Before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers began their offseason program in April, Head Coach Dirk Koetter suggested that four of the five starting jobs on the offensive line had a clear leader.
After impressive rookie seasons, left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet were secure, and former Seattle Seahawk J.R. Sweezy was signed specifically to take over for the retired Logan Mankins at left guard. After missing much of 2015 with a knee injury but looking good in his late-season return to the lineup, Demar Dotson was set to reassume his right tackle position.
That just left center, which had been Joe Hawley's position for the final 14 games of 2015. Hawley, who had worked under Koetter in Atlanta, had been signed just before the start of the season, and he stepped in and played quite well when Evan Smith suffered an ankle injury in a Week Two win at Atlanta.
Smith, a 2014 free agency addition, had started 15 games at center in his first year with the Buccaneers and the first two of 2015 before his injury. He, too, had drawn good reviews for his early work last year but the coaching staff chose to stay with Hawley when Smith was ready to play again. That worked out well for the team when Smith later stepped in to make three starts at right guard while Marpet was hurt in November.
Acknowledging that both veteran players had a legitimate claim to the position, Koetter said in March that the two would compete for the starting job. Since jobs are rarely won or lost (barring injury) during the no-contact practices of the offseason, that competition really began when training camp opened on Thursday. Hawley ran with the first team on Thursday and Friday and Smith got the starter reps over the weekend. This was planned, rather than an indication that one player or another has already risen to the top.
"We're alternating Evan and Joe [Hawley] every couple days," said Koetter. "Just as we said, there's competition there. We want competition like that at every position if we can get it."
Smith, who appeared to turn in several strong reps during a one-on-one pass-rush drill late in Saturday's practice, didn't take it personally when Hawley held onto the center job last fall. He knows the importance of competition in August when the team is trying to put together it's best possible combination.
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"Me and Joe are good friends," said Smith. "We talk a lot, we see a lot of the same stuff. That's just football, man. It's competition. You've got go out here and play, you've got to compete, and at the end of the day you want the best five on the field. We've definitely got a great group of veterans, a great mix of young guys, a lot of guys eager to learn, a lot of guys who know what to do. We're heading in the right direction."
Thanks to the late additions of Hawley and Cherilus last year, and the continued development of 2014 fifth-round pick Kevin Pamphile, the Buccaneers are deeper in experienced veteran lineman than they have been in many years. That was useful last year when the line put together a surprisingly strong season – fifth in rushing yards, tied for fourth in sacks allowed – after a dismal 2014. Donovan Smith was the only lineman to start all 16 games, but the group didn't falter when it had to go to its reserves.
Similarly, the runner-up in the Hawley-Smith battle is likely to be one of the team's most important reserves. That's what Smith proved to be when he helped out at guard last year, and he's willing to do that again if that's how his role eventually shapes up.
"I'm coming into my eighth year in the league and I've kind of done it all since then," he said. "You've got to do what you've got to do. I'm a professional. If they tell me that's where I need to go…if I had to go play tackle, it wouldn't be pretty but I'd go try."
- The battle to fill out the wide receiving corps behind Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson is just as wide open, but with far more than just two competitors. And while various contenders have flashed at times during the first four days of camp, that group is not much closer to sorting itself out.
"Three through eight right now in that receiver group is pretty close," said Koetter. "You take a guy like Kenny Bell, two days ago he looked like the MVP out there and then he disappeared yesterday. DD [Donteea Dye] looked like he didn't belong out here two days ago and was looked better yesterday. Russell Shepard's had his moments, Evan Spencer's had his moments, all those guys have a chance. You even look at Bernard Reedy and Freddie Martino, those are two guys that stuck with us a long time in Atlanta, two veteran players and they know what they're doing. This Jonathan Krause kid has splashed a little bit.
"No doors are closed right now for those receivers. I like our talent there, I like all those young guys. That's what this preseason will be for."
Jackson has nearly 9,000 career receiving yards and Evans has already racked up 2,257 yards through his first two seasons. Those two will start. It's unclear where veteran Louis Murphy fits into Koetter's "three-through-eight" assessments since Murphy remains on the active/PUP list. The other nine wideouts on the roster have combined for 383 NFL receiving yards, most of those put up by Adam Humphries last year in his rookie campaign.
Bell did not contribute to that total because he spent his rookie season on injured reserve. However, he had gathered some buzz during his first training camp and he's had some good moments early this summer. Bell could be the "X-factor" that takes the Bucs' receiver depth from unknown to solid, but he knows that he has a lot of work to do to get there.
"I think it's going to be like that – there are going to be big days, you have great days, and then there are going to be days that you have a rough day and you have to go in and watch film and swallow your pride and get better," said Bell. "There's going to be a lot of days like that throughout this year. That comes with growing as a football player and I've got a lot of that to do. I've got a lot of growing to do. Coming out and having not the best day, making mistakes or dropping the football, but watching the film and improving, coming out here and getting better today, that's what it's about. That's what I'm trying to do and that's what Coach Koetter has us as a team striving to do."
- Kenny Bell could also help his efforts to make the roster by contributing on special teams, perhaps even as a kickoff returner.
Bell was one of three players that Koetter mentioned as candidates for that job on Friday, along with second-year running back Charles Sims and rookie defensive back Ryan Smith. Smith might seem like a dark horse in that competition, but he averaged 28.1 yards on 14 kickoff returns for North Carolina Central last season. Bell has more experience, having returned kickoffs during all four of his seasons at Nebraska, with an average of 25.0 yards on 51 runbacks. Sims logged just four kickoff returns during his collegiate days at Houston and West Virginia.
Koetter has not yet spoken about the punt return job. However, the team had a punting drill on Sunday and three receivers took turns fielding the kicks: Adam Humphries, Bernard Reedy and Jonathan Krause. Krause is the surprise name on that list, as he just joined the Buccaneers as a waiver claim right before the start of camp.