This summer, there will be a lot more eyes on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they conduct training camp at the AdventHealth Training Center. And there will be quite a bit to see.
A year ago, the Buccaneers practiced in seclusion at their AHTC headquarters thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time in 45 seasons, no outsiders were allowed to attend training camp practices, temporarily breaking a tradition held dear by both the team and its fans. Fortunately, the fans will be back this summer as 16 camp practices will be open to season pass members and other special groups.
The first practice is on Sunday, July 25, less than a week away, and the star attraction will surely be Tom Brady, working out in front of fans for the first time since joining the team. Linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David headline a defense that was firing on all cylinders to end the 2020 championship season and has its sights set on the league's top spot in 2021.
The Bucs are obviously loaded with stars on both sides of the ball after winning the Super Bowl and then retaining virtually every starter and key contributor from that 2020 roster. Shaquil Barrett, Carlton Davis, Ndamukong Suh, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski, just to name a few. Fans attending camp practices will have plenty of favorites on which to focus on when the Bucs take the field.
That's just a handful out of 90 players, though. In addition to the obvious headliners, here are six Buccaneers – three each on offense and defense but in no particular order – that merit specific attention as the team gets down to the work of preparing for a title defense:
1. RB Ronald Jones II
Judging by average draft position so far, the fantasy football cognoscenti have decided that Leonard Fournette has passed Jones in the Bucs' backfield pecking order. Given that neither Buccaneer runner breaks the top 25 on that list, there's also a strong belief that this is going to be a fantasy-destroying timeshare in Tampa.
Is either assumption correct when it comes to real live football? Well, the first one is not, at least not at this moment, if the man in charge of that backfield is to be believed. During the Buccaneers' mini-camp in June, Head Coach Bruce Arians said he sees both Jones and Fournette as starters, which would indicate an equal footing heading into training camp and make that second assumption much closer to reality.
The picture certainly could be different coming out of training camp in about a month. As much as it seems logical to expect the Buccaneers to utilize Jones and Fournette in relatively equal amounts from week to week, that didn't happen much last year. In fact, only twice in 20 games last year did both backs reach 50 yards from scrimmage in the same game. Of course, it's worth noting that those two games were both in the playoffs (including Super Bowl LV), so maybe the Buccaneers figured it out at the end and that will carry over into 2021.
Fournette's postseason exploits are understandably fresh in the minds of fans and analysts, and probably the Bucs' coaches, too. But those same coaches spent the offseason reviewing all 20 games worth of tape and would have been reminded that Jones was the team's lead back, and an effective one, for almost the entire regular season. If not for a pair of injuries and a stint on the COVID list, Jones would surely have topped 1,000 rushing yards in 2020; either way, his third year was better than his second, which in turn was far better than his first. Jones may still be a player on the rise, and he's heading into a contract year. Will he once again get the lion's share of the touches in the 2021 regular season? His training camp performance could be a good indicator.
2. DT Vita Vea
Like Jones, Vea is a product of the Buccaneers' 2018 draft who appears to be on a steady upward trajectory in his career. He appeared to be making the leap into NFL stardom early last season before he was felled by a severe ankle injury. And when he made a surprise return from injured reserve to play in the final two postseason games, teammates raved about the impact he made in revving up the team's pass rush. Tampa Bay's defense collected eight sacks, nine quarterback hits and dozens of hurries in those two games, and though none of those sacks went to Vea his enormous presence created golden opportunities for other pass-rushers.
About five days into training camp, the Buccaneers will put on the pads and start hitting each other for the first time since last season. This will be most noticeable in the trenches, where non-contact practices provide little real gristle for evaluating players on both sides of the ball. When Vea is allowed to actively try to move his offensive line teammates, his practice-field performance will surely become much more entertaining.
Also like Jones, Vea is entering his fourth season but in his case it's not a contract year because he was a first-round pick and the Buccaneers have already picked up his fifth-year option for 2022. Still, as the franchise prepares for the future, Vea will surely be a priority in terms of keeping core players around for the long term. If he is as effective in 2021 as he was at the beginning and end of 2020, that will be an even easier decision.
As described above, Vea can make a big difference in the Bucs' pass rush without personally collecting a high number of sacks. Still, there could be bigger sack numbers in Vea's immediate future. He had 3.0 sacks in 13 games as a rookie, and then 2.5 in a full season in 2019, while tripling his quarterback hit number to 12. Before his injury five games into last year, he already had 2.0 sacks and may have been unlocking his pass rush potential.
3. TE O.J. Howard
Vea was one of only two players on the Buccaneers' opening-day roster to spend more than half of the 2020 season on injured reserve. The other was Howard, who went down a week before Vea's injury with a torn Achilles tendon. Also like Vea, Howard was off to a fine start in 2020 before he was sidelined. The Buccaneers had added Rob Gronkowski over the summer, but at the time of Howard's injury he led all Buccaneer tight ends in receptions, yards and touchdowns.
