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Around the NFL, players and coaches are enjoying one last vacation before the sound and fury of another season arrives in full. Here's the one thought most of them are trying to avoid: Training camp is just weeks away. In fact, the veterans in Minnesota and Pittsburgh report to camp in just 12 days.
Veterans for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers get a few more days of rest than the Vikings and Steelers but will be back on the job on July 31. The first practice of training camp will be the very next day. That also marks the true beginning of competition on the depth chart, after an offseason that was focused on learning the playbook and getting into proper shape for camp. Storylines will rapidly emerge, whether it be the efforts of two young offensive linemen to crack the starting lineup or the search for an outside pass rush. There is also the matter of the number-one overall draft pick settling in under center.
Some training camp plots are obvious, such as the development of that rookie passer, Jameis Winston. Some come out of the blue. Here, we predict four potential storylines you'll be following this August.
1. Danny Lansanah will noisily make his case to remain a starter…with his play, that is.
When the Buccaneers traded up in the fourth round to draft LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander and then hinted that he had a significantly higher grade on their own draft board, the implications were obvious. This was a player they felt was tailor made for their defensive system, a potential starter, either right away or down the road.
Of course, the Bucs have one very entrenched starter on the weak side in Pro Bowl alternate Lavonte David, and they used free agency to grab Bruce Carter, their presumptive starter for departed middle linebacker Mason Foster. That would seem to leave the strongside spot as Alexander's best bet, but that path isn't exactly clear, either.
In 2014, one-time journeyman Danny Lansanah emerged as an NFL playmaker, ranking second among all NFL linebackers (to Carter, coincidentally) in interceptions. Lansanah also became the first Buccaneer 'backer ever to start at all three positions in a 4-3 defense in the same season. While that versatility was extremely helpful to the team when injuries struck the position in 2014, the coaching staff intended to let Lansanah focus on the strong side as the 2015 offseason began.
During OTAs in May and June, Lansanah did indeed get a lot of snaps on the strong side, but he also played some MIKE and took part in the nickel package (which usually does not include the strongside linebacker). On the other hand, Alexander did all three of those things as well, adding a helpful versatility to his own set of skills. Given that Carter also played several positions during his time in Dallas, it seems as if the Bucs have a wide variety of options when it comes to figuring out how to get those four linebackers into the mix.
One thing was clear during those OTAs: Lansanah has no intention of being a one-hit wonder. Getting a chance to start for the first time at the age of 29, and after a four-year absence from the NFL, he scored on two of his three interceptions and ranked third on the team with 78 tackles. This offseason, he's been leading the charge in the defense's efforts to create more turnovers; Carter referred to his new teammate as the Bucs' "interception master" after an OTA in June.
Lansanah is not a big talker on the field, but he seems determined to prove he can not only match but exceed his efforts from last season. The prediction here is that Lansanah makes enough plays to stand out on the practice field during training camp.
2. There will be much hand-wringing about the depth at receiver and how to pare it down.
In June, when rosters are at their calendar-year maximum and newcomers are running alongside incumbents – and, notably, when there is no contact allowed in practice – the Buccaneers' receiving corps often looks exceedingly deep. As young players take turns having big days on the practice field, that depth starts to look almost uncomfortable. How are the Bucs ever going to pare this group down to six or so pass-catchers for the regular season?
Come September, when the final roster cuts are in motion, that's not always the case. Some seasons, those difficult decisions last until the eve of the regular season; just as frequently, however, the choices for the receiving corps are fairly obvious and, after all is said and done, there are actually depth concerns.
It's too early to know which way the 2015 season will swing, but it's not too early to predict that the current crop of wideouts will be turning fans' heads at the open training camp practices. Vincent Jackson is still Vincent Jackson, and rookie phenom Mike Evans is probably going to become even more Mike Evans in Year Two. Louis Murphy is back after a very satisfying season as the team's primary #3 pass-catcher, but he has some pretty obvious competition in fifth-round draft steal Kenny Bell.
