Buccaneers Senior Writer and Editor Scott Smith took the first crack at some storylines to watch as the Bucs enter camp this week. Veterans report Thursday for the first practice on Friday, which is open to the public, by the way.
To get you prepared for the MULTIPLE practices you’ll be coming to, I decided to give you even more things to watch out for. After all, training camp may come every year but it’s never quite the same. Given the Bucs numerous offseason changes, this camp may be even more different than recent years and it all starts with new Head Coach Bruce Arians.
Scott earmarked the hiring of Arians and its subsequent domino effect as his first story line but allow me to dive a little further into that.
1. New Coach, New Defense
While Arians is the guy in charge, he’s an offensive guy. It’s Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles that’s been tasked with returning defense to Tampa Bay and from what we’ve seen this offseason through numerous OTA practices and mini-camp is that this defense is about to look at whole lot different.
Sure, it starts in the Bucs’ shift from a base 4-3 (four down linemen, three linebackers) to a base 3-4 (reverse that) but that is almost criminally oversimplifying it. NFL defenses are only in their base formations a fraction of the time. Because of the rise of three-wideout sets and pass-happy offenses, defenses have started to favor their nickel packages. That is, bringing out a fifth defensive back while taking out a lineman. Ask Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre about that.
In short, this already means more versatility than overpowering, smashmouth defenses of old, and Bowles takes that ‘v’ word to a whole new level. He’s known for creating confusion for opposing offenses and bringing pressure – lots of it. The Bucs’ pass rush improved last year from 2017 but still tied for only 19th in the league with 38.0 total sacks. Not that sacks tell the whole pass rush story. The Bucs ranked 15th in quarterback hits with 93 and actually ranked in the top 10 in tackles for loss at number eight with 85 total. Yet, I only expect those numbers to go up under Bowles, especially with his propensity for blitzing and penetration from each level of the defense. Linebacker Lavonte David is already among the league leaders in tackles for loss for his career, with the increased role linebackers play in pressure situations on the Bucs’ new defense, David could be in for a career (and hopefully Pro Bowl) year.
David is just one example of how the current personnel could end up thriving under this new system. There is plenty of opportunity to go around for every player; rookies and veterans, alike. More on another one of those players later. Of course, the team has to grasp the defense first – and that’s exactly what training camp is for.
2. How Tight Ends Will Be Utilized in BA’s Offense
I’ve spent a lot of time debunking this whole ‘Bruce Arians doesn’t use tight ends in his offense’ narrative and the subsequent anxiety that tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate won't be utilized to their potential that seems to have been going around this offseason. There are multiple holes in that argument. Sure, his offense in Arizona revolved a lot around a guy named Larry Fitzgerald, you might have heard of him, idk. But give Arians a weapon at the tight end position, like Heath Miller while he was the offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he will put that position to work.
In Arians’ first year as OC in Pittsburgh in 2007, Miller scored the fourth-most touchdowns by a tight end in the league. In 2009, Miller was top 10 in both touchdowns by a tight end and overall receiving yards by a tight end. The long-time Steeler didn’t have less than 500 yards receiving or less than 60 targets per season during Arians’ tenure.
Fast forward to 2019 and Arians now has two Heath Miller-types to work with. NFL offenses in general have seen a rise in two-tight-end sets, usually with only one as a true receiving threat. The other one serves primarily in a blocking capacity as an extension of the offensive line. Now, Howard has made it a priority to work on his blocking ability this offseason and Brate has always been strong in that regard. What makes them unique is that they are both receiving threats. This allows the offense a lot of creative freedom. Defenses now not only have to account for potentially three wide receivers, but also two tight ends that could very realistically get the ball.
Tight ends also provide a big, reliable target for quarterbacks. Brate has been one of quarterback Jameis Winston’s go-to targets in recent years when inside the red zone, especially, where you need a big body to make contested catches in traffic. It’s probably why Brate led the team in touchdowns last season with six. Howard is deceivingly fast for his size and in just the second game of the season set a career-long when he nabbed a 75-yard pass down the sideline. He’s really an incredible athlete.
The bottom line is that when you have both O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate on your roster – you use them. And it’s going to be interesting how they fit into an offense that has a strong receiving corps to begin with.
View the top photos from the Bucs offseason practices.
