In last week's mailbag, I included a lengthy preamble about the top position battles to watch in training camp before I even got to your questions. That was the equivalent of a week-long cruise through the Caribbean for the S.S. Mailbag. This week, I'm just taking her for a quick, one-day fishing trip up the coast.
In other words, we're going straight to your questions, which this week include such topics as the starting cornerbacks, the Winston-Jackson connection, and more.
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 email@example.com.
I don't think Larry the Guy (I guess he cut the cord on cable like so many millennials are doing) meant this to be a mailbag question, but the SS Mailbag is a pirate ship and I take what I want. In this case, Larry was responding to something I tweeted after the Bucs' OTA practice on Thursday. I noted that, throughout that two-hour workout, the Bucs played a lot of nickel defense and, on the first team, third-year cornerback Vernon Hargreaves was working in the slot. Hargreaves had an interception on a deflected pass near the end of practice and generally appeared to have a good day (it's a little hard to know for sure in a practice, especially one without contact).
In a nickel defense, of course, you have three cornerbacks on the field, one in the slot and two on the outside. Larry wanted to know who was taking the first-team snaps on the outside. I'll give you the answer, but I wouldn't advise reading too much into it. A) It's early in June, and B) Not everyone who will be in the competition for starting jobs was available on this day.
Specifically, Brent Grimes was not in attendance at this voluntary practice. You should expect to see him next week in the three-day mandatory mini-camp, and you should also expect he'll be in the starting lineup. Grimes seems like the surest thing when it comes to a very up-in-the-air secondary. Also, Ryan Smith, who started 10 games last year, was on hand but not practicing due to an unspecified and presumably minor injury. There were about eight or nine guys who were spectators at this practice (or getting treatment inside) due to minor ailments.
The two players who took most of the first-team reps at outside cornerback were rookie Carlton Davis and first-year player David Rivers. Davis has generated a lot of buzz so far this offseason and has been praised for his work by Head Coach Dirk Koetter. That's a good sign. The second-round draft pick was seen as a potential antidote to all the oversized receivers galloping around the NFL, and indeed he stands out on the practice field as clearly the Bucs' biggest corner. Rivers was on the Bucs' practice squad for most of last year, then he had a brief stint in Miami before coming back to sign with Tampa Bay's active roster at the end of the year. He got into one game. Before coming to Tampa, he also spent time with the Packers and Jets.
There are a lot of ways the Bucs' cornerback depth chart could shake out, and I take that as a good thing. As I've said and written too many times to count, you can never have enough cornerback depth. It's hard to find and hard to keep, and you generally need all of your corners at some point during the season. Obviously, we don't know yet whether Davis and fellow second-rounder M.J. Stewart are going to develop into quality NFL DBs, but there's certainly reason to be optimistic. Grimes is a proven commodity who plays much younger than his age thanks to his remaining athleticism and Smith benefited greatly from all the experience he got last year. There's also Javien Elliott, who got a good amount of playing time near the end of the 2016 season and could be an option in the slot, and intriguing undrafted free agent Mark Myers, who has made a handful of interceptions during OTAs.
It's definitely interesting to note who is getting first-team snaps right now in OTAs, but there's a long way to go, so we probably shouldn't read too much into it.
You're watching that series? That makes one of us.
No offense. I sort of understand the appeal. We all like lists, and it's cool the way they unveil them 10 at a time. It leaves you wondering each week if your team is going to get a player in the next set. My issue is that the thing seems so arbitrary. I know it's determined by votes from players in the league, but we don't really know how many players voted or how much time they put into the process. If you told me that every player in the league voted and they all took it very seriously, I'd be impressed with the final result. Somehow, I doubt that's the case.
And some of the results seem screwy to me. I know they're head over heels in love with Jimmy Garoppolo in San Fran, and probably for good reason, but he's already the 90th-best player in football after five starts for the Niners? J.J. Watt is way down at #84, and I get it because he's missed so much time recently due to injury. On one hand, he definitely wasn't the 84th-best player last year just because he wasn't on the field. On the other hand, we all know that Watt is easily a top-10 player when he does play. He's an MVP candidate. Either way, #84 makes no sense to me. And so on.
Anyway, now that the rant is over, I'll answer the question. Jory actually asked two things, but they're actually the same question because the players ranked 31-100 have already been revealed and there are no Bucs on that part of the list. Do I think Tampa Bay will be shut out? I do think it's possible, simply because of the team's overall disappointing record last year.