There's more. No matter how polished he looks on offense, sixth-round rookie Kaelin Clay could very well lock down a roster spot by winning the kick return job. Russell Shepard has stuck for two seasons based almost solely on his special teams prowess and could easily do so again. And, during the rookie mini-camp and the subsequent OTAs, undrafted free agents Rannell Hall, Donteea Dye and Adam Humphries all had impressive moments, or even impressive full practices. Second-year man Tavarres King shined at times, too, and last year's sixth-round pick, Robert Herron, is back to take another crack at winning the slot job.
That's 11 players, all apparently with something to offer, and they probably have to become six by the regular season. That debate will rage on throughout training camp and the preseason games, as fans and analysts debate Murphy vs. Bell, Clay vs. Shepard, Humphries vs. Hall, and so on. There's a good chance the answer won't be clear until the Bucs' announce their last round of roster cuts on Labor Day weekend.
3. Cornerback will be the most fiercely-contested position on the depth chart, and the most difficult one to predict.
On the surface, this doesn't appear to be a position set up for much turmoil. The team returns its two starters from last year, and that duo includes big-ticket free agency acquisition Alterraun Verner and third-year man Johnthan Banks, one of the Bucs' most improved players down the stretch in 2014. The team's most experienced nickel back, Leonard Johnson, returns as well.
There's more competition here than immediately hits the eye, however. There is no depth chart just yet, but one can safely assume that Verner will remain at the top of the list at left cornerback, and he's likely to remain there. Banks, too, deserves the benefit of the doubt on the right side after his second-half surge but it's hard to ignore that the team re-signed Mike Jenkins, the same player that battled with Banks for that job throughout the last offseason. Complicating matters (in a good way, as cornerback depth is both critical and hard to acquire) is the signing of former Cowboy Sterling Moore. The Bucs surely envisioned a significant role for Moore when they picked up him after a strong 2014 season in Dallas, but it's not yet clear what that role will be. If he proves to be the best option at the nickel back spot, that would provide big competition for Johnson and Isaiah Frey, the two players who were running at that spot during the final round of OTAs. If Moore is better suited to the outside, how will that affect the competition between Banks and Jenkins?
The Bucs might also be interested in finding work for Brandon Dixon, the undrafted rookie they picked up just before the season last year after he was released by the Jets. A sixth-round pick out of Northwest Missouri State in 2014, Dixon was thrown into the fire at times last fall during a run of cornerback injuries, and while he sometimes looked just like a rookie, he also showed plenty of promise. As is the case at the receiver spot, the Bucs' depth at cornerback probably looks more impressive in June than September, but there still seems to be plenty of uncertainty as to how this will shake out. Expect all of the competitors to go all out during training camp, with some jobs very much on the line.
4. Austin Seferian-Jenkins will look like a mismatch monster, especially in the red zone.
If this is to be a breakout year for Seferian-Jenkins, as some have predicted (including yours truly), there's a good chance you'll begin to see that in training camp when the pads go on. At that point, ASJ's 6-5, 262-pound frame becomes much more of a weapon, especially in the tight spaces inside the 20.
The Buccaneers have a number of big targets for the red zone, but the presence of the 6-5 duo of Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson should only help Seferian-Jenkins work the middle of the field. The fade pass to either corner is always in play when Evans and Jenkins are on the field, and the concern over that play means wider spaces in between for Jenkins. Expect the Buccaneers to work extensively on their red zone package during camp, and ASJ will be a noticeable part of that.
Even away from the goal line, the second-year player, who was drafted with the highest pick the franchise has ever used on a tight end is likely to be an emerging force in the offense, and that should be plain to see on the training camp practice field. Dirk Koetter has a proven track record at making the most out of his team's strengths, whether it be Maurice Jones-Drew or Matt Ryan, so one should expect that he is devising ways to find mismatches for all three of Evans, Jackson and Seferian-Jenkins. For ASJ, that means working him into one-on-one matchups with slower linebackers or smaller cornerbacks.
Training camp crowds love the big plays above all else, so the loudest cheers are likely to come from Mike Evans catching a pass from Jameis Winston deep down the sideline. Still, if this prediction is right, at some point we should be hearing an "A-S-J!" chant at One Buccaneer Place in August.