After watching every practice and walk-thru thus far in the Buccaneers' 2011 training camp, Friday night’s preseason opener should help answer some questions heading into the upcoming regular season. PewterReport.com lists five things to look for as Tampa Bay plays its first preseason game Friday night in Kansas City in a nationally televised game on Fox.
Will Josh Freeman pick up where he left off at the end of last season?
Freeman, the Buccaneers' unquestioned offensive leader, finished last season playing as well as any quarterback in the NFL. In his final two games of 2010, Freeman threw for seven touchdowns, including a franchise-record five against the Seahawks in Week 16. Freeman followed up that performance by adding two more touchdown passes in an upset win at New Orleans and almost 500 combined yards in those two contests. Tampa Bay's first-round pick in 2009 has immense pressure on him, not to mention local expectations, to lead the Buccaneers into the playoffs. Bucs legend Warren Sapp, who stopped by One Buc Place on Wednesday to file a report for NFL Network, also has high hopes for the third-year quarterback.
“They have a franchise quarterback and I see [Freeman] as an MVP candidate this year because he’s fire retardant,” Sapp said. “The one thing I’ve done in this league is I’ve chased quarterbacks and I’ve lived quarterbacks. This young man – there is something about him.”
No one, the PewterReport.com staff included, expects Freeman to make as much of a jump this season as he did from his first to second year when he threw for 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions. But the good news is he doesn’t have to. With running back LeGarrette Blount firmly established in the backfield, Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn on the outside at wide receiver, and tight end Kellen Winslow as healthy as he as been since joining the Buccaneers, the offense should be as good, if not better, than last season.
Talking to Freeman several times during camp, we get the impression he not only isn’t afraid of the challenge, but he actually embraces it. We have all heard the game’s greatest quarterbacks described as cool, confident and unflappable. Freeman appears to be all three of those. But the true test begins Friday night.
Don’t get overly concerned if his stats don’t jump off the pages during preseason, as the Bucs won’t necessarily be focused on winning. Olson and his offensive coaches will play-call to see how Freeman and other players react to certain situations. Instead, look for improvement in his command of the offense - his accuracy and reads - and most importantly his decision-making.
How will players who suffered season-ending or offseason surgeries perform?
The list of players who missed games because of injury last season was long. Aqib Talib, Cody Grimm, Jeff Faine, Jeremy Trueblood, Davin Joseph, Quincy Black, Brian Price, Earnest Graham, and Arrelious Benn were all key contributors who missed significant time due to injury. Training camp walk-throughs and one padded practice a day are a far cry from an actual live NFL game, even if it is only preseason. In fact, some of the toughest licks you will see during a season come during those hot August nights as players on the bubble look to make an impression.
So what will we see from last year’s walking wounded? Will we see Benn round off his routes as opposed to cutting and planting? Will Grimm avoid large collisions in order to protect his leg? We seriously doubt it, but the questions are valid for those mentioned and all who are returning from injury. Returning from an injury is as much mental as physical, some of the players told us during camp.
We all remember holding our breath nearly every time Cadillac Williams touched the ball the last two seasons. But as Grimm told PewterReport.com during training camp, you have to forget about it and just relax and play football. Easy for us who don’t play to say, but true nonetheless.
How will the lack of offseason workouts and new CBA rules regarding training camps affect tackling?
Let’s face it. Anyone who watched the late 1980’s Buccaneers coached by Ray Perkins in training camp at the University of Tampa wouldn’t even recognize the training camp of today. Three-a-day full padded practices, minimal water breaks and players literally trying to take each other’s heads off were the norm under Perkins.
Of course all of those intense practices didn’t translate to wins on the field. Yet this year’s camp is the least physical of any training camp we have attended. But don’t blame Raheem Morris.
Across the board in the NFL, training camps are all the same. Arguments can be made that there will be less camp injuries and careers will be extended. On the other hand, will injuries during the regular season increase? One aspect of the game that may suffer due to the lack of intensity seen in training camps, combined with the NFL’s crackdown on the type of hits allowed, may be fundamentals like tackling. Sapp, in his 30-minute, no-holds-barred session with PewterReport.com and the local media on Wednesday, also wonders how the changes will impact play on the field.
“I’m looking for the fundamentals of the game to come back now,” Sapp said. “Because that’s what will have to come back to actually tackle now. You’ll see people diving at people’s waist and not wrapping up and they will be bouncing off. There is going to be more YAC [yards after contact] than we have ever seen. I just don’t see the fundamentals on the defensive side.
“Two-a-days push you to the point you didn’t know you could go. That’s what it prepares you for, those long grueling days in the sun. Right now [for these guys in comparison] it is Club Med.”
The players seem to love it, the coaches seem to tolerate it.
Somewhere Vince Lombardi is rolling over in his grave.
Will linebacker Mason Foster hold off Tyrone McKenzie at middle linebacker?
The Buccaneers, as most teams, love to showcase their draft picks. Foster, who has had a strong camp, is listed first on the depth chart and will start Friday night. Many, including the staff at PewterReport.com, assumed McKenzie would get the early nod based on experience, even if it is only just part of a season.
While we as a staff watch every practice at training camp, we don’t know all that goes on behind the walls at One Buc Place. Foster may be picking up the overall defense quicker in meetings than expected. But as stated earlier, teams tend to give close battles to draft picks as opposed to practice squad or waiver-claimed players. That is in no way accusing the Buccaneers of not being fair.
Key contributing players like Blount, Ted Larsen, Micheal Spurlock, Dezmon Briscoe, and Donald Penn weren’t draft picks of the team, and the coaching staff and front office have had no problem playing them. With that said and four preseason games to play, we still look for McKenzie to battle and make the September 11 starting depth chart very difficult on the coaching staff.
Will someone stand out at the safety position?
The PewterReport.com staff, while observing last year’s training camp, saw the safety play as must-see training camp watching. Grimm was all over the field, Sean Jones was intercepting passes in drills, and Tanard Jackson was his usual hard-hitting self. Once the season began, Grimm played well up until his injury but Jones had only one interception in his 15 starts.
With Jackson still suspended and Grimm coming off injury, it has been difficult to pick out anyone who has stood out so far in training camp from this group of safeties on the roster. Solid but unspectacular is the best description of what we have seen through the first two weeks of camp.
Grimm told PewterReport.com last week that his leg still gives him pain and the longer practice goes, the more pain he suffers. The team's training staff expects that to improve as camp goes on, but we still wonder if the nagging injury is causing Grimm to play a little cautious.
Corey Lynch, who joined the team in 2009 coming from the Cincinnati Bengals, is an option at free safety. The Buccaneers also have high hopes for rookie Ahmad Black, who, like the majority of the safeties, has yet to make many splash plays in practice. The safety battle will be one of the most interesting battles to watch this preseason and hopefully someone will emerge as a difference-maker in the deep secondary.
- Scott Reynolds contributed to this report