The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won't release their first official depth chart of the 2015 season until a few days before their August 15 preseason opener at Minnesota. That makes sense, because dozens of players will be using the next two weeks to jockey up and down the pecking order.
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However, the team did begin firming up that eventual depth chart even before taking the field for its first camp practice. Specifically, Head Coach Lovie Smith – who is, after all, the one who ultimately determines the lineup – did this by announcing at his camp-opening press conference that rookie Jameis Winston will be the Buccaneers' starting quarterback.
Buccaneers players reported to One Buccaneer Place for Training Camp this morning.
This wasn't exactly a surprising revelation, except for perhaps its timing. Winston, the first overall pick in this spring's NFL draft, was the favorite to be under center on opening day, even with the reassuring presence of third-year veteran Mike Glennon. Choosing to make this more official at the very beginning of training camp appears to be the result of a very strong conviction by Smith that Winston is ready for the job.
"We brought him here to be our quarterback," said Smith. "We feel like he's ready to take this next step. Now we are not game ready, we are not Tennessee ready by any means at a lot of positions, but he needs to move into that role right now. Again, we all feel good about him going there.
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"I would never put a guy in that position if he wasn't ready for that. A lot has been said about Jameis and mentors and different things. Jameis doesn't need a mentor, alright. Jameis is ready to take the reins and go with it. The mental part, the physical part and just being a quarterback in the NFL and being able to take the criticism that goes with this; I think he is ready for that."
Since the draft brought him to Tampa, Winston has made a good opening impression on his veteran teammates by working hard and letting his role on the team develop naturally. Obviously, his teammates on defense are rooting for him to succeed, but they plan to show it in a not-so-amiable manner. That is, the Buccaneers want to be the most difficult defense Winston plays against all year.
"I felt like he came in very loose in the beginning, just like he was one of the guys," said cornerback Alterraun Verner. "I felt like he didn't have that much pressure, even though sometimes I think he was forcing stuff upon himself because he wanted to be perfect. You can tell that he wants perfection. But I've been very pleased with him. You can tell by his work ethic, you can tell by the camaraderie that he has with the guys already, so I'm looking forward to seeing how he improves in training camp. I think it's my job to try give him as much hell now so that it will be easier for him during the season."
Verner said that last part with a laugh, but he will certainly be serious when the offense and defense square off in training camp. That will be particularly true on the third day of camp and beyond, when the pads go on and the battle in the trenches becomes more realistic. The Bucs still won't want any of their pass-rushers making contact with the quarterbacks, but they can do plenty to disrupt their timing and mess with their sight lines.
"He's going to be tested during this camp, and we feel like we're going to be the best team to give him the test," said defensive end George Johnson. "When we give him our all, he's going to get better and then when he gets into game … he's going to play good."
Of course, while it's even more certain now that Winston will start in his first NFL game, it's never 100 percent a sure thing. Glennon will compete in an effort to win the job back and increase upon his NFL total of 19 regular-season starts, and that will serve to make both young passers better.
"It's about, for us, developing the quarterback position and we feel like we did that," said Smith. "We'll continue to do that by keeping Mike involved. We are going to dress two quarterbacks each week. Mike Glennon is a good quarterback. Between him and Jameis we feel we are in pretty good shape at that position."
Some additional notes from reporting day:
- Injuries are an unavoidable part of training camp, even in the post-two-a-days era, and most teams simply hope to avoid the major ones that lead to significant missed time in the regular season. Last summer, the Bucs had one such mishap, as an ankle injury for rookie running back Charles Sims led to surgery and a half-season on the sideline.
The Buccaneers are starting from a good place in this regard, with just two players expected to be unavailable when the first practice begins on Saturday afternoon. There is no doubt that list will grow during the three weeks of camp, but Verner doesn't plan to be on it. Injuries may be largely a matter of poor luck, but Verner believes that players can do things to reduce their chances of missing time. The greatest Buc player ever at Verner's position, Ronde Barber, would surely agree. Barber never missed a game due to injury in his 16-year NFL career, and rarely missed a practice.
"It was big for me to stay healthy and to finish that whole OTA [period]," said Verner. "It's a night-and-day difference. Sometimes I feel like, 'Okay, you know you can prepare mentally,' but physically being out there is so much better. Just being with my teammates, feeling that bond and getting that chemistry better. That's another thing I'm looking forward to in training camp – staying healthy, making sure I take care of my body, stretching, everything.
"Because if I get hurt, it's on me. No excuses. I'm expecting to be out there every day working hard."
- Second-year wide receiver Mike Evans cracked 1,000 yards as a rookie and set a Buccaneer record for all players with 12 touchdown receptions. But, of course, he wants to be even better in 2015, and he may achieve that by being faster.
Evans says he is reporting to camp lighter this year, which he thinks will increase his speed. He shared that information before his official weigh-in on Friday morning, so the team's official roster has not yet been updated with the correct number, but he expected it to be somewhere south of 230 pounds.
"I want to be one of the best receivers in the game and I've got high expectations for the team this year," said Evans. "I'm just excited to be back and excited to get the season started."
- Evans also mentioned the need to prepare himself for the afternoon heat of a Tampa summer, and that's soon going to be a concern for all 90 players on the roster. With the Bay area in the midst of an unusually rainy period, that heat is going to be doubled down by even worse humidity than usual.
Johnson, who spent his last two seasons in NFC North locales, isn't quite sure how he feels about that.
"I've been in it before, and I'm kind of dreading it, but it's better than being in that cold," he said. "I'll take this heat any day. I'm glad to be here. I've been in two cold places – very cold – so it's good to get out here and get in the sun for a little bit and defrost from Minnesota and Detroit."
On a more serious note, Johnson does consider the hot and muggy conditions to be the perfect test for a team that is eager to prove its resiliency after a down season.
The one thing I want to see is just how tough we are, if we can take the heat and also practice hard, give it all each day in practice. During camp, you get extremely tired and the long days are drawn out. Just to see how guys continue to keep fighting and keep building, that just shows you what kind of character they have.
"They don't want to be 2-14 anymore. They want to actually be better, they want to prove people wrong, so you could see just how hard they worked. I thought I worked hard but some guys are working a lot harder than me."