A second day of heavy rain forced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to hold another training camp practice inside their indoor facility on Tuesday, but that might have been a blessing in disguise.
The big advantage to practicing indoors is obvious: It's a controlled and far more enjoyable climate. It's a refuge from lightning and slippery fields, as it has functioned the last two days, and it can also provide a break from the stifling heat and humidity of a Tampa summer. The mild disadvantage is that it creates a couple hours of running around on artificial turf, which can be a bit harder on veteran legs. For that reason, for example, Head Coach Bruce Arians gave 10th-year linebacker Lavonte David a second and previously-unscheduled 'vet day' off on Tuesday.
But Arians had already contemplated moving the ninth practice of camp indoors before the two days of rain, and he devised the perfect way to take advantage of it: Let most of the running be done by young legs.
"Today was a young player development day," he said. "There's just so many fringe guys and you don't know what they can really do, so you put them in some pressure situations. Not always is there a pressure situation in a preseason game. You may be down 20, you may be up 20 and it's not the same. [We do it] to see how they react.
"We monitored some [veteran] guys reps on the turf today that were actually practicing. The emphasis was on a lot of young guys today anyway."
The Buccaneers still have three weeks until the first round of cuts, which will reduce the camp roster from 90 to 80 players on August 24. The defending Super Bowl champions have a lot of depth through which to sort, and even if there aren't a lot of obvious jobs up for competition there will also be up to 16 practice squad spots to fill. Those decisions can become important down the road when depth is tested at one position.
There is particularly a lot of depth in Bucs camp at the wide receiver position. Every player who caught a pass for the Buccaneers in 2020 – Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Justin Watson and Jaydon Mickens – is back in 2021. That's seven returning incumbents, though Watson is currently on the active/PUP list and hasn't practiced yet in camp.
That's quite a roadblock for young players, but the Buccaneers are pleased with the second half of their receiver depth too. Those roster hopefuls got more action than usual on Tuesday morning and took advantage of it. Rookie Jaelon Darden made a dazzling diving catch down the middle of the field, for instance, and first-year man Josh Pearson finished one move-the-ball drive with a long touchdown off a pass from Ryan Griffin.
Arians mentioned some other receivers who have done well in recent days, including Mickens, first-year player Travis Jonsen, who is a converted quarterback, and Cyril Grayson.
"I like where Jaelon is," said Arians. "I think Jaelon is making good progress – a young guy. Travis Jonsen is getting open, getting open. He had some drops early in [camp] practice but he's starting to catch those now. You know, he hasn't played receiver that long; he's a big, active guy. Mick has good flexibility. Grayson was having a great camp and he tweaked his hamstring. All those guys are very, very capable. They all played for us. You're going to need six or seven as the year goes on. Hopefully we'll have those guys on the practice squad, potentially, and have time to develop them."
The emphasis on young players Tuesday was a continuation of what the team did with its offseason program. Arians was not bothered by most of team's veterans staying away from the voluntary part of that program (which was most of it) but he did think the time was important for rookies and young newcomers. As such, he feels the length of training camp as it stands now and the adjustment to three preseason games instead of four works out just fine in terms of giving the team time to get ready for Opening Night.
"I think this is really good," said Arians. "I think preseason games and what we're doing right now…guys that don't come in in shape it's their own fault anymore. I mean, they've got everything handed to them to be in shape. So if their 'give-a-[care]' meter don't run hot enough that's telling you something as a coach. I love what we did in the spring with our veterans and gave all our attention to our younger players. Because we have to have young player development [and] it has to come in the spring."
* Arians described the training camp performance of kicker Ryan Succop as uneven on Tuesday but is confident the proven veteran will be back in 2020 form by the time it matters. The Buccaneers had a field goal period in Tuesday's practice and also finished several move-the-ball drills with kicks, so Succop saw plenty of action as he tries to smooth out his form.
"He's, again, a 13-year vet," said Arians. "He doesn't need any [extra work]. But he's been up-and-down, to put it mildly. But we've got all the confidence he's going to figure it out real quick and get his timing back down and speed his operation up just like he did last year. He's in really good shape, best shape he said he feels in the last four or five years. So I don't have any questions about [that] he'll get it ironed out."
Succop was the long-awaited answer to a question that had lingered for most of the past decade, with the Bucs cycling through one option after another trying to find a reliable kicker. Infamously, Succop was the ninth different opening-day kicker for the team in the past nine seasons, a stretch that included two draft picks used on the position. He promptly made 37 of 40 field goals, including a perfect nine-for-nine in the playoffs, and notably never missed from inside 40 yards. Those are the 'gimme' kicks that Arians wanted to have utter confidence would be hit every time.
The Buccaneers do have another kicker in camp in undrafted rookie Jose Borregales. Arians tends to only use one of the two kickers in any given practice, alternating them from day to day. Succop's lengthy track record makes him the obvious favorite to be the Bucs' kicker in 2021; other than an injury-plagued 2019 season in Tennessee that saw him miss five of six field goal tries, he has a career success rate of 84.3%.
* The Buccaneers drafted a potential quarterback of the future in April when they used their second-round pick on Florida's Kyle Trask. But if the Bucs end up needing a quarterback of the very near future, they already have someone on hand they trust.
Tom Brady started all 20 games in his Tampa Bay debut season and only sat out 49 out of a possible 1,352 offensive snaps, including the playoffs. Most of those came in the second half of a massive rout of the Lions in Week 16. Brady then signed a contract extension with the Bucs that now takes him through the 2022 season, so presumably he's got the job for at least two more years. And he's been incredibly durable throughout his lengthy career, only missing time due to injury in one of his 21 seasons, as a knee injury cost him most of the 2008 campaign.
The Bucs obviously hope that trend continues this season, and if it does they won't have to worry about the competence of their number-two quarterback. But if for some reason that does become a need the team expects to continue winning with Blaine Gabbert at the helm. Gabbert got a lot of extra reps on Tuesday morning as Brady was given the day off in honor of his 44th birthday.
"My confidence [in Gabbert] is off the charts," said Arians. "I know how good Blaine is. I mean, he was on fire today. He knows where the ball should go, when it should go there; he can make every throw. Now sometimes he's got so much talent he tries to fit one in a little tiny window. But that's usually at practice to see if he can get it in there. He's got 'wow-you' talent and he knows this offense inside out, so I have all the confidence in the world."
The 10th-overall pick by Jacksonville in the 2011 draft, Gabbert has played in 60 career regular-season games with 48 starts. Five of those starts came with Arians' Arizona Cardinals in 2016, and then Arians and Gabbert reunited in Tampa when the latter was signed as a free agent in 2019. Though Gabbert lost most of that first year with the Bucs to a shoulder injury, he has still had plenty of time to reinforce what he had already learned about Arians' offense in Arizona.
Operating the first-team offense in practice on Tuesday, Gabbert threw his first pass in a seven-on-seven drill deep down the seam to Chris Godwin for a big gain. Godwin would expect the same sort of success in a regular-season game if Gabbert is called upon.
"Blaine's a great athlete and he's a great guy, and he throws a really good ball," said Godwin. "I think in terms of what he brings to our team, the possibilities are endless just because of what he can do. If that ever pops up for us, I'm more than confident in his ability to come in and execute."