The entire nation is facing new and unprecedented challenges, some of them far more important than sports. The NFL is no exception. In fact, merely getting training camp – and by extension, the season – started is proving to be a challenge, albeit one that is being gradually overcome.
Once training camps kick into gear and players get onto the field for the first practices of 2020, there will be many individual tests. Many players will be fighting for roster spots and potential starting jobs. Some will have to overcome more than others to reach their goals. And that's what Staff Writer Carmen Vitale and I will be discussing today in our latest Training Camp Burning Question.
Carmen and I are working our way through a total of 10 questions, counting down to when the players are once again on the fields behidn the AdventHealth Training Center. Here's the schedule for those questions:
Friday, July 24: Which player on the camp roster faces the toughest challenge over the next couple months?
Monday, July: 27: Which unit will get off to the fastest start in camp?
Tuesday, July 28: Other than Tom Brady, whose absence for an extended period would be the toughest for the Buccaneers to overcome?
Wednesday, July 29: Who do you think is most likely to fit into that third receiver role?
Thursday, July 30: How do you see the offensive backfield shaping up?
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: Which player on the camp roster faces the toughest challenge over the next couple months?
There are plenty of possible answers here. If undrafted rookie quarterback Reid Sinnett is going to become part of the team's available quarterback pool – with a spot either on the active roster or an expanded practice squad – he'll have to absorb the playbook quickly while also proving he has NFL-level talent. I argued on Thursday that rookie tackle Tristan Wirfs, while wildly athletic and as pro-ready as he can be, plays a position at which it is traditionally difficult to transition to the NFL. And the Bucs are going to ask a lot of him. Heck, even Rob Gronkowski, who certainly knows how to dominate at the NFL level, has to get back into the game after taking a season off.
Really, any rookie is a good answer here, and the undrafted guys are unfortunately going to find it harder to get a foot in the door this year. Specifically, I'll go with one of the draft picks, second-round safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. Why? Well, Todd Bowles has found most of a lineup that he likes and that unit jelled into one of the league's best defenses by the end of last season. Now Bowles wants to take that group and push them to another level, asking them to not only understand his defense but to get much better at understanding what opposing offenses are trying to do to them. Basically, the train got moving last year and now Bowles is stoking the engine to pick up the speed. If Winfield wins a starting job and doesn't want to slow everyone down, he's going to have to jump on that train as it's moving.
As for actually winning that job, it's what a lot of people are expecting but he's probably the one member of the Bucs' 2020 draft class who faces the biggest challenge in that regard. Wirfs still has to earn his spot but he is almost surely Plan A. Vaughn doesn't really have to start in order to make an impact in the backfield and he can share time with other backs. Tyler Johnson is in the mix for the third-receiver job but it's hard to see a clear front-runner in that group. Khalil Davis, Chapelle Russell and Raymond Calais are not likely going to be asked to step into starting roles immediately.
Meanwhile, Winfield will be fighting for one of two starting spots in a crowded field of candidates, all of whom the team has a reason to believe could excel. There is the basic incumbent duo of Jordan Whitehead and Andrew Adams. There is 2019 third-round pick Mike Edwards. There is D'Cota Dixon, an undrafted rookie from 2019 that the coaching staff clearly likes quite a bit. And there's Justin Evans, who looked like he might be a long-term answer on the defense before spending the last year-and-a-half fighting foot injuries. Winfield may very well be the piece that pushes that defense to another level, but he's going to have to work awfully hard to get there.
Winfield was the first player to pop into my mind for many of the same reasons. He'll have to stand out in a crowded room of safety prospects while hopping on that train you mentioned later than the rest. That's no easy task.
I'm keeping with that line of thinking in my choice now as well. You know another room that's super crowded? The tight end room. You want to know a really good player who is going to have to stand out among that group to stay on the roster? Tanner Hudson.
Watching Hudson in training camp last year and especially the connection he forged in the preseason with quarterback Ryan Griffin was a treat. Hudson has extremely fluid hands and is quietly one of the best pass-catchers in that room. But the Bucs have an embarrassment of riches in tight ends that can catch. For that reason, I think the more valuable skill will be how well these guys can block. New Buccaneer Rob Gronkowski is the best of both worlds. He's an incredible receiver and a force to be reckoned with when aiding the line. Tight end Antony Auclair has been the Bucs' primary blocking tight end prior to Gronk's arrival and so Hudson hasn't had a chance to truly develop that skill quite yet. Of course, Hudson could still prove himself in camp. He would have definitely been a guy to benefit from the extra work this offseason that didn't occur, which adds to this challenge. The Bucs could also choose to keep five tight ends, though that seems greedy. Plus, given the talent Hudson is surrounded by and the overall lack of good tight end talent across the league, I have to think he would have no problem getting work elsewhere. But we'll see if he can stand out on his current team first.