As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers shift into the Organized Team Activity (OTA) segment of their offseason schedule, players and coaches continue to work together to get the team's new offensive and defensive systems in place. Quarterback Josh Freeman, for instance, said on Tuesday that about 80% of the offensive playbook has been presented in some fashion, and Head Coach Greg Schiano said the next step is to emphasize situational football.
Parallel to this offseason task, however, is determining which players will be executing those systems once they are in place. Some of those eventual decisions already seem obvious in mid-May, such as Freeman under center or second-year man Adrian Clayborn at right defensive end. Others clearly are in the early stages of evaluation, such as left end and safety.
That's not to say the team is lacking intriguing options at either of those latter spots, and in fact those options were a prime topic of discussion as the Bucs ran through their first OTA workout on Tuesday. At safety, long-time cornerback Ronde Barber spent the morning at safety, often running in tandem with first-round draft pick Mark Barron. And at left end, where incumbent starter Da'Quan Bowers was missing after suffering a torn Achilles tendon last week, the team began surveying its internal options with the likes of Michael Bennett and George Johnson.
After Tuesday's field session, Schiano said it was "far too early" to predict how the team would split its carries between the likes of LeGarrette Blount, Doug Martin and Michael Smith, and that's just as true in terms of predicting the starting 11 on defense. But it is fair to say that the idea of Barber as a safety, after 15 marvelous years on the corner, has moved beyond a mental exercise and is now a full on-field experiment.
It's not particularly surprising that the cerebral and instinctive Barber could handle the intellectual demands of a new position, but it has still been encouraging to Schiano to see him put it in action on the football field.
"I like the way he's performed so far," said the coach. "The final piece will obviously be live play, but I don't have any hesitation. I've watched enough of his play in nickel and in dime where he's sitting in the box and he's a fearless guy. I think he can do it, it's just a matter of what is our best 11 guys? But right now, that's where he's still playing."
Given that an NFL team uses a variety of defensive packages and substitutions in any given game, Barber could be refashioning himself into a versatile all-around defensive back who can help in different ways depending upon the situation. For instance, while a team usually transforms a defense from base into nickel by bringing in an extra cornerback, one could achieve the same thing – if Barber was already on the field as a safety – by bringing in a third safety and moving Barber down into the slot. That would certainly utilize the vast experience that has made Barber probably the best nickel corner of his generation.
"Our whole deal in each personnel group is to get the best 11 on the field, and the best 11 at what we're asking them to do in that personnel group," said Schiano. "Ronde's had years of playing underneath at nickel and dime, and that would be foolish to totally abandon that, I think. But again, you've got to find the best 11. If you don't have anybody that can play deep as well as he can play under, then you've got to play the tradeoff game."
It's a different situation at left end, where Bowers' misfortune has created questions not only about the starting lineup but about depth on the edge overall. Bennett is the obvious choice to step into the starting 11, given that he started 10 games at that spot last fall before his own nagging injuries and Bowers' development moved the rookie into the first chair for the stretch run.
But again, it's early, and even Bennett himself isn't as concerned about how the starting lineup shakes out as he is about getting the new defense down.
"It was always my job to come in and do what I can," he said. "I just look forward to stepping up to the opportunity and whatever it brings. Wherever I play, I'm not really worried about those things. I'm just worried about learning the defense and trying to do the best I can."
Schiano previously coached Johnson at Rutgers and was impressed with him then, but notes that he was a 250-pound speed rusher then, whereas he's now a 280-pound player. Johnson played both end positions in the Scarlet Knights' defense, and he has shown quite a bit of promise in his two years in Tampa, though injuries have limited him to only a few games of action.
Beyond that, the Bucs' current defensive end roster is mostly young and inexperienced players such as Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and recent signee Hilee Taylor. The free agent market is still open, of course, if no longer fully-stocked, but General Manager Mark Dominik said the team's initial reaction to Bowers' injury will be to look inward.
"Right now, we're just trying to evaluate the men that we have here, see what we've got going here for a little bit before we feel like we have to do something," said Dominik. "If it gets to the point where we feel like we have to pull the trigger, we'll do something for that position. Obviously, it's an important position."
As for Bowers, his surgery last week was deemed a success and Dominik reported that the young player who has already overcome several significant career obstacles was in high spirits afterwards. Dominik said the team is "hopeful" that Bowers may be able to return at some point during the 2012 season, and that there was plenty of time to decide what sort of reserve list on which the young end will start the campaign.
