Apparently tiring of the taste of offensive linemen, the injury bug has moved on to the cornerback position in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp. That led to some creative solutions regarding the distribution of reps in practice on Saturday.
The Buccaneers standard allotment of roster slots at cornerback in a 90-man camp is eight, which is where the group stood about a week ago, albeit with starter Brent Grimes out due to an injury. Then a practice-field injury led to the waiver of David Rivers and both Vernon Hargreaves and Javien Elliott sustained injuries in Thursday night's preseason win in Miami. Just like that, the practice-field options at cornerback were cut in half.
The Buccaneers first addressed that issue on Friday, as the players enjoyed a day of rest, by signing a pair of undrafted rookie corners: Georgia's Aaron Davis and Central Michigan's Amari Coleman. Those two got a full dose of work in their first day as Buccaneers, but the position still remains an area of concern as the team now points towards its second preseason game Saturday in Tennessee.
"We're thin, we're thin," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Last week and continuing into this week, offensive tackle we're thin, and we're thin in the secondary, especially at corner. I think we have four corners down. We just signed two corners yesterday; if we wouldn't have signed those guys we would have had four corners to practice today. It would have been tough. Those guys would be [tired]."
The injuries and the recent signings have left the Bucs with a very young group of corners ready to take reps. Grimes, the most seasoned veteran in that group, did return to action on Saturday after a long absence but still didn't take any 11-on-11 snaps. That left the Bucs with six active corners and five of them were rookies. Given how well second-round picks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis have performed since camp began, that's not a terrible disadvantage for the first-team defense, but there were still a lot of snaps for the two new players and fellow undrafted rookie Marko Myers. Ryan Smith, in his third year, is deeply experienced by comparison.
Koetter and his staff came up with another way to ease the reps crunch at cornerback on Saturday. Second-year man Justin Evans, usually one of the two starters at safety, took over first-team reps as the slot corner. That had the added advantage of opening up some front-line work at safety for rookie Jordan Whitehead, who had a strong showing in his NFL debut on Thursday.
"You're playing nickel at least half of practice," said Koetter. "We had Justin Evans playing nickel with the first group today. You've got to keep going and the two new guys got baptism by fire. They got a lot of reps today."
The move of Evans into the slot was probably more of a temporary bandage than the start of any long-term experiment. Evans is surely more valuable to the secondary in his usual role, and at full strength the Bucs have two very promising slot options in Hargreaves and Stewart. Still, it certainly doesn't hurt to get Evans some training in a separate position, in case an emergency solution is ever needed. That's a good way for any player to increase his value to the team.
"There's a couple guys on both sides of the ball that are like that, that can play multiple positions," said Koetter. "The players always say, 'The more you can do, the more you can do.' Evan Smith. Evan Smith's that guy on the O-Line. And then we already mentioned Alan Cross. Guys like that are worth their weight in gold whether they're starters or not."
CHASED BY LIGHTNING: For the second time since training camp began, and only the first time since Day One, the Buccaneers had to make a quick move into their indoor facility when lightning threatened the area.
The first such occurrence was an immediate welcome to camp, as it happened just as the team was taking the (outdoor) field for its first practice on July 26. As it turned out, that entire session was held under the roof. On Saturday, the Buccaneers had worked through the majority of their outside work and were fairly close to moving inside anyway when the lightning alarm sounded on the back of One Buccaneer Place.
The indoor facility obviously proved its worth again as the practice was barely interrupted, but on Saturday the move inside might have been particularly serendipitous. Something about the switch changed the atmosphere of the practice in a less literal way.
"I think we started off a little sluggish," said Koetter of the team's first practice since Thursday night's game. "I mean, I'm not going to lie, I don't think those guys were crazy about practicing today. But it's training camp and we've got to work. We need to work. I thought actually coming in here today with the fans and the AC, that juiced them up a little bit. We finished better than we started. We'll go in and we'll correct it and the players are off tomorrow. I'm sure they'll be happy about that."
A NEW LEADER: The shift of practice indoors also worked out very well for the fans who had gone inside early to stake out seats near the west end zone. The offense moved from east to west when it was doing 11-on-11 drills, and that made those seats prime viewing for the splashiest play of practice, Jameis Winston's 54-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson. Jackson and fellow wideout Mike Evans than delighted the fans in the end zone bleachers with their touchdown celebration, an "alley-oop" over the crossbar, with Jackson feeding Evans.
It's not the first time that either Winston or Ryan Fitzpatrick have succeeded in hooking up with Jackson on a deep ball in camp, and each one has been a welcome sight after that connection proved so difficult last season. Jackson has clearly been a top performer in this summer's camp, but according to Koetter, that has extended beyond just his long touchdowns.
"DeSean's having an excellent camp," said Koetter. "I think DeSean has really asserted himself not only as a veteran but as a leader. He's tried to take on more of a [leadership] role, and I'm very pleased. We haven't hit him as much as we should, but that [play] was progress.
"DeSean has instant street cred because of his career. The players respect the heck out of DeSean, so when DeSean has good body language [it helps]. He's talked to the team at least twice so far. He's going to be the captain this week in Tennessee. It's a big difference if you see a guy that you respect out there doing what he's supposed to do versus a guy that's out there moping around. And hats off to him, he's doing a good job."