We've reached the end of training camp here at AdventHealth Training Center. If you blinked, you might have missed it. The 2020 Buccaneers are almost complete with final roster cuts coming this weekend and the team has started to take shape over these last couple weeks. Across the league, each club was allowed just 14 padded practices to get to that point. Now, Week One looms just over 10 days away, with New Orleans waiting in the Superdome to take on their division rivals.
So what will they face? How will this year's team differ? There's at least one major change I can think of off the top of my head. Why don't we start there and what we've learning now that six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady is under center.
Brady has brought an increased intensity and sense of accountability to practice. We heard players talking about it all camp; the way he works, how detail-oriented he is, how much knowledge of the game he holds and so on and so forth. And if it wasn't plain as day from nearly every single player saying the same thing, it was plain to see on the practice field, too.
Granted with the absence of preseason games there were a lot more periods of live tackling during this training camp, but the hits seemed harder, the celebrations louder and the encouragements and positivity ever-present. The offense and the defense worked as separate teams, each trying to outdo the other in order to get better as a whole.
You're going to see a lot of tight ends this season. And why wouldn't you? With the addition of Rob Gronkowski to an-already solid group of tight ends, the unit has become arguably the best in the league. With that kind of personnel available, you have almost no choice but to utilize it. Head Coach Bruce Arians has gone so far to say that 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) is the Bucs' base offense. What's more: it has been.
"It's been our base offense, probably, for 15 years," said Arians last week. "It's where we always start. As we progress, whether we use two or three [tight ends], we have quality people there. We also have really quality receivers, so it's all about finding the right mismatches."
And mismatches they create. In fact, putting multiple tight ends on the field could work out really well for the entire offense. If you were to pick out offensive players that had the best camps, you'd be hard-pressed not to mention both O.J. Howard and Cam Brate. Both have earned the trust of their new quarterback and have picked things up from their three-time Super Bowl winning teammate, Gronkowski. Brady to Howard for big gains has been a regular fixture this camp. As have quick passes in traffic to Brate and perfectly placed endzone scores.
Though the point-production out of tight ends wasn't exactly there last year, the snaps still were. Howard saw the field a lot as Brate worked back from his hip surgery in the 2019 offseason. From the looks of it this year, both will get on the field quite a bit again, and should see an uptick in points scored, too.
The defense picked up right where they left off at the end of last season. Momentum is a fickle thing – and can change in an instant. It isn't wise to expect it to carry over from season to season. That way, if it does, it's a pleasant surprise.
Consider the training camp performance of the Bucs' defense getting 11 wings when you only ordered 10.
Continuity has been the key for this defense, who started to jell and come together in the back half of last season. They jumped from dead last in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) after the 2018 season to fifth in the league by the conclusion of 2019. DVOA was developed by Football Outsiders in order to give an assigned value to overall teams taking into account the strength of their opponents. In the defense's case, it's actually offense-adjusted but you get the point. The Bucs' defense also had the most sacks in the last eight games of the season with 31.0, finished with the most passes defensed of any team (96) and maintained the best run defense in the league through the end of the year. With their entire front seven back for another go, none of that seemed to have changed.
What's more is that the secondary especially has stepped up. No longer deer in the stadium lights, these young players have a year of experience within this system under their belt. Coaches have preached that it's time to take the next step, which is turning passes defensed into turnovers. And players all over the secondary (and some up front) have come up big in camp. Even the rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who boasted seven interceptions last year for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, got his hands on a couple, thereby giving him an interception on the same player his dad intercepted as a cornerback for the Buffalo Bills in 2001. Yep. That's real.
This is all to say that the defense now has the foundation. And they're about to build on it in 2020.
You know the Bucs have the best WR tandem in the league, but we don't talk enough about another tandem on the other side of the ball. Keeping with the defense, I need more people to talk about Lavonte David (always) and Devin White. The two of them smack dab in the middle of the defense is best-case scenario. White, the Bucs' first-round and fifth overall pick was touted as the consummate leader coming out of LSU. As a rookie getting adjusted yourself, that's no easy task. Add in a knee injury that slowed him down and White spent the first part of the season just getting acclimated. He finished 2019 out strong with back-to-back rookie of the month honors and he came into this year's training camp ready to take the reins of more than just the horses in his Get Live Stables.
""He's a natural leader," said Arians of White. "When you're a bunch of veteran guys, just do your job. You lead by example the best way you can lead and be accountable – he is that. We don't have to have a 'rah-rah' guy that's a cheerleader. All those guys can handle it themselves up front. We're very fortunate to have four or five guys like that."
"He's growing day by day," said David about his 'little brother.' "He's taking on a role of being more of a leader. He's talking more, he's being more encouraging, he's been more interactive with guys from the front end to the back end and just learning as much as he can about each position and understanding the defense more and asking a lot of questions. He's just trying to be more involved, so he can be able to play fast the way he knows how to play [and] make the plays he knows he can make."
Speaking of David, he's had a quietly consistent camp. A high level of play is expected out of David as he enters his ninth season in the NFL. It's perhaps been a blessing and a curse. Because it's the expectation, he goes criminally underrated and underappreciated. Hopefully with the increased national attention the Bucs will receive during their five primetime contests this season, the rest of the country will see what Bucs fans have seen since 2012. That's the hope, anyway.
Things may be different this year, but football is pretty comforting. There are safety protocols in place. Everyone is wearing masks. Fans weren't in attendance at AdventHealth Training Center. But training camp allowed us a taste of normalcy. The season is starting on time and we get to have real, meaningful football so soon. It's taken sacrifices from all parties involved but it's happening. So let's just appreciate that as we embark on what could be one of the most exciting seasons in franchise history.