Sizing Up the Bucs' Secondary

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As of the posting of this mailbag, there are 26 days before veterans report for the start of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp. Here are 26 things we'll be pondering as camp and the preseason games begin this summer:

1. Will the radical reshaping of the Buccaneers' defensive line improve that unit as much on the field as it seems to promise on paper?

2. Which players will emerge as the top three options at cornerback?

3. Will the availability of an indoor facility fundamentally change how the Buccaneers train for a season?

4. If so, will it have a noticeable effect on how well the team is prepared?

5. Will the offense more effectively unlock DeSean Jackson's big-play potential in Year Two?

6. Can rookie Jordan Whitehead challenge for a starting spot quickly, and potentially join Justin Evans as a very young duo at the back end of the defense?

7. How will the DT rotation shape up between Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy, prized free agent acquisition Beau Allen and first-round draft pick Vita Vea?

8. Will camp practices be "way more competitive" between the offense and defense than it was a year ago, after Head Coach Dirk Koetter made that assessment about offseason workouts?

9. How different will the practice experience be for the Bucs' defensive linemen under energetic new position coach Brentson Buckner?

10. Will the Buccaneers end up with a backfield by committee or will one ballcarrier, perhaps second-round pick Ronald Jones, emerge as the clear leader in touches?

11. When the team heads to Tennessee for a series of joint practices with the Titans in Week Two of the preseason, will one team or the other look clearly dominant?

12. Can second-year WR Chris Godwin continue to make standout plays on virtually a daily basis (more on Godwin below)?

13. Is O.J. Howard ready to make the leap in his second NFL season?

14. Will one Ryan – Fitzpatrick or Griffin – pull well ahead of the other on the Bucs' QB depth chart?

15. Will Kendell Beckwith repeat his impressive feat of a year ago and return from a significant injury in time to start the season?

16. If Beckwith isn't ready for the start of the season, who soaks up his snaps at SAM linebacker?

17. Who starts at right guard?

18. Will the "attitude" that free agent addition Ryan Jensen is expected to bring to the offensive line be readily apparent in that unit's play?

19. Will Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David find more room to roam – and more opportunities for big plays – with a more talented and stout defensive line in front of them?

20. Will the punt and kickoff return jobs go to incumbents like Jacquizz Rodgers and Adam Humphries, or will a new option emerge from among the young additions to the roster?

22. Who will continue the team's near-annual tradition of at least one undrafted rookie making the 53-man roster?

23. Will the inevitable focus on improving red zone efficiency produce the desired results?

24. When will Demar Dotson return to the field, and who is the top option at right tackle when he's not available?

25. Will the field goal drills be far less dramatic this summer?

26. Finally, and most importantly, will fans still be given freeze pops at training camp practices if they are sitting in air-conditioned comfort in the indoor facility at the time?

Alright, those are a bunch of topics for which we will need the arrival of camp and preseason games to answer. Now let's move on to the questions we're going to take a crack at 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. As you'll see from time to time, I also unilaterally appropriate for myself – as any good pirate captain would – questions I like that are meant for our Insider Live show or are simply responses to one of my previous tweets. As always, if you'd prefer to email your question and maybe bust past that 280-character limit, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

This was sent to Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times as well, and knowing Auman's hyper-thorough and Twitter-active ways, BucsBuzz will probably get a pretty good answer from him. But I'll take a crack at it, too.

I'm not sure we can say that the secondary is our weakest position right now, but it's not unfair to say that about how the unit performed in 2017. I mean, it's a little unfair, because pass-rush and pass-coverage go hand in hand, and the Buccaneers had the NFL's lowest sack total last season. That certainly raised the difficulty level for the players in the secondary by a noteworthy degree. Keep in mind that the principle figures in that defensive backfield in 2017 were largely the same players who put up very good numbers during the last eight game of 2018.

Still, the Buccaneers did allow the most net passing yards in the league last year, so the secondary probably needed some attention. And it got it in the draft, with the team using a pair of premium second-round picks on cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis and a high fourth-rounder on safety Jordan Whitehead. All three could carve out significant roles on defense quickly, though nothing is guaranteed for any of them, particularly this year.

So what do we have to go on when evaluating this year's secondary? Well, 10 OTA practices and a three-day mini-camp, essentially, all of it in shorts and with real contact disallowed. You'll probably recognize that as the usual caveat: It's impossible to get a true read on where the team, or any particular unit, is at this point through watching "underwear football."

