With mini-camp wrapped up, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will now get a break until they are due back to report to training camp on July 23. The coaching staff will also get some time off, but will continue to evaluate the roster over the summer. All of the offseason practices were filmed and the coaches will review that, along with film from last season, as they evaluate players and set an informal depth chart prior to camp.
With 88 players on the current roster, and only 53 allowed to be on the active roster once the regular season begins in September, the Buccaneers, like many NFL football teams, will end up parting ways with some talented players that will be cut prior to the season opener.
PewterReport.com takes a look at four players that in years past would be almost locks to make the Buccaneers’ final 53-man roster. But with an influx of talent from free agency and the draft, these players will need strong camps to be able to walk out of the tunnel on September 7 when the Carolina Panthers come to Raymond James Stadium to face Tampa Bay.
DE DA’QUAN BOWERSThe former All-American from Clemson was a second-round draft pick in 2011 and came to Tampa Bay with high hopes of teaming up with fellow 2011 draft class teammate Adrian Clayborn to give the Buccaneers two impact defensive ends. The Buccaneers and fans are still both waiting for Bowers to come close to living up to expectations.
In 39 NFL games, Bowers has managed to get to the quarterback just 5.5 times and has only notched 45 tackles. Those numbers are clearly not what anyone was expecting after an exceptional college career that at one point had some mock drafts listing him as the potential overall No. 1 pick in 2011. Injury concerns coming out of college saw his stock drop, and an Achilles injury prior to the 2012 season limited him to just 10 games that season.
While Bowers has been the victim of some bad luck, much of the criticism he has received in the NFL has been self-inflicted, including admittedly coming into training camp out of shape last year and struggling to get in shape this year. A scheduled $1.23 million dollar cap hit in 2014 also doesn’t help Bowers’ case.
What Bowers Must Do To Survive: Bowers needs to report on July 24 in the best shape of his NFL career. He can’t afford to be gassed and taking a knee between reps as he did at times last year and even during the team’s OTAs and mini-camps this season. Bowers is at a career crossroads but will get the full support of defensive line coach Joe Cullen to prove himself. If Cullen and assistant line coach Mike Phair and can’t coax some fire out of Bowers, perhaps no one will. However, ultimately it falls on Bowers and his desire to become a productive NFL football player. Most still agree the talent is there, but does Bowers have the passion and desire to succeed?
TE LUKE STOCKERHas Stocker become the Myron Lewis of the Bucs offense? Many fans question why he is still even on the roster. But when watching a healthy Stocker in practice this offseason, it is easy to see what intrigues coaches about the former Tennessee product. Intelligent, athletic and maybe the strongest skill position player on the offense, Stocker has some tools that could be a benefit to the Buccaneers.
The biggest issue with Stocker has been his inability to stay healthy, particularly during training camp where the foundation for the season is set. Stocker was hurt early in his previous three training camps with an assortment of injuries and that has put him behind each year. Stocker will never be a 50-catch NFL tight end, but could be the team’s primary tight end blocker on running plays.
Thus far in three NFL seasons, Stocker has played in 32 games, including just two in 2013. In those 32 games, Stocker has caught 28 passes for 257 yards and only one score – not the type of production expected when he was selected in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, after the Bucs surrendered a 2012 fourth-rounder to move up to select him.
The new Buccaneers management was not impressed with Stocker’s numbers and signed former Giants tight end Brandon Myers in free agency then spent a second-round pick on Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Add in last year’s second leading receiver Tim Wright and it is clear Stocker is facing tough odds to stick around in 2014.
What Stocker Must Do to Survive: While it’s out of his control to a degree, Stocker must stay healthy throughout training camp. Showing a quick ability to learn the offense (his third in four years) could also help his cause, but also becoming a more technically sound blocker will also help him make a case for sticking. The Buccaneers have just two fullbacks on the roster (Lonnie Pryor and Jorvorskie Lane) and perhaps Stocker can work his way into an H-back type role with the team allowing the Buccaneers to not carry a fullback on the 53-man roster. And while a four-year veteran, Stocker should be knocking on special team coordinator Kevin O’Dea’s door daily trying to find a way to help that unit.
