Photos from Day 4 of training camp practice at One Buccaneer Place.
Each week during the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from Buccaneer fans. This week, our attention turns to training camp and some of the young players trying to make their marks within it. Where could rookie LB Kwon Alexander make the most impact on the Bucs' linebacking corps? Speaking of impact, could Matthew Masifilo have one on the offensive line after converting from defense? And just where have the Bucs had the best training camp setup? Read one for our answers…or best guesses, in some cases.
1. Alexander's Impact.
We got this question before the start of training camp but I'm answering it now after I just interviewed Kwon Alexander and his coach, Hardy Nickerson, earlier in the week. Call it cheating on my part, but the point is that I'm much more well-informed about the subject now.
I think your question is exactly what the team is trying to find out. The Bucs had one of their top-rated 4-3 linebackers in this year's draft fall into their laps when Alexander surprisingly fell to the fourth round. Assuming the team is right about Alexander's talents, it's a little mysterious as to why that happened. Maybe it's just because there are so many 3-4 teams in the league this year, thus driving down the value of a 4-3 LB. Or other teams just needed to fill other needs first. That's what happened to the Bucs, in fact; they loved Alexander but felt they had more pressing needs at QB and the O-Line in the first two days of the draft. The continued presence of Alexander (not to mention fifth-rounder Bell) was just good fortune, in the Bucs' eyes.
Now that they have this nice asset for their defense, what should the Bucs do with it? Well, during the spring they started Alexander off at SAM, or strongside linebacker, since that seemed like the obvious spot. He had always played outside linebacker in college, and one of those two positions was already filled in Tampa by Lavonte David. In the process, however, they also let Alexander learn the nickel defense on the second-string crew. That meant he was one of two linebackers who stayed on the field, along with Danny Lansanah (David and Bruce Carter were the first nickel LB pair). They let Alexander try the MIKE position in the nickel, and he took to the spot well.
As the offseason progressed, the Bucs started testing Alexander at the MIKE in base packages, and by the time training camp was ready to begin, that was a full-blown plan. Since the start of camp, the rookie from LSU has played only at that spot and the current plan is to keep him there. They still want him to know how to play all three positions, in case of injuries or other developments, but he's supposed to focus most of his attention on the middle.
This is where it gets tricky, however, in terms of answering your question. Perhaps we need to define whether we mean "now" or "long-term," in relation to where Alexander will make the biggest impact.
See, if things go according to plan, free agent acquisition Bruce Carter, who bounced among a number of positions in Dallas, will settle in as a 4-3 MIKE 'backer and bring the same playmaking abilities that were on display last year when he led NFL linebackers in interceptions. Barring injury again, that hoped-for development would only serve to block Alexander's rise to the starting lineup. Hard to make an impact if you're not on the field.
Let's assume Lavonte David continues to block any hopefuls at weakside linebacker, or WILL. At SAM, Alexander's primary competition appears to be Danny Lansanah. The fourth-year pro is hardly what you would call entrenched, given that he has exactly eight starts at SAM for the Buccaneers, all last year after he spent four years out of the league. But that's probably selling Lansanah short; he was a marvelously versatile and very productive defender for the Bucs last year and he has looked just as good as not better during the 2015 offseason.
Wherever Alexander goes, he's going to find competition trying to block him from the starting lineup. If he were to break through at SAM, either at some point this year or in the future, he might excel at that spot but his impact would be somewhat limited by playing time. Generally, your SAM linebacker is on the field for 50-60% of the defensive snaps, with the MIKE and the WILL staying on the field in the nickel packages. That says to me that Alexander's best chance to make a big impact on the Bucs' defense, in the long run, is in the middle. I'm saying that in a vacuum; it's not meant to imply that Carter won't be able to hold his spot there.
If Alexander were playing the MIKE spot in the Bucs' defense, for whatever reason, he would be Lavonte David's running mate, which is a good thing. He showed some good pass-rushing skills at LSU, and he'd have a better chance of blitzing more often if he were on the field for 40 to 50% more snaps than he would be at SAM. Plus, middle linebackers who can do it all in the Bucs' scheme – a la Hardy Nickerson in the 1990s – can fill up the stat sheet in every category, from tackles to sacks to interceptions.
