The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 4:25 p.m. kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Chris Godwin. The cat's out of the bag on the Bucs' third-year wideout who might have been a nice fantasy football sleeper if Head Coach Bruce Arians hadn't suggested early in the offseason that Godwin might catch 100 passes this year. The only thing that has limited Godwin's numbers in his first two years has been opportunity, and now he's a starter who, according to Arians again, "might never come off the field." The 2017 third-round pick can play all three receiver spots and is likely to see a lot of action at Z and in the slot. If his breakout season is to come in 2019, it could get off to an early start against a San Francisco defense that, according to the stats compiled by Football Outsiders, ranked 26th in the NFL in defending opponents' number-two receiver last year.
Vernon Hargreaves. This is the fourth season for Tampa Bay's 2016 first-round draft pick, but everything seems to be lining up to make it his first fully satisfying campaign. Hargreaves played nearly every snap on defense in '16 and experienced the usual ups and downs for a rookie. A slow start and a run of injuries then kept him from building on that rookie year in 2017, and last season he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week One. Hargreaves had looked good going into that game a year ago, but he appears to have found a whole new level in 2019. One of the top performers throughout training camp, Hargreaves has totally "bought into" the new defensive system, according to Arians, who said, "It's what he did very well at Florida – press man, bail, some quarters – that he's played before and he's such a bright guy that he sees why we do things, so he can execute it very well."
Alex Cappa. If the Buccaneers open Sunday's game with the first-team offense listed on their depth chart, only one of the 11 players will be making his first NFL start. That would be Cappa, who got the first crack at the open right guard job in the offseason and never let it go. Cappa is big (6-6, 305), strong and plays with a nasty streak. Though he had a couple tough snaps in the Cleveland preseason game, he has made "really good progress" according to Arians, and the job is solidly his. The right guard spot was the weakness on the Bucs' line last year; if Cappa can give the offense a better outcome at that spot, the line as a whole could be ready to dominate with the likes of Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith.
Vita Vea. Vea, the 12th-overall pick in the 2018 draft, saw his rookie season get off to a tough start when he sustained a significant calf injury early in training camp. That kept him out through the first three games of the regular season, and he really didn't round back into form until after midseason. Vea was one of the team's standouts down the stretch, however, so it was doubly disappointing to see him once again suffer an injury before the start of the preseason this summer. It was a knee this time, and it kept him out of all four warmup games, but Vea is back and ready to go for the opener this time, with Arians saying there will be no "pitch count" limiting his playing time. The Buccaneers expect Vea and Ndamukong Suh to be a dominant force up front, particularly against the run.
T.J. Logan. Logan is the newest player on the Bucs' 53-man roster but the team isn't going to wait to put him on the field. After he was claimed off waivers from Arizona on Monday, Logan was immediately given the kickoff return job by Arians, who was the Cardinals' head coach when the former North Carolina back was drafted in 2017. Logan was a very good kickoff return in college and when he got a chance to take on that job for a stretch in Arizona last year he produced good results as well. The Buccaneers have been the NFL's least productive kickoff return team the last two years, so any spark in that phase of the game could make a noticeable difference.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers regular season practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 45.99% third-down conversion rate. That's what the Buccaneers' offense achieved in 2018, setting a new single-season franchise record and ranking third in the NFL. Though preseason stats are quite often not predictive of what will happen when the games start to count, it's still good to see the offense continue to excel in that category in August, with a 41.94% rate that ranked ninth in the league. Hopefully that part of the game remains a strength for the Buccaneers.
· 25.0 sacks. That's how many that Dee Ford and DeForest Buckner had combined in 2018 as both made the Pro Bowl. They weren't teammates last year, but they are now after San Francisco pulled of a big trade for Ford, the former Chief, in the offseason. In addition to those two, the 49ers also have a defensive front loaded with first-rounders Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas. It's a big season-opening challenge for the Buccaneers' offensive line.
