The S.S. Mailbag has been in dry dock for four months but now it's time to set sail again. It will be a long journey, but hopefully it ends not too far from home, in Miami next February.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are well into their offseason training program, and in less than two weeks they'll begin their run of 10 organized team activity days (OTAs) leading to a three-day mandatory mini-camp in June. The draft is in the past and the roster is largely constructed. Now it's time to start putting the pieces in place. As such, I'm back at the helm of the S.S. Mailbag, ready to take on fans' questions every Thursday. Let's get started!
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. I've also taken to stealing emails meant for our Salty Dogs podcast. As always, if you specifically want to get a question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This season we're adding a new wrinkle: Every Wednesday will be soliciting questions for that week's Mailbag through the Buccaneers' Instagram page. Look for that story each Wednesday and you'll get an opportunity to send in fresh questions that could get an answer just a day later. To celebrate that, I'm taking all of this week's questions from that Instagram story; however the methods noted above will still work for the remainder of the season.
1. Can we expect Noah Spence to have a bigger role in our new defense this year?
- Submitted by gavinegle05
"Expect" may be a stronger word than I'd like to use but, yes, it looks like Spence will, at the very least, get an opportunity to carve out a bigger role in the Buccaneers' new defense.
First things first, Spence has to win a spot on the 53-man roster and a place in the front-seven rotation. I don't say that because I consider that to be a long shot, but because Bruce Arians and members of his coaching staff continue to stress two things. One, they want to create as much competition as possible at every spot. Two, nobody has a job won right now. So that caveat applies to Spence and many other players on the roster.
Should that happen, however, the opportunity looks like a good one for Spence. As a player roughly the size of Von Miller, he is clearly a better fit as a 3-4 pass-rushing linebacker than as a 4-3 defensive end. General Manager Jason Licht noted as much at his press conference in mid-April, discussing the Bucs' selection of Spence in the second round in 2016, when the team was still running a 4-3. The Buccaneers saw value in him then as a designated pass rusher (DPR) but he probably holds even more value for their current set-up.
"We knew at the time that he was probably better suited for a 3-4, but we still saw the value where we took him as an edge rusher, sub-rotational DPR," said Licht. "So, I don't think it really delayed his development. I just happen to think in his case that playing in a 3-4 is probably what he is more ideally suited for."
Remember, this is a guy who was considered one of the best pure pass-rushers in the draft three years ago, and he's only 25 with not much wear and tear on his treads. Larry Foote, Spence's new position coach, already likes what he sees even though it's hard to get a true gauge on pass-rushers when there are no pads and contact is disallowed.
"He's got juice," said Foote. "He can get after it. The slate is clean and I'm just trying to encourage him that, 'It's your time, it's your time.' He's got a lot of potential."
Sure, Spence will face a lot of competition. Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib will presumedly also be OLBs in this defense, and those two combined for 19 of the Bucs' 38 sacks last year. The Bucs brought in 3-4 linebacker Shaq Barrett from Denver in free agency and Barrett was told that while nothing was guaranteed to him he would get a chance to compete for a starting spot. And the draft produced fourth-rounder Anthony Nelson, who was a very productive edge rusher at Iowa. But the fact that Spence is a holdover from last year's defense and, moreover, one who barely played in that defense won't be a mark against him.
"In this staff, we don't care where you came from, how you got here," said Foote. "I've seen it up close. I've seen free agents playing over second-round picks, third-round picks. It's open competition. Whoever's the best player on film is going to play."
2. Do you think there will be a competition at QB in training camp?
- Submitted by sdbjr45
Yes, but probably not in the way that you mean.
I mentioned in the previous answer that Arians and his crew want competition at every position and aren't promising any starting jobs in May. That said, common sense tells us that there are at least some positions at which a change would be a very big surprise. Quarterback is one of those; Arians made it clear practically from the moment he was hired that he was believed in Jameis Winston and expected him to have a big year in 2019. Anything can happen, but I don't think the Bucs will go into training camp realistically expecting Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Griffin or any potential undrafted rookie signee to beat out Winston.
That said, there could be some interesting battles from the second spot on the depth chart on. Gabbert was signed as a free agent in late March after he was released by Tennessee, which in itself was the domino effect of the Titans trading for Ryan Tannehill. It's easy to see why the Bucs pounced when Gabbert became available, as he is an experienced NFL veteran (48 career starts), something the team didn't have after not attempting to re-sign Ryan Fitzpatrick. Gabbert also specifically got experience in Arians' offense in Arizona in 2017.
That experience probably gives Gabbert the upper hand in the competition with Griffin to be Winston's primary backup. That said, Arians spoke highly of Griffin's potential while at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, which is significant because there was no guarantee that the Bucs' new staff would be as high on Griffin as was the old one. Dirk Koetter's crew had invested years in Griffin and, while they never got him into a regular-season game, clearly believed that he had the potential to be at least a number-two quarterback in the NFL. I do believe that it's more realistic to think Griffin has a chance to beat out Gabbert for the second spot than for either to challenge Winston.