CB LEONARD JOHNSONEveryone loves Johnson. A local product from Clearwater, Fla. who grew up a Bucs fan, Johnson took a tryout from his hometown team in 2012 and turned it into a starting role later that season. Still Johnson, despite a number of starts over the last two years, could be facing a challenge to make the final 53-man roster.
In his two NFL seasons Johnson has logged 14 starts, totaling 103 tackles, 17 pass breakups and four interceptions – fairly impressive for a player that went undrafted and was deemed to be too slow to the play in the NFL. Two of Johnson’s interceptions have been returned for touchdowns, including a game-changing return of a Matthew Stafford pass right before halftime in last year’s road win against Detroit.
Despite the solid production, Tampa Bay still went out and added former Bears nickel cornerback D.J. Moore and recently defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier praised Moore, and gave him the early nod as starter. The Buccaneers have also been letting Danny Gorrer take reps at the nickel cornerback position, while praising his versatility. During the OTAs and mini-camps this offseason, Johnson missed some time with an undisclosed injury, allowing several younger players to get more reps and opportunities to impress the coaching staff.
What Johnson Must Do To Survive: Johnson needs to show the coaching staff he has a firm grasp of the playbook and scheme then go out in camp and make plays. Many have said Johnson has some Ronde Barber traits and if that is true this is the perfect defense for Johnson to showcase his talent. Being smart and a physical player who comes up in run support are keys in the Tampa 2 defense, and both are things that Johnson can excel at. Johnson has spent the last two years proving people wrong and he is a fighter.
RB MIKE JAMESWhen the Buccaneers drafted Mike James in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft he was a long shot to even make the team, much less end up being a solid contributor. The former Hurricane was a jack-of-all trades in Miami and did a number of things well, but nothing spectacular. But after a season-ending injury to Doug Martin, the Polk County native stepped in and ended up leading the Bucs in rushing average with 4.9 yards per carry. James also almost led Tampa Bay to an improbable road win against the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks with an incredible 158-yard day on the ground, in addition to throwing a touchdown pass to tight end Tom Crabtree before breaking an ankle the next week against Miami.
The problem for James in 2014 is the number of backs on the roster, including Tampa Bay selecting one with their third-round pick this year in Charles Sims. The former West Virginia standout has exceptional hands; something pointed out by head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht on a number of occasions.
It is clear that the running backs in offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford’s offense will need to be versatile and have the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. The Buccaneers front office and coaching staff also seem to be intrigued with the speed of Jeff Demps, and of course, Martin, the incumbent starter, is a lock to make the team. That leaves maybe one more spot for James and Bobby Rainey to fight for. Rainey stepped in after James’ ankle injury and is a bit shiftier of a runner than James and he has home-run speed, ripping off two touchdown runs of over 40 yards. Both backs certainly have NFL tools, but depending on the number of running backs the Bucs keep on the 53-man roster, one could find themselves looking for a new team.
What James Must Do To Survive: James beat the odds last year by making the team and one of the things that caught former head coach Greg Schiano’s eye was James ability to make the first guy miss and always gain positive yardage. Obviously second-and-9 is much better than second-and-12, and that isn’t something lost on Tedford and Smith. James was also seen returning some kickoffs in the OTAs and had a presence on special teams as a personal protector – another thing that can go along way in making an NFL team.
Having tough decisions to make and intense roster battles is something that coaches welcome. Not only does the competition make the entire team better, it proves the overall talent level on the football team is much improved.
Mark Cook currently is the director of editorial content and Bucs beat writer and has written for PewterReport.com since 2011. Cook has followed the Buccaneers since 1977 when he first began watching football with his Dad and is fond of the 1979 Bucs team that came within 10 points of going to a Super Bowl. His favorite Bucs game is still the 1979 divisional playoff win 24-17 over the Eagles. In his spare time Cook enjoys playing guitar, fishing, surfing and family time at the beach. In addition, Cook can be found in front of a television or in Doak Campbell any time the FSU Seminoles are playing. Cook is a native of Pinecrest in Eastern Hillsborough County and has written for numerous publications including the Tampa Tribune, In the Field and Ya'll Magazine. Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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