Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Buc Mailbag: Starting Concern

As the preseason games begin, Buccaneer fans have depth chart questions in regards to rookies on offense, the tight end position and promising safety acquisition D.J. Swearinger.

Photos from the Bucs' training camp practice at One Buccaneer Place.

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. Rookies Taking Over?

Casey and I discussed this question from James on Wednesday's Training Camp Live Report, but we mostly focused on the first part of it. Essentially, our answer was that, no, it wasn't likely all five of those players would be starting on opening day. Quarterback Jameis Winston has already been named the starter and offensive linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet have very good shots at joining him. But even if wide receiver Kenny Bell is the team's primary slot receiver to open the season he would only be a starter, technically, if the first offensive play was in a three-wide formation. Same thing for fullback Joey Iosefa: Even if he moves to first on the depth chart at that spot, the Bucs would have to open in a traditional two-back set to make him a starter.

I couldn't quite answer the second half of that question off the cuff, however. My sense was that it five rookies starting on offense in Week One would be a record for the Buccaneers, but I needed to do the actual research to find out if I was right. Well, now I've done that research and…

…yeah, I was right. I'm not bragging; it was the obvious guess, and I bet James felt the same way when he came up with that question. Five rookies on the starting offense on opening day would be a team record, and it would absolutely blow the season average out of the water. With 30 rookie opening-day starters on offense in 39 years, that's an average of about three-quarters of a player per season. Which is weird.

Now, it's important that we continue to stress that we're talking about Week One of the regular season here. In many years, rookies eventually work their way into the lineup as the season progresses.  It was only a couple of years ago when the Buccaneers' offense suddenly became loaded with rookies. At some point during the 2010 season, six different rookies were in the starting lineup, many of them at the same time in the campaign's second half. Those six were wide receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, offensive linemen Derek Hardman and Ted Larsen, fullback Erik Lorig and running back LeGarrette Blount. The Bucs also had two rookies starting on defense at certain times in Gerald McCoy and Dekoda Watson. However, only two of those eight players started on opening day: Williams and McCoy. (That offense also had opening-day second-year starters in Josh Freeman and Sammie Stroughter, and the team went 10-6 that year, so the future looked deceivingly bright.)

I had to go year by year through the franchise's 39 seasons to see what the record was, so I went ahead and put the results in a table for James and anyone else who is interested. As it turns out, five rookie starters on opening day would be a record for the team as a whole, offense and defense combined. You probably won't be surprised to know that the record of four is shared by the first two teams in franchise history, after the 1976 expansion. Take a look.

YEAR

OFF

DEF

TOTAL

COACH

YEAR

OFF

DEF

TOTAL

COACH

2014

1

0

1

Smith

1994

0

0

0

Wyche

2013

0

2

2

Schiano

1993

0

2

2

Wyche

2012

1

2

3

Schiano

1992

0

2

2

Wyche

2011

1

1

2

Morris

1991

1

0

1

Williamson

2010

1

1

2

Morris

1990

3

0

3

Perkins*

2009

0

0

0

Morris

1989

0

0

0

Perkins

2008

1

0

1

Gruden

1988

1

1

2

Perkins

2007

1

0

1

Gruden

1987

1

2

3

Perkins

2006

0

0

0

Gruden

1986

0

2

2

Bennett

2005

3

0

3

Gruden

1985

0

0

0

Bennett

2004

0

0

0

Gruden

1984

0

0

0

McKay

2003

0

0

0

Gruden

1983

1

0

1

McKay

2002

0

0

0

Gruden

1982

1

0

1

McKay

2001

1

0

1

Dungy

1981

1

2

3

McKay

2000

0

0

0

Dungy

1980

0

0

0

McKay

1999

0

0

0

Dungy

1979

3

0

3

McKay

1998

0

0

0

Dungy

1978

1

0

1

McKay

1997

1

0

1

Dungy

1977

2

2

4

McKay

1996

1

1

2

Dungy

1976

3

1

4

McKay

1995

0

2

2

Wyche

The Bucs have fielded three rookies on offense on opening day on four different occasions, most recently in 2005. Here are the particulars:

  • 2005: LG Dan Buenning, TE Alex Smith, RB Cadillac Williams
  • 1990: RG Ian Beckles, C Tony Mayberry, FB Bruce Perkins
  • 1979: FB Jerry Eckwood, WR Gordon Jones, RG Greg Roberts
  • 1976: FB Jimmy DuBose, RG Everett Little, WR Lee McGriff

A couple of observations here. One, it's interesting that all four of those threesomes included a guard, and three of the four were right guards. If the Bucs do get three rookies into the starting lineup against Tennessee this year, it will likely include Marpet at right guard, so the streak would continue. Also, all four of those groups have a running back, though three were specifically on the field as fullbacks.

