View photos from the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp practice on Tuesday at One Buccaneer Place.
In 2015, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded up four spots in the NFL Draft to nab Hobart guard Ali Marpet at the bottom of the second round. Despite his humble Division III roots – no Hobart player had appeared in the NFL since 1937 – Marpet made a quick transition to the professional level and was in the starting lineup at right guard for his rookie-season opener.
This past spring, the Buccaneers traded up eight spots in the draft to make sure they got Humboldt State, which last produced an NFL Draft pick 18 years ago. It is conceivable that Cappa will trod the same path that Marpet blazed three years ago and make the same swift adjustment to the pros, and to an opening-day starting job at right guard.
That still may not be the most likely scenario for the start of the Buccaneers' 2018 campaign; after all, third-year man Caleb Benenoch has been running with the first-team offensive line in the right guard spot since the start of training camp nearly a week ago. Benenoch also has starting experience with the Buccaneers, having finished out last season as the right tackle in Demar Dotson's absence. But training camp is all about competition, and Cappa is, at the very least, being given an opportunity to beat out Benenoch for that job. In fact, on Wednesday Cappa ran with the first team throughout practice for the first time.
"That was his first day doing that and really we're just trying to create some competition with him and Caleb at right guard," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter, who also cautioned that day-to-day changes don't necessarily mean anything permanent. "We're rotating guys, a lot of guys, with a lot of different groups, so don't read too much into that right now. A. Competition; and B. Guys banged up; and then C. Some of our veteran guys get some reps cut based on the day – [it's] a combination of all those things."
The right guard spot appears to be the only one in question on the offensive line, assuming no influence from injuries. Marpet is now at left guard after spending last year at center, a position now filled by key free agency pick-up Ryan Jensen. The starting tackles are incumbents Donovan Smith on the left side and Demar Dotson on the right, though Dotson is being eased back into a full load of reps after having offseason knee surgery. Benenoch has been the obvious front-runner for the job and veteran Evan Smith represents another reliable option, but Cappa had the spotlight on Wednesday, and it's apparently something the rookie has earned.
"Alex…is a guy that is smart and tough," said Koetter. "You know, he's getting corrected on things by [Offensive Line] Coach [George] Warhop every day and he deserves a chance to get in there and compete a little bit we feel like."
FITZ-JACKSON CONNECTION: Ryan Fitzpatrick, the 14th-year veteran who will start the season at quarterback for the Buccaneers while Jameis Winston is serving a suspension, has noted the advantage of getting first-team reps well before he actually has to take the field on game day. At many times in his career, he's been called upon to step in without such preparation.
"In terms of timing, there's guys that are easier to throw to than others," said Fitzpatrick earlier in training camp. "Getting the reps in practice and in some of those preseason games will be good live reps to get with some of the receivers just to get the timing down."
One receiver with whom Fitzpatrick appears to be getting in a rhythm, particularly, is a fellow double-digit-season veteran, DeSean Jackson. On Wednesday, Fitzpatrick once again connected with Jackson on a perfectly thrown deep ball, this one down the left sideline as Jackson got a step on his defender and was able to make the catch without breaking stride. Moments later, those two hooked up again on a well-timed comebacker on the first play of an 11-on-11 drill.
The Buccaneers obviously want to get more out of Jackson's downfield ability in 2018 than they did a year ago, no matter who the quarterback is. Given that such deep-ball opportunities don't arrive with terrible frequency, even with Jackson on the field, getting the timing down on such plays is critical.
"You know DeSean is definitely going to be scripted in as a deep ball guy, that's what he does," said Koetter. "So it's not like he looks for him, but have they connected? Yes. On all pass plays, the defense dictates where the ball goes. The quarterback doesn't go up there and say, 'Hey I think I want to throw it to DeSean this time.' The defense dictates that, but they have connected fairly often. And they had a couple good ones today."
HELMET-RULE HELP: The National Football League sent out a fact sheet on Wednesday in an ongoing attempt to clarify and teach the game's new "helmet rule." Tampa Bay players and coaches have already watched multiple videos on the subject and the visiting NFL officiating crew spent time going over details with the team on Tuesday afternoon.
The accepted wisdom regarding the implementation of this new rule, which is designed to enhance player safety by reducing dangerous hits in which players lead with the helmet, is that it will be a work in progress. Players, coaches and perhaps even referees will be learning the nuances of the rule as they go.
On the practice field on Wednesday, one Buccaneer got some on-the-job training on the matter. Immediately after rookie defensive end Kiante Anderson engaged first-year tackle Brad Seaton in a one-on-one pass-rush rep, he was approached by one of the visiting officials and Defensive Line Coach Brentson Buckner for a teaching moment. Anderson had rushed directly at Seaton and, just as he arrived, had ducked his head and made contact with Seaton's chest with his helmet. The official indicated that he would have thrown a penalty on the play.
"Yeah, that was about the helmet rule," said Buckner after practice of that particular discussion. "It's not just open-field hits, now they're looking at the linemen play. So if I go to make contact with an offensive linemen, I can't duck my head. He was just telling him, 'You've got to keep your eyes up.'"
Buckner had no problem with the official telling Anderson how to adjust his approach because the advice fit in exactly with how Buckner teaches his linemen to hit.
"I teach these guys, 'You've got to see what you're going to hit.' Don't duck your head. Good technique is more about injury prevention that makes you a good player. I teach technique that prevents injuries; it just so happens that it's good football, too. It may be for safety prevention but you'll be a better player because of it."
STEP FORWARD FOR CICHY: Rookie linebacker Jack Cichy, the Buccaneers' sixth-round draft pick, missed his entire senior season at Wisconsin due to a knee injury. Cichy was far enough along in his recovery to practice with the team shortly after the draft in May, but he did so with a brace on his surgically-repaired knee. Cichy was still wearing that brace as training camp.
On Wednesday, Cichy worked without the brace for the first time. Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith, speaking just after practice, said he was eager to get into the building and find out how the rookie came through the workout.
"Cichy has done a very nice job," said Smith. "I was very pleased to see that he didn't wear a knee brace, his first day. So that's a positive step to go through mentally, that you're going to be able to go out there and play without a brace."
Cichy is trying to win a spot on a deep linebacking corps that returns all of its principle pieces from last season. He was viewed as a quick and instinctive linebacker with some pass-rushing ability before his injury. Koetter said that it can take a good while for players to round fully back into form after a big knee injury but knows that Cichy made good progress on Wednesday.
"I think with a lot of injured players, part of coming back into full contact is just the confidence," he said. "You've got bodies on the ground and you've got people flying at your feet. Jack definitely plays with a burst. He's a smart player. I think he's still adjusting to life getting back to full health."