Pictures from the Buccaneers' training camp practice on Thursday.
Last season, addressing his players after a rousing win in San Diego, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter paraphrased Theodore Roosevelt's famous line: "Speak softly, and carry a big stick." In the process, he inspired a subset of enthusiastic Buccaneer fans to band together under the name of Stick Carriers. Their "takeover" of a Saturday training camp practice inspired Koetter and the team.
Charles Sims, the Bucs' fourth-year running back, doesn't only speak softly, he barely speaks at all, at least while at work. And so far this training camp, he's definitely carrying a big stick. After a 2016 season that was repeatedly marred by injuries, Sims looks as if he's poised to reprise – or perhaps even improve on – his 2015 performance, when he was a big part of the league's fifth-best rushing attack.
Koetter has noted on several occasions in recent weeks that Sims is having a very strong training camp. Asked on Wednesday as to what specifically Sims was doing well, Koetter essentially complimented the runner's entire game.
"Pretty much everything," said Koetter. "He is hitting the holes hard in the running game, he can play every position in the passing game and he is one of our best protectors. Charles – he doesn't say much, so nobody talks about him but he's as solid as the day is long. He's just a really good football player."
Sims was limited to seven games last fall, recording just 149 yards on 51 carries and 24 receptions for 190 yards. He scored in the season-opening win in Atlanta on a tackle-dodging 23-yard catch-and-run, but only notched one more touchdown all year. However, when better injury fortune allowed him to play in all 16 games in 2015, Sims was a force. He ran for 529 yards, averaged a stellar 4.9 yards per carry and added another 561 yards on 51 receptions. Sims and Atlanta's Devonta Freeman were the only two backs in the NFL to surpass 500 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving that season.
So far in the 2017 preseason, Sims has done well with limited work. He's averaged 5.8 yards on five carries but hasn't yet bet targeted in the passing game. That Sims appears to be back in that 2015 form is doubly important for the Buccaneers because they will be without Doug Martin for the first three games of the season. The running game will likely be some combination of Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers, Peyton Barber and Jeremy McNichols, and if Sims can contribute on all three downs he'll be a major part of that rotation.
Sims pass-catching, pass-protection and open-field running skills have been discussed many times. What has rarely been mentioned is the impact he can make on special teams. That may be an even bigger part of his contribution to the team in 2017.
"He's also doing a really nice job on special teams," said Koetter. "He's playing in the core on special teams, so he is doing the dirty work on special teams because he is such a good blocker."
- If Nick Folk golfs, he probably prefers island greens and par fives with doglegs left. He certainly seems to respond to a higher level of difficulty on the football field.
The Buccaneers included a field goal session in Wednesday's practice, with Folk and Zach Hocker getting five tries each. It was an extremely good day for the two kickers, as they combined to go 10-for-10 in the period, according to the NFL referees stationed under the uprights. Each kicker progressively backed up during his turn, Folk finishing with a 56-yarder and Hocker with a 61-yarder.
Adding to the level of difficulty, at least from a mental standpoint, was that the kickers were aiming at the "skinny posts" that are located on the north end of the field. These uprights are just 8.5 feet apart instead of the standard 18.5. The officials actually stationed themselves at the spot where the normal uprights would be, just inside the hashmarks and were signaling field goals as successful if they were outside the physical posts but inside the normal spot.
As it turned out, that was rarely needed. Hocker's impressive 61-yarder appeared to go directly over the head of the leftmost rep, but most of the other kicks by both players split the actual posts. That was the case on Folk's 56-yarder, as well as a successful 52-yarder that finished up a two-minute drill earlier in practice.
WATCH: THURSDAY'S PRESS CONFERENCES
"He had a good day," said Koetter of Folk. "I joked with him that we were going to move the skinny goal posts over to Raymond James [Stadium] because he has been killing it on those skinnies."
Folk, an 11th-year veteran who made 87.1% of his field goals last year with the Jets, began training camp in a competition with second-year man Roberto Aguayo, but Aguayo was released a day after the preseason opener. The Buccaneers subsequently brought in a second leg in Hocker while saying the release of Aguayo would allow the team to get behind Folk. In two preseason games, Folk has made field goals of 45, 35 and 29 yards and missed a 47-yarder while having his only extra point attempt blocked. He has two more weeks to solidify the job before the start of the regular season, and Wednesday's performance certainly didn't hurt.
- Training camp is over.
In some ways, that's just semantics, in that the roster still stands at 91 players and there is still plenty of basic work to be done before the start of the regular season. The primary change in the daily schedule will be the switch of practice from morning to the afternoon and walk-through from the evening to the morning. By the normal three-week timeline, camp actually ended with the Jacksonville game, but Koetter decided to beat the heat with morning practices for one more week.
Still, it's natural to try to assess training camp as a whole at its official end. And while there have been notably good and notably bad days of practice – a few more of those latter ones this past week, apparently – Koetter's primary takeaway is that the 2017 Buccaneers are a talented squad.
"We probably developed the best depth we've had in the three seasons I've been here," he said. "It's going to be tough [to make cuts] at the end. It's going to be tough because we've got decent depth at several positions."
Tampa Bay's first-team offense has moved the ball well in the first two preseason games but has had some trouble finishing drives with touchdowns. The starting defense has arguably been even more impressive, allowing zero points in roughly three quarters of play. The Bucs' defense also performed particularly well in a goal-line drill on Wednesday morning. Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald believes training camp has allowed the Buccaneers' defense to pull together and play better as a single unit.
WATCH: TRAINING CAMP HIGHLIGHTS
"I think it gives us a toughness, a cohesiveness," he said. "There's a lot of guys out here right now and everybody's going into it with the same attitude of getting each other better and pushing each other, making each other stronger, smarter and more knowledgeable about the game we're going to play."
The Buccaneers' defense turned in a very strong second half to the 2016 campaign and appears to have carried that momentum over to the new season. What the players learned during that 2016 resurgence and a productive offseason is now allowing the defense to dive deeper into Mike Smith's playbook.
"I think [it's] just cohesiveness for the most part, just everybody being on the same page," said McDonald. "Knowing what's expected out of us, first and foremost, allows us to add more or take away and be confident in what we're doing."