That said, you can see a little bit more from receivers and defensive backs than you can from, say, offensive and defensive linemen. Nobody is going to record a sack or register a pancake block in OTAs, but a defensive back certainly can make an interception, or break up a couple end zone passes, as veteran cornerback Brent Grimes did during the mini-camp.

My general feel from watching the three-day mini-camp, in which every minute of every practice was open to the press was that the defense had a bit of an edge on the offense. You can call me biased, I suppose, if I say the secondary looked good, but at the same time that's pointing out that the offense did not. I would just echo the words of Head Coach Dirk Koetter, who after the first mini-camp practice said the action on the field looked "way more competitive" than it did a year ago. Given that the offense would go on to put up pretty good numbers and the defense would struggle in the ensuing season, that would seem to indicate that the defense has improved and is closer to leveling the playing field.

Here's what I feel good about: Grimes looked as spry as ever when he got to mini-camp and should be as steadily productive at one outside spot as he has been the last two years. Third-year man Vernon Hargreaves looked like he was taking well to the job in the slot. Rookie Carlton Davis, drafted specifically because he has the size to match up with bigger receivers, showed enough in OTAs and mini-camp to suggest he can compete for a prominent role. Justin Evans had a promising rookie season and should lock down one of the two safety spots. The rebuilt defensive line should provide far more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year, which will help everyone in the secondary.

Here's what we don't know: Will any of the rookies be able to help right away, including Davis? Will Chris Conte have competition for his starting safety spot, perhaps from the rookie Whitehead? Will Hargreaves play in the slot, or will he have a larger, hybrid role that sees him playing inside and outside? Are we being too optimistic about what the new-look D-Line can do? With Hargreaves coming back from an injury-plagued second-season, Ryan Smith getting a lot of valuable experience last year and the rookies added to the mix, will there be enough cornerback depth, which seems to be tested every season?

For his part, Koetter believes that the new additions will make a difference and that the holdovers are preparing for a much better season.

"I think what we learned [in mini-camp] is the new additions are going to help us a lot, not only the free agents but the draft picks," said Koetter of the defense as a whole. "[General Manager] Jason [Licht] did an awesome job with the guys he added to our team and I think the guys that are returning are really serious about putting their best foot forward."

I doubt that Dirk Koetter or any of the Bucs' coaches have thought too much about playing Noah Spence as a 4-3 linebacker rather than a pass-rushing defensive end. The reason Spence was drafted high in the second round in 2016 is he possesses a particular skill that is highly coveted in the NFL: He can rush the passer.

That's what Spence does. Going all the way back to high school in Pennsylvania's football hotbed, that's what he's always done. He had three sacks in a prep All-American game, he was considered one of the top defensive end prospects in the land. Ohio State landed him first, though he eventually ended up at Eastern Kentucky, and in both places he was an edge rusher who piled up the sacks.

I'm not saying that Spence only has one skill and that he would be lost at any other spot. We have seen him drop into coverage from time to time without incident, and he stopped the run better than expected when he was forced into more early-down playing time in his rookie season. He has added muscle and weight to a pretty significant degree this offseason, has had a special sort of surgery to avoid incurring more of the shoulder injuries that have plagued his first two years in the league and he believes he'll be better able to handle bigger blockers this year. We don't really have enough evidence yet to know how much Spence is capable of in the NFL, but it's reasonable to believe his best days are ahead of him.

But that's all in the service of making him a better and more complete player at his natural position, defensive end, then in finding a new role for him in the defense, such as linebacker. I get it to some extent – he is 6-2 and he was playing with a weight in the 230s last year, which means he might have looked like some of the Bucs' other linebackers. If he had been drafted by a 3-4 team, maybe Spence would be an outside linebacker, but he'd still primarily be a pass-rusher. He's addressed the weight issue now and hopes to play at around his current weight of 257 pounds. That's still won't make him a particularly big defensive end, but it's big enough for an edge-rush specialist.

Furthermore, why would the Bucs be thinking of converting a defensive end into a linebacker? Who would Spence replace? Lavonte David? Kwon Alexander? Kendell Beckwith? Sure, Beckwith is a bit of a question mark for the beginning of the season due to his ankle injury, but the team has other options to replace him for a while. Plus, when David and Alexander are healthy, they are the two linebackers who stay on the field in the nickel. So if you put Spence at SAM linebacker, but took him out in the nickel, you'd be using a player whose best skill is rushing off the edge on the exact opposite downs you would usually want that player on the field. Sure you can say, 'Leave him on in the nickel as an edge rusher,' but in that case aren't you really still playing him at his usual position?