If you were asking me this question before the countdown started, I probably would have guessed four or five Bucs I thought had a shot to be in the top 100. Now that we know there are none in the 31-100 range, I think there's only two we might still see on the list: Gerald McCoy and Mike Evans.
McCoy has been on the list each of the last five years. After debuting at #92 in 2013, he jumped all the way up to #28 in 2014 and then got that exact same ranking in 2015. The last two years, McCoy has dropped down to #63 (2016) and #52 (2017).
Evans first made the list in 2015, right after his rookie year, jumping in at #75. He wasn't included in the top 100 in 2016 but then came back to crack the top 30 last year, coming in at #29.
I know that McCoy had his lowest sack total in six years last year but he was still extremely effective, ranking among the NFL's top defensive tackles in quarterback hits. Evans, too, had the lowest receiving yardage total of his young career in 2017, but he did join Randy Moss and A.J. Green as the only players in league history to open their careers with four straight 1,000-yard seasons. It just seems weird to me that neither of those players would be on the top 100 anywhere. Did they really go from the 29th and 52nd best players in the NFL to not even in the top 100 last year? I think you can see why I'm not a big fan of this annual project.
That said, since Evans' top spot on any of these lists is #29 and McCoy's is #28, it would be strange to see them ranked higher than that on this year's list. I think it's more likely they are not going to be included in the top 30, even if they are deserving. So my final guess to your question, Jory, is no. I'd be more upset about that if I thought the list really meant anything.
Scott:Ronald Jones still hasn't signed his contract, right? I know he's been practicing in Otas. Is he allowed to come to the mini-camp next week? Just wondering. Thanks. Josh W. from Lakeland
(via email to firstname.lastname@example.org )
Yes, that's right, Josh. Jones, the first of the team's three second-round picks in the 2018 draft, is the lone remaining unsigned rookie. The Bucs have already inked seven of their eight picks, including first-rounder Vita Vea. I have very little doubt that Jones will also be under contract by the time training camp starts, and probably well before that.
You can probably glean the answer to your question from my last statement. The key deadline here is training camp, which will start near the very end of July. Up until then, Jones (and any unsigned rookies around the league) can take part in offseason work simply by signing an injury waiver. It's standard practice. I can understand why you would ask that, however. What next week's mini-camp has in common with training camp – and not with the rest of the offseason – is that it is mandatory. Players can be fined if they choose not to attend, but that's a very rare occurrence.
Even so, it still falls under the same umbrella as the rest of the offseason, before the start of training camp. Jones can practice next week with the team, and I'm sure he will.
I guess it's fair to connect their lack of practice time together last spring with the frustrating inability of Winston and Jackson to hook up on big plays last year. That was supposed to be a key part of the Bucs' attack, and it never really materialized. The best big-play receiver in the game over the nine-year span before 2017, Jackson apparently ran his routes as well as ever – Koetter and his coaches have said so repeatedly – but Winston just didn't find him downfield very often. Everyone is hoping that connection will happen in their second year together.
Like I said, it's a fair connection, but I can't say I really agree with it. I vividly remember watching training camp practices last year and seeing lots of downfield catches for Jackson. Here's an article from last August with Koetter raving about a "beautiful" 55-yard pass from Winston to Jackson. You would have thought coming out of camp that this was going to work; the two seemed to have perfectly good chemistry.
I'm not saying that the concept of "chemistry" between players is completely invalid. I think there's something there, but it's pretty impossible to measure. I think maybe we're using the word after the fact: If a quarterback and receiver are very productive together, they are said to have chemistry. Did they succeed because they had that chemistry from the start, or did they appear to have chemistry because they succeeded?
I think maybe we use that nebulous word to refer to a more concrete concept: Time working together. Reps. Shared success that leads to more success. So in a roundabout way I guess I am agreeing with you, James. Jameis and DeSean have indeed gotten a lot more reps together this offseason, and that can only help. It's similar to how the connection between Winston and Mike Evans improved in 2016 after those two produced less-than-expected results together in Winston's 2015 rookie campaign. By the start of 2016, they had two training camps, one season and one full offseason together. They had learned each other's tendencies much better and everything clicked in their second season together.
That certainly could help with Winston and Jackson. Maybe after a certain number of throws, Winston will get a more instinctive feel for how far he has to throw it when Jackson is running free down the field. Maybe Jackson will have a more instinctive feel for the arc or the length of Winston's deep throws and he'll make the necessary adjustments.
That's the hope, at least, and I'm personally optimistic. I think we're going to see the real big-play DeSean Jackson this fall.