The best photos from the Buccaneers' 2016 OTAs.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will wrap up their 2016 offseason program this week with a three-day mini-camp, then get in some well-deserved rest before reconvening for training camp. The team is expected to release its full training camp practice schedule this week, but it's safe to say it will start near the end of June, after about a six-week break.
WATCH: BUCS' OTA HIGHLIGHTS
It's safe to say that this forthcoming schedule qualifies as "much-anticipated" news; I've answered questions about it in each of the last two mailbags, and those were just two representative choices of a multitude of fan questions on the topic. That's understandable, as training camp is the one time of the year in which fans can attend practice, and one of the best opportunities to get up close to the action and to their favorite players.
The best photos from the first week of OTAs.
As usual, some of the most popular players at training camp will be the rookies, as they represent hope for an improved future. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, defensive end Noah Spence and kicker Roberto Aguayo will be at the center of attention, as will such established stars as Jameis Winston, Doug Martin, Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. On the flip side, since training camp is a battle designed to reduce a 90-man roster to 53, we'll also be paying a lot of attention to anyone who might be on the bubble, and to any lesser-known young player who suddenly starts to make a name for himself.
Ah, but let's not forget the men in the middle. While the Bucs will eventually determine 22 starters, they'll need a full 53-man squad to win games this fall. There is a hope that this year's regular-season roster will be significantly stronger in its depth, and therefore better able to weather injuries and other depth-chart shakeups. If that's true, some of those aforementioned "men in the middle" will prove very important. They may or may not emerge as stars in 2016 but they have a chance to be a critical part of the Buccaneers' success.
Like who? Here are five returning Buccaneers who could be key parts of the team's depth in 2016. Don't forget them!
1. DE William Gholston
Gholston, a fifth-round pick in 2013, is heading into his fourth season and you might be surprised to learn that he has 22 NFL starts under his belt. Half of those came last year, when he replaced George Johnson as the front-line left end about a month into the season. Gholston's play wasn't often flashy, but it was productive enough to keep him on the field for 61% of the Bucs' defensive snaps in 2015, third among D-Linemen to McCoy and Jacquies Smith. His final stats – 67 tackles, three sacks, eight tackles for loss, two passes defensed and one forced fumble – profile a player who was a quietly valuable complement to the more high-profile McCoy and Smith, the team's top two sack artists.
In that regard, we might actually be underselling Gholston here. Even with the additions of Spence and unrestricted free agent Robert Ayers, meant to rev up the team's pass rush, Gholston will be battling to stay in the starting lineup. It's suddenly a more crowded competition, however, with a number of others who would seem to have strong claims to a starting spot. In the end, the "starter" designations might not be that important along the defensive line, because the team is likely to use a deep rotation in order to keep their big men fresh for a full 60 minutes.
Helping Gholston remain a prominent member of that rotation will be his size (6-6, 281) and his well-established ability to stop the run. In fact, given that Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith may choose to use some of his ends primarily as pass-rushers in obvious throwing situations, Gholston could find himself as the counterpart to those packages, sort of like one half of a lefty-righty outfielder platoon in baseball.
2. TE Cameron Brate
Yes, the Buccaneers' depth chart looks very deep at this position at the moment. Brate's unexpectedly high number of snaps last year – he went from opening-week practice squad placement to appearing in 36% of the team's offensive plays – came about in part because Austin Seferian-Jenkins missed nine games with a shoulder injury. Seferian-Jenkins is healthy again and the presumptive starter, and the Bucs also still have Luke Stocker and Brandon Myers, the former of whom started 14 games last year due to his blocking ability. A late-season promotion of Tevin Westbrook indicates that the Bucs see potential in that 6-5, 257-pound prospect and the Bucs also signed rookie free agent Kivon Cartwright after the draft.
In addition, rookies Dan Vitale and Alan Cross, who were billed as fullbacks during draft weekend, have subsequently been labeled tight ends by the Buccaneers, who therefore do not have any players listed as fullbacks on the roster. Of course, if that means that Tampa Bay is going to replace the "FB" listing on their depth chart with a second "TE" spot, that means the team will have more snaps to go around at that position.
Brate isn't likely to fade away after his impressive 23-catch, three-touchdown season in 2015. A former undrafted free agent out of Harvard, he showed too much receiving and route-running ability not to warrant further development. Depending upon the degree to which Seferian-Jenkins develops into a two-way standout and Dirk Koetter finds creative ways to deploy the rookie Vitale, Brate may have to bide his time for opportunities. Still, he is a valuable and intriguing weapon to have waiting in the wings and that is likely to prove useful at some point.
