The Tampa Bay Buccaneers began the first of their two rounds of OTA practices this week and about half of the current 90-man roster was in attendance for the voluntary sessions. As expected, nearly all of those taking part were very young players and those potentially fighting for spots on the back end of the eventual 53-man roster.
With the usual "barring injuries" caveat, the defending-champion Buccaneers may have the most set depth chart in the league heading into next season, at least in terms of starters and key contributors. That's what happens when you win it all and then re-sign pretty much every player who could have left in free agency.
But there is always year-to-year turnover in the NFL and there is always very real competition in training camp. No one is going to unseat Tom Brady or Devin White, but there will be some intense battles, as usual, at certain corners on the depth chart. Interestingly, here is what Head Coach Bruce Arians said on Tuesday about competition for the fifth cornerback spot after the departure of Ryan Smith in free agency"
"I think there are about five spots that are going to depend on special teams. It's going to be that fifth or sixth corner, that fifth or sixth safety, that fourth or fifth running back, the fifth or sixth receiver and even tight ends. If you can play special teams then you're going to move yourself in front of other guys. That part of practice isn't as important as special teams is for some of these guys."
What I personally find interesting about that is the numbers Arians was tossing out. The Bucs ran with five cornerbacks and four safeties in 2020 for all but one week of the regular season (they had six corners on the roster in Week Two). The 16-man practice squad and practice squad elevation rule helped with that, as Herb Miller and Javon Hagan added some help along the way in that manner. But the former rule could be back in 2021 and the latter remains in place so that same roster flexibility will probably still apply.
The Bucs also carried only four running backs, not five, for the entire season except for a three-week stretch when Kenjon Barner was promoted to return kickoffs. Tampa Bay did keep at least six receivers on the roster all year, though it briefly bumped up to seven at one point. The Bucs started the season with four tight ends, were down to three briefly after Antony Auclair went on injured reserve and then again when O.J. Howard joined him but eventually stabilized back at four for the remainder of the campaign.
One other note: On defense the Bucs ran with just four inside linebackers for all of 2020 and just four outside linebackers from midseason on. In 2019, under the same coaching staff, the Bucs had stretches with up to six outside linebackers and five inside linebackers, so those positions could potentially run deeper this year, especially after the draft additions of Joe Tryon, K.J. Britt and Grant Stuard.
What's the point of all this? To help pinpoint a few areas on the depth chart where the competition could be fun in training camp. Such as:
- Fifth (and possibly sixth) cornerback: Will start with the assumptions that Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean remain starters, with Ross Cockrell as the primary backup. The Bucs turned to Miller for depth several times in 2020 and have indicated they have high hopes for him in 2021. They also spent a sixth-round draft pick on Chris Wilcox, who could initially make the team as a special teams contributor. Undrafted rookie Cameron Kinley from Navy looked good in rookie mini-camp and since the draft the team has added three veterans with NFL experience: Antonio Hamilton, Nate Brooks and Dee Delaney.
- Sixth (and possibly seventh) wide receiver: Again, let's assume that Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson are a strong five to start with. Jaydon Mickens and Jaelon Darden could battle for the sixth spot as a punt returner, but it's uncommon for fourth-round picks to not make the team as a rookie. Justin Watson was on the roster for all of last season and is a good special-teamer. General Manager Jason Licht recently said the team was high on first-year player Travis Jonsen, and fellow 2020 undrafted free agent Josh Pearson was on the practice squad for all of last season. Moreover, the Buccaneers have shown a lot of interest over the past couple seasons in John Franklin and Cyril Grayson.
- Fourth safety: Antoine Winfield, Jr., Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards is a good trio with which to start but Andrew Adams is one of the few players from the 2020 team who departed this offseason. There's a clear need for a new man in this foursome and it could be former undrafted free agent Javon Hagan, who got some playing time in the NFC Championship Game with Winfield out. The Buccaneers have also recently signed two veterans with some regular-season experience in Raven Greene and Curtis Riley. Greene had good production when on the field for Green Bay last season but has had trouble staying healthy.
Ninth offensive lineman: The Bucs went really light along the line at the end of the 2020 season after some injuries, with the practice-squad elevation option making that possible. But they are almost sure to start the season with at least eight linemen and it's not uncommon to go with nine. All five of last year's starters are back as are top subs Aaron Stinnie (inside) and Josh Wells (outside). Third-round rookie Robert Hainsey, who according to Arians has five-position flexibility, seems like a lock, too. Battling for a potential ninth spot are the likes of Brad Seaton, John Molchon and Sadarius Hutcherson. All are former undrafted free agents from various seasons. Seaton opted out of last season due to the pandemic but is now back and drew words of praise from Arians on Tuesday.
