Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Opportunities Increase for Young Bucs in Camp

Training Camp Notes: Players like Cole Gardner, M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis are getting more chances to show what they can do thanks to injuries elsewhere on the depth chart

View photos from the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp practice on Tuesday at One Buccaneer Place.

After enjoying their first off day of training camp on Monday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers players took the field again on Tuesday to begin Week Two under a very forgiving overcast sky. Not everybody was ready to get back to work, however.

In a general sense, the Buccaneers have been fortunate with injuries through the first six days of camp. Only four players sat out the entire two-hour session on Tuesday – linebacker Kendell Beckwith, cornerback Brent Grimes, defensive tackle Vita Vea and tackle Leonard Wester – and the team has not had to make any injury-related roster moves since the first practice. There certainly has not been anything as painful as the news coming out of the Carolina Panthers' camp, where right tackle Daryl Williams (MCL tear) and cornerback Ross Cockrell (fractured leg) have already sustained serious injuries.

That said, it's essentially impossible to keep 91 players fully healthy through the three-week grind of training camp, and that means the occasionally shuffling of the (unofficial) depth chart. One player's day off means a bigger share of the reps for someone else, and in the Bucs' current case the beneficiaries are largely the younger players on the roster.

Specifically on offense, the leg injury suffered by Wester in a pile-up on Sunday and the careful pace at which the Buccaneers are bringing Demar Dotson back from his offseason knee surgery have created an opportunity at right tackle with the first-team offensive line. Cole Gardner, a second-year player who spent all of last year on injured reserve, is the man who has stepped into that spot.

The Buccaneers first signed Gardner as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan in May of 2017. He went to camp in Tampa as a rookie and played in the first two preseason games but then suffered a shoulder injury. Gardner was waived with an injury designation and, upon clearing waivers, reverted to the Buccaneers' injured reserve list. He spent the fall quietly rehabbing his injury and was activated from the reserve list in early February.

Since then, Gardner has proved to be more than afterthought. He got some first-team action in the offseason at left tackle with Donovan Smith occasionally missing practice time, and Head Coach Dirk Koetter referred to Gardner as, "one of the biggest surprises probably of offseason." Smith is full-go in camp but Gardner is now getting chances on the other end of the line. That combined experience is very valuable to him in his efforts to make the roster, as any reserve tackle is going to have to show he can fill in at either spot on a moment's notice.

In terms of experience, Gardner is only a little ahead of such undrafted rookies as Cole Boozer and Ruben Holcomb and about equal to the likes of Jerry Ugokwe, Michael Liedtke, Brad Seaton and Givens Price. But he seems to have edged to the front of that pack.

"Yeah I'd say Cole Gardner so far is the leader of that group," said Koetter. "Depending on how long Leonard and Dot can't go in 11-on-11, that gives them added reps right now and they need to take advantage of it."

Meanwhile, the secondary has had to adjust during the first week to an leg laceration that kept Vernon Hargreaves out of the first weekend and the current ailment sidelining Hargreaves. When the Buccaneers ran their very first full-team drills of camp last Thursday, that was the starting duo at cornerback, with Grimes in his usual spot on the left and Hargreaves on the right. When that first-team group went into a nickel package, Hargreaves moved into the slot and Ryan Smith took over on the outside.

As we've noted in recent days, rookie second-rounder M.J. Stewart made the most of his extra opportunities with Hargreaves out, making an early splash and then building on that fast start over the weekend. That was due in large part to Hargreaves' absence bumping him up to the first-team slot job. On Monday, with Grimes out, Davis took on a more prominent role on the outside and made several splash plays, including a diving break-up of a pass intended for DeSean Jackson late in the final drill of the day. Davis had been one of the team's early standouts in the offseason program and he doesn't appear to be slowing down.

Hargreaves actually returned from his injury on Tuesday. In the final full-team drill of the morning, he and Smith were the starters in the base defense and Davis came in to play on the outside when Hargreaves moved into the slot. Over the course of the two-hour practice, the team tried some other combinations, as well, and there were times when both rookies, Davis and Stewart, were running with the starters at the same time.

"Yeah, man, a couple of the guys are out there competing and wanting to get better," said Jackson, who also had a very competitive rep against Stewart in WR/DB one-on-ones. "They're going up versus me and Mike [Evans], Chris [Godwin] and Hump [Adam Humphries]. Guys like Stewart and Davis are out here just training, competing and having fun, trying to get the most out of it. Obviously training camp is hard on our bodies, it's a little overwhelming with these long schedules but try to do the best to just have fun and just compete and get what we can out of it."

Of the four players who missed Tuesday's practice, only Beckwith came into camp with an existing injury. He suffered an ankle fracture in an auto accident in April and was placed on the active/non-football-injury list to start camp. Beckwith has been in attendance at every practice and the Bucs are hopeful that he will avoid any reserve list to start the season, but his absence has given a first-team job to Adarius Taylor.

Taylor has made his own impressive return from the leg fracture that ended his 2017 season early in December. The Bucs are happy that he's available because he has gradually evolved into a very useful player on both defense and special teams.

"He's one of our best special teams players," said Koetter. "He can play all three linebacker spots. Right now he's working with the first unit as a SAM linebacker. He's a backup. He's the first guy in everything else. Just a real enjoyable guy and a tough versatile football player. Versatility at any position helps. He's got it."

In a perfect world, the Buccaneers would avoid any additional injuries for the remainder of training camp. In reality, that's unlikely, and it some point an opportunity will open up for another young player. Hopefully he'll be able to take advantage of it the same way that Davis and Stewart have to this point.

Additional Notes:

- Though the Buccaneers have not yet had a player suffer an injury that would force them to miss all or a good part of the regular season, there have been a few moments of concern. When Vea sustained his leg injury in practice on Sunday, his description of exactly how it felt set off some alarm bells. Fortunately, the eventual diagnosis was, in relative terms, quite reassuring.

"It's better than we thought," said Koetter. "What he described, what Vita described when it happened was what you would think if a guy tore his Achilles [tendon], which would be a year-long injury. Thankfully it was not that. It's a calf injury and he's going to be out for right now but it's not what it could have been. So, in that respect, we're better off than we thought we were."

Similarly, the manner in which Wester suffered his injury, trapped in a pile that rolled his leg, can be scary but he escaped the worst of it.

"Leonard got banged up the other day," said Koetter. "Again, it's not as serious as it might have been. He's going to be out here in the short term but nothing in the long term."

Finally, Koetter indicated that Grimes's unspecified injury will only keep him out for "a day or so."

- The Buccaneers' two kickers combined for a perfect field goal session about two-thirds of the way through practice. Both veteran Chandler Catanzaro and undrafted rookie Trevor Moore made all six of their kicks, including one rush job.

Catanzaro went first and made five field goals ranging from 35 to 45 yards out. As the fifth kick went through the uprights, the coaches began yelling, "Mayday," the signal for the entire field goal unit to rush into place and get a kick off in just a couple seconds. This one was from 29 yards out, and it also split the posts. Moore's turn was an exact duplicate in terms of assignment and results. Even better: Both kickers succeeded while dealing with a fairly strong wind.

Catanzaro has been sharp during the first week of camp but his flawless Tuesday performance didn't do much to change Koetter's opinion of him. After several seasons of struggles in the kicking game, the Buccaneers signed the former Cardinal and Jet during unrestricted free agency to bring stability to the spot.

"Again, one day doesn't make your kicker but he was solid today," said Koetter. "[It's] awesome to have the wind because we have plenty…especially early in the season we'll have days like this. There's no doubt that Chandler's going to do a good job in my mind."

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