The next order of business for Dirk Koetter: Vacation.
Six months into his first season as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach, Koetter has finally hit the first real lull in his schedule. The Buccaneers wrapped up both their three-day mandatory mini-camp and their entire offseason program on Thursday, and like coaches and players all around the league, the Bucs' head man is going to take a few weeks to rest and recharge before getting back to work.
And, indeed, there is plenty of work just around the corner. The Buccaneers will open their training camp on July 30, from there beginning a process that will eventually whittle a 90-man roster down to the best 53. It won't be easy, and that's a good thing.
The real battle for roster spots and starting jobs will begin in training camp, but 10 weeks of offseason work have laid the groundwork. And the last three days, featuring a trio of two-hour up-tempo practices under a brutal sun, were probably the most informative. Here are five things we learned during mini-camp, about depth chart competitions and a couple other topics.
1. Wide receiver looks like it's going to be a tough call on cut days.
We went into the offseason knowing that Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson were the obvious starters, and little else. The Bucs will likely keep either five or six receivers on the 53-man roster and one of those – or perhaps several of them in different types of roles – will see significant playing time in three-receiver packages. That sets up a pretty intense battle between Louis Murphy, Adam Humphries, Donteea Dye, Kenny Bell, Evan Spencer, Russell Shepard, Bernard Reedy, Andre Davis and Freddie Martino.
That's a lot of names for three or four spots, but it's not an unusually high number of receivers (11) to carry in training camp. What complicates matters is that there isn't an obvious pecking order among the competitors. As Koetter mentioned on each of the last two days of mini-camp, if you watch enough practices you'll eventually see every player on that list have his own standout day.
Photos from the Buccaneers' final mini-camp practice of 2016.
Oh, sure, if you watch the order in which the receivers take their reps, you might divine that Adam Humphries is at least near the top of the battle for the slot-receiver job. On the other hand, we learned from Koetter that Reedy is specifically suited to the slot role, too. We also learned he has a pretty good nickname.
"Well Bernard is a guy that we had in Atlanta for a while," said Koetter. "His quickness, number one – he’s one of the quickest guys on the field. We call him 'Speedy Reedy' for short – somebody besides me thought of that – and he’s just a quick little guy in the slot on those little crossing routes and stuff like that. He has a knack for getting himself open."
And if there was a little bit of buzz around either of those two, Kenny Bell overpowered it with two very strong days to finish camp. Bell got open for several deep balls and benefited from on-target throws by third-string quarterback Ryan Griffin. Just as he did last year, Bell will be entering training camp with a good amount of momentum.
"Kenny definitely had a good day today and a couple of really nice throws there in the red zone from Griff," said Koetter. "If you were out here enough, every guy has his ups and downs, has his good days and bad days and Kenny certainly made a couple of plays. Kenny has a little extra gear that some other guys don’t have and today that showed up."
It's a little less clear what Bell's role in the offense would be if he wins a roster spot. The same could be true for Murphy, the one competitor in the battle who hasn't got to show what he can do on the field this spring, as he has continued his recovery from a 2015 knee injury. However, Murphy has shown during the last two regular seasons that he can step right in if a starter goes down and keep the offense's level of production up.
Shepard has locked up a roster spot the last three years almost solely on his special teams prowess, but even he had a few standout moments on offense this week. The Bucs also are high on Spencer, a second-year player who got a late promotion to the active roster last fall. It's common for the wideout position to look deceptively deep in June, when the lack of pads and contact limits what a team can do on the practice field. This year, however, it's just plain cryptic, and that sets up what may be the most interesting competition to watch in training camp.
2. Vernon Hargreaves is a playmaker, as advertised.
The Bucs are hoping that their first two draft picks of 2016 can make an immediate impact on defense after the team struggled to pressure quarterbacks and gave up a 70% completion rate in 2015. Defensive end Noah Spence, the second-round pick, stood out with his speed and versatility throughout the OTAs and mini-camp, but the nature of his position during non-contact practices made it hard to truly gauge his performance. First-round pick Vernon Hargreaves didn't have the same problem; every time he picked off a pass or deflected one into the hands of a teammate, it was pretty clearly a strong play.