The best photos of RB Cadillac Williams.

In terms of impact, you'd have to give the nod to the '05 and '79 teams; in fact, rookies made big contributions to surprising playoff runs in both of those campaigns. Roberts was a hugely important addition to the Bucs' offensive line in 1979 and a big reason Ricky Bell had such a huge season. Cadillac Williams got the 2005 team off to an incredible start with his outburst in the first three games and eventually won Rookie of the Year.

The 1990 group is a little misleading in that Mayberry really only started that opener in place of an injured Randy Grimes, before getting the job for good to start the 1991 season and holding it for a solid decade. Also Bruce Perkins did start three games for the Bucs in '90 but that constituted most of his NFL career.

There's a slight asterisk attached to the 1976 squad, as well. Wide receiver Lee McGriff was technically a rookie in the NFL but he had played in the World Football League in 1975. McGriff started the first three games in team history, played a total of six games with the Bucs (and in the NFL, period) and never caught a pass.

Photos of quarterback Jameis Winston at Buccaneers Training Camp.

You may notice that I put the head coaches for each season into the table above. I thought it would be interesting to see if any coaches were more prone to starting or avoiding rookies on opening day. (The asterisk by Ray Perkins' name in 1990 is due to the fact that Richard Williamson was actually the head coach for the last three games, but Perkins was obviously at the helm for the opener, which is what we're discussing here.)

I don't see much of a pattern. Jon Gruden had a reputation, perhaps at least partially accurate, of not liking to rely on rookies, but his numbers don't look much different than Tony Dungy's in this chart. It's true that Gruden didn't start a single opening-day rookie in his first three years at the helm, but Dungy had a similar three-year stretch from 1998-2000. There were a lot of established veteran standouts on the team in that era. John McKay started the most opening-day rookies, but that was to be expected considering he spent his first half-decade trying to build a team from scratch.
2. Casey and Scott, could you see the Bucs possibly keeping all four tight ends. I don't know much about Stocker but Bucs signed him again after last season so they must see something in him. I think it's great that we got Tim Wright back and I know everybody's predicting big things for ASJ. Myers seems like a pretty solid player to me and I remember how good he was in Oakland. I know the Patriots have had success some years playing with a lot of tight ends. Could the Bucs keep four and figure out how to use all of them? Thanks! Mike Lefferts, long-time Bucs fan in California!(via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Sorry, Mike, you're going to just get me on this one, no Casey. Actually, coincidentally, the two of us discussed this topic at length in Wednesday's webcast from practice. We mostly take questions from Twitter on that show, so we didn't have your question in front of us but rather one from a fan who is a big fan of Tim Wright. In discussing Tim's chances, we also talked about how many tight ends the Bucs may keep, and why.

So allow me to recreate and flesh out that conversation. First, I think we have to at least mention that there is a fifth tight end in the group, too. I'm not going to claim that Harvard's Cameron Brate is a favorite to leapfrog any or all of the four players you mentioned, but I do honestly believe the team is high on his talents. And he's not just an unknown rookie from the undrafted ranks; that's what he was last year, but now he's a guy who's actually seen regular-season playing time in the NFL and showed a decent amount of promise.

But, for the sake of not complicating matters, I'll stick to the topic as you laid it out: Could the Buccaneers conceivably keep Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Brandon Myers, Luke Stocker and Tim Wright on the 53-man roster this season.

I'm torn on this one. From a pure talent standpoint, I think all four belong on the team. ASJ, Myers and Stocker were all on the team last year and variously accomplished good things. Seferian-Jenkins was held back by injuries but is the best bet of the four to develop into that coveted two-way tight end who excels at both blocking and getting down the seam on pass routes. Myers, as you said, has proved he can be a 50 to 60-catch guy in the NFL in the right situation. Stocker has developed into a very good blocker, which is why he's lasted four years in Tampa and earned a new contract despite having injury issues of his own and a total of 35 NFL receptions.

