Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Buc Mailbag: Competition Heats Up

As the Bucs get closer to the regular season, questions about the depth chart and 53-man roster become more pressing.

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Each week during the offseason, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith will dip into the inbox to answer questions from  Buccaneer fans. This week, we look at rookie LB Kwon Alexander's potential role in sub packages, DE Jamal Young's future and players who could make the roster due to special teams prowess.

  • Fans can submit questions for upcoming mailbags via Twitter to @ScottSBucs (#BucsMailbag), through a message on the Buccaneers Official Facebook Page or via email at *tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.  The One Buc Mailbag runs every Thursday and is not necessarily meant to reflect the opinions of the team's management or coaching staff.*

1. Kwon Stays On?

That is a great, great question, Alec. Casey might grab it during our broadcast Thursday, but I'd like to take a shot at it here, too.

Let's set the scene. The Buccaneers entered training camp with a starting linebacker trio of Lavonte David on the weak side, Bruce Carter in the middle and Danny Lansanah on the strong side. The Kwon to which Alec refers, of course, is Kwon Alexander, a fourth-round pick out of LSU who has been turning heads ever since he arrived in Tampa.

The Buccaneers first envisioned Alexander as an outside linebacker in their 4-3, and since David is about as entrenched as an NFL player can be in his position, the logical move was to let the rookie compete for the SAM job with Lansanah. However, noting that Alexander played well in the MIKE role in nickel packages during OTA practices, the Bucs' coaching staff decided to give him a longer look at that job, including in base defenses, in training camp. That's the only position Alexander has been working at since camp started.

After several good weeks on the practice field and a strong showing in the preseason opener, Alexander got another boost from the coaching staff: He's been getting a chance to run with the first team at MIKE linebacker all week.

Now, we should emphasize, as Alexander himself did on Monday, that running with the ones in camp this week is not the same thing as winning the job outright. As of Thursday, the Buccaneers haven't made any changes to their depth chart. However, the longer Alexander stays in that position, the more credence we have to put in that possibility. In addition, Carter has recently begun practicing at SAM linebacker, an indication that the team is at least considering different combinations than the one with which they opened camp.

Alec's question, if I'm reading it right, begins at this starting point, with the notion that Alexander stays in the starting spot at MIKE. So now the question is, if he's on the field for base-defense snaps, does he come off when the Bucs go to a nickel and replace one linebacker with an extra cornerback.

My strong guess, Alec, is that he would stay on the field with Lavonte David. Remember, as I pointed out above, Alexander first caught the coaches' eyes as a MIKE in the nickel package specifically. He was good at that. Generally (though not absolutely always), it's your SAM linebacker who comes off for nickel sets, which is why the great Buc defenses of the mid-'90s to the mid-'00s had such a revolving cast at that position. The team didn't want to invest as much into a player that was on the field for 50-60% of the snaps as they did for the MIKEs and the WILLs, who played all the snaps. That defense first started to emerge in 1996; from that point on, here were your starting SAMs: Lonnie Marts (1996), Rufus Porter (1997), Jeff Gooch (1998), Shelton Quarles (1999-2001), Alshermond Singleton (2002), Ryan Nece (2003), Ian Gold (2004) and Ryan Nece again (2005).

Alexander appears to have what you want in a nickel linebacker, in that his coverage skills are as strong as his run-stopping ability. Gerald McCoy said on Tuesday that he hasn't seen a linebacker who can run like Alexander since he first laid eyes on David in 2012. If you want to dial up a third-down blitz out of the nickel, both Alexander and David could do that. Those two could make for a pretty potent combo in the nickel, honestly.

Again, however, let's remember that the competition is still going on for the MIKE and SAM starting jobs, let alone the nickel.

2. Young Addition?

Good hashtag, Wes. It would indeed make a great story if Jamal Young were to make the Buccaneers' roster. Honestly, it would be a great story even if it took him a little bit longer and he had to spend some time on an NFL practice squad or make it into another training camp or two. After all, we're talking about a guy who was signed directly from a junior college (rare) and who had spent four years running track collegiately before ever picking up football.

Until we had Pro Scouting Coordinator Rob McCartney on the show on Tuesday, I wasn't aware that Young actually reached out to the Buccaneers, instead of the other way around. I guess it's fair to say that Tampa Bay didn't have a lot of scouts at Jones County Junior College games in Ellisville, Mississippi. Young had a really good reference in his back pocket, though; his coach at JCJC was none other than Ray Perkins, who was the Buccaneers' head coach from 1987 through most of 1990.

