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Bucs Rookies Have Much to Prove

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Last week's S.S. Mailbag pulled into dock exactly 26 days before the start of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2018 training camp, and I marked the occasion by posing 26 questions that may get answered in that camp. Now we are exactly 19 days away from the start of camp and…well, I can't use that gimmick again, so let's just get right to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. As you'll see from time to time, I also unilaterally appropriate for myself – as any good pirate captain would – questions I like that are meant for our Insider Live show or are simply responses to one of my previous tweets. As always, if you'd prefer to email your question and maybe bust past that 280-character limit, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Those are all great ways to get questions to me, but this week's mailbag is a little different. All of the questions below came from Facebook. Three of the four were asked during our most recent Insider Live show without Casey Phillips and I getting to them before the show was over. I thought I could clean that up here, then get back to Twitter questions next week.

Watching older Bucs games this offseason and marvel over how great 99 was. Can you see Vea being All Pro in 5 years?

- Michael Sawyer, via Facebook Live

First of all, that sounds like a great idea, Michael. I've been looking for a new TV show to stream now that the Westworld and Brockmire seasons are over, but maybe I should just binge on some golden-era Buccaneer games for a couple weeks. Last week I was working on the second entry in our new "Path to Glory" series, and I had occasion to watch that memorable Warrick Dunn-Shaun King pitch play in the Monday Night Football shootout with the Rams in 2000. That hooked me in, and I ended up watching most of that game. Man, that was a great one!

If I had to pick a few more, and I wasn't just going to review the 2002 playoff run again, I think I'd go with the 2005 game against Washington that Mike Alstott won with a two-point conversion; the home game against the Falcons in December of 2002, when Derrick Brooks shut down Michael Vick; and the big win over Green Bay in the second-to-last weekend of the 1999 season. Oh, and one more: Bucs over Packers in the second week of 1992. That's not a particularly important game in team history but I want to relive it for nostalgic reasons. That was just my second game as a Buc employee, it was a really fun blowout, Vinny Testaverde nearly broke the single-game NFL record for completion percentage and Brett Favre made his NFL debut.

At this point, Michael is probably wondering if I'm ever going to get around to answering his actual question. Just in case anyone isn't clear, Michael is referring to Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp and wondering if new Bucs rookie Vita Vea can eventually ascend to the same level of play (or at least approach it). And he's right about Sapp. He was a one-of-a-kind talent who, at times, just couldn't be stopped. His presence was so critical to the Buccaneers being able to reach the defensive heights they did as a team in that era.

Fortunately, Michael didn't ask if I thought Vea could be as good as Sapp. That would be a pretty bold prediction because there haven't been too many players ever who could make that claim. That would probably be asking a bit much of Vea or any rookie DT coming into the league, though it would be awesome if it happened. What Michael asked is if I thought Vea could be an All-Pro in five years. And, sure! I think that's possible.

I'm struck by the fact that the Buccaneers keyed on in Vea in the first round of the draft even though you couldn't call defensive tackle the team's number-one need, particularly after the signing of Beau Allen in free agency. The Bucs did need to add more talent to their defensive line, but they didn't necessarily have to do it with the 12th overall pick. That tells me that the team's player evaluators believe Vea is a rare talent who could turn into something special.

I mean, we're talking about a 350-pound man who moves like a 275-pounder and even covered kicks in college. He's extremely strong and should be a force against the running game from Day One. The question is, how much will he contribute to the pass-rush? Or, more specifically, how much will he contribute to the pass rush that actually shows up on his own stat line? He may very well help free up other rushers by occupying multiple blockers, but that won't pad his sacks total.

And that's probably the key to Vea being recognized as one of the league's best interior defensive linemen and winning honors such as the Michael specifically asked me about, All-Pro. If, by 2021 or 2022, Vea has already shown he could annually approach double digits in sacks, I think he will have that recognition. Associated Press All-Pro First Team is a very exclusive honor; there would be only two defensive tackles on it in any given year. For Vea to break through, he needs to emerge as the best or one of the very best at his position among players at a similar age and he probably needs some of the league's current DT stars to age out of their primes. If Aaron Donald, Gerald McCoy, Geno Atkins, Fletcher Cox and Ndamukong Suh are all still playing at a very high level in 2022, it will be much harder for Vea to break through.

But I've got a good feeling about Vea, regardless of what awards he ends up with. History tells us that if there's one thing the Bucs are good at doing on draft night it's picking defensive tackles in the first round.

Will the offense be able to give the defense a break from being on the field so long?

- Ben Pippen IV, via Facebook Live

I get what you're going for here, Ben, but I'm not sure I agree with the underlying premise.

The way your question is worded, I assume you mean that the struggles of the Buccaneers' defense in 2017 (last in overall net yards allowed, last in passing yards allowed) were due in part to an offense that sputtered and couldn't maintain possession of the football long enough. I'm sure you're not putting all of the blame on that issue, but you think that fatigue was a factor in the surprising stumble by the Bucs' defense in 2017 after a pretty good finish to the 2016 season.