Arians was the Cardinals' head coach for five years, and for the majority of that time the team carried three quarterbacks on its 53-man rosters. That was often the result of injuries, but it is still worth noting because in a perfect world most coaches would prefer to have two quarterbacks on the active roster and a third on the practice squad, thereby saving another spot for depth elsewhere. This informs the quarterback competition, too, because if the Buccaneers feel comfortable going with that latter model, the odd man out among Gabbert and Griffin would not be the third passer on the practice squad. That could open the door for a young player who shows promise in training camp.
The Buccaneers have not yet reported the signings of any undrafted players but among those young men reported by outside sources to be coming to Tampa is Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. If Fitzgerald does join the Buccaneers, he could prove intriguing as a quarterback with very good running ability. A player in that mold could serve as a reserve QB and also help out in some other roles, such as the way the Saints used Taysom Hill last year.
View photos from week two of phase two of offseason workouts.
3. Prediction for most hotly contested position battle in camp?
- Submitted by victoriano85
This question has four or five good answers. We already discussed the outside linebacker position above and its wide variety of candidates, some coming in from other teams or the draft, some moving to a new position. That one's going to be tough to figure out, but in the end I think the Bucs will find a way to keep each and every useful pass-rusher they uncover.
If the Bucs' staff is as sold on the Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones duo as they are purporting to be, the battle to round out that backfield could be intense. Jacquizz Rodgers has essentially been that guy for the past couple seasons but he is gone now. Second-year man Shaun Wilson has speed for days and could be a third-down, pass-catching type. Andre Ellington, signed earlier in the offseason, has filled that precise role in an Arians offense before but was out of the game for much of last season. Dare Ogunbowale has great special teams value. And another option or two could arrive when the undrafted free agents are announced.
The one open spot on the offensive line is right guard, and second-year man Alex Cappa may have the inside track. He'll get competition from free agent signee Earl Watford and perhaps such returning linemen as Evan Smith and Mike Liedtke. However, there were no new candidates for this job added in the draft, so the competition isn't as crowded as it could have been.
There's also a whole lot of somewhat equal depth to be sorted out at safety, but that's not my answer nor are any of the positions noted above. Instead, I'll go with slot cornerback. To begin with, we're starting from scratch here; I don't think the coaching staff even has a leading candidate at this moment, and it can't really start honing that competition until OTAs arrive and the offense and defense can start going at each other.
That said, we could end up with a lot of candidates. Despite moving to safety as his primary position, M.J. Stewart is still in the mix because Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles is perfectly happy using safeties in the slot if they have the ability. Stewart played there for a good part of last year and while it was a rocky run he still has a shot to figure it out. Vernon Hargreaves seems to be ticketed for a starting job on the outside and it appears Arians would prefer to let him concentrate on that one job, but if he's the best slot option he could still end up in an outside/inside dual role.
The Buccaneers drafted two more cornerbacks last week, second-rounders Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, but they haven't had a chance to get them on the field yet and determine where they are best suited to play. Even if Murphy-Bunting or Dean are destined for jobs as outside corners in the long run, one or both could get their first opportunity in the slot. And with the creative ways that Arians and Bowles have deployed their defensive backs in the past, you can't rule out one or more of the safeties besides Stewart being in the mix.
The Buccaneers have a lot of very young players in their secondary and all of them are sure to be itching to play as soon as possible. That will make the nickel corner job, which is essentially a third starting spot in today's NFL, a very coveted assignment, which should lead to a great battle in training camp.
4. Is Devin White possibly the new Derrick Brooks?
- Submitted by j_alonso4
Yikes! How about we let this young man get in, I don't know, one practice before we anoint him the second coming of the greatest linebacker – and arguably greatest player – in franchise history?
Now, don't get me wrong, j_alonso. I love your enthusiasm. And having met White and spent some time talking with him last weekend, I wouldn't be surprised if he has Hall of Fame aspirations and the confidence to believe they are possible. But that's what you're asking for if you want White to be the next Brooks: a Hall of Fame career.
White is, in fact, the first linebacker the Buccaneers have drafted in the first round since that incredible 1995 draft that produced both Brooks and fellow Hall of Famer Warren Sapp. As the fifth-overall pick, White is the highest-drafted off-ball linebacker (i.e. not a pass-rushing outside linebacker) in franchise history, and in fact off-ball linebackers rarely go in the top five. Given that the Bucs thought highly enough of White to take him that high and that the pick has largely received a positive response around the league, it's fair to say that he is considered a very rare talent.
If Devin White was asked this question, I'm 99% sure he would say that he intends to be, 'The first Devin White.' And that's fair. But in a general sense, if he is going to have an impact on the Buccaneers franchise that approaches the one Brooks had (has), he'll need to be durable (Brooks never missed a game in his career), ultra-productive (Brooks is the sixth-leading tackler in NFL history, according to Pro Football Reference) and a source of big plays in big moments (such as Brooks' Super Bowl-clinching pick-six). Oh, and it wouldn't hurt if he was a highly-respected individual who does great things in the Bay area community. It's way, way, way too early to say this with any true confidence but, you know what, I think White has a shot to be all of those things.