3. The Safety Competition
Scott talked about the position battle at cornerback and that extends to their secondary counterparts in the safeties. The Bucs announced that free safety Justin Evans would begin training camp on the Active/PUP list. As the team’s starting free safety, that now opens up an opportunity for a younger player to step in.
While the Buccaneers drafted two cornerbacks in Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting this past April, they only drafted Mike Edwards at the safety position. They also picked up Kentrell Brice in free agency. The current state of the inflated 90-man roster has rookie Lukas Denis, rookie D'Cota Dixon, third-year player Isaiah Johnson, AAF-product Orion Stewart and sophomore Jordan Whitehead filling the rest of the safety room up. Only Johnson and Whitehead were with the Bucs last year and Brice is the veteran entering his fifth season.
Essentially, it means the two safety spots are wide open. Whitehead played at strong safety last season and Johnson rotated in at free safety spot with Evans, and much of the secondary, battling injury. Whitehead is a little undersized for a strong safety but he plays extremely hard and has a natural feel in the run game. It may have something to do with his background as a two-way player, splitting time at running back in high school and as he entered college. Now that he has a year under his belt, he should take a big step forward this season and will be fun to watch as he fits into this new system.
There’s also reason to be excited about Edwards, who had quite the collegiate career as a member of the Kentucky Wildcats last year. Edwards is a ball hawk, plain and simple. He had 10 interceptions as a Wildcat, recording or tying the team-high as a sophomore and junior. Plus, he was as reliable as they come, never missing a game in his four-year career.
He’s going to be relied on heavily – even as a rookie – in this Bucs’ defense. Which safety position he ends up occupying, though, will be something to watch as camp develops. That will impact how the rest of the position shakes out.
4. The Right Stuff at Right Guard
Look, the left side of the offensive line is all locked up – and locked up tight. Left guard Ali Marpet and left tackle Donovan Smith, both from the 2015 draft class, inked long-term extensions with the team. Center Ryan Jensen signed a four-year contract prior to last season with the Bucs in free agency. That’s all set.
On the right side, you have the longest-tenured Buccaneer in tackle Demar Dotson, who will be entering his 10th season with the team. That leaves the right guard spot, which was somewhat of a revolving door last year. Guard Caleb Benenoch spent time in there. The Bucs drafted offensive lineman Alex Cappa in 2018 to potentially fill that role and he got a few chances last season, as well. However, nothing is solidified.
The Bucs didn’t draft another offensive lineman in 2019 but added veteran offensive lineman Earl Watford in free agency. They also have versatile guys like Evan Smith, Michael Liedtke, Ruben Holcomb, Cole Boozer and Zack Bailey that could potentially fit into that spot. Because it’s very common for offensive linemen to move between spots on the line, this is one position battle that really is wide open. Training camp is going to serve as the extended audition for who can fit into that position and stick.
Whoever it ends up being will have to not only pass protect like a pro, especially when quarterback Jameis Winston looks to throw the deep ball, but also open up running lanes for guys like Peyton Barber and maybe Ronald Jones, who Scott mentioned as another player to watch throughout camp. RoJo’s development will depend heavily on what the Bucs’ offensive line can open up for him. He saw limited work last season and was literally starting from behind, getting tackled on or behind the line of scrimmage on a vast majority of his rushing attempts.
Suffice to say, the right guard position battle has implications on much more than just the offensive line and will be something to pay close attention to.
5. Just How Good Can Vita Vea Be?
A big reason for my optimism is how he finished the year in 2018. The last eight games of the season, Vea registered 3.0 sacks, 26 total tackles (four for loss) and four quarterback hits. Double that to get to a full season and that’s a 6.0-sack, 52-tackle pace for an interior defensive lineman, which is pretty darn good.
Here’s the thing, too: I think he can do even better than that because of the guy the Bucs brought in to line up alongside him. Interior defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh was brought in during free agency and with him, comes a certain attitude that I think Vea can benefit from. Vea is already an athletic freak. At nearly 350 pounds, Vea is one of the most agile and athletic players I’ve ever seen. I’ve personally witnessed him chase down a running back from the opposite side of the formation in OTA practices and actually get there.
This defense also allows interior linemen the opportunity to penetrate and get after the quarterback, rather than just occupy blockers, as is common in base 3-4 schemes. It will just be a matter of how fast Vea can grasp the concepts and how comfortable he can get. I have a feeling we’ll be able to see that progression firsthand these next six weeks.