Lovie Smith won't vocalize it, but Tampa Bay's new head coach believes his team—which features Josh McCown at quarterback, a tall group of receivers and a hungry defense—will have a say in the NFC South race
I’m in Tampa, and it’s early. Very early. Every time I’ve covered a Lovie Smith-coached team at their camp, we have a breakfast interview, and so I’m at the Bucs’ complex at 6:45 a.m. for our talk. I don’t remember how this tradition started, but it’s a good time to talk about team and life. (For the record, scrambled eggs and ham for the Texan, oatmeal with cranberries for me, the Nutmegger.) Then it’s some time with general manager Jason Licht, and player interviews around lunchtime, and then practice from 2 to 4:30 p.m., looking at a team with a lot of new pieces.
One vivid memory from watching practice
The size of the receivers. Quite a sight to see on the practice field. Whatever happens with the rest of the offense and the troubled offensive line, this will be a memorable group, all of whom towered above the defensive backs trying to cover them. Defenses will have fits trying to defend the Bucs in 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three wides):
WR: Vincent Jackson, 6-5
WR: Mike Evans, 6-5
WR: Chris Owusu, 6-2; or Tommy Streeter, 6-5
TE: Austin Sefarian Jenkins, 6-5
How this team can go 12–4
Tough division for the Bucs to go 12-4. If they break even in the division, that’ll be a great accomplishment, seeing that they’ve got six games against Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton. But it starts with the 35-year-old quarterback, Josh McCown, whose career defines “journeyman.” He resuscitated his career by beating Green Bay, Baltimore and Dallas last season in relief of Jay Cutler in Chicago; in all seven games he played significant time, his rating exceeded 90. Now the Tampa job is his, and he’ll need to repeat that for Tampa Bay to contend for the playoffs.
Defensively, Michael Johnson has to get to the quarterback. Period. There’s no way around it—the Bucs failed in finding a pass-rush with four defensive-line picks in the top two rounds of the 2010 and 2011 draft (only Gerald McCoy, a three-technique tackles, has panned out the way they’d hoped); that’s why they had to pay $44 million over five years for a slightly risky Michael Johnson in free agency. One more thing: Alterraun Verner needs to be 90 percent of Darrelle Revis, or the Bucs will get panned (and suffer on the field) for letting Revis go to New England.
How this team can go 4–12
By the quarterback letting the Bucs down, and by the secondary getting strafed, and by a schedule that could be unforgiving early. The first two are challenging but not impossible home games (Carolina, St. Louis), followed by a three-game roadie (Atlanta on a short week on Thursday, Pittsburgh and New Orleans). Will Lovie Smith be able to keep his team together with a 1-4 or even 0-5 start?
Now, from fantasyland …
Keep these tips in mind prepping for your draft:
1. Vincent Jackson is on track for a monster year. Write it down. He was an island last year, and he still had 78 catches for 1,224 yards. Imagine when defenses have to start defending the other side of the field and the tight ends.
2. Don’t forget rookie running back Charles Sims, the third-rounder from West Virginia. I can tell you Lovie Smith likes him a lot. It’s a crowded depth chart in the backfield, but Sims will get his chances when Doug Martin gets a rest—and maybe more.
3. I know how ridiculous it sounds. I really do. But in a 12-team league, if you get to your last couple of rounds and need a backup quarterback, I actually think Josh McCown is going to be productive for this team. He had a superb practice, throwing a perfect 42-yard touchdown strike to rookie Robert Herron in tight coverage in the end zone among other nice throws. Stranger things have happened. (Remember Kurt Warner?)
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold italics:
|WR1||Vincent Jackson||LE||Adrian Clayborn|
|LT||Anthony Collins||DT||Gerald McCoy|
|LG||Oniel Cousins/Kadeem Edwards||DT||Clinton McDonald/Akeem Spence|
|C||Evan Dietrich-Smith||RE||Michael Johnson|
|RG||Jamon Meredith/Patrick Omameh||OLB||Jonathan Casillas|
|RT||Demar Dotson||MLB||Mason Foster|
|TE||Austin Sefarian-Jenkins/Tim Wright||OLB||Lavonte David|
|WR2||Mike Evans||CB||Alterraun Verner|
|WR3||Chris Owusu/Robert Herron||CB||Johnthan Banks/Mike Jenkins|
|QB||Josh McCown||Nickel||Leonard Johnson/Quinton Pointer|
|RB||Doug Martin||FS||Dashon Goldson|
|FB||Jovorskie Lane||SS||Mark Barron|
Not much unsettled about the defense, though Clinton McDonald (unrestricted free agent from Seattle) will be, at minimum, in the line rotation spelling the tackles—though McCoy won’t come out much. McDonald could well start alongside McCoy. … There’s much competition at nickel (coached separately by the Bucs, which is unique), with the physical 202-pound Johnson in the lead as of this writing, ahead of rookie Quinton Pointer. … The guards are a problem. When I asked Lovie Smith what concerned him, the first thing he said was: “The guards.” They’d counted on former all-pro Carl Nicks to be able to play, but a staph infection that he never could fully overcome caused him to leave the team (and likely retire) last week. That leaves the Bucs with a fifth-round small-school guard, Kadeem Edwards of Tennessee State, vying for a starting job against Cousins, with Meredith, the former Steeler, taking the first snaps at right guard.
Best new player in camp
Pass-rusher Michael Johnson. Chose him over the big rookie receiver, Mike Evans, because Johnson’s likely to make a bigger impact on the team this year than Evans. The Bucs have spent a lot of draft capital on pass-rushers and not gotten much in return (Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers: three seasons, 18.5 sacks total), and Johnson’s edge-rushing potential in Cincinnati made the Bucs overpay for a guy who had just 3.5 sacks last year. He’s shown his usual quickness here, and Lovie Smith will put him in position to rush, hoping the concentration on Gerald McCoy by blocking schemes will free Johnson. In the practice I saw, he had one speed-rush to the passer around left tackle Anthony Collins. That’s what the Bucs paid for.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Josh McCown will be better than everyone thinks (except Marc Trestman). Not Pro Bowl-better, but middle-of-the-pack-of-NFL-starters better.
Something I’ve never seen before
The numbers on the redesigned Bucs jerseys. Hideous and hard to read. What's the point? Something really cool and really indecipherable? Overall, I actually like the revamped, space-agey uniforms and helmets, just not the numbers.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
I can see why Lovie Smith is quite optimistic, though he won’t say it. If McCown plays games as well as he’s practiced this first week—which is hardly guaranteed, never mind even likely—the Bucs will be in the pennant race in December, even in a division as tough as the NFL South.