Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Roundtable: Young Players to Watch

As the start of training camp approaches, Buccaneers.com contributors Joe Kania, Andrew Norton and Scott suggest that fans keep their eyes on these young Bucs.

The best photos from the Buccaneers' mini-camp practices.

Last week, I engaged fellow site contributors Joe Kania and Andrew Norton in this discussion: What are the key position battles to watch during training camp? Among our suggestions were safety, kicker and second quarterback.

With perhaps their most talented roster in years, the Buccaneers enter this year's camp with fewer question marks than usual regarding their starting lineup. Every first line on the depth chart is technically up for competition, but it would be quite surprising to see changes made at, say, quarterback, weakside linebacker or three-technique defensive tackle.

Fortunately for those hoping for some training camp drama (looking at you, Hard Knocks), there is another layer of competition that attracts the spotlight every summer. The Buccaneers will bring 90 players to camp on July 28, and every one of them will be legitimately battling for one of the eventual 53 spots on the regular-season roster. Some of those 90 players may be a year or two away from truly competing for a starting spot, but the first goal is to make that 53-man roster. The second goal is to carve out a role of some significance.

That's our task for the day as we continue with our unofficially-named "Roundtable Week" here on Buccaneers.com. Joe, Andrew and I will try to identify a handful of young players on the roster who are worthy of your attention in this year's training camp. They don't have to be undrafted players, or even rookies, but they need to be young roster hopefuls who, to this point, haven't yet made a huge impact in the NFL. So forget a rising player like Cam Brate or a veteran newcomer like J.J. Wilcox. We're diving a little deeper for this one.

In keeping with our rotation from the previous two Roundtables, I get to pick first this time, followed by Joe and then Andrew.

Scott Smith: Antony Auclair

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Joe noted in our last Roundtable that there are several possible battles that could emerge among the tight ends this summer. That's a good point, since there are actually two tight ends listed on the starting offense on the Bucs' depth chart – at least, there were last year – and those two jobs could potentially call for different sorts of contributions.

After using a first-round pick on the position for the first time in team history, the Buccaneers are quite deep at tight end heading into camp. That prized draftee, O.J. Howard, is expected to combine with Brate to give the Bucs' two-TE set some real teeth. There would also seem to be a role for veteran Luke Stocker, a strong blocker, and last year's undrafted find, Alan Cross, who can help as a lead blocker and a pass-catcher. Even first-year player Tevin Westbrook, who has great size for the position, has been around for a few years and might be ready to take his game to the next level.

But don't forget about Auclair, the Canadian import who is nearly Howard's match when it comes to a combination of size and speed. If there's a role for Auclair, it's likely similar to that of Howard, a big player who can block but also stretch the seams and create mismatches with smaller defenders. Given that redundancy, it might be difficult for Auclair to grab a whole lot of snaps early in his career, but if he does flash a big-play ability in camp this year he could give that tight end room some impressive depth. It's likely that Howard and Brate will be catching most of the passes aimed at tight ends this fall, but training camp and the preseason will be Auclair's chance to shine.

Joe Kania: Caleb Benenoch

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Benenoch's rookie season probably didn't go how he had hoped. He spent time battling injuries and appeared in just five games with one start. The Bucs' fifth-round draft pick in 2016 probably won't be competing for a starting job when training camp kicks off, but he could be in the mix for a player battling for a game jersey on Sundays.

Teams will usually dress seven offensive linemen, depending on the situation, for gameday. Those two extra players outside of the starting five are usually a tackle and a reserve who can play on the inside. An obvious fill-in for the swing tackle is Leonard Wester, who served that role a year ago. Assuming Wester holds down that position, there are a handful of players competing for that final spot.

With the way injuries occur on the offensive line, Benenoch could very well see the field if he wins that reserve spot. But it won't be easy. He'll have to hold off Evan Smith and Joe Hawley, both former starters, in addition to several other talented players.

Andrew Norton: Ryan Russell

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Russell was on the Buccaneers' roster last season and saw some work late in the year on the defensive line rotation. The fine folks at Football Outsiders have him with 174 total snaps on defense and 72 as a special teams player. He registered one sack for the team in 2016. The first reason he is one to watch is that he has received some praise from head coach Dirk Koetter already this offseason.

"Since he's been back – Ryan is long and deceivingly strong, and very fast off the ball." Koetter said about the defensive end in an OTA press conference. "Ryan's a good pass-rusher. The second half of last year we got a good feel for how he could fit in with our group. Nobody talks about him because he never talks. It's hard to get that guy to say a word, but we're excited about him."

He's a young player on the coaches' radar, and what could make him even more of an exciting prospect to watch is the depth and competition along the defensive line. Chris Baker was added in the offseason. Jacquies Smith will return from a season-long injury, as well as Noah Spence and Robert Ayers who both battled injuries in 2016. Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith is quick to say that plenty of players will contribute to the defensive line throughout the season. If Russell can continue to prove himself in training camp, he could be a welcome part of that strong rotation come September.

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