Photos of the Buccaneers' complete roster.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers released a depth chart, as required, for the preseason opener. That was about a week into training camp and, other than some players who have come and gone, that depth chart hasn't changed much since.
There's no real urgency to update that document, of course. There's not much pointing in rearranging 90 names on a day-to-day basis when a 37-man cut is right around the corner. And you don't need a depth chart to see that some players are making definite inroads. Rookie Kendell Beckwith is starting at strongside linebacker with Devante Bond injured, and drawing rave reviews. The nickel corner job, not technically but in essence a starting position, is down to Javien Elliott and Robert McClain. Bernard Reedy, Freddie Martino and Josh Huff have all had their moments fighting for the fifth receiver spot.
On the other hand, maybe the Buccaneers' depth chart doesn't need to change very much before the start of the regular season, apart from the purge to 53. Coming off a 9-7 season in 2016 and with serious playoff expectations in 2017, Tampa Bay doesn't have a lot of starting positions that appear to be up for grabs.
That's not what we would have said about the two safety positions a couple months ago. Technically, there was one open spot because Bradley McDougald departed in free agency after starting all 16 games in 2016. However, both Keith Tandy and Chris Conte also started at times last fall, and both returned, with Conte re-signed early in free agency. Both had the advantage of having a year in Mike Smith's defense under their belt. However, they were quickly joined by a significant free agent signing, J.J. Wilcox, and a second-round draft pick, Justin Evans.
That appeared to create a four-man battle for two first-team spots, with three of those four having NFL starting experience and the fourth having a draft pedigree suggesting he was a long-term solution at the spot. That battle is still being waged, to some degree, but Tandy and Conte – now co-starters rather than two players sharing one spot – have done nothing to give up their hold on the top of the depth chart.
That's where they were when camp began, in part due to their incumbent status and in part due to the fact that minor injuries kept the newcomers off the field for most of the offseason. That's where they are now, heading into the preseason game in which starters get to play the longest.
"Well, they're working with the first group and J.J. and Evans are working to catch up," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter, four days before that third preseason tilt against Cleveland. "[Wilcox and Evans] missed all of OTAs. They were already down in experience in Smitty's system and now they've just been working to catch up. We're happy with those guys too, but there's only going to be two starters at safety and right now it would be [Conte and Tandy]."
WATCH: HIGHLIGHTS FROM PRACTICE
There's not too much in the way of game stats yet for the Conte-Tandy safety combination, with only about three quarters of combined play for the starting defense at this point. Conte has three tackles and a pass defensed; Tandy has one stop. But that starting unit has not allowed a point yet and last Thursday held the Jaguars to 59 first-half yards. That suggests the front-line crew is working together well, from the front line back to the safeties.
Conte went into last season as a starter, too. The entire defense struggled significantly in the first eight games in Smith's system before righting itself and playing extremely well in the second half of the season. Conte helped start that second-half run with a handful of game-changing plays, including a pick-six in a win over Chicago and a critical end zone interception in an upset victory at Kansas City. He was then knocked out of the lineup for three games by an injury, during which Tandy made an even greater number of big plays and locked the spot next to McDougald down.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' training camp practice on Tuesday.
Tandy's surge didn't allow Conte to build on his momentum over the final month of the season, but that 2016 learning experience and virtually all of the starting snaps during the offseason and training camp have definitely put him in a comfort zone in 2017.
I don't know if it's different," said Conte of his 2017 camp experience, as compared to a year ago. "It's just maybe more comfortable, being in the system for a year now. That's definitely helpful, having a little bit of a head start, being able to make those mistakes last year and learn from them. Moving forward in this training camp, you know what to look for, you know what some of the weaknesses are in the defense and what you have to be ready for. It's just maybe a larger comfort level.
That's what the Buccaneers have found with the Conte-Tandy pairing, even with two intriguing potential replacements waiting in the wings. The Bucs may have some sub packages that get Wilcox on the field with those two safeties, and Evans, again, is likely part of the long-term plan at the position. For now, though, Conte and Tandy are certainly holding strong in the starting lineup.
"Couldn't be happier with the work that Conte and Tandy are putting into the first safety group," said Koetter. "They're very confident, both those guys are confident, and they're doing a lot of communication in the back end. Their tackling was good in the preseason games. Really happy with those two guys."