Dirk Koetter will take the field for his first game as an NFL head coach on Thursday in Philadelphia, but he's not exactly new to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' sideline. Koetter spent the 2015 season as Tampa Bay's offensive coordinator, coaxing record numbers out of an offensive built around quarterback Jameis Winston and a young cast of rising stars.
It's on the other side of the ball that the Buccaneers have a far different look in 2016. The most recent draft yielded two possible starters in the first 38 picks in cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive end Noah Spence, and that was after team management had addressed some key depth chart concerns in free agency. Tampa Bay's coaching staff has been thrilled with how its new additions have performed on the practice field and is looking forward to seeing them in fully live action for the first time.
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"[We'll see] not only our top two picks but also our three key free agents on defense – Brent Grimes, Daryl Smith and Robert Ayers," said Koetter on Thursday in Philadelphia. "That's potentially five starters coming from either free agency or the draft, and all five of them have been having good [training] camps. It's a new look for the Tampa defense. Of course we're going to build around our two Pro Bowl players, Gerald [McCoy] and Lavonte [David], but the other five guys = and there are plenty of others, too – I'm excited to see all of them."
Of course, many of those players will join Koetter on the sideline before too long on Thursday night, as the first preseason game is generally devoted to the evaluation of the back half of the depth chart. Most of the Bucs' starters will probably only play a quarter or less. That's definitely the plan for Winston, who needs less time to prove himself than he did as a rookie a year ago.
"He's not going to play a ton tonight," said Koetter of his 22-year-old passer. "Last year – I was looking back at our notes – we played him the whole first half. He's only going to play about a quarter tonight because he's somewhat of a veteran now and he's going to be tied with that first offensive line. I'm glad Jameis is the leader of our football team but we also have to realize that it's a work in progress.
"Like any second-year player, Jameis has had some days where he's looked fantastic and he's had some days where he's looked like it's his second year. He's playing arguably the most important position on the field. There's no bigger Jameis Winston fan than me, but I'm also the guy that has to hold him to a standard of where we need to go as a football team. Jameis has plenty to work on; I'm glad he's our guy."
Winston's transition to the NFL last year was definitely made easier by the impressive performance of running back Doug Martin, who averaged a career-high 4.9 yards per carry and finished second in the NFL in rushing yards. That earned Martin a sizeable new contract as an unrestricted free agent but didn't change his approach to the game. His first two weeks in training camp have been as good, if not better, as his August performance last year.
"I've seen the same hungry Doug Martin that I saw in OTAs a year ago and in the preseason a year ago," said Koetter. "Doug earned a new contract; couldn't be happier for him in that respect. But if anybody's worried that he's going to have a dropoff because he got a new contract, they haven't been watching because he's been tearing it up in practice. Again, [he's a] guy that's not going to get a ton of work tonight because he's a proven player, but I think Doug is out to prove that last year was no fluke. Everybody that talks about Doug mentions his first year and then last year, and then the two years in between, but if Doug's healthy he's going to have a great year."
With Martin doffing his helmet earlier on Thursday night, the Bucs will have plenty of reps to spread between four players who are battling to be the third running back on the depth chart. Charles Sims, Martin's productive running mate a year ago, will not play due to a minor injury.
"Charles Sims, we know what Charles can do," said Koetter. "The thing that's been holding him out is nothing long-term, but we'd be foolish to take any guy that we know is going to make our team and be a contributor and risk anything in the first preseason game. This is such a violent sport that it just doesn't make sense. And we have great competition at running back in Mike James, Storm Johnson, Peyton Barber and Russ Hansbrough. All those guys – I'm excited to see those guys tonight."
Pictures of the Buccaneers leaving for the preseason opener against the Eagles.
Koetter has been a head coach before, at the collegiate level, and he's banked plenty of prior game-day experience in the NFL and with the Buccaneers. Understandably, the regular-season opener looming in exactly one month is a more meaningful milestone. Still, it's undeniably an important step forward for his team.
"Of course I'm excited," he said. "I'm fired up about our coaching staff that we put together and I'm fired up about this group of players. I'm anxious to see them go against somebody else tonight."
The Buccaneers take on the Eagles in Week One of the 2016 preseason on Thursday night, with kickoff scheduled for 7:00 p.m. ET. The game will be played at Lincoln Financial Field. The game will be broadcast in the Bay area on television by WFLA News Channel 8 and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.