The thing is, the numbers don't fully support that idea. The Buccaneers did finish 21st in average time of possession, with a mark of 29:36 per game, but that ranking is probably a bit misleading. That's only 24 seconds below the average and it would only take 20 more seconds per game to put the Bucs up at 16th, in the middle of the pack. I'm not sure 20 seconds is really going to make a big difference in the fatigue factor.

Furthermore, Tampa Bay's offense was good at sustaining drives. In fact, the Buccaneers ranked first in the NFL in the number of offensive possessions that lasted at least 10 plays, with 36 of them. The Bucs only went three-and-out on 20.6% of their drives, which was the ninth-lowest total in the league. Tampa Bay also converted on 43.4% of their third-down tries, which was fourth-best in the NFL. It doesn't look to me like the offense was hanging the defense out to dry with too many short possessions.

The sin the Buccaneers' offense committed that did hurt its defense was turning the ball over too many times. The Bucs committed 27 turnovers in 2017, which was tied for the sixth-most in the league. And yes, turnovers are one way that a defense can be forced to get right back out onto the field without much rest. But the bigger problem with turnovers is that it gives the opposition easy scoring opportunities. Tampa Bay allowed 81 points off turnovers last year, and that's too many.

So my answer to your question, Ben, is yes, the Buccaneers' offense will give the Buccaneers' defense a break by sustaining drives, just as it did last year.

Hello Scott. My name is Luis Flores. I am from Guadalajara, Mexico. I am a big Buc Fan. Casey and you always provide to us the greatest information. You both are the best. Quick Question: Why is not JPP in the practice? Thank you, Have a great day.

- Luis Flores, via Facebook

I think my Mom is now making up international aliases to send me fawning questions. Just kidding – thanks very much for the compliments, Luis, and I'm glad we've got Bucs fans in Mexico. Good luck in the World Cup!

This message was sent during the three weeks when the Buccaneers were conducting their 10 allotted OTA practices in May and early June. The number-one reason that Jason Pierre-Paul did not take part in those practices is that he did not have to. Other than one mandatory mini-camp, teams are not allowed to compel their players to take part in any of their organized offseason work. Most players choose to take part, but there is no reason we should begrudge any player who doesn't attend any voluntary sessions.

Pierre-Paul did participate in the mandatory three-day mini-camp, as did every player on the Bucs' roster. Here's what he said about OTAs at that time:

"Like I said, I'm a pro. Even though I wasn't here I was at home studying and making sure I know the calls, the installs. That's just something you do. You keep [doing] your work, keep working out – every day I woke up at 6:00 a.m. and went to the gym, got out of there at 8:00 a.m. Just stuff I've been doing, I've been keeping up, so it's not – like I said, it was a situation that I had to take care of. I took care of it and now I'm here."

Pierre-Paul alluded to some things he had to take care of relating to changing teams, relocating and spending time with his son, who lives in Florida. He said he was fully up to speed on play calls and what the defense was installing, and that he would have no problem getting ready for the season in the upcoming training camp.

Head Coach Dirk Koetter didn't seem to be worried about Pierre-Paul's level of participation in the offseason.

"Number one, the guy’s got experience and it’s not like he’s playing quarterback," said the coach. "So, it’s no big secret why he was brought here. He was brought here to rush the passer and he probably didn’t forget how. If he’s been working out like he says he has been, then I’m sure it’s going to pay off for us down the line.”

Speaking of blocks, how does the rookie RB look at protecting the passer?

- Cody Sams, via Facebook Live

Cody asked that question, if I recall correctly, because I had mentioned that rookie running backs can usually get on the field early and contribute right away as long as the coaches trust them not to get the quarterback killed. Therefore, knowing how well rookie backs can handle pass-protection duties is helpful in determining which ones might make the biggest impact in 2018.

The thing is, it's still a bit too early to know because the Buccaneers have only played "underwear football" to this point. There are really too ways that a young running back can screw up in pass protection: He can get his assignment wrong and be out of position to make the block he's supposed to make, or he can just be physically overpowered.

The Buccaneers' rookie back is USC's Ronald Jones, chosen early in the second round. His scouting report indicated that he was just fine as a pass protector and he said the Trojan backs did a "fair amount" of work in that area, referring to six and seven-man slide protections. Jones said the main issue for him now that he's a Buccaneer is learning new signals for changes in protection. In other words, he's already done the actions that will be asked of him in pass protection in Tampa but he now has to match them up with different words and signs so that he knows which ones to employ when.

Again, Koetter is unconcerned about this topic regarding one of his rookies.

"All running backs coming into the NFL have work to do mostly in protection," he said. "Most colleges don’t have a whole lot that they ask these guys to do protection-wise, but he is going to do fine. He will get it."

As for the second issue, we won't know how well Jones handles the physical side of blocking until training camp and, even more so, the preseason games, when the pads are on. Jones wasn't one of the bigger backs in this year's draft, but he's not that small at 5-11 and 208 pounds. He knows that this part of the test is still ahead of him.

"I think right now I'm just still identifying [protection calls] based on the schemes that we're running and things like that," said Jones. "Once we put the pads on we'll really see, but I think right now I'm doing pretty well."

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