Young Bucs: Tampa Bay Training Camp Report
Site: Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice facility, Tampa Fla., within spitting distance of Raymond James Stadium.
What I saw:A morning practice.
Three things you need to know about the Bucs.
1. Jameis Winston will probably struggle early. That’s fair to say of any rookie quarterback, but I think it will be especially true for Winston. For starters, his left tackle is rookie second-rounder Donovan Smith, who will take his lumps on a young offensive line that figures to start another rookie, Ali Marpet, at guard. More importantly, Winston looked overwhelmed at times in practice, but that could be a function of the coaching approach. Are the coordinators throwing the book at the rookie and letting him fight through the surf? Hard to say. On the day of practice we watched, his first and third throws were interceptions, the third ending up in the hands of linebacker Lavonte David on a ball Jameis had no business attempting to squeeze into the alley. In an ideal world, I think Jameis would benefit from beginning camp on the second team and learning behind an experienced placeholder.
2. The pass rush is a work in progress. The two defensive ends taking first team reps in practice, George Johnson and Jacquies Smith, combined for 12.5 sacks in 2014 in their respective spots (Smith in Tampa and Johnson in Detroit). Smith, undrafted in 2012 and already a veteran of three NFL teams and one CFL team, has looked sharp in camp, especially in one on ones. Defensive tackle McCoy is arguably the league’s best defensive tackle and one of the best pass rushers at his spot, but he can’t do it alone.
3. If Jameis can get the ball out, he has options. It’s hard to argue with this group of pass catchers as a highly rookie friendly group. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson are one of the top receiver pairs in the league, and second-year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (21 catches in nine games as a rookie) could end up being Winston’s best friend if he stays healthy.
What will determine success or failure for the Bucs in 2015…
It would be easy to say Winston, but the No. 1 overall pick won’t have a shot at success in 2015 if the Bucs don’t get improved offensive line play. You could make the case that Tampa had the worst offensive line in the NFL a year ago, with the two weakest spots being right guard and left tackle. And wouldn’t you know it, general manager Jason Licht went out and drafted Smith with his second-round choice to play tackle and Ali Marpet out of Hobart with the 61st pick in the second round to play right guard. Marpet has looked good so far, recently mixing in with the first team after doing some serious road grating early in camp. Smith has debuted to mixed reviews. The good news is the two rookies will be supported on all sides by three accomplished veterans. Demar Dotson had a strong year at right tackle in 2014 and even showed he could play the left side in a pinch. Veteran interior linemen Evan Dietrich-Smith and Logan Mankins need no introduction.
Player I forgot was on the roster: Chris Conte. The former Bears safety is in a bid for the starting free safety spot, and I think he’ll win it. Chris is an average player and a good tackler who got a bad rap for a handful of highly-visible coverage gaffes in Chicago. It was time for a fresh start.
Five dot-to-dot observations… There’s buzz about the improvement of defensive end TJ Fatinikum, now in his second NFL season after going undrafted out of Toledo in 2013 and maximizing his opportunity with the Arena Football Portland Thunder that year… We arrived in Tampa after more than 20 straight days of rain, and the campus showed it. The area around the practice field was a sloppy mess, but the actual playing field looked to be holding up to the abuse. Kudos to the grounds crew and whatever landscaping mind designed the practice grounds… The coolest part of my first seven cities on the training camp tour, by far, was a visit from the EA Sports folks in Tampa. Brad Hillebrand was kind enough to bring an advance copy of Madden 16 all the way from Orlando so Peter King could play Madden with Gerald McCoy and Mike Evans, and the results were fantastic. Video to come… My favorite part of the Madden session was watching Evans scroll through the list of wide receivers rated higher than him, commenting on how and why the makers are wrong. Some funny stuff… I mentioned that Lavonte David interception for a reason; I couldn’t have been more impressed with the young linebacker. His agility and anticipation in pass defense is something special.
Gut feeling as I left camp: First-year quarterback with a young offensive line and a defense still missing significant pieces. That sounds like a 4-12 ballclub with a lot of upside for 2016.