By the way, here's what Alexander and Nickerson had to say about the rookie's efforts at middle linebacker in training camp.
2. So the Buccs have had camp in a couple different places and I know you've been around for awhile. Which camp location has been your favorite? Which one do you think was best for the team. Since I'm from Brandon, I'm glad they're back in town so its easier to see them but I went to two practices in Orlando and htought the setup was pretty good there too. Thanks for taking my question if you do. - Rick, Brandon, Florida via email firstname.lastname@example.org*Well, I guess I've been around for *a while, true, but I haven't seen all of the Bucs' camp locations. I arrived during the University of Tampa Days, which began in 1988, before my time. Before that, the team practiced at its own headquarters (which is true again now as a factual statement but with completely different connotations), and housed the players at the Hall of Fame Inn next door. That hotel was torn down during the 1987 season, so I never saw it, but from what I hear I didn't miss much. So I can really only compare the three places the Bucs have held training camp since the late '80s: the University of Tampa, Disney's Wide World of Sports complex and new One Buccaneer Place. And as for your two questions, I don't think the first one is very important. I'm not sure there's anyone who would care how the Bucs' training camp was for me, and that certainly would have nothing to do with how good of a spot it was for the team. **
But I'll answer it, since you asked, and those who care not to know can skip this paragraph. I actually have enjoyed all three places for different reasons. I have fond memories of playing late-night basketball at UT, in the gym across the street from Pepin-Rood Stadium. However, all camp personnel, including the players, were housed in dorm rooms, which (no offense to UT) couldn't compare to the rooms and beds at the Celebration Hotel. That's where the Bucs stayed while training at Disney, where the facilities were top-notch. There was even an indoor bubble at the team's disposal for a couple years. Of course by that point (the Bucs trained at Disney from 2002-08, matching Jon Gruden's tenure as the head coach), I personally had a family, so being in a (relatively) secluded location for three weeks wasn't the best. The move to the new One Buc Place in 2009 made a lot of sense, thanks to the state-of-the-art facilities at the team's disposal, and also made things easier on staff members, who could go back to staying at home. If I had to pick one, I'd probably say the Wide World of Sports, just because the Bucs won the Super Bowl at the end of their first year there, and that tends to make the memories of steamy two-a-days seem warm and fuzzy.*For the good of the team, which is what actually matters, I don't think there's been a bad location yet. The one unifying factor in the Bucs' different camp locations is that they've all been in Central and West Florida. In other words, they've all been conducted in the hot and humid summers of the Sunshine State, which the team has always touted as an advantage. Even during the relatively short-lived league-wide trend of teams traveling out of state for cooler climes for their camps (remember the Cheese League?), the Buccaneers never considered joining suit. The trend these days is towards staying home. By my count, 21 of the 32 teams will be holding camp at their own facility or stadium this year. Most of the others train at nearby colleges, like the Bucs did during their UT days. Only three teams go to another state to practice: Dallas trains in Oxnard, California; New Orleans trains in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia; and Carolina trains in Spartanburg, South Carolina (still a Carolina, though). The reason is fairly obvious – over the years, many teams have built state of the art headquarters like One Buccaneer Place. Why go elsewhere when you have everything you could possibly need at home? *
Now, it did feel as if traveling to Orlando, or even to South Tampa to stay on a college campus, was a manner of secluding your players and keeping their minds totally focused on football for three weeks. In reality, the same thing is accomplished in the Bucs' current camp at One Buc Place because the players spend virtually all day at the facility and then are housed together in a local hotel. When they are granted a little extra time off, they can get in touch with their families more easily. It also makes it easier for family members to attend practice, which leads to some cute (and probably therapeutic) post-practice interactions between small kids and their Buccaneer-player dads.*The Bucs used to haul all their weights and workout machines up to Disney, which was quite a chore. If memory serves, I believe they used the existing weight room at UT. Now, they have access to the same weight room they'll be using all year, without the labor or cost of moving it. They have ready-made meeting rooms with all the advanced AV systems. They have their own kitchen and kitchen staff that is used to cooking to the team's needs. And they have a now tried-and-true system for installing covered bleachers and moving fans in and out of the practice area. It works for everybody and makes the camp more accessible to Bay area fans. Again, I don't think the team has had a bad experience at any of its training camp locations, but holding it at One Buccaneer Place is clearly what works best for the team and its fans right now. *
3. Switching Lines.
"Impact" appears to be our word of the day, and all of it in the hypothetical sense. As for Masifilo, Braden, he must be hoping that it will make a dramatic impact on his NFL career.