And that happened a lot.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' second mini-camp practice.
"Over the course of these OTAs and camp there is at least one thing every day that Vernon shows up making a play," said Koetter. "He has a real knack for the ball. Some guys can be in position and never seem to make a play on the ball. When Vernon gets his hands on it he’s going to catch it."
Koetter made those comments on Wednesday, before Hargreaves shined again in the final practice. In the first full-team session of Thursday's workout he made a sudden move on a very short pass over the middle, cutting in front of the intended target. The pass was so quick and short that he couldn't quite haul it in, but he got his hands on it and deflected it to Keith Tandy for an interception. Though it was a good end result for his side, Hargreaves was clearly upset that he didn't pick it off himself. Later, near the end of the day, he was happier after finishing off a leaping interception right at the goal line.
By the end of Day Three it was pretty clear that Hargreaves would indeed be a significant piece in the team's secondary in 2016, though his role might not yet be fully defined.
“He’s going to play," said Koetter. "The guy has made plays every single day. Vernon is a football player, everything we thought when we drafted him. He’s going to play. It will all fall in place. A lot of that will be determined by health, but I’m very confident that Vernon can either play inside at the nickel or play outside. For whoever doesn’t know the difference, the nickel corner plays over the slot and regular corners play outside on the wide out and Vernon can play both."
Hargreaves could end up in Ronde Barber-type of hybrid role, playing on the outside in a base defense and moving into the slot in nickel packages. The Bucs have worked Hargreaves quite a bit in the slot during the offense simply because that's the position he was less familiar with coming out of the University of Florida.
"I’m fairly comfortable [in the slot]," said the rookie defender. "Not all the way comfortable as I am outside. It’s new – new position, new techniques and things I need to learn, so it’s a learning process, but I’m enjoying it. The closer you are to the ball, the more times you can touch the ball, so I’m happy about moving inside, of course."
3. Dirk Koetter doesn't particularly care about an isolated fight on the practice field…and doesn't think you should either.
The son of a football coach, and himself a coach at heart since an early age, Koetter has been around the game his entire life. He's seen just about everything at this point, including the occasional practice-field fight, and he's not exactly wringing his hands over it.
The Bucs' final offseason practice on Thursday featured an intense but brief scuffle that, as is often the case, appeared to be a disagreement between and offensive lineman and a defensive linemen. The whole thing lasted about a minute, and then practice resumed and there was no further incident.
Still, the fight was the first thing Koetter was asked about after practice, and he rather emphatically dismissed its importance.
“Look, if you guys just watched a two-hour practice and that’s what you got out of it, then you’re in the wrong spot," said the coach. "If that’s your lead story, you’re in the wrong spot. It’s hot as hell out here, these guys are working their tails off, emotions get heated and guess what? That’s football practice. Get over it."
Some coaches take a harder-line approach than others towards fights on the field. Some consider it a borderline-positive sign that the players are passionate about their efforts. Others consider it a complete waste of time that takes away from the players' focus on the job at hand. Koetter apparently doesn't waste much time thinking about it all. It's going to happen from time to time. As he said, get over it.
4. The Bucs will benefit from good health as they head into training camp.
The final day of mini-camp was an occasion for Koetter to look back on what his team had managed to accomplish over the 10 weeks of its offseason program. In his mind, it was a lot.
“Well, what we accomplished, number one, is we put in a whole new defensive scheme [and] a whole new special teams scheme," said Koetter. "We integrated 24 rookies and five or six free agents into our system [and] we continued to develop our offensive scheme."
Pictures from the Buccaneers' first mini-camp practice.
Those were the obvious big-picture goals for the offseason and it's good that Koetter is pleased with the level to which is team met them. Of course, we won't know how successfully they did so until the games begin. Presumably, the Buccaneers are right where they need to be in order to begin training camp.
