The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp is right around the corner, and as far as players and coaches are concerned, that is essentially the beginning of the season. Of course, the actual games don't start until August, and the ones that count a month after that. Before the Buccaneers open the regular season with a trip to New York to play the Jets, they will need to make a series of determinations about the roster, the depth chart and the playbook.
In fact, that's what makes training camp (plus the preseason) entertaining. The Bucs will enter camp with 90 players and leave the preseason with 53. They'll find new starters at several positions, from tight end to linebacker to defensive tackle. They'll find out just what they can do in terms of offensive and defensive play-calling with such newcomers as Darrelle Revis, Dashon Goldson, Kevin Ogletree and Tom Crabtree. Much of this process will play out within a few yards of Buccaneer fans, as a good amount of the practice work in training camp is open to the public.
There's a lot going on at any given practice, and a huge number of players who come in and out of the four preseason games. So where should we focus our attention on these weekday mornings at One Buc Place and weekend evenings at Raymond James Stadium? To address that question, we're bringing over to Buccaneers.com a popular feature from the old Captain's Blog: Point/Counterpoint. My blog colleague (blobleague?), Andrew Norton, and I have spent the last 10 months debating specific questions within such topics as the draft, the playoff race, Doug Martin's statistical ceiling, the Hall of Fame, the competition in the NFC South and more. Now I'm going to call Andrew over to Buccaneers.com for a little Point/Counterpoint redux as we try to settle this question:
What will be the most intriguing storyline to track during the Buccaneers' 2013 training camp?
Andrew, I'll even let you go first. Just try to be specific. I know the main thing we all want to know is how much better the Buccaneers will be in 2013 after a promising first season under Greg Schiano, and whether or not this is a playoff team, but look a little closer and let's debate the details within that larger concern.
Andrew Norton: Buccaneers.com! Check me out. Moving up to the big leagues. Personally, I'm thrilled about some of the position battles going on, thrilled about taking in a few training camp practices, and, of course, most thrilled to kick off this season. September can't come fast enough.
But as you said, there is a whole lot going down before Week 1 in New York and for many football fans, this is a very exciting and very important time of the year. There will definitely be some fun races to watch in the Buccaneers Camp. The third wideout and tight end battles will be something to keep a close eye on, but the one I'm looking for is not on the offensive side of the ball. In fact, it's not on the defensive side of the ball either.
The question for which I'm most excited to find out the answer during training camp is, Who will act as the Buccaneers' return man in 2013? If you break down the state of the rest of the team, you can see why this is such a main attraction for me.
1) The Buccaneers' offense last season was among the most explosive in the league. They have a successful running and passing attack, and the key players are all still set.
2) The offensive line was missing two key cogs last year, and those Pro Bowlers will return
3) The run defense of the Bucs was stellar last year, the best in the NFL. While there are still some personnel battles, there is little concern here.
4) The secondary was massively addressed in the offseason and stands to be among the most improved units in all the NFL.
So, offense looks good. Defense looks great. Leaving special teams as a pretty bolded area to be addressed, especially when looking at last season's numbers.
Eight different players returned kickoffs and punts for the Bucs last season. In total, they amassed 954 total return yards, averaging 9.0 yards on punts and 20.3 yards on kickoffs. To put that into perspective, there were nine individual players who totaled more return yards last season… counting only kickoffs. The Bucs average starting field position off of kickoff was the 20.5-yard line, good for 29th in the NFL in 2012. And for total kickoff return yards, the team managed just 630.
But, there is hope beyond the statistics of last season. The Buccaneers brought in new Special Teams Coordinator Dave Wannstedt to take over the reins of this position group, and there are plenty of Buccaneers ready to make their mark as a return man.
During training camp, we should see RB Michael Smith, WR David Douglas, WR Chris Owusu and WR Eric Page taking turns returning kicks. The Buccaneers also acquired RB Jeff Demps from the Patriots, and he has seen time in college returning kicks. And this is not mentioning any number of players from the defensive side who may come in and try their hand to secure a roster spot as a specialist.