The rather yawning chasm between what the Bucs had at linebacker and what they had at defensive end by the end of last season caused the team to go out and completely reload on the front line, while only adding one linebacker, in the sixth round of the draft (Jack Cichy). Heck, by late last season the Buccaneers were taking a linebacker (Beckwith) and playing him at defensive end in passing situations. The need to shift talent was going in the other direction.

I can only imagine that your idea of moving Spence to linebacker is a reaction to a perception that he hasn't worked out at defensive end. That's only true in that his shoulder injuries have kept him off the field and slowed his development. He had 5.5 sacks as a rookie despite wearing a shoulder harness most of the season, and that certainly seemed promising. He had a strip-sack in the opener last year but soon ran into another shoulder problem and ended up with a mostly lost season. Spence still has plenty of time to excel in the exact role for which he was originally intended: designated edge-rusher.

Mr. Smith…

If we assume that Mike Evans is again going to catch the most passes for the Bucs this year, who do you think will be second? Any chance its Godwin. We keep hearing alot of good things about him. I came to two training camp practices last year and thought he already looked great back then. Thanks for answering my question. – Brendan Allen, Tampa (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Yes, the Chris Godwin hype train is reaching full speed, and deservedly so. When the head coach says that, in offseason OTAs and mini-camp, you are "one of the guys that every day made some kind of highlight play, on top of being very consistent," that's a very good thing.

It's no wonder everyone is talking about the second-year player out of Penn State with an apparently bright NFL future. Maybe he'll be like another former third-round pick by the Buccaneers, Mark Carrier, the team's all-time leading receiver (in yards). Carrier had 26 catches for 423 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie, averaging 16.3 yards per reception. Two years later, he was in the Pro Bowl after a 1,422-yard campaign that still stands as the Bucs' single-season record. Godwin just recorded 34 catches for 525 yards and one touchdown in his rookie season, averaging 15.4 yards per catch.

In between Carrier's first and third seasons he had a fine sophomore effort, with 57 catches for 970 yards and five touchdowns. That doesn't seem out of the question for Godwin – it would be an increase of about 68% in catches and 85% in yards – especially if Godwin gets a big bump in playing time. He was in on only 41% of the team's offensive snaps as a rookie, but he played exactly two-thirds of the snaps over the last four games.

Would a line in the neighborhood of 57 catches for 970 yards make Godwin the Bucs' second-leading receiver? Maybe in terms of catches, probably so in terms of yards. Evans has been Tampa Bay's leading receiver in each of his four seasons so far, at least in terms of yards. As a rookie in 2014, Evans had a still-spry Vincent Jackson as his running mate and the two split the lead-dog role down the middle. Evans had 68 catches for 1,051 yard and Jackson caught 70 passes for 1,002 yards. (Evans did have a huge edge in touchdowns, 12 to 2).

In the three seasons since, Evans has easily paced the team in both catches and yards every year, and there has been a different number-two man each time. In 2015, it was running back Charles Sims, with 51 grabs for 561 yards. In 2016, a tight end rose to the top, with Cam Brate hauling in 57 passes for 660 yards. Last year it was a split title, as wide receiver Adam Humphries had the second-best receptions total (61) and wide receiver DeSean Jackson was on top of yards with 668.

So there are your candidates, plus second-year tight end O.J. Howard. Howard is one of six different Bucs who topped 400 receiving yards last year, and he had a scintillating average of 16.6 yards per reception, which suggests his yardage total could balloon quickly if he gets more targets in his second year.

If I'm handicapping this race, I think I'm going with DeSean Jackson as the favorite and Cameron Brate as my next pick. I still think that Godwin's role in the offense is going to be on that develops throughout the season. He got his bump in playing time at the end when Jackson was hurt, and that likely won't be the case as the season begins. Meanwhile, the Bucs seem determined to get more out of the veteran Jackson in his second season in town after having trouble unlocking his proven big-play ability last fall. Jackson's first year as a Buc was widely viewed as a disappointment (though he himself did not disappoint with his effort or play), and he still was second on the team in terms of yards. If things are better in 2018, he should be able to hold onto that crown. He will probably be fighting Brate and Howard for the lead in receptions, however. I think you could see a situation where Evans is the clear leader in the 85-1,200 range and then a number of other pass-catchers are grouped around 50 to 60 receptions.

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