What we know in a more concrete sense is that the roster is where it needs to be, health-wise, to begin camp. Or at least it will be by July 30. Koetter does not anticipate being without a single player on the 90-man roster for the first practice of training camp. That's extremely good news.
"We don’t have one guy – knock on wood – we don’t have one guy on our team that won’t be ready to go when we come back to camp," said Koetter. "Of course we’re going to be very cautious with guys this time of year. It makes no sense – one week left until we take a little break – it makes no sense to hurt guys, with guys that are feeling a little twinge here or there. It makes no sense to push them."
The Bucs have a very small group of players – defensive end Jacquies Smith, wide receiver Louis Murphy and guard J.R. Sweezy – who didn't participate in any offseason practices as they continued to recover from previous injuries. All are on target to be ready for camp, however. As Koetter mentioned, the team was cautious with the practice time for a couple veterans like wide receiver Vincent Jackson and cornerback Brent Grimes. A few players suffered minor injuries along the way and missed a week or two, but most returned to the field before the offseason was over. Rookie safety Ryan Smith is one example; it didn't help him in his conversion from cornerback to miss a couple of weeks with a minor leg injury, but he should have time to get back on track in training camp.
"He missed some [time], so he’s playing a bit of catch-up mentally with the install, but one thing about Ryan, his speed and his quickness to the ball shows up on tape at least once a day," said Koetter. "I’ll just say, the main thing with him right now is he needs to be on the field a little bit more. He’s just a little behind. Nothing he can help because you can’t control injuries, but training camp will be huge for him."
With about 2,800 players in action across 32 NFL sites during the offseason, an injury or two is inevitable, even without contact. Key rookies Shaq Lawson in Buffalo and Jalen Ramsey in Jacksonville may be in danger of missing camp or even the start of the season with their offseason shoulder and knee ailments, respectively, and the Patriots recently lost tight end Michael Williams to injured reserve. Other teams, such as Kansas City with star linebacker Justin Houston, are unsure when key players are going to return from previous injuries. We'll all knock on wood along with Koetter, but at the moment the Bucs don't have to worry about any such situations.
5. Jameis Winston is ready to have even more on his plate.
For Winston, the offseason started with stories about what was not on his plate – a new conditioning regiment allowed him to enter his second NFL season with a slimmed-down physique that he hopes will help him play even better. Now, as that second season approaches, the focus is on what the Buccaneers might metaphorically put on his plate in terms of running the offense.
The Buccaneers finished fifth in the NFL in net yards per game on offense last year and Winston became just the third rookie ever to throw for more than 4,000 yards. Winston improved as the season wore on, as one would expect a talented rookie to do, particularly in terms of protecting the ball after an early rash of turnovers. The Bucs believe that was just the beginning and that their franchise-QB-in-the-making is ready to make another leap in Year Two. Part of that could involve opening up more of the playbook and giving Winston more decisions to make at the line of scrimmage.
"Jameis can handle a lot and does handle a lot every day," said Koetter. "He can handle more than we’re giving him. Compared to last year at this time, he knows way, way more than he did a year ago at this time."
That also makes sense. Winston is a noted football junkie, putting in endless hours to watch tape and hone his game. His capacity to absorb an offense and think quickly under pressure has never been questioned, so he should increasingly be able to handle line-of-scrimmage option calls and more no-huddle work. The Bucs were following specific play scripts during mini-camp practice, essentially laying the groundwork to eventually give Winston more responsibility on the field.
Photos of Season Pass Members attending this week's mini-camp at One Buccaneer Place.
"I think just executing the simple things is always the right thing to do," said Winston. "We’re never going to panic in those situations, but I’m pretty sure there will be things down the road that we can put in some different packages or different audibles.
"Right now I’m just doing the same things I did last year. This is mini-camp and OTAs, so most of these audibles and things come into game-planning, so we’re not game-planning anything right now. We’re just trying to execute to perfection. We’re trying to do things right and that’s all."