S.S. Mailbag: Young Players to Watch

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won't publish an official depth chart until August. Nowadays, most teams wait until they are required to do so before making a depth chart public, and they aren't required to do so until the week of the first preseason game.

This practice isn't rooted in a desire to keep information from the public. Rather, it goes with the spirit of competition a team wants to foster at this time of year and in training camp. As Head Coach Bruce Arians has said on several occasions this spring, no one on the roster is promised a starting job. Obviously, a player can figure out roughly where he stands by when and with whom he is getting reps on the practice field, but a published depth chart isn't necessary or helpful.

So you won't see a depth chart link here on Buccaneers.com for a few more months. That said, the shape of that eventual depth chart has become a bit more clear, particularly on defense. After nearly three decades as a 4-3 team, the Bucs will now identify as a 3-4 defense, even if in practice the scheme will blend bits from both. And that means some players will be identified differently, whether or not the basics of their job changes that much.

You can see as much on the roster here on Buccaneers.com. Players in the front seven are put into three categories: DL (defensive linemen), OLB (outside linebackers) and ILB (inside linebackers). The first group contains what had previously been identified as defensive tackles (e.g. Vita Vea) and some bigger defensive ends (e.g. Will Gholston). The second group is mostly made up of players we would have previously referred to as defensive ends (e.g. Carl Nassib). The last group are more like traditional 4-3 linebackers, as opposed to 3-4 edge rushers, and it includes players who used to be either SAM, WILL or MIKE linebackers in a 4-3 (e.g. Lavonte David). So here are the players in each group:

DL: (9) Beau Allen, Terry Beckner, Will Gholston, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Gerald McCoy, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Dare Odeyingbo, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu and Vita Vea

OLB: (10) Shaq Barrett, Khazin Daniels, Demone Harris, Farrington Huguenin, David Kenney, Carl Nassib, Anthony Nelson, Patrick O'Connor, Jason Pierre-Paul and Noah Spence

ILB: (8) Devante Bond, Deone Bucannon*, Jack Cichy, Lavonte David, Kevin Minter, Corey Nelson, Emmanuel Smith and Devin White

* Bucannon is actually listed as a S/LB, which is reflective of the role he previously played in a Bruce Arians defense in Arizona.

So what kind of competition do the players in each group face? Teams generally have targeted numbers for each spot on the depth chart but are willing to give and take in order to keep the most talented and cohesive 53-man roster. And teams are particularly loathe to let go of a talented pass-rusher.

That said, the last team helmed by Bruce Arians, the 2017 Arizona Cardinals, started the regular season with seven DL, four OLB and four ILB on the depth chart. By the end of the season, they had increased to six ILB. Again, that doesn't mean that the 2019 Buccaneers will keep the exact same mix of front-seven players, but it does suggest that the fiercest competition for roster spots could be at outside linebacker.

So I can't give you a depth chart right now, but I can give you answers to your questions. Let's get to those now.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Other than Devin White, who is the pick you're most looking forward to seeing on the field?

- Nikbarlow7, via Instagram

This is a good question and there are a couple of interesting choices. I'm really curious to see if Sean Murphy-Bunting is going to win a prominent role in the defense right away and if he is going to be the type of playmaker the Bucs have been searching for in their secondary. Also, after watching the Bowling Green highlight reel of Scotty Miller in Carmen Vitali's breakdown of the sixth-round pick, and then seeing the same impressive quickness on the practice field this week, I'm excited to see if he can take his talents to the next level. That said, I think it could take a while for a role to develop for him in the offense, which is of course not unusual for a later-round pick.

But my answer is Anthony Nelson, the outside linebacker from Iowa that the Buccaneers drafted early in the fourth round. I can tell you that the team's decision-makers were thrilled to be able to land him where they did. If there assessment of him as a player turns out to be right, Nelson could end up being a Day Three draft steal.

Nelson (6-7, 271) is a big edge rusher. Scouts like to say he has "length," which basically means he's tall with long arms that he uses well. He can keep blockers off his body and eat up the distance between him and the football quickly. He was also a relentless defender for the Hawkeye, the kind who made a lot of plays simply by staying in pursuit, and that type of high-motor guy is fun to watch. He showed he could beat blockers with power moves at Iowa, and I expect the Bucs' coaching staff to help him ramp up his repertoire of pass-rush moves.

It seems very likely that Nelson will make the team, as almost all fourth-round picks do. It also seems likely to me that he'll be playing a lot from Day One. The neck injury sustained by Jason Pierre-Paul is probably going to free up a ton of reps for other players, and Nelson would be a prime candidate to soak up a good number of those. There's also the question of exactly what Nelson's role is going to be, as he noted after a practice recently that the coaches are still deciding if he'll be a standup edge rusher, a lineman who puts his hand in the ground or a bit of both.

Nelson was very productive at Iowa, and he got better every year. And that's not just a matter of his 23 sacks (including 9.5 last year). In just the last two seasons, Nelson was credited with 111 quarterback pressures. That's in 24 games. That's more than four a game! He'll face much better competition in the NFL, of course, but if he can even contribute a couple pressures a game that will be a huge help.

Biggest position battles heading into training camp other than kicker?

Victorian85, via Instagram

I did almost this exact same question two mailbag voyages ago, but I decided to tackle it again because I think my answer may have changed based on what I wrote in the intro above. Last time I said cornerback, and I do think there's a lot to be sorted out there, but I also think there's room on the roster for five or six of those guys to make it, and at some point they'll probably all play. It's still going to be an interesting battle for starts and reps between the returning veterans (though still also very young players) and the two new draft picks, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean. Those two rookies are getting a lot of work with the front-line defense right away as both Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis have been sidelined.

