The Buccaneers' 53-Man roster.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will begin their offseason training program on Monday, with a two-week "Phase One" period that can consist only of meetings and strength and conditioning work. After a pause for the NFL Draft to take center stage, the program starts up again in "Phase 2" on May 2, with coaches now allowed to work with the players on the field. "Phase 3," which begins later in May, includes the organized team activity days, or OTAs, during which the offense and defense can practice against each other, and a wrap-up mini-camp.
It's a gradual process aimed at helping players steadily get in playing shape and learn the playbook. It helps all the players who choose to participate – everything but the final mini-camp is voluntary – and in Tampa that is usually 100% of the roster, or close to it. However, some players have a chance to help themselves more than others during the offseason program.
The most obvious such player for the Buccaneers is Jameis Winston. Coming off a spectacular 4,000-yard rookie campaign, Winston gets to trade in the pre-draft process of last year for his first full NFL offseason. Starting every game as a rookie helped him identify the areas in which he needs to improve, and he can now attack them with his near-legendary dedication to his craft. He also plays for an organization that is basing many of his decisions on what will best help Winston develop into a franchise quarterback.
But Winston isn't the only Buccaneer who is in position to help himself tremendously during the offseason program. Think of these not as players "with something to prove," but players with so much to gain. The real proving ground will be training camp, when contact is allowed at practice and jobs are won and lost. The months leading up to that are an opportunity for some players to put themselves in better position for that competition.
As such, below are five Buccaneers who have much to gain during the offseason program. While there are significant jobs to be one on the offensive and defensive lines, we didn't choose any players from those positions because the total lack of contact in the offseason makes it more difficult for those players to progress.
1. Kwon Alexander
Starting with Alexander underscores the idea that this is not meant to be a list of players who have to prove themselves (though there is a bit of that in some of the choices). Alexander, a fourth-round pick who proved himself well enough last offseason to win the opening-day starting middle linebacker job, was one of the great success stories of the 2015 season.
This also has nothing to do with the suspension that kept him on the sideline for the last four games of that rookie campaign. There is a sense at One Buccaneer Place that Alexander could be a play-making star in the NFL, giving the Buccaneers the kind of impactful linebacker tandem they used to have with Derrick Brooks and Hardy Nickerson, and later Brooks and Shelton Quarles.
That* is what Alexander has to gain this offseason. Can he take another significant step forward and prove that he was no fluke in 2015, that the promise of his rookie season is real? That may not happen all in one year, but many NFL players make their biggest strides between their first and second seasons, after they have had one year to get adjusted to the league and its demands.
Alexander is 21 years old; he's not going to be any less athletic in 2016. Where he can make a difference is unlocking that athleticism by understanding the game and the Bucs' defense even better…and it's a new defense in 2016 with coordinator Mike Smith now in charge. Alexander was able to call plays for the defense as a rookie, which is no easy task, and he should be even better at it in 2016 after a full offseason to work with the Bucs' coaching staff. As much as Alexander can do to make the game come naturally to him, to be able to play as instinctively as possible, will make him a more productive player in his second year.
2. Kenny Bell
The next player chosen by the Buccaneers after Alexander in the 2015 draft, this former Nebraska wide receiver did not get a chance to show what he can do as a rookie. Or, to be more exact, he gave a preview of the possibilities in the offseason but didn't get to build on it thanks to an injury suffered midway through the preseason. Instead, he spent his debut season on injured reserve.
Bell did make a point of staying as involved as possible during the season as he worked to recover from his injury. He was a regular at practices and in the meeting rooms, hoping to soak up as much knowledge as possible even if he couldn't run any routes. That should help him as he gets a chance to get back onto the field and into Dirk Koetter's system in the next few weeks.
It would be fair to say that Bell does have something to prove, and there's no guarantee he'll have a big role in the 2016 offense. The Bucs' receiving corps is a bit unsettled after the starting duo of Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, and there are plenty of intriguing candidates. Veteran Louis Murphy returns from the injury that cost him much of 2015, too, and another pair of rookies from last year – Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye – are back as well. Humphries and Dye both played extensively in the season's second half thanks to injuries to Jackson, Murphy and Bell.