Masifilo, a Stanford product who went undrafted in 2012, has been with the Bucs for almost three years now, across two different coaching staffs. That seems like a strong indication that the team's talent evaluators see something in him. On the other hand, Masifilo has played in exactly one regular-season game during that team, and that is an indication that he hasn't yet found a way to fully break through in the NFL.
The 6-3, 280-pound Masifilo played defensive line at Stanford, and that was the position the San Francisco 49ers put him at after signing him as an undrafted free agent after the '12 draft. The Buccaneers plucked him off the 49ers' practice squad in November of that year, but he was declared a game-day inactive the rest of the way. He spent most of the next two seasons on the Bucs' practice squad, with occasional promotions to the 53-man roster, and one game played last fall. During all of that time, he plied his trade as a defensive tackle.
This offseason, however, the Buccaneers converted Masifilo to the offensive line. During the team's most recent training camp practice, on Tuesday, Masifilo spent most of his time at right guard, and given his size he is almost certainly considered an interior-line prospect.
This kind of switch, while infrequent, isn't exactly rare in the NFL. The Panthers made the same conversion with former defensive tackle Nate Chandler in 2013, and Chandler started 19 games over the next two seasons at offensive tackle. There are even two prominent examples from Buccaneer history in Charley Hannah and Harry Swayne. The Bucs drafted Hannah in the third round in 1977 as a defensive end out of Alabama and played him there for two seasons before converting him to offensive tackle prior to the 1979 campaign. He would go on to start 112 games on offense in an NFL career split between the Buccaneers and the Raiders. Swayne was a defensive end for the Bucs for two seasons after being drafted in the seventh round in 1987, but he switched to offense in 1989. He was merely a reserve for the next two seasons in Tampa but he went on to start 110 games on offense for four other teams, even playing in a whopping FOUR Super Bowls.
Either of those two careers would represent a massively good outcome for Masifilo. Even what Chandler has done to establish himself with the Panthers would have to be considered a very good step forward.
It's hard to imagine the move having a huge impact for the Buccaneers in 2015, but the team is always in the business of developing players; sometimes it just takes a while to pay off. For a perfect example, look at another player on Tampa Bay's offensive line: Demar Dotson. Dotson is now entrenched as the Buccaneers' starting right tackle and has quietly been one of the better players at that position in the NFL for the past three seasons. Dotson played defensive tackle at Southern Mississippi, and really only did that for about a half of one season. The Bucs liked his size and his feet, signed him as an undrafted free agent and helped him gradually grow into the offensive tackle position. Dotson didn't start his first game until 2011 and didn't become a regular until 2012.
The Bucs seem to have a pretty clear plan for their offensive line this season. Dotson, left guard Logan Mankins and center Evan Smith appear to be entrenched as starters. The left tackle and right guard spots are up for competition but the team drafted Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet in the second round in May with the hopes that they could grab those two positions sooner rather than later. Others who are primarily involved in those battles – and thus seem first in line to remain as reserves on the 53-man roster – include Garrett Gilkey, Kevin Pamphile, Kadeem Edwards and Patrick Omameh. Even if Masifilo shows promise as a guard, he might have a tough time breaking through those ranks by the start of 2015.
But it's not impossible. Given that Masifilo does not have any remaining practice squad eligibility, he wasn't going to get any more developmental time in Tampa at defensive tackle, and the Bucs are absolutely loaded at that position. It's going out on a limb to predict that his position switch will have a major impact on the Buccaneers, but it's most definitely worth a try and if it works out it will prove to be a great boost for Masifilo's career.
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