"His surgery was successful," said Dominik. "It all comes down to the rehab. He's doing his rehab here with our training staff, with Shannon Merrick, who I think is one of the best rehab directors in the National Football League. We have him here, which is why I think guys have been able to come back at a quicker pace. We're hopeful it's the same for him."
Jackson Leading the Way
Vincent Jackson hasn't caught a meaningful pass yet for the Buccaneers, but he has already started to pay dividends on the big contract he got in free agency in March.
When the Bucs lured the Pro Bowl receiver to Tampa after seven years with the San Diego Chargers, they obviously envisioned his big-play ability making a big difference in the fortunes of young quarterback Josh Freeman. Privately, they also believed that Jackson would make a big impact on his fellow receivers, young and promising players like Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn.
"The thing about Jackson that he brings to this organization is not just what you saw last year, or the big plays that he makes in practice," said Dominik. "It's his leadership and his style in which he practices, and the way he really helps with the younger players, showing them the ropes and how to do everything the right way. Vincent Jackson has been the consummate professional from the first day he got here. I think you'll see that going forward."
Schiano has already seen the results on the practice field.
"I think one of the things that we looked forward to in signing Vincent Jackson is not only his play but his leadership," said the coach. "We had several connections to Vincent and we had really good reports on him as not only a game-player but a practice player and a true professional. And that's proving to be true, which is something that we needed, especially with a young group of receivers. In comes a guy that's an experienced vet and I think it's a real good mix. I like how that group is starting to come together."
Williams, who made a fantastic leaping catch at the back of the end zone on the last play of Tuesday's OTA workout – a play that reminded onlookers of his many acrobatic touchdowns in 2010 – says he has been working hard with new Wide Receivers Coach P.J. Fleck to identify and correct the shortcomings in his game in 2011. He is refining his route-running and becoming more adept at reading coverages, and that process has been made quite a bit easier by the knowledgeable presence of Jackson.
"We get advice from each other but mostly from him," said Williams of the Bucs' receiving corps. "He's going out there and showing us what he's seen throughout his long career, his 1,000-yard seasons and his Pro Bowl seasons. He's letting us know what we're going to see. We're trying to work together as a group to compete.
"Basically [he says] to keep working on my game. Don't ever think you've mastered it; keep on working on it. If you catch a pass 1,000 times, he wants you to catch it 1,005. Just keep working on my game is basically what I've learned from him."
Odds and Ends
A few other notes from the team's first OTA session of 2012:
-- Incumbent kicker Connor Barth was on hand at practice Tuesday, though he didn't participate. Barth, an unrestricted free agent upon whom the Buccaneers placed their franchise tag in February, is not expected to practice with the team before he was signed, but his presence on Tuesday impressed Dominik.
"He wanted to be here to support his teammates, and that's not something you often see from a franchised player. We just had a fun talk right now. That's what makes Connor a unique guy and a fun teammate."
Barth, who set a single-season record with his 92% success rate on field goals last year, is said to be seeking a long-term deal. "I think that's what we both want, ideally," said Dominik.
-- RB Doug Martin was held out of practice on Tuesday but it was not a major concern. Dominik indicated that Martin had a "slight" hamstring strain and that the team didn't want to risk irritating the injury for one practice, particularly since the first-year runner is due to attend the NFLPA's Rookie Premiere Event in Los Angeles over the weekend.
-- The 2012 Buccaneers don't consider themselves a "rebuilding" team, and it's easy to point to the 2011 season for examples as to how quickly a franchise's fortunes can turn around under a new staff. Even without the benefit of a full offseason, the San Francisco 49ers improved from 6-10 in 2010 to 13-3 last year under new Head Coach Jim Harbaugh. The Carolina Panthers' own four-game improvement under new Head Coach Ron Rivera last year, from 2-14 to 6-10, didn't get them into the playoffs but they were clearly a much more dangerous team. Williams thinks the Bucs could be the next team on that list.
"You see teams like the 49ers and Carolina turn it around right away," he said. "We want to be one of those teams and we want to keep on winning and see what we can do this year. I said it: No rebuilding stage; we want to win now.
"Everybody wants to win. Everybody's on the same page. Like I said from the start, [the new coaches] came in with the mindset that we're going to win now. Everybody's going to work and if we work together we're going to win. And that's what we've been doing."