one backing him up.
CORNER CONCERNS: "[It] seems like we get one back and we lose another."
That's Koetter on the Buccaneer's cornerback corps, which is currently taking the brunt of the inevitable run of minor injuries in camp. On Tuesday, Brent Grimes was back to full participation – and back to making pass-breakups with astoundingly high leaps, as he did on one toss into the end zone – but impressive rookie corner Carlton Davis was out. Vernon Hargreaves and Javien Elliott are also still sidelined, which is leading to a good amount of reps for newcomers De'Vante Harris and Amari Coleman.
Now the good news: While some or all of those corners could miss this weekend's game, Koetter doesn't think any of them will be out when the regular season kicks off in September.
"None of them are long-term," he said. "We've yet to have anybody that's a threat to miss when we go to New Orleans for the opener. We'd love to have everybody out here, but that's just part of it."
Because of this run of bad luck for the corners, safety Justin Evans worked in the slot in the team's nickel defense for the third day in a row. There's a good chance he'll do more of the same in Nashville during the week. Koetter didn't say if Evans would also do so in the game on Saturday.
"We'll see how that plays out," said the coach. "We're hoping to get a couple guys back. The thing you've got to remember is this isn't a game where your first group's not going to play the whole game. You've got to have a first nickel group and you've got to have a second nickel group. Tennessee's not going to feel sorry for us. They're going to run their stuff and we've got to be able to match up."