Again like Vea, Howard was a first-round draft pick who had his fifth-year option picked up by the Buccaneers between his third and fourth campaigns. Tampa Bay did so in the spring of 2020 despite Howard's bad luck with injuries, which had also caused him to miss games in each of his first three seasons. After the Bucs' trade for Gronkowski, Howard was the subject of frequent trade rumors (from sources outside the AdventHealth Training Center) but the Buccaneers' coaching staff had plans for him in 2020. The same is true heading into the final year of his original contract and, with some better health fortune, the results could be big in 2021.
Howard is undeniably a gifted athlete and his size-speed combination makes him a potential mismatch for defenders on any given play. He has the ability to make big plays down the seam and stretch the middle of the defense, as evidenced by his career average of 15.3 yards per catch. That's the highest average by any tight end with at least 30 catches over the past four seasons (Gronkowski is second on the list at 14.8).
Howard was on the field for almost exactly half of the Bucs' offensive plays in 2020 before he was injured. Even with a loaded corps of wideouts, Arians made great use of two-TE sets with Gronkowski and Howard. While Cameron Brate eventually carved out a similar role, it was clear when all three were healthy that the Bucs wanted to get Howard on the field as much as possible. It will be interesting to see if that is still a priority when training camp begins this coming weekend.
4. CB Sean Murphy-Bunting
Devin White, the Buccaneers' first pick in the 2019 draft, rounded into a full-fledged star in 2020, particularly when his impactful postseason is included. Sean Murphy-Bunting, the Bucs' second pick in that '19 draft, also had a huge postseason and could be the next member of that class to make a big leap forward.
Murphy-Bunting's play throughout his second NFL season was inconsistent by his own admission and he and fellow 2019 draftee Jamel Dean switched roles on several occasions depending upon which one was playing at a higher level at the time. When the games mattered the most, however, Murphy-Bunting settled into a groove and started producing big plays. In fact, he was the first Buccaneer ever to intercept a pass in three straight playoff games, producing key turnovers in wins over Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay. His pick just before halftime in the NFC Championship Game, which set up Scotty Miller's shocking last-second touchdown catch, was one of the single biggest plays for the Bucs in the playoffs.
Murphy-Bunting is confident, which is crucial for cornerbacks, and he clearly expects to keep making big plays in the Bucs' secondary in 2021. He had three interceptions and eight passes defensed as a rookie in 2019, playing particularly well down the stretch. Before his big playoff outburst, Murphy-Bunting had recorded just one interception and three passes defensed in the regular season. He is likely to up those numbers in 2021, especially if he can carry over his 2020 playoff momentum. Look for him to announce his intentions with some big plays in training camp.
5. WR Tyler Johnson
Unlike the other five players on this list, Johnson doesn't have an obvious path to significant playing time. Of course, that means he has a lot more room to improve his standing over the next month, potentially.
A fifth-round pick in 2020, Johnson was only targeted 17 times as a rookie, finishing with 12 catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns. That output was neither disappointing nor surprising given that Tom Brady also had Evans, Godwin, Gronkowski, Brate, Antonio Brown and Scotty Miller to throw to, among others. It was never going to be easy for Johnson to get playing time in his rookie season, and he may face the same issue in his second season, as all of those other pass-catchers are still around and the team even added receiver Jaelon Darden in this year's draft.
But Johnson did good work with his limited opportunities, with a series of big plays, including touchdowns in back-to-back wins over the Packers and Raiders and a dazzling third-down catch in the playoffs at New Orleans. He was also Brady's target on the pass that drew a drive-preserving pass interference call late in the NFC Championship Game.
Godwin is playing the 2021 season on the franchise tag, which is a one-year deal. Brown is also playing on a one-year contract after re-signing in the spring. Obviously, the Buccaneers would like to keep Godwin around long-term and they've enjoyed the experience of having Brown on the roster. Still, the Bucs may eventually need replacements for big roles in the receiving corps and Johnson is an intriguing option. The second-year receiver out of Minnesota was injured for most of his rookie training camp but is healthy heading into this year's program. If he has a strong enough camp, could he carve out a bigger role sooner rather than later?
6. OLB Joe Tryon
We had to include at least one rookie on this list and Tryon, the last pick of the first round this past April, is the obvious choice. Second-round quarterback Kyle Trask will certainly draw a lot of attention as the Buccaneers begin the task of determining whether the former Florida star can be a long-term answer at the position. However, Trask is not being counted on to fill a big role in 2021; the same is not true of Tryon.
The Buccaneers had one of the NFL's best edge-rushing duos last year in Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul but they were not deep at the position beyond those starters. Third-year man Anthony Nelson could be the third man in the rotation again, as he was for most of 2020, but Tryon will likely press him for that job. Even with Barrett and Pierre-Paul still leading the way in 2021, there is room for the rookie out of Washington to create a big role for himself this fall.
Tryon impressed Arians with his raw edge-rushing skills during the team's mini-camp in June but there is a big difference between practicing in shorts and putting on the pads. If Tryon can look as "slippery" as he did in those June practices when he's going full speed against Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith, that would be a good sign that he is ready to be in the edge rush rotation right from the beginning of the season. In fact, Wirfs vs. Tryon, a battle of the team's last two first-round picks, could be one of the best one-on-one competitions to watch in this year's camp.