Tampa Bay Buccaneer players report for training camp next week, and on July 30 they will hold their first open-to-the-public practice. Over the three weeks or so that follows, plus the overlapping month of preseason games, Buccaneer fans will have an opportunity to watch the 2016 team take shape right before their eyes.
Like any team about to enter its most formative time of the year, the Buccaneers have some questions to answer before they can field the optimal 53-man roster on opening day. There are also issues of starting positions, strategy and health to be resolved.
We won't get every answer during training camp, of course; even some of the most important ones won't be clear until the games begin. Jameis Winston's second-year development, for instance, is critical to the Bucs' hopes in 2016, and August might offer some clues as to how that is going, but the real evidence won't arrive until the regular season. Buc fans may also wonder how the team's raft of tight ends is going to be used, particularly with the addition of versatile rookie Dan Vitale, but Dirk Koetter likely won't tip his hand on such strategic issues until the games matter.
So let's focus on five things about this current Buccaneer squad that we expect to become significantly more clear during training camp and the preseason. We'll tackle one burning question a day in this final week before the much-anticipated return of football
1. Who will be Mike Evans' running mates?
One part of this answer is already clear, of course: Vincent Jackson is almost sure to start opposite Evans, the Bucs' 22-year-old rising star at wide receiver. Jackson long ago established himself as one of the NFL's most consistently productive wide receivers, and his addition in 2012 ranks as one of the very best free agent signings the franchise has ever made. The fact that Jackson, who has cracked 1,000 receiving yards six of the last eight seasons, is even making it to the final year of a big five-year contract is evidence enough of that last point.
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The two years since 2008 in which Jackson did not hit 1,000 yards, 2010 in San Diego and last year with the Bucs, were both marred by injuries. Jackson missed six games and parts of several others in 2015 thanks to separate knee injuries, both of which involved taking fluky hits right on the leg. As a result, he was limited to his lowest totals since becoming a Buccaneer: 33 catches for 453 yards and three touchdowns. Thus, even though Jackson ranks as one of the surest elements of the Bucs' otherwise muddled picture at receiver, there is still the matter of his returning from injury for a 12th season at the age of 33.
Take a look at some of the best photos of the Buccaneers' offense from the 2015 season.
In this regard, the Buccaneers are very optimistic. Jackson, in the vein of a Ronde Barber, is a master at preparing himself physically for the rigors of the NFL, allowing him to remain productive into his mid-'30s. Though his counting numbers were depressed by missed playing time last year, his rates showed no sign of decline. Compare his yards-per-catch of 16.5 and his touchdowns-per-reception of 9.1% to his overall career numbers of 17.0 and 10.9%.
After Jackson, the answers become increasingly less obvious. Another veteran receiver, Louis Murphy, is also returning from a 2015 injury, and he was unable to take part in the offseason workouts while rehabbing his repaired ACL. Murphy is expected to be ready for the start of training camp, and in his two previous seasons he has filled in quite well when Jackson or Evans was unavailable. Still, he necessarily is a little bit behind some of his fellow Buc receivers when it comes to competing for the slot receiver job and the other two or three spots available on the depth chart.
Competition for that slot job, in particular, should be one of the most entertaining aspects of this year's training camp. Murphy has played the position at times in his NFL career, most notably in Carolina in 2012, and at 6-2 and 200 pounds he's the biggest option for that role. That could be an advantage in some packages; on the other hand, the team may specifically be looking for a smaller, shiftier type of pass-catcher for much of its slot work.
Adam Humphries turned in an impressive offseason and seems like a top competitor for the slot job after playing extensively in that role as an undrafted rookie a year ago. Koetter also mentioned that first-year man Bernard "Speedy" Reedy, a player he crossed paths with in Atlanta, is also perfectly suited for work in the slot. Donteea Dye, also an undrafted player who saw significant playing time last year, didn't fill the slot role as much but could be a fit there, as well. As is the case with Humphries, Dye's unexpected opportunity to play last year gives him an advantage in experience and knowledge of Koetter's offense as camp begins.
Perhaps the most interesting question regarding the Bucs' current group of receivers, and the most difficult for which to predict an answer, is what role might develop for second-year man Kenny Bell. The Bucs felt like they got a steal when they nabbed the former Nebraska star in the fifth round in 2015, and Bell was impressive in the early going of his first NFL offseason. However, a hamstring injury in August sidelined him for the season and helped open the door for the likes of Humphries and Dye.
Bell is healthy entering training camp and once again has opened eyes on the practice field during the offseason. While his injury put him behind in terms of on-field experience – and that is obviously significant – he did stay thoroughly embedded with the team and the receiving corps last year, mentally soaking in the offense. He could be used on the outside as a deep threat and he might also figure into the equation in the slot.
The Bucs liked enough of Evan Spencer, a sixth-round draft pick by Washington in 2015, to promote him from the practice squad to the active roster at the end of his rookie year. With Spencer, Andre Davis and Freddie Martino all hoping to make dark horse runs at the 53-man roster, another important question regarding the receiving corps is how many will be kept? One common configuration for that group is five players on the active roster, four of whom are kept active on game days, and another one or two on the practice squad. However, the number sometimes expands to six if there are enough talented wideouts the team wants to protect from the waiver wire. Add to that equation the continued presence of Russell Shepard, who has made the team three years in a row thanks largely to his special teams prowess, and is a strong bet to do it again in 2016.
Mike Evans has already joined Randy Moss as the only two players in league history to record a pair of 1,000-yard receiving seasons before turning 23. There are plenty who believe that Evans is poised to leap into the level of the NFL's truly elite. At the very least, he seems certain to be the centerpiece of Jameis Winston's passing attack. How the rest of the Buccaneers' receiving corps unfolds around him, however, is one of the most pressing questions waiting to be answered during training camp and the preseason.