The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will soon convene for their 44th training camp, and their 11th straight at the facility now known as the AdventHealth Training Center. Veterans report on Thursday and the first practice will begin at 4:00 p.m. on Friday.
Some things about training camp never change. The roster is always stretched out to 80 or 90 men; the players spend all day, every day together, building camaraderie; and, at least in Tampa, the heat and humidity serve as crucible to harden the team for the season ahead.
But no two training camps are the same. Look a bit deeper and you'll find new storylines every year, new faces, new position battles, new standouts emerging. That's particularly true when the team has a new coaching staff, as is the case this year with Head Coach Bruce Arians and his crew. So, with the action about to heat up at the AdventHealth Training Center, let's take a look at some of the most prominent subplots of the Buccaneers' 2019 training camp.
Below are my five storylines to watch. Click here for five more from Carmen Vitali.
1. New Coach, New Camp
I begin with the most obvious change, as every new head coach is going to have a specific way he wants camp run, down to the smallest details. Arians has already given the typical camp day a new look by scheduling most of his practices for late afternoon or early evening. That means the players will also eat, rest, work out and have meetings at different times than in the past. That's a change for Buccaneer fans, too. Not only will the Bucs have more open practices this year (11 in total that are open to all comers) but the later starts will potentially draw larger after-work crowds.
As for how practices specifically will be conducted, will have to wait until Friday to get our first glimpse. Will Arians insist upon a certain tempo? Will he stay outside when the inevitable rains come or take the team inside its indoor facility? Will he give more rest to certain established veterans? Will he and his coaches be more or less demanding on the players during practice? We might have a clue as to that last question from one of Arians' favorite coaching maxims: "Coach 'em hard and hug 'em later."
Bruce Arians has already put his stamp on the Buccaneers, but that will become exponentially more obvious when camp begins. Arians walked into a very similar situation in Arizona in 2013 and immediately turned that franchise around, needing just five years to become the winningest coach in team history. The Bucs are expecting the same impact and will be ready to follow Arians wherever he leads.
2. RoJo's Potential Emergence
Arians spent the offseason praising the practice-field work and attitude of second-year running back Ronald Jones II, and he wasn't alone. Quarterback Jameis Winston was one of many teammates and coaches who saw a fresh spark in the 2018 second-round draft pick, and the optimism around Jones as he enters his second training camp is running high.
There is, of course, nowhere to go but up for the former USC playmaker. Jones' rookie season didn't go anywhere near as planned after the team envisioned him making an immediate impact as a speedy, big-play complement to the more rugged Peyton Barber. Instead, Jones struggled in the preseason, failed to carve out a role on offense by the start of the regular season and then played sparingly. The end result was just 77 yards from scrimmage and one touchdown, and outcome that no one saw coming.
Jones has added muscle to his frame during the offseason and he seems to be running with a renewed confidence. That confidence might have been a bit shaken last year when he ran into tacklers in the backfield on a large percentage of his carries, keeping him from every getting into a groove. But the speed and shiftiness that led to so many big plays at USC are still there, and a breakout year from Jones would be a huge boon for the Buccaneer's offense.
3. Turning the Corner
The Buccaneers' secondary will definitely have a new look in 2019, which is unsurprising after the Tampa Bay defense allowed a combined opponent passer rating of 110.9 last year, with 34 touchdowns surrendered against just nine interceptions. The arrival of a new coaching staff and the installation of a new, more aggressive defense will obviously make things significantly different in the backfield, as well.
That said, the situation at cornerback at least looks a bit more steady than at safety (more about that in Carmen's storylines). Just a few months into the job, Arians made it clear that he thought he had a pair of starting outside corners in Vernon Hargreaves III and Carlton Davis. At the same time, he said the slot corner job was wide open, but if his confidence in Hargreaves and Davis proves to be well-founded, that's a very good starting point.