3. S Keith Tandy
The Bucs drafted seven players in 2012 and three of them eventually got second contracts with the team. The first two were the star-caliber duo of Lavonte David and Doug Martin. The third: safety Keith Tandy, a former sixth-round pick.
Though his opportunities to start have been limited to five games in 2013 and another two last year, Tandy convinced the Buccaneers to keep him around beyond his rookie deal simply by doing well with whatever role he is given. Obviously, that starts with special teams, but he has produced every time he's had a chance to start. In those seven starts, Tandy amassed 45 tackles, two interceptions, two passes defensed, two tackles for loss, one fumble recovery and one quarterback hit.
At other times, Tandy has been used in certain sub packages and he's picked off two more passes and forced a fumble in those situations. The Buccaneers also re-signed safeties Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald this offseason, and those two would appear to be first in line for the starting positions. At 5-10 and 205 pounds, Tandy is smaller than those two players, but he's an intelligent and hard-working player with some cornerback-like cover skills. If he can't surpass Conte and McDougald for a starting spot, he will still be part of that dependable depth the Buccaneers are trying to build across the board.
4. RB Mike James
The Bucs didn't find much use for their third tailback last year because the first two were too good to keep off the field. With Doug Martin and Charles Sims, Tampa Bay was the only team in 2015 to have two running backs each tally more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage. It's no surprise that they combined for 1,075 offensive snaps last year while the team's third tailback, Bobby Rainey, got just 33.
Rainey, however, remained active on game days and helped the team in another way, by being its primary kick returner. That left Mike James splitting the season between the practice squad and game-day inactive lists when he was on the 53-man roster. Rainey has since moved on to the Giants, however, while James is back for a fourth season in Tampa. He'll get new competition from former Jaguar Storm Johnson and undrafted rookies Peyton Barber and Russell Hansbrough, but he should have an excellent shot at grabbing that third spot behind Martin and Sims.
If James does win that role, he'll likely do the same thing Rainey did: Keep a helmet on for game days by helping the team in other ways. A team-first player since his arrival in 2013 as a sixth-round pick out of Miami, James would have no problem throwing himself into a special teams role. He might get a shot at the wide-open kickoff return job but could also simply provide value as a kick-coverage man, or perhaps as the "personal protector" on the punting team.
Martin and Sims enjoyed season-long good health last year, and the Buccaneers hope the same is true in 2016. If that's the case, they will almost certainly hog almost all of the tailback snaps again. However, if James is the third back and the Bucs do need him to fill in, he's proven capable in that role, as well, most notably during a 158-yard outing against an excellent Seattle defense in 2013. James averaged 4.9 yards per carry on 60 totes in that rookie season, and while he's logged just 19 carries since, one could interpret that to indicate that he has fresh legs.
5. DE Kourtnei Brown
Brown had an unusual 2015 season, bouncing from the Houston Texans' practice squad to the Bucs' active roster in September, then back to Houston in October and then finally back to Tampa late in November. It probably was not the most satisfying way to spend an autumn in the NFL, but on the other hand he did eventually see action in four games after trying for four years to stick in the league.
The good news for Brown is that the Buccaneers were interested enough not only to claim him off waivers twice but also to keep him around for a full 2016 offseason. What's more, he might actually be in a good position to earn a spot in the team's D-Line rotation this season, in part due to his versatility.
While the Bucs operated out of a 4-3 defensive base last year, the Texans ran a 3-4, so Brown was known as a defensive end in the former location and a linebacker in the second. That sounds like the profile of a designated edge-rusher, but in fact the Bucs' new defensive coaches thinks he could actually provide more versatile value in their new scheme under Smith. With the Buccaneers carrying more experienced ends than defensive tackles on the current roster, Smith has mentioned that some of those ends would occasionally move inside on pass-rushing downs. Ayers is generally the first player mentioned in connection with that strategy, but Brown's name has also been thrown out as a possibility.
On the practice field this offseason, Brown has gotten some work with the first and second-team lines, in part because Jacquies Smith has yet to return to action from a 2015 injury. That seem crowded field we mentioned when discussing Gholston – a group that also includes returning players George Johnson and Howard Jones – applies here to Brown. It won't necessarily be easy for Brown to find playing time, particularly if Spence and Ayers are as effective as the Bucs hope, but he could help himself if he does indeed show some inside-outside versatility. The defensive line is often a position at which the coaches will keep a deeper group at the expense of another position, so if Brown displays any kind of useful pass-rushing ability he'll have a chance to be part of that 53-man depth.