With so many men vying for the title, with a new coach leading the charge and with such potential improvement to be made from last season, I am very excited to see how the return game will shake out in 2013. And now I send it back to you, what storyline are you most looking forward to in a few short weeks?
Scott Smith: Well, I'm glad that you think the defense "looks great," and I don't disagree, nor do I begrudge you your enthusiasm. But we're edging into homerism if we simply evaluate the maneuvers of the 2013 on paper and declare the job of fixing the defense done.
The Buccaneers' defense was indeed number one against the run last year, and despite the fact that the pass defense was last, this was not strictly a case of opposing offenses making the numbers look good by choosing to focus on only one area. Many advanced metrics (such as these on the Football Outsiders website) make it clear that the Bucs' defensive front was really quite strong against the run, regardless of oppositional play-calling. Overall, however, Tampa Bay's defense was 29th in yards allowed and 23rd in points allowed, and that just can't be ignored.
Of course, the Bucs' brass did not ignore that, making the dramatic moves you referenced, including the trade for Darrelle Revis, the signing of Dashon Goldson and the drafting of Johnthan Banks. Whew! That's awesome on paper, and it will probably be awesome on the field, but an optimistic prognosis does not always equal a cure.
In other words, there is work to be done. And where I think the most important work lies – and where I will be paying the most attention during camp and the preseason games – is on the front line.
That, in fact, is a microcosm of what I was talking about above. On one hand, there appears to be a ton of talent in the Bucs' defensive line room. On the other hand, much of that talent still has to prove it can be turned into production. There are questions of varying degree at almost every spot along the line, and among the backups as well.
Start at right end. Adrian Clayborn had a very strong rookie season in 2011, leading the team with 7.5 sacks, and was off to a good start last year before a knee injury took him out after just three games. Many, myself included, are expecting a breakout year from Clayborn in 2013; will we see evidence of that in training camp? Next to him is the biggest question mark on the line: Who will start at nose tackle with Roy Miller now in Jacksonville? The Bucs' drafted Illinois' Akeem Spence in the fourth round with the thought that he might be able to step right in, but again we can't take a rookie's production for granted until we see it. And will a veteran like Gary Gibson or Derek Landri keep Spence from getting that starting job, anyway?
Next to Spence is perhaps the surest thing on the line, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. He was a Pro Bowler last year and one of the league's rising stars, and he has apparently dedicated himself to getting into even better physical shape this year. I don't think we have any worries here, but there is still the question of whether McCoy can continue his ascension and emerge as one of the very best performers in the league. Finally, at right end, we presumably have Da'Quan Bowers stepping into the starting lineup on opening day for the first time in his three seasons. He made a remarkable recovery from his offseason Achilles heel injury last year to even make a second-half impact last year – and a promising half-season it was – but he must now prove he can handle a starter's share of snaps. Bowers might be the biggest wild card on that line, capable of giving the Bucs a ton of production from the left side, so I think he'll be very interesting to watch in July and August.
Actually, I shouldn't have said "finally" because the intrigue doesn't end with the presumptive starters. The Bucs hope a vastly improved secondary will help the pass rush by giving the big men that extra second they need. Still, the team didn't stop there in trying to amp up that pressure on the quarterback, something that has not met expectations for several seasons now. The draft brought two more potential helpers up front in fifth-rounder William Gholston and sixth-rounder Steven Means. How much can they help, and how soon?
I just think there's no end to the questions one can pose about the state of the Bucs' defensive line heading into training camp, more than at any other position. Now, I think we can reasonably be optimistic about most of the answers, but we won't know for sure until we watch it unfold in training camp.
Now, as long as I've got you over here in Bucs.com land, let's take this debate one step further, and in a slightly different direction. Rather than the most "intriguing" storyline of camp, let's name our most "surprising" storyline of camp. Above, we identified a subplot that we're eager to see play out in camp. This second part, though, needs to be more of a prediction. Tell me a development you think might happen during camp and/or the preseason that might surprise our readers, and I'll do the same.