So, the first question is whether or not the new style of defense will better suit those two cornerbacks' talents, as is anticipated. Both Hargreaves and Davis clearly prefer to play more of a press-man style rather than off coverage, so they certainly bring a lot of confidence into this first camp under Arians and Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. They looked good in the offseason program, part of the reason that Arians declared the secondary to be "fixed" at the end of the final mini-camp. Hargreaves and Davis will also need to prove they can stay healthy, with Hargreaves in particular looking to shake the injury misfortune that cost him 22 games over the past two seasons.
As for the slot corner job, it could once again belong to second-year man M.J. Stewart, even though Stewart is potentially being looked at as a safety this year. Or Hargreaves could reprise his outside-inside dual role and move into the slot in nickel packages.
On top of all that, the Buccaneers used second and third-round picks on two more cornerbacks, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, and probably would like to see them on the field sooner rather than later. One could win the slot job, or either could push Hargreaves or Davis for time on the outside. Even if the cornerback situation seems a bit more stable than safety, there is still a lot to be determined once camp begins.
4. Jameis Winston's Critical Season
Well before Arians weighed in on his second-year running back or the cornerback position, he made his feelings known about the most important position on the team. Soon after his hiring, the Bucs new coach made it clear that Jameis Winston would be the starting quarterback in 2019, and that he expected big things from the fifth-year passer.
That vote of confidence was a good thing for Winston because this is undeniably a pivotal season in his NFL career. The Buccaneers picked up the fifth-year option on his initial rookie contract, but nothing is yet set for 2020 and beyond. How Winston performs this season should set the course for the next chapter in his NFL career. He could, in fact, solidify a long-term place as the Buccaneers' long-awaited franchise quarterback.
Arians has a well-deserved reputation as a "quarterback whisperer," and that has created plenty of excitement out of what he might be able to get out of the former first-overall draft pick. Winston has put up some enormous numbers in his first four seasons, including nearly 15,000 passing yards and a team-record 88 touchdown tosses, but turnover issues have kept him from ascending fully into the league's elite at quarterback. Arians' first order of business in creating the best version of Winston is to make everything better around him. That means a better running game, a stingier defense and fewer lopsided scoreboards early in games.
But Arians, along with Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich and Quarterbacks Coach Clyde Christensen, can also help Winston improve his own play more directly. For instance, Arians believes that Winston can find better accuracy on his deep balls simply through more work on exactly that in practice. Arians and company can also help Winston fine-tune his decision-making, which will hopefully reduce turnovers.
It's a huge season for Winston, and it starts on Friday.
5. Edge Rush Rotation
Though the Buccaneers have not made a roster move yet with Jason Pierre-Paul, the team's 2018 sack leader is not likely to be ready for the start of training camp after suffering a neck injury in a car accident in the offseason. Tampa Bay's pass rush finished in the middle of the NFL pack last season with 38 sacks, of which 12.5 belonged to Pierre-Paul. That's clearly an obstacle as the Buccaneers attempt to put together an edge rush from a number of semi-proven and unproven pieces.
Carl Nassib, a September waiver claim from Cleveland, emerged as a very good complement to Pierre-Paul last year and should figure prominently in the rotation. The Buccaneers think their new 3-4 defense will be a much better fit for former second-round pick Noah Spence, who had a promising 5.5 sacks as a rookie but has played sparingly in the two seasons since. Free agency brought in former Bronco Shaquil Barrett, who was productive in a part-time role in Denver and might be even more so with more playing time in Tampa. The Bucs later spent a fourth-round draft pick on what they hope will be a steal in Iowa edge rusher Anthony Nelson.
Holdovers like Demone Harris and Patrick O'Connor could factor into the mix, as well, and a couple rookie free agents have shown early promise. That's a lot of moving parts, though, and it may take some time to figure out who is in the rotation and how much each one sees the field. The offseason program was only mildly helpful in figuring out that puzzle, as the lack of pads and contact limits what a pass-rusher can really show. The pads will go on a few days into camp and then the Buccaneers will find out which and how many of their potential edge rushers emerge as useful players for their rotation.