Wright returns after one season in New England, and maybe it wasn't a coincidence that you brought up the Patriots, who have indeed done some good things with multiple tight ends. The Bucs traded Wright and a draft pick to New England for Logan Mankins last year but recouped the first half of that investment when the Patriots let Wright go this spring. As an undrafted rookie in Tampa in 2013, Wright converted from his college position of wide receiver, made the team and before long found himself as the only healthy tight end within 50 miles of One Buc Place. He seized the opportunity and turned in a 54-catch season, making him easily the surprise breakout of the '13 campaign.

What I particularly like about the idea of having all four on the roster, Mike, is the different combinations the Bucs could come up with for their two-tight end sets. If you had ASJ and Stocker in there together, that would probably help the running game tremendously but ASJ would still be a sneaky threat to go out for a pass. If you had, say, Myers and Wright on the field together, you'd be giving the quarterback a lot of targets and keep the defense guessing as to which one (if not both) was going to go out on a route, and so on.

However, there's a little problem with this: Now we're not only talking about keeping all four tight ends on the roster but also keeping all four active on game day. The usual number is three, and sometimes it's only two if there are injuries at the position. Keeping a fourth tight end active for what would probably only be a handful of snaps and perhaps very little special teams work seems like it would be difficult to justify.

That latter point is also why I'm not ready to say that it's likely all four tight ends will remain on the 53-man roster. While I agree that the depth at the position is great, there are also a lot of talented running backs and wide receivers to sort through. If you keep an extra tight end, are you going to lose a spot for a running back or a receiver? Or are you going to go one player heavier on offense in general and lose a linebacker or defensive back? (I don't mention the defensive line here because I'm convinced the team will keep as many good pass-rushers as they have.)

The problem for the tight ends in that scenario is that they usually aren't as important to special teams as reserve linebackers or defensive backs, or even wide receivers. The Bucs may keep a receiver – possibly Kaelin Clay – exclusively to be the return man. They might continue to roster Russell Shepard, a fantastic special teams player who has only rarely been deeply involved in the offense.

Honestly, Mike, it sounds like a very tough decision the Bucs' brain trust is going to have to make in early September. If they have more than three tight ends they want to keep around from a talent standpoint but a roster-numbers crunch caused by needs at other positions, that will be difficult to sort out. I'm glad that's not my job but, as they say, it's a good problem for the team to have.

3. Swearing by Swearinger?

Jay sent this question in after we revealed that John Clayton was going to be on our live Training Camp Report at the start of practice Thursday. As it turned out, lightning brought our show to a quicker-than-expected close, but not before Clayton dazzled us with his bottomless font of NFL knowledge. And, even though we didn't get Jay's question on the show specifically, the acquisition of D.J. Swearinger is a topic that our guest happened to bring up on his own.

Clayton commented on the good use the Buccaneers have gotten out of the number-one position on the waiver wire in recent months. That included the Swearinger claim in May after he was unexpectedly cut by the Houston Texans just two seasons after being drafted in the second round.

"I don't know if he's going to end up starting at safety," said Clayton of Swearinger, "but he's a good, smart player that can help out."

Good point. Remember, Lovie Smith has said on numerous occasions that a team usually needs three or four safeties to get through a season. Even if Swearinger isn't an opening-day starter, he will probably be needed in that capacity at some point over the course of a 16-game slate. In fact, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Buccaneers have some kind of three-man safety rotation right from the start, with certain packages featuring different pairings.

All of that said, I personally think there's a good chance Swearinger will be a starter to open the season. He's currently listed second at strong safety on the depth chart, but we've been told not to put too much stock in that document yet, not until the preseason games have begun and the coaching staff starts getting some more useful evidence to base their decisions upon. Chris Conte looked like he had a good chance to start when he signed as an unrestricted free agent in March, given his experience with Smith and Smith's defense, but he has been sidelined for most of camp with a knee ailment. Until he gets back into the mix, it's hard to predict him passing the other candidates. Bradley McDougald, currently listed first at free safety, seems like the best bet among the safeties to start; meanwhile,

Swearinger is probably neck and neck with Major Wright for the strong safety spot. I could see a McDougald-Swearinger pairing to begin the season.

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