Photos from the Bucs' training camp practice at One Buccaneer Place.
In some ways, third-year safety D.J. Swearinger is in the same position as the young men the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked in the 2015 NFL Draft. Those seven players became Buccaneers between April 30 and May 2; Swearinger came aboard on May 12. The drafted rookies have spent the last three months adjusting to a new organization and learning a new playbook; ditto for Swearinger. All eight newcomers are trying to beat out returning players for starting jobs.
There's one major difference, though: Swearinger has been through this before.
A second-round pick by the Houston Texans in 2013, Swearinger succeeded in cracking the starting lineup, opening 22 games over the past two seasons. Even the task of absorbing a new defensive system, which became necessary when he was surprisingly waived by the Texans and subsequently claimed by the Buccaneers, is nothing new. Swearinger hasn't missed a beat making that transition.
"It's all football," he said. "This is the third year I've played and this is my third defense, so it's been like this every year for me, just learning the defense and getting comfortable with it. That's what practice is. Your study habits have to be at an all-time high and you've really got to critique yourself and listen to your coach."
READ: STANDOUTS FROM PRACTICE
To be even more specific, that's what training camp is all about. Except for the occasional off day, players spend most of the morning, afternoon and night at team headquarters, focusing on little else besides football. With two-a-day practices no longer allowed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, a larger part of that time is used in the classroom. Swearinger has needed that time to work on the nuances of Lovie Smith's defense, and he's used it well. When he's on the field, he's expected to be the quarterback of the secondary.
"It's the safety's job, period, free safety or strong safety," said Swearinger. "You're the last line of defense and you've got to be that safety valve. You've got to let everybody know what's going on. You've got to let them know all the alerts because you can see everything that deep. That's something that a safety has to be. It's just being the last line of defense, knowing things before they happen or alerting [others] to things when they come up."
The Buccaneers felt as if they essentially gained an extra second-round pick with the waiver-wire pickup of Swearinger. They already had two critical second-round selections in offensive linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet, and both of those players have a shot at starting on opening day. The same is true for Swearinger, but none of the three will simply be handed a starting job, and the competition at safety is both wide open and intense. Returning players Bradley McDougald and Major Wright are currently listed first on the depth chart but it wouldn't be a surprise to see 2015 additions Swearinger and Chris Conte wind up on top, either. (Conte's situation is complicated by a knee injury that has kept him out for most of camp.)
What may help Swearinger is that he'll soon be able to put one of his most marketable skills on display. He's known as a hard-hitter, but that's a reputation he can't really back up in practice, for obvious reasons. The Buccaneers play their first preseason game this Saturday in Minnesota, and Swearinger knows he's not the only one who is looking forward to showing what he can do.
"You want to hit, but you've got to protect your teammates," he said. "Saturday, a lot of guys will be able to see a lot of hitting and a lot of contact. I'm just ready to play real football. You've just got to take it one day at a time. I've got a lot of things to work on but I've also done well on a lot of things. You've just got to keep going."
Additional notes from Wednesday's practice:
- A year ago, wide receiver Louis Murphy was wrapping up a strong preseason for his new team, the Buccaneers, when he hurt his back in the final preseason game. He was released by the team, but stayed nearby, and the team eventually re-signed him when he had recovered. Murphy had a huge game in his Buccaneers' debut, a Week Four win at Pittsburgh, and settled in as the team's primary third receiver for most of the year.
In comparison, his poor luck at the start of the Buccaneers' 2015 training camp is only a minor hurdle to overcome. Murphy hurt his ankle in what Smith described as a "freak accident" and started camp on the active/non-football-injury list. On Tuesday, the seventh-year veteran was finally cleared to return to practice. This time, he has plenty of time to get back to full speed before the Bucs' finalize their regular-season depth chart.
"As far as conditioning-wise, yes [the injury set him back]," said Murphy. "But other than that, I feel good. I was training real hard this offseason. Unfortunately an accident happened but you've got to roll with the punches."
The Buccaneers have a pair of entrenched starters in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans and a host of rookies who have looked promising in training camp, including fifth-round pick Kenny Bell. In between is Murphy, who has more NFL experience than any of those wideouts except Jackson, and a good understanding of what it takes to excel as a slot receiver.
"You have to be very dependable on third down, because they're trying to double-bracket guys on the outside and they leave the middle of the field open, thinking that the third receiver is the weaker receiver," he said. "So you have to be keyed into blitzes, pressures, knowing if you're hot or not hot, and just being a playmaker. You might not get a chance on first or second down, you might come in on third down, but you've got to be ready to go."
During his NFL career, which also includes time in Oakland, New York and Carolina, Murphy has a higher per-catch average on third down (15.9) than first or second down. He's caught 46 passes in that situation, and 36 of them have resulted in first downs. On third downs needing four to six yards, he's been targeted 29 times and caught 18 passes, 17 of them producing first downs. Of course, some of his best work in his first season as a Buccaneer came when injuries pushed him into a more prominent role, so he knows he has to be ready for anything.
"In this offense, everybody can make a play, from the running backs to the tight ends to all three receivers," said Murphy. "Sometimes we spread it out and go four receivers, or five with empty sets, too. It's a very explosive offense. Dirk Koetter is one of the best offensive coordinators in the NFL."
- Rookie guard Ali Marpet is battling for the right guard position but he's also being trained to help the team in other ways, whether he wins that job or not. On Wednesday, for the first time since joining the team, Marpet got in some work at center. He didn't snap in seven-on-seven or 11-on-11 drills, but he did get in pre-practice work with the quarterbacks and other centers, and he lined up in that spot in combination drills during one-on-ones with the defensive linemen.
"That's something you need to be able to do; you only have seven offensive linemen dressing," said Marpet. "Your backup guard has to be able to play center. It's something I'm going to work on moving forward."
The seven linemen the Buccaneers generally keep active on game day include the five starters, one player who backs up both tackle spots and one player who can step in at any of the three interior-line positions. Even if Marpet ends up as a starting guard, knowledge of the center position could help if injuries strike in a game. He could conceivably slide into the middle to relieve an injured center if that day's reserve lineman is stronger at guard.
That doesn't mean the three positions between the tackles are interchangeable. That whole "getting the ball to the quarterback" thing is sometimes a little harder than it looks.
"Learning guard is hard enough," said Marpet with a laugh. "Snapping, that's a whole 'nother animal. I'll try to learn it slowly, and I'll learn from Evan [Smith] and other guys that have done it."
Marpet's coach is confident the young player will be able to handle the added responsibility.
"The more guys you have that can do [different] things, play multiple positions that's going to help the team," said Smith. "Ali, when you are a young player you don't know all the things you can do. It's about us giving him an opportunity to see what he can handle. Right now, everything we have given him he's been able to handle it."
- Newly-added punter Karl Schmitz was essentially an onlooker during his first practice with the team on Tuesday, but the Bucs' coaching staff got him much more involved on Wednesday. The Bucs have three punters on the current camp roster, and the other two, incumbent Michael Koenen and former Cleveland Brown Spencer Lanning, have years' worth of game tape in the vaults. Schmitz, who played at Jacksonville University in 2008 and had a cup of coffee with the Denver Broncos this spring is by far the least known commodity of the three.
"If someone is available we want to bring him in and compare him to what we have," said Smith. "We need to improve our kicking game. Our punting hasn't been what it needs to be, so we will continue to look at different guys. At the same time, Mike has done some good things for us. We have an idea what Mike can do. We want to see what else is available out there. When we bring a guy in, we want to put him kicking against the wind for quite a few, [then] kicking with the wind. We'll keep putting him in those types of situations."