So I'm changing my answer this time to outside linebacker. Let's table the Jason Pierre-Paul part of this discussion for now until we know about his status for the season. Other than him, the Buccaneers have an intriguing but diverse group of candidates for that position, and they might only keep half of them. Here's what we're looking at in that group:

- Carl Nassib. 2018 waiver claim who ended up being a huge find and a big part of the defense last year. Admittedly, Nassib was already a little more high-profile than most September waiver claims, as he had been a third-round pick who played pretty extensively over two seasons in Cleveland before surprisingly getting cut. Nassib had 6.5 sacks as a 4-3 defensive end last year; if the Bucs got that many out of him as an outside linebacker this year, they would likely be pretty pleased.

- Anthony Nelson. Discussed at length above. Already described as a player cut from a similar cloth as Nassib. The Buccaneers are high on him, but obviously he hasn't yet had a chance to prove it on the (game day) field in the NFL.

- Noah Spence. A second-round pick from three years ago who had a very promising rookie season (5.5 sacks despite a significant shoulder injury) but then saw his playing time dwindle steadily, all the way to an almost inactive 2018 campaign. There is a strong belief that he has always been better suited for a 3-4 defense anyway, and thus a lot of hope that he will rebound and become a productive pass-rusher again. Again, though, that's just hope at this time of the year; he'll have to prove it in the fall.

- Shaq Barrett. Before the Bucs got Nelson on draft weekend, they dipped into free agency for a player who could see a spike in his production with more playing time. Barrett played his first four seasons in Denver but his playing time varied from year to year depending upon the depth the Broncos had at outside linebacker. Last year, they had outstanding depth at that spot, led by Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, and Barrett saw a drop in his opportunities. He saw Tampa as a place he could probably get more snaps and possibly get a full-time starting gig. That could happen, particularly if JPP is sidelined.

Those are the biggest names, and that group could make up a pretty productive OLB rotation. But it would not be a huge surprise to see any of the less experienced candidates – Khazin Daniels, Demone Harris, Farrington Huguenin, David Kenney and Patrick O'Connor – emerge as options or additional depth at the position. Daniels, of course, is an interesting prospect given that he was a huge success at Charleston despite being blind in one eye. And Kenney is finally getting his first chance to go to an NFL training camp after being out of the game since 2015. Kenney looked very impressive at the Bucs' rookie camp, which is why he went from a tryout contract to a spot on the camp roster.

That's why this particularly position battle intrigues me and could turn out to be the most fun to watch in training camp. There's a lot of potential and a lot of reason for optimism, but a lot of questions marks as well.

Hey Scott!

Glad the mailbag is back because I've been wanting to ask this question since way back when the Bucs changed coaches. It's simple really-do you think we'll see more trick plays with Bruce Arians calling things than we did with Dirk Koetter. I feel like Koetter's offenses never had any trick plays other than receiver runs every now and then, which barely qualifies as a trick play if you ask me. Really, nothing like that or even fake punts or fake field goals. I mean I get it. Tricky stuff can sometimes end up being a disaster, but just as a fan I love to see teams try those plays. Worked for Philly in the Super Bowl! Just wondering what you think abou that.

Thanks…Mark Westfall (sent via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

You and me both, Mark. I'm a lover of trick plays, too, and I also understand that it's a lot easier for me to call for one than it is for a coach to actually risk it. There's a lot more at stake for the coach. I don't think a coach is right or wrong for including the occasional trick play, but I know I appreciate it when they happen.

I also agree that Koetter didn't seem too interested in trick plays, unless you want to call that one where O.J. Howard slides along the line of scrimmage at the snap and somehow emerges on the other side wide open. That was neat, and it worked twice. Was it a trick play? Kinda. Maybe better described as tricky play design. Anyway, I'm going to guess that, yes, we'll see more trick plays than we have in recent years. That doesn't necessarily mean there will be a ton of them, but even a handful would be more.

Is there basis in history here with Bruce Arians? Well, I have to admit that I wasn't a faithful watcher of Cardinals games from 2013-17, when he was the head coach, except those times when the Buccaneers were the opponent, so I can't speak with great authority on that subject. You can find some indications in the stats. Larry Fitzgerald threw passes in both 2016 and 2017. Wide receiver Ted Ginn did so in 2014, as well, as did running back Marion Grice. Cornerback Patrick Peterson was targeted on throws eight times in 2013, six of them completed, but I don't know if that counts as a trick play if Peterson was simply on the field as an offensive player. I got excited when I saw that guard Mike Iupati caught a pass for a gain of 10 yards in a game in 2015, but upon further inspection Iupati had grabbed the deflection on a ball that was tipped by a defensive lineman.

I would base my belief that Arians will sprinkle in the occasional trick play more on the coach's overall tendencies and philosophies. He preaches and lives by the idea of being aggressive on offense, and trick plays are definitely aggressive calls. His players in Arizona said that they liked how Arians always wanted the play list for any given game to see stuff the opposing team wouldn't find on film. He prizes diversity in his scheme and has personnel groupings; that in itself doesn't necessarily generate trick plays, but it would certainly seem like the mindset of a coach who was willing to take an unexpected shot.

Most of all, Arians is obviously forward-thinking and committed to being cutting edge, as one can see from some of his coaching staff hires and his practice innovations. And Arians knows that some trickery like the Philly Special in the Super Bowl that Mark referenced is a growing part of the game. He saw it last year when he was calling games on CBS Broadcasts. Questioned about the rise of misdirection and trickery in play-calling at that time, Arians said, 'It's the norm. It's been building the last four years." Arians saw the various sorts of trickery, saw what worked and what didn't, and I've got to believe he'll incorporate that knowledge in his approach now that he's back on the sideline.

Anyway, I hope I'm right. I mean, is one flea-flicker every now and then too much to ask for?

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