Training camp is the time of year where you see starters on starters from the same team battle it out against each other as they prep for the season. This year, while the offensive system may not be different, the guy under center is. Tom Brady will be calling the shots for the Buccaneer offense, deploying weapons like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and his old pal, Rob Gronkowski.
That's sure to look a little different for the Buccaneer defense as they attempt to thwart Brady's attacks day in and day out. And while continuity is the name of the game on that side of the ball after Tampa Bay was able to retain the entirety of their starting front seven, it's still all new to Brady. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles has devised a system that thrives on confusion and disguise. The defense could show the same look three times and execute a different play each time. Reading it, even for one of the best readers of defenses the league has ever seen, is sure to still be a challenge.
That's why there are bound to be mistakes no matter who is under center during this trial-and-error period. Brady will be no exception. But now the question is, who becomes the first to intercept their new offensive leader?
This is the eighth part of our 10-part Camp Countdown, where we are answering some 'burning questions' ahead of the start to this unorthodox training camp. You can find the questions we've already covered below.
Friday, July 31: Who will be the first player to intercept Tom Brady in practice?
Monday, August 3: Which player on the roster will make the biggest leap from 2019 to 2020?
Tuesday, August 4: Who 'wins' training camp? Offense or defense?
Today's Question: Who will be the first player to intercept Tom Brady in practice?
Let's give it to the guy who led all rookies in interceptions last season: Sean Murphy-Bunting. I know he wants it. Well, I know a lot of guys want it. But Murphy-Bunting may be in the best position to get it. As the starting nickel corner, which the Bucs deploy a lot, he may be assigned to guys like Godwin and Gronk in coverage. Brady is likely to utilize those guys *checks notes* quite a bit.
The game is also becoming clearer for Murphy-Bunting, who is entering his second season. He has experience now both at outside corner, where he starts in the Bucs' base package, and that inside slot spot when the Bucs are in nickel. Once he worked out how to handle the two positions, which are drastically different at the NFL level, Murphy-Bunting started to thrive. I think it needs to be noted that there was a learning curve there given that Murphy-Bunting had never played nickel before. Talk about learning on the fly, right? It was consistent with the defense's curve at the onset of last season – its first under the current staff.
If you'll indulge me in some context, the Bucs young secondary took some time to get going, but it also coincided with an increasingly effective pass rush coming from the front seven. Consider that the Bucs had the most sacks of any team from weeks 9-17. That pressure on opposing offenses helped take pressure off the secondary, which helped them make plays of their own. Tampa Bay broke up the most passes of any team in that same span, while rookie Jamel Dean led all players in passes defensed during those weeks. Murphy-Bunting was fifth among rookies in the category during that time and then ended the year with the most interceptions of any first year. Though he didn't have an offseason program to further hone those skills, he should hopefully be able to mostly pick up where he left off as training camp kicks off.
And what better way to start than picking off a GOAT?
Well, this one is essentially a guessing game, so I'm not feeling much pressure. I sat here for a while trying to see if there was any logic that could lead me to a high-percentage prediction but didn't really come up with anything. So I'm going to take a wild guess and then try to reverse-engineer the logic back to the start
That wild guess is second-year inside linebacker Devin White.
First of all, yes linebackers make interceptions in camp practice on a relatively frequent basis. Those are some of the most fun to watch, actually, because they often make their picks in a position to take it all the way back in the other direction. When a corner or safety picks off a pass on a deep ball that's usually about the end of that particular rep.
So, why a linebacker, Scott? Well, what have we been talking about all offseason about the positions that may get a boost from the arrival of Tom Brady? That would be tight end and running back. Tight end because the Buccaneers added Rob Gronkowski to an already strong room and he obviously has a strong preexisting bond with Brady. And running back because Brady has a history of getting the backfield involved in the passing game, especially in recent years. I'm thinking this year's camp might feature a few more short throws to the running backs and more passes overall to the tight ends, which means more opportunities for Tampa Bay's linebackers to make plays.
Carmen mentions the pass rush that helped the Bucs' defensive backs turn the corner last year. Well, in a training camp practice, pass rushers always peel off the quarterback at the last second. Don't hit the men in the orange jerseys – that's one of the most important rules of camp, and breaking it is going to get any defender an earful. For that reason, there really aren't that many hurried throws in a camp practice. You're more likely to have a coach whistle the play dead due to a non-contact "sack" than have an errant throw caused by real pressure. In contrast, underneath interceptions by linebackers often come on plays on which they sniff out where the pass is headed and jump the route. That is a matter of deception, quickness and speed, not rushed throws.
And then why Devin White in particular? Well, I easily could have gone with Lavonte David, of course. White had just one interception as a rookie in 2019; David once had a five-pick campaign. The tiebreaker for me here is motivation and emotion. Both White and David will be motivated to practice as well as possible, but I could see White getting more amped up at the thought of picking off the G.O.A.T. He might even make it a goal. David has already seen it all over eight previous training camps.
For White to take another step towards joining the NFL's elite off-ball linebackers in his second year, he'll probably need to make more splash plays, and interceptions are definitely that. Being the first to intercept Tom Brady in a Buccaneer practice would be a nice way to set the tone for that season full of big plays.