Things can change between now and training camp and there are surely some other spots that will be up for grabs, but those are four positions that could turn up the competitive heat in August. Now on 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. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What's the status on Joe Tryon? Will he be participating in OTA's?
- @marcusgeorgepopescu12 (via Instagram)
I'm going to go with "probably not."
Tryon was on the field but not practicing to start the first round of OTAs this week. After he was held out of the rookie mini-camp about 10 days earlier, Arians revealed that the rookie first-rounder had undergone what he called "a slight scope" on one of his knees and, though he was very close to passing his physical the Bucs weren't going to take any chances. Arians also said this:
"No, we're going to take it slow. He will be ready for mandatory mini-camp for sure, maybe sooner."
So, mandatory mini-camp is set for June 8-10 and that is probably the target for Tryon returning to action. However, Arians did add that "maybe sooner" qualifier at the end, and the only thing later than this week and sooner than mini-camp is the second round of OTAs next week, on June 1-3. So it remains possible that Tryon will take part in next week's OTAs but I wouldn't count on it. Fortunately, this doesn't appear to be a serious issue.
Do you think Cameron Kinley could make the active roster? Or could he become a practice squad player?
- @jayyrxbxll (via Instagram)
Cameron Kinley, the undrafted cornerback from Navy who also happened to be the academy's senior class president, definitely stood out at the rookie mini-camp, picking off a couple passes. That's obviously a good start for him but, man, there is a long way to go.
If Kinley keeps making plays in mini-camp and training camp, there's always a chance. We saw it happen just last year with Parnell Motley, the undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma. Motley kept making plays in practice day after day and that eventually earned him the fifth cornerback spot over Herb Miller and Mazzi Wilkins.
As it turned out, Motley didn't stick in Tampa. The Bucs had found veteran corner Ross Cockrell in Week Three and signed him to the practice squad, then ended up liking his work so much they promoted him to the active roster on October 23. Motley was waived to make room and it's quite possible the Bucs were hoping to sign him back to their practice squad but he was claimed by San Francisco. Tampa Bay instead re-signed Wilkins to the practice squad the next week. Still, Motley is currently on the roster in Denver, so his good work last summer is paying off.
Maybe it will for Kinley, too. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess the Midshipman has an excellent work ethic. That being said, the practice squad would seem like a more likely landing spot to start the season. The numbers are going to be tough for any young cornerback. I wrote about this competition above. The Buccaneers are returning their three young starters, as noted above, as well as Cockrell. Sixth-round pick Chris Wilcox could potentially slide right into the fifth corner vacancy left by Ryan Smith, especially if Wilcox is a strong special-teams contributor like Smith was. Even if Tampa Bay keeps six corners on the active roster, there is the looming presence of recently-signed veteran Antonio Hamilton, who has a whole lot of NFL playing experience, as well as a couple other vets.
Hello, Mr. Smith.
How are you? Hope this finds you well.
I caught myself wondering where do our beloved Buccaneers have the most and few wins when not playing in Tampa and I thought you could be the one who knows it (or at least ca find it out). I know that the best percentage is in Vegas for obvious reasons, so maybe doing the percentages is a little bit misleading, don't you think?
Since you did, thanks for reading.
Alexandre Nascimento, from Sao Paulo Brazil (via email to email@example.com)
Yes, Alexandre, we have all that information readily available and updated each year. We call it our "All-Time Series" or "Head-to-Head Record" against each opponent. We keep that data for each franchise, even if it moves from one location to another during the all-time series. So, for instance, the Buccaneers have played the Raiders in Oakland, Los Angeles and Las Vegas and overall have a 3-7 record against them. But you're right, Tampa Bay is 1-0 all-time playing in Las Vegas.
(That's just regular season, which is all I'm going to consider for this question, but of course the Bucs are also 1-0 against the Raiders in San Diego. You may recall that game.)
Here's the thing, though: I can name three other cities in which the Buccaneers are undefeated in the regular season. They are:
· Clemson, South Carolina – the Bucs beat the Panthers there in Carolina's inaugural 1995 season before the expansion team moved into its current stadium.
· Champaign, Illinois – the Bucs beat the Bears there in the 2002 regular-season finale as Chicago played its home slate at the University of Illinois while Soldier Field was being renovated.
· Baton Rouge, Louisiana – the Bucs beat the Saints there on the LSU campus after Hurricane Katrina damaged the Louisiana Superdome.
The Bucs aren't likely to go back to any of those places again, so it's possible they could make Vegas their only 2-0 city 2028 (or earlier if they draw the Raiders in that new 17th-game rotation).
As you could probably guess, the city in which the Buccaneers have won the most games outside of Tampa belongs to a division opponent, either an NFC Central team from 1977-2001 or an NFC South team from 2002-20. And since that's 25 years in the Central compared to 19 so far in the South, it's probably going to be one of those four current NFC North teams, right?
