At the tender age of 23, but with 32 NFL starts under his belt, Jameis Winston is already considered a leader by his Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammates. On Friday morning, as the Buccaneers opened their 2017 training camp, the young quarterback led the offense to a notably good first practice. On Day Two, Winston managed to fire up the defense with what you might call some well-timed negative reinforcement.
"Jameis was talking trash before practice," said safety Keith Tandy with a wide smile. "The defense wasn't saying much, we were just focused."
Indeed, Buccaneer defenders were ready on Saturday morning, firing back with a strong practice that include a good number of deflected passes and forced fumbles. Very few camp workouts are completely one-sided – and, for sure, speedy wide receiver DeSean Jackson countered with a couple of crowd-pleasing deep-ball grabs – but Tampa Bay's secondary closed out the practice with two periods that tilted in its direction.
Winston would undoubtedly be pleased that his team's defense responded to the competition so well. And he'll also undoubtedly come out on Sunday morning looking to turn the tables again. Or, as Tandy noted: "We'll see what happens tomorrow."
"Competition's huge," Tandy continued. "Competition is going to make you better. I mean everybody's prideful out here, so you don't want to give up plays, you don't want to get embarrassed out here, so we're going to compete. One day the defense has a great day, so the offense is going to come out with a different mindset tomorrow. They're going to try to get back at us. If they have a good day, the defense is going to come out. Every single day you're going to see both sides getting a little bit better, and hopefully it pays off at the end."
Tandy and his teammates need that competition because there is a lot to be sorted out in the secondary in this training camp. Three things in particular will be answered: Who will earn the two starting safety spots, who will play nickel and how much progress will 2016 first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves make in his second season?
As to that final question, the early evidence is promising. Hargreaves had a very strong offseason, consistently making "splash plays" in OTAs and mini-camp, and he carried that into camp with an eye-catching effort on Saturday.
"Our defense believes they can take the ball away and they feed off each other, and today it was Vernon Hargreaves," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter after practice. "He got it out a couple times and it fires the other guys up. They're working on it every day."
Other plays of note: Chris Conte arrived just in time to break up a deep pass to Mike Evans, then recovered a fumble forced by Hargreaves on the next play and J.J. Wilcox intercepted a tipped pass. Tandy said nobody wanted to be left out of the rush of big plays.
"Once you start making a couple plays you see everybody start gaining confidence," he said. "And then once you start getting your hands on balls, it's contagious. Somebody gets a pick, Hargreaves gets a pick, 'Man let me go get one.' [Brent] Grimes gets a pick, Chris, 'Let me go get one.' It's very contagious. We preach that every single play and communication's big for that. We're giving each other tips – 'Okay, this guy might be running this, your help's over here.' It allows you to play a lot faster."
Tandy and Conte authored some of the defense's most important takeaways during the team's strong second-half run to last season. They are prime candidates to start but they have to fend off rookie Justin Evans and former Cowboy J.J. Wilcox, a key free agency acquisition. Tandy and Conte got almost all of the first-team work during the offseason as Evans and Wilcox were overcoming minor injuries, but now the competition for the two safety jobs is starting to heat up.
"It's great to see him out here running around healthy," said Koetter of Wilcox. "He made a couple plays on the ball today, getting it out. You can tell … that he's a big hitter. That's not going to show up for a few days but I'm sure it will show up at some point. It's good to have both him and Justin Evans out here working again."
Tandy's five games to end the 2016 season represented his longest run as a starter in his five seasons, and he was wildly productive in that time. That understandably is buying him a lot of first-team reps as the new season begins, and Koetter hasn't seen anything yet to change his mind.
"What we learned about Keith is that he does a great job with his preparation and he made plays," said the coach. "He made plays – that's what you want from everybody. Keith's working with the first group right now and he's going to be a hard guy to get out of there."
As for the nickel back competition, the biggest play from that position so far was Robert McClain's apparent pick-six on Friday. The Bucs have been rotating competitors for that job on the first team and are probably not close to picking a winner.
"It is good competition there," said Koetter. "We've got three guys that have all started at slot corner in this league between Jude, Javien Elliott and Bobby Mac [Robert McClain], and they're all battling right now. I should have mentioned that."
There is no shortage of practice reps overall in training camp, and the players fight just as hard when it's second team against second team or third team against third team. However, Tandy definitely sees the value in getting the bulk of the first-team reps, which is a relatively new camp experience for him.
Pictures from the Bucs' training camp practice on Friday.
"I think they're very beneficial," he said. "No disrespect to anyone on the team, but you're going against Jameis, you're going against Mike Evans, you're going against DeSean, you're going against Cam Brate and O.J. Howard. It's definitely a step up. You get to see that so in a game it's not a shock when you actually go against the ones out there. But then, getting the communication down, the familiarity, the camaraderie with all the rest of the guys that are out there – I think it definitely makes a big difference."
Tandy and his teammates were up to that challenge on Saturday. Again, the pendulum may very well swing back to the offense on Sunday, but even if it does, an aggressive outing by the defense is actually an important test for the other side. Saturday was a good day for the defense, but more so it was a productive outing for the team as a whole.
"It's great for our offense, for [the defense] to be so good at it, but yet the offense has to be a little smarter about putting the ball away," said Koetter of Saturday's many loose balls. "I thought we tried to force too many balls down the middle to the tight ends today, and any time you're forcing it down the middle and it gets tipped in the air it's going to get intercepted a lot. It's a Catch 22 – good for the defense, offense needs to learn their lessons."