1. Will Donovan Smith's streak continue, and if not, how will the Bucs arrange their offensive line?
The Buccaneers drafted Penn State's Donovan Smith with the 34th overall pick in 2015 and since then no other player has started a game at left tackle for the team. In fact, Smith has missed only 30 offensive snaps in his first three seasons combined. He has already joined Buccaneers Ring of Honor member and fellow left tackle stalwart Paul Gruber as the only players in franchise history to start every game in their first three years. Gruber extended his streak for five years (and in fact didn't miss one of a possible 4,850 offensive snaps in that period), and Smith surely wants to continue on that same path.
"That's impressive and guys when they get streaks like that going, they become important," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter earlier this week. "When I was in Atlanta, I think Roddy White had something like 109-110 games in a row going and he had a high ankle sprain coming out of preseason. He would've done just about anything to play. It's important to those guys. They take it personal, and I know Donovan feels that way as well."
Hopefully by game time on Sunday this will be a moot point and Smith will be ready to start his 49th straight contest. He did practice fully on Friday and in a limited fashion the previous two days after missing two weeks with a knee injury. However, Smith was still listed as questionable on the Buccaneers' official injury report on Friday, so the possibility exists that he will see his streak come to an end.
If it does, what new answer will the Bucs come up with for the left tackle position for the first time since 2014? The least disruptive choice to the line as a whole would be to start Leonard Wester or Mike Liedtke in Smith's spot and leave the other four spots unchanged. Wester was the team's third "swing" tackle at the end of last season and was the leading candidate for that job again this year before his own knee injury took him out for much of training camp. Wester is healthy again and could step right in, though it would represent his first NFL start. The same would be true of Liedtke if he got the call, and Liedtke actually started this year's camp playing guard. The Bucs moved him back out to tackle when a rash of injuries hit that spot and Liedtke performed well in the preseason in that role. In fact, that move probably earned him his spot on the 53-man roster.
The Bucs could also turn to a solution with more moving parts. Caleb Benenoch, who is slated to start at right guard, finished last season as the right tackle after Demar Dotson went on injured reserve. If the Bucs decided to play Benenoch at tackle again, they could give the start at right guard to veteran Evan Smith, rookie Alex Cappa or another player who made the roster with a good training camp, Adam Gettis.
View photos of the Buccaneers' 53-man roster.
2. Can the Bucs limit the damage done by second-year RB Alvin Kamara?
As a rookie, Saints RB Alvin Kamara had two very good games against the Buccaneers, with 152 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in a New Orleans followed by 128 yards and one touchdown in a Tampa Bay victory. That did not mean, however, that the Bucs were Kamara's lone whipping boy; the third-round steal put up numbers like throughout the 2017 campaign, finishing with 1,554 yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns.
Kamara formed a ridiculously productive 2017 backfield tandem with Mark Ingram, who also had 1,540 yards and 12 touchdowns. That is likely to remain a strength for the Saints in 2018, but Ingram will be serving a four-game suspension to start the season. That makes Kamara even more central to what the Saints will be trying to do on Sunday.
The Buccaneers will bring a revamped and hopefully far more impactful defensive line to the matchup this year, and they have a pair of linebackers in Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander who are excellent in pursuit. But the Saints have a knack for getting the ball to Kamara in open space, after which it is often difficult to stop him from piling up yards. If the Bucs can slow him down, it will likely take an 11-man effort.
"You've got to swarm tackle," said Koetter. "You've got to get population to the ball. The guy – we watched some highlights of him today in the team meeting – he's more powerful than you think. He's faster than you think. He's more slippery than you think. He jumps over tacklers. He runs through tackles. He's definitely a game-wrecker that we've got our eye on, and saying it and doing it are two different things."
3. How will the cornerbacks be configured if Brent Grimes is out?
The Bucs got some bad news late in the week when starting cornerback Brent Grimes was added to the injury report (groin) and designated as "doubtful" for Sunday's game. That means it's likely the Buccaneers will be trying to slow down Drew Brees and company without their most experienced and productive cornerbacks.
There was already a whiff of the unknown around the matter of how the Bucs would deploy their cornerbacks, not likely to be cleared up until a game or two had provided a blueprint. Grimes and Hargreaves are the two designated starters in the base defense, but would Hargreaves move into the slot in nickel packages, too? If so, who stepped in on the outside, incumbent third-year man Ryan Smith or rookie Carlton Davis? And what role would the Bucs have for their other second-round rookie corner, M.J. Stewart, who is also adept at playing the slot?