Yep. The city in which the Bucs have the most road wins is Detroit, with 15. Now, if you want to split hairs and note that the old Silverdome was actually located in Pontiac, which is a northern Detroit suburb, then the answer changes. The Bucs won 10 games there and have since won five times in Ford Field, which is in downtown Detroit. I think it still counts and that would be my answer, but for the sake of being a completist I'll give you the alternate answer, which is Atlanta.
The Buccaneers have won 12 road games each against Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans. However, as noted earlier, one of those wins over the Panthers was in Clemson and one over the Saints was in Baton Rouge. All 12 road wins against the Falcons came in Atlanta.
The Bucs don't yet have any wins in Buffalo but have only played there twice. They haven't picked up a victory in Houston yet, which includes four tries against the old Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) and two against the current Texans. Tampa Bay is 0-7 on the road against the Jets (with a chance to change that this season) but have beaten the Giants in East Rutherford, New Jersey so that kills that goose egg. And speaking of the Titans they have yet to win on the road in Nashville in four tries.
Could we make a major trade and get Julio Jones?
- @wilzlake78 (via Instagram)
Okay, come on. Last year I had to change my way of thinking a little bit when Jason Licht and company kept defying my initial skepticism and adding guys like Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown. I'm not so quick to dismiss what seem like unlikely moves anymore.
That said, this one makes no sense to me. The Buccaneers are absolutely loaded at wide receiver; it's perhaps the deepest wideout group in the NFL. Why would you need to add another primary target to a team that already has Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Jaelon Darden and Justin Watson. That's not even to mention tight ends Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. There's only one football. And the Buccaneers are already paying very high 2021 salaries to Evans and Godwin, plus decent change for Brown and all three of those tight ends.
Then there's the matter of Jones' $15 million salary and the Buccaneers' very limited cap space at the moment. Yes, the Bucs' cap wizards have demonstrated that there are ways to create more space but they've already done that multiple times this offseason and also still have the matter of signing their top three draft picks. If you were going to bend over backwards and create another $15 million in cap space, would you do it to add another star-caliber player to a position where you already have roughly a bajillion star-caliber players?
Do you think we will see Brady take a single preseason snap or could we see more Gabbert/Trask?
-baseball_kid38 (via Instagram)
And don't forget Ryan Griffin! He's got a pretty strong preseason track record.
This is a good question. We don't have anything to go on since last year's preseason games were cancelled, though it's possible Brady would have played a bit more than usual in the preseason since he was trying to learn a new offense. As we are learning more and more as Brady and Arians talk about it this offseason, that learning process apparently extended well into the season.
We know that Arians takes a collaborative approach with Brady, so I would imagine that in this case the player will have a decent amount of say in the answer to this question. We can go back and see how much Brady participated in his last preseason, with New England in 2019. And it wasn't much. He didn't appear at all in Games One, Two or Four but did start Game Three. In that one, he led three drives, the last of which extended five minutes into the second quarter, and then turned it over to Jarrett Stidham.
There was a time in which you could predict about how long starters at most positions would play in preseason games. Most teams followed the same pattern. The starters would be out there to open Game One but would be pulled very quickly. They would get a little more action in Game Two, possibly playing into the second quarter. And then Game Three would be the main tune-up for the starting lineup, with teams often taking their first group into the third quarter in order to get the feel for the halftime procedure. Game Four became exclusively the province of backups, with starters seeing no action at all to avoid the risk of injury.
I'm wondering if that is going to start to change, the way a lot of things are changing around the NFL right now. Just look at the OTAs the Bucs are running now. Those have always been voluntary but have usually been very well-attended by veterans. Teams would utilize all 10 allotted days for OTA practices and would run them at full speed with plenty of 11-on-11 work. As I noted at the top, this year the OTAs are mostly younger players and there is a high percentage of positional drills and special teams work. Most of the veterans have chosen on their own to stay away from OTAs to this point, but Arians said he wouldn't have the starters in practice even if they were here. And Tampa Bay is using just six of its 10 possible OTAs this year.
Extend this same philosophy to the preseason, which is now just three games long. I'm guessing we're going to see some of the same approach, with more of that time used to evaluate younger players and build the back end of the roster, and less exposure for starters to possible injury. And in the case of the Bucs' quarterback situation this year, you're right, there is probably going to be a lot of motivation to get Kyle Trask on the field. Plus, Gabbert and Griffin could be in a battle for the primary backup job to Brady, which would require some amount of preseason snaps for both, theoretically.
Put all of that together and my guess is that you would see a brief appearance by Brady in either Game Two or Game Three. But it also would not surprise me if he doesn't take a single preseason snap.