· 3 games. That's how many 49ers' starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo played in 2018 before suffering a season-ending knee injury on a scramble. That robbed the young passer of a chance to build on his hot finish to the 2017 campaign, which he finished by leading his team to wins in all five of his starts after coming over in a trade with New England. Garoppolo is back for this year's opener, building optimism in San Francisco back up to January-of-2018 levels and offering the Bucs' new-look defense a nice Week One challenge.
· 88.9% place-kicking success rate. Those are Matt Gay's numbers from the preseason if one combines his five-of-six work on field goals and his three extra points in as many tries. Since NFL extra points are now equivalent to 33-yard field goals, it's not stretching the numbers to combine them as such. The rookie kicker won the competition for the Bucs' job despite veteran Cairo Santos also making all four of his combined kicks. It didn't hurt that Gay was good on tries from 55, 53, and 48 yards, the last one a game-winner.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· Projected defensive starters ILB Lavonte David and NT Vita Vea were full participants in practice on Thursday and Friday and thus are likely to be in the lineup on Sunday against the 49ers. Neither David nor Vea played in any of the four preseason game, so this is as close to full strength as the Buccaneer's defense has been in a while.
· S Justin Evans and QB Blaine Gabbert did not practice this week. The Buccaneers are a little thin at safety without Evans and with rookie Mike Edwards just coming back from his own leg injury. If the need arises, the Bucs could play versatile veteran Deone Bucannon, their top backup at inside linebacker, at safety, his original NFL position. With Gabbert sidelined, Ryan Griffin will be active for a regular-season game for just the 11th time.
· Cam Brate and Antony Auclair were a bit banged up at the end of the preseason (calf injuries for both), and they started the week of practice for Sunday's game as limited participants. However, both tight ends progressed to full participation by Thursday and should be ready to go against the 49ers. With those two and O.J. Howard, the Buccaneers can and almost certainly will run a lot of their offense through two-TE sets.
View photos of the Buccaneers' 53-man roster.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE 49ERS
The 49ers have invested heavily in their defensive front seven, in terms of both draft picks and free agency dollars, but they found their top offensive weapon well down the draft board several years ago. As a result:
Third-year tight end George Kittle is the toughest test for a Bucs' defense that will start at least two rookies in inside linebacker Devin White and safety Mike Edwards, both of whom will likely share some of the Kittle-stopping duties. A fifth-round pick out of Iowa, Kittle had a fine 515-yard season as a rookie in 2017, then exploded in the stratosphere of the NFL's elite at his position last year, setting a single-season NFL record for tight ends with 1,377 yards. He was targeted 136 times by Niner quarterbacks last season; no other player on the team had even half as many, and that might not change significantly in 2019, given the relatively unproven nature of San Francisco's wideouts. Arians said this week that it's "going to take more than one set of eyes to shut [Kittle] down."
We noted above the 49ers' collection of first-round picks on the defensive line. The Niners needed a new playmaker to slot in behind all of those big men up front after releasing linebacker Reuben Foster. They found their man in Tampa, signing away linebacker Kwon Alexander to a very lucrative deal. If Buckner, Ford and the rest are as hard to handle as they appear to be on paper, Alexander and middle linebacker Fred Warner should be free to roam the field and make plays from sideline to sideline. That's Alexander's strength, of course, as his speed and instincts give him the range to get involved in everything. Like the 49ers, the Buccaneers have very dangerous talent at the tight end spot, but Alexander will be one of San Francisco's key weapons against that.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On if he has to adjust his offensive approach when facing a team with a very talented defensive line, perhaps by keeping in extra blockers more often:
"No, I learned when I was in Cleveland, going against Kevin Carter and Jevon Kearse and that crew – if you kept them all in to help, nobody was open. There wasn't anybody to throw the damn ball to. [I decided to] get them out – the next time we played them, we were four-wides, empty and we beat them. The quarterback got hit, but we beat them."