Now it becomes more complicated? If Grimes is out, do the Bucs turn to Davis or Smith on the outside to join Hargreaves? If it's Davis and Hargreaves on the outside, might the coaches choose to leave it that way and bring Stewart in to play the nickel back role? Even Javien Elliott, who was promoted from the practice squad on Saturday and has played in the slot for the Bucs before, could factor into the solution.
Whatever the combination, it seems certain that there will be a relatively strong rookie presence in the secondary as the Bucs try to keep Brees in check.
4. How deep and even will the Buccaneers' defensive line rotation be?
The Buccaneers revamped their defensive line after last season, with only three players from the previous group (Gerald McCoy, Will Gholston and Noah Spence) still around. The six 2018 newcomers include trade acquisition Jason Pierre-Paul and a pair of former Eagles, Beau Allen and Vinny Curry. First-round pick Vita Vea won't play in the opener as he continues to return from an early-camp calf injury, but it's likely that two recent additions, Jerel Worthy and Carl Nassib, will.
Allen and Curry come over from a team that won a Super Bowl with a deep defensive-line rotation. The Buccaneers would like to emulate that approach and keep fresh legs in the game as much as possible. That rotation wasn't really possible in the preseason, which more often features different tiers of players in at different times of the game. Sunday's opener will be the first chance for the Bucs to really stream the likes of McCoy, Pierre-Paul, Spence, Curry and Allen in and out of the contest for 60 minutes.
Even the members of that D-Line rotation don't know exactly what it will look like just yet. It is likely to feature a lot of McCoy, who has been to six straight Pro Bowls, and Pierre-Paul, who played the most snaps of any defensive lineman in the league last year, as a Giant.
"I'm not the only new face," said Pierre-Paul. "All training camp we've been trying to figure guys out. Guys have been trying to get that chemistry together. We made the final cuts, but I think that we're about there. The challenge is really going to come this Sunday. That's going to be a big challenge. We'll figure out where we're at.'"
This Week One trial run will be affected somewhat by Vea's absence, as well as the move of Mitch Unrein to injured reserve last Sunday. That thinned out the depth at defensive tackle, which gives Worthy a bigger role and also means the team will use Gholston more in the middle.
"I mean, the fact that Will's versatile enough is much like an offensive lineman that can play guard or tackle or center and guard," said Koetter. "Will has been effective as an inside player and I'm sure that we'll continue to use him that way."
5. Will the offense be in good hands with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm?
While the Saints are without Ingram, the Buccaneers are missing arguably an even more critical piece, their starting quarterback. Winston will be serving an NFL suspension for the first three games of the year, starting Sunday. Fortunately, the Buccaneers have an excellent contingency plan in 14th-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has logged 119 NFL starts. The most recent three came last year while Winston was recovering from a shoulder injury, and the Buccaneers went 2-1 in those game.
Both Fitzpatrick and Winston performed well in the preseason (as did third quarterback, and current second quarterback, Ryan Griffin), and the Buccaneers aren't worried about turning to Fitzpatrick to start the regular season. Knowing the suspension was coming, the Buccaneers managed to split the camp and preseason reps in an effective manner to get all their passers ready.
"Well I don't think it's very big at all," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "We went 2-1 last year with Fitz as our quarterback. It's a team game. We've got to play well around him. I thought we played well around him last year. I think we've played well around him in the preseason, so I don't see that at all as an issue."
The strong performance across the board by the Bucs' quarterbacks in August is a testament to their hard work but also in part a product of how good the team's skill-position players are. Fitzpatrick has a deep and healthy group of targets starting with Mike Evans and extending to DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries, Justin Watson, Freddie Martino, O.J. Howard and Cam Brate. And Fitzpatrick got plenty of time to get in a rhythm with all of them during the preseason.
"I think that the reps that I was able to get with some of the guys during training camp – I think that's helpful," he said. "You know, having a year under my belt of being comfortable in the offense and then getting some time to throw some balls to those guys to interact and talk with the lineman to get on the same page. And Ryan Jensen being a new guy in our system, the more time the better, and because of the situation, I was able to get a few more reps than I normally would."