"I know he's hungry," said Koetter of Bell. "He was around all the time last year. He was in the meetings. He's a sharp guy. But he's starting off behind Adam and DD right now, because those guys, just by being able to hang in there, they got a lot of playing time. But Kenny's definitely got a shot."
3. Johnthan Banks
Few players on the current roster have a more difficult Buccaneer future to predict than Johnthan Banks. Things could be much different by training camp, however, especially if Banks takes well to the defense Smith installs.
Banks started and ended the 2015 season as a starting cornerback for the Bucs, but he also had long stretches in between where he wasn't in the team's defensive plans at all. Considering how the upheaval at cornerback lasted most of the season and eventually touched virtually everyone in that group, that isn't necessarily a death knell for Banks' time in Tampa, however.
The same is true of the Bucs' free agent signings of cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Josh Robinson. With Mike Jenkins and Sterling Moore hitting free agency, the Bucs had only three corners with regular-season experience on the depth chart, so additions through the market or the draft were inevitable. Grimes, who had 13 interceptions over the past three seasons in Miami, seems like a nearly sure bet to start but Banks will get every opportunity to carve out a significant role.
"I always refer back to we need competition at every position, and that was the case with Johnthan Banks," said Koetter, who personally notified Banks of the new signings. "I gave him a call just to let him know we had very high hopes and high expectations for him, but that we were going to add a couple of corners. We're trying to create competition in the secondary. He said he appreciated the call and he was looking forward to competing."
A second-round pick in 2013 and a highly-accomplished college player at Mississippi State, the 6-2 Banks still has the size and skills that can translate into an impact cornerback. The question, of course, is how good of a fit he is for Smith's system, and that's something he can begin answering during offseason workouts and OTAs.
4. Ryan Griffin
Koetter spoke highly of Griffin, currently the Buccaneers' third-string quarterback, during the recent league meetings in Boca Raton, but the coming months will be his first time to get offseason work with the young passer. The Buccaneers grabbed Griffin off waivers from the Saints last September and kept him protected on the 53-man roster all year despite already having Winston and Mike Glennon in place. The reason seems pretty obvious: Griffin is an intriguing contingency plan for a possible point in time when Glennon is no longer around as Winston's backup.
Glennon may not be going anywhere soon – Koetter has made it clear he very much likes having the fourth-year passer on the roster – but that doesn't change the offseason plans for Griffin and the Buccaneers. Koetter said Griffin has "a chance to be an ascending player at quarterback," and at some point that will be proved to be true or false. That process started last fall, but a third-string quarterback can get a lot more attention and reps during the offseason.
As we mentioned above, the offseason program isn't as productive as it could be for some positions. A quarterback can be judged on every throw and every decision, however. Griffin has an opportunity this spring and summer to solidify the coaching staff's confidence in him heading into training camp.
5. Bradley McDougald
McDougald started 15 games last season, and even though he finished with just two interceptions and no forced fumbles the team has been talking about his potential as a playmaker since the second half of 2014. They obviously still believe that potential is there because they re-signed him as a restricted free agent rather than letting him walk away.
The Bucs also re-signed unrestricted free agent safety Chris Conte, the other primary starting safety from the 2015 team, as well as respected backup and special teams player Keith Tandy. Despite those moves, the safety position is commonly listed as one of need by outside analysts trying to determine what the team will do in the draft. This recent article on NFL.com, for instance, ranks safety as the Bucs' third-biggest need.
If the 2016 draft does yield a highly-regarded safety for the Buccaneers, the competition for starting jobs, and for a long-term future with the team, could take on a very different look. And, of course, the one-year contract that McDougald got as a restricted free agent puts him on a path to be an unrestricted free agent next spring. Before that happens, McDougald has another very good opportunity to show that he is indeed the kind of safety who can make big plays against both the run and the pass. He can set himself up to take advantage of that opportunity by quickly getting comfortable in Smith's system.