Young isn't huge for a defensive end (6-3, 240) but, I mean, we're talking about a guy fast enough to run track at Southern Miss. That sounds to me like an undersized edge rusher; he's similar in size to T.J. Fatinikun, who is second on the Bucs' depth chart at left defensive end and who could definitely be part of the edge-rushing rotation this fall.

Casey and I actually did talk about Young and the whole defensive end position during the show on Wednesday (you can catch up on it here). We were going through the depth chart and discussing possible bubble guys, and I stated the opinion that the Buccaneers would keep as many NFL-caliber pass-rushers as they could find. I really believe that. That's a position I think the team will always go heavy on if it has a surplus of talent.

Would Young fit into that category, just a few months into this rather large jump from juco to the NFL? It's possible. My understanding is that he's really fast (of course) but also raw and still learning pass-rush moves that will fly at this level. He seems (on paper) like the kind of prospect who would need a little more time to develop.

A couple undrafted free agents make the Bucs' roster every year. I'd be shocked if that didn't hold true in 2015. Somebody who came in as a virtual unknown is going to make it, maybe even somebody from a more obscure background like JCJC or Heidelberg (WR Donteea Dye) or Jacksonville University (P Karl Schmitz). The odds of any one particular player in that group making it aren't that high, however. I think I'd be going out on a limb if I predicted that Jamal Young, specifically, would be that guy.

But that's not what you asked, is it Wes? You wanted to know if there was "any chance" Young makes the team. To that I say, yes! There's a chance. And if you expand your definition of "making the team" to include the practice squad, then the chances go up quite a bit. Let's see what happens over the next three weeks.

Photos from the Bucs' training camp practice on August 19.

3. Scott - I always hear coaches say that the best way for young players to make the team is to be good on special-teams. So tell me a couple guys who are going to make the bucs roster just because of special-teams. Thanks. Darren, Brandon Bucs fan since the '90s (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Um, the kicker, the punter and the long-snapper?

Okay, I'm sorry, I know that's not what you meant. Just couldn't help myself. Darren had a couple other questions about Charles Sims and Tim Wright, but I decided to edit those out and just do this one. Sorry, Darren. One out of three ain't bad, right?

Darren is obviously referring to non-specialists who make their hay on return and/or coverage units. Sometimes those guys forge a whole NFL career around that part of the job, other times they get their foot in the door on "teams" and then go on to bigger things on offense or defense. In 1997, undrafted free agent Shelton Quarles made the Bucs' roster and went on to record a team single-season record 31 special teams tackles. That was pretty much his whole job, even though the Bucs thought he had a future at linebacker. Quarles nearly won the SAM job in 1998 but was slowed early by injuries; he won it outright in 1999, spent three years at that position and then converted to middle linebacker in 2002 and made the Pro Bowl. Former Buc fan favorites Kenny Gant and Curtis Buckley are examples of the other type of special teamers, who make that their bread-and-butter.

There are two very obvious choices to answer your question, Darren: Russell Shepard and Kaelin Clay. Shepard has played two seasons for the Buccaneers after coming into the league in 2013 as an undrafted free agent with the Eagles, almost solely based on the fact that he is a fabulous cover man on special teams. I don't care how many rookie receivers were currently in love with, you cannot count out Shepard making the team again and filling the same role. Clay, meanwhile, is the front-runner for the kickoff and punt return jobs and probably wouldn't have a big role on offense right away even he makes the 53-man roster.

Those are the easy ones, I have to admit. How about a couple more. I've said more than once that I love the Bucs' linebacker depth this year and that I expect that position to be the core of the special teams unit. Well, in the preseason opener, linebacker Larry Dean tied Shepard with two kick-coverage stops. Dean came aboard in April as an unrestricted free agent after three seasons in Minnesota and one in Buffalo. During that time, he was pretty much a wrecking ball on special teams, while playing only occasionally on defense.

Jason Williams and Orie Lemon would be similar choices, but I don't want to go all linebacker, and I wonder if one or two of those guys will cancel each other out. The Bucs have nine LBs at the moment, and it seems like all of them could help significantly either on defense or special teams, but it would be hard to devote that many spots on the 53-man roster to that position.

So how about cornerback Isaiah Frey? When you're trying to figure out the last five or six spots on the 53-man roster, you'd like those guys to have some value both on special teams and at their respective positions. Frey has been battling with Leonard Johnson (and now Sterling Moore) for the nickel back job, and he's very familiar with Lovie Smith's defense. There's value in that. Frey also ranked fifth on the team last year in special teams tackles despite not arriving until late October.

4. Straight Outta…Time to Go to the Movies?

Not yet, Dan, not yet. But I'm really looking forward to it. I've heard good things. I don't get to very many movies at this time of the year, but that's definitely the next one I'm seeing.

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