Andrew Norton:I can agree with you there. That defensive line will definitely be something to watch. And I can easily piggyback onto everything that you have just pointed out and go with all those rookies up front as my big camp/preseason/regular season surprise. I can see Akeem Spence taking considerable reps and filling the void left by Roy Miller. And I can see the two young edge rushers playing a lot more than many would assume a fourth- and fifth-rounder would. Throw in a solid and unheralded Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, and you have a fierce five-man rotation at defensive end.
But, I won't piggyback. Instead, I think my surprise will come on the offensive side of the ball. At this point, no one knows how the Buccaneers are going to handle the tight end position. Last year, Dallas Clark got most of the playing time, while Luke Stocker played a key role in the blocking game. With Clark out, the Buccaneers are in search of a play-making tight end who can not only show his skills in the run-blocking game but can also catch the ball, adding one more outlet into a powerful passing attack.
My surprise play here for training camp and the start of the 2013 season will be the role that first-year Buccaneer Tom Crabtree plays in the offense. You look at his stats coming out of Green Bay and can see that he was an impressive blocker, and while his receiving numbers are nothing that make you do a double-take, he definitely made the most of all his opportunities.
Considering his role and his competition with the Packers, behind TE Jermichael Finley and competing for passes with the likes of Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jordy Nelson, Crabtree did a commendable job in the receiving game. In 2012, he pulled down just eight receptions, but scored on three of them and had a remarkable 25 yards per catch.
So not only do you have a big man capable of opening holes for a pretty promising young running back, but you have a playmaking tight end who can create mismatches and convert big plays. And we all saw last season how impressive this Buccaneer offense is with big plays, ending the 2012 season tied for fourth on passing plays of more than 25 yards.
In all likelihood, both Stocker and Crabtree will spend a good amount of time on the field, but I'll go with the surprise of Tom Crabtree turning some heads this preseason and regular season by making some big plays downfield and being a big new target for Josh Freeman.
Scott Smith: Well, I hope you're right that both Stocker and Crabtree step up into bigger roles, and do so productively. That would help a lot.
As for my pick, I could see an unexpected candidate winning one or both of the return jobs, but you've already been over that ground. So I'll go with this: Despite the additions of Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson, 2012 contributors Leonard Johnson and Ahmad Black will still find ways to carve out some playing time on defense.
Leonard Johnson made the team as an undrafted rookie last year, got a chance to play cornerback regularly at about midseason and promptly picked off a pass in three straight games. Ahmad Black, in his second season and first full campaign, saw a decent amount of playing time even though safeties Ronde Barber and Mark Barron each started all 16 games. Johnson got his initial shot due to injuries and the trade of Aqib Talib, while Black was mostly on the field as a free safety when the team would go with an extra-DB package that put Barber closer to the line of scrimmage.
Now, it's true that Johnson and Black were part of that troublesome secondary that the Bucs went to great lengths to patch up this offseason. And it's also true that one could easily imagine a starting secondary five (including the primary nickel back) of Revis, Goldson, Barron, Eric Wright and Johnthan Banks. Still, I don't think that means Johnson and Black will be relegated strictly to special teams.
Obviously, I could be wrong. I don't have a specific prediction as to how the two young players will get on the field. Maybe Johnson will just simply beat out Wright or Banks for a job. Maybe he'll be the primary dime back when the Bucs go to a six-DB package. Maybe that nickel back job won't be strictly a one-man affair. As for Black, perhaps there will be some special packages that survived from last year that will get him on the field again. The one possibility I don't really want to contemplate but can't ignore, of course, is that minor injuries along the way will create playing time for either Johnson or Black. We obviously don't want that, but my prediction here is that Johnson and Black will show enough during camp and the preseason that the coaches will be confident using them for whatever need arise.