Ryan Fitzpatrick has played 13 NFL seasons. In three of those seasons, he started every game at quarterback for his team. In five of those seasons, he was the opening-day starter. On four different occasions he did not get the opening-day call but still ended up starting at least half of his team's games.
As Fitzpatrick said on Friday, after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second practice of training camp, he has "seen it all." Even very recently, his depth-chart experiences have run the gamut. In 2015, he was traded by Houston to the New York Jets and was meant to serve as Geno Smith's backup. Smith sustained a broken jaw in a preseason locker-room incident, Fitzpatrick was pushed into the starting lineup on Day One and never relinquished. A strong showing that included 31 touchdown passes won Fitzpatrick the starting job for the Jets in 2016 but he later relinquished it in a lost 5-11 season. Fitzpatrick then came to Tampa last year to back up Jameis Winston and was called upon to start three games, two of which the Bucs won, while Winston was recovering from a shoulder injury.
Now, in his 14th season, yet another situation for Fitzpatrick: Winston will serve an NFL suspension the first three games and Fitzpatrick will be an opening-day starter for the sixth time in the last eight years. How Fitzpatrick's role changes when Winston returns remains to be seen, but there is definitely an advantage to this situation as compared to say, last year. Fitzpatrick will be taking the majority of first-team snaps throughout camp, which means he'll have an opportunity to get in synch with the Bucs' wide variety of talented pass-catchers, as opposed to being thrust into the action without much front-line preparation.
"I'm fortunate enough to have played in a lot of games, and sometimes playing in a lot of games where I didn't get any preseason reps with the ones or training camp offseason reps with the ones," he said. "I can kind of go about it both ways. In terms of timing, there's guys that are easier to throw to than others. Getting the reps in practice and in some of those preseason games will be good live reps to get with some of the receivers just to get the timing down."
Fitzpatrick seemed to be quite sharp while directing the first-team offense on Friday. Practice-field observations can sometimes be misleading, as a few standout plays can mask problems elsewhere, which is why coaches usually save their evaluations for after a thorough review of the tape. Still, three plays in particular on Friday served as perfect examples of how Fitzpatrick's increased front-line work will help him when the season starts. In each case, he made a pinpoint throw that specifically utilized the distinct talents of the targeted player.
- In a full-team special-category drill midway through practice, Fitzpatrick threw a deep ball down the left sideline for wide receiver Mike Evans, who was well-covered by cornerback Ryan Smith. Fitzpatrick's pass, however, went to Evans' outside shoulder, leaving Smith no way to get through the receiver to the ball. It's the type of catch at which Evans excels.
- In a seven-on-seven drill, Fitzpatrick looked for tight end Cameron Brate, who was cutting into the middle in the midst of heavy traffic. Fitzpatrick threw a low, hard pass through that traffic and Brate made a sliding catch between several defenders. Brate has emerged as one of the NFL's more productive tight ends thanks to sure hands and very good body control on contested plays.
- Finally, in the last period of practice, a full 11-on-11 drill, Fitzpatrick saw speedy WR DeSean Jackson break free deep and went for broke. The 60-yard pass found Jackson in stride for what, at least on the practice field, was a touchdown. Jackson has been one of the NFL's best big-play makers over the last decade, though the Buccaneers had trouble unlocking that talent in his first year in Tampa.
Fitzpatrick joked that he would have to ice his arm after that throw to Jackson, and that he was proud it went at least 30 yards without fluttering. Humor aside, that play, as well as the other two noted above, show that 35-year-old veteran can still make any throw needed in Dirk Koetter's offense.
"Did you see him throw that 60-yarder right there to DeSean?" asked Koetter rhetorically when Fitzpatrick's arm strength was brought up. "Number one, arm strength is relative. It's relative – can you complete the passes you're supposed to complete? That's arm strength. So his arm strength is fine."
Evans, Brate and Jackson will likely be three of the team's most productive pass-catchers, but there's plenty more for Fitzpatrick to utilize…and to become comfortable with between now and September 9. Chris Godwin is a rising second-year receiver who finished off his rookie season strong and drew rave reviews throughout the offseason. Adam Humphries is one of the more productive slot receivers in the league. And tight end O.J. Howard showed big-play ability as a rookie but has plenty of room for improvement.
"Talent-wise, looking at the team we have out here, I'm in the huddle on offense and it's a pretty exciting huddle to be in as a quarterback looking at some of those guys," said Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick will be looking around that huddle in New Orleans on September 9. It will be his job to distribute the football to all of that talent, and by then he should be well-prepared to handle that job.