Welcome to the new Wednesday edition of Bucs Briefing! From now on, my weekly column will appear each Wednesday morning, detailing 10 key observations on the team. This week we’ll focus heavily on my key observations from the first three weeks of Bucs training camp.
10. The Darden Hype Is Real
It’s not just the results for rookie receive Jaelon Darden that have been impress, it’s the process. He moves effortlessly in his straight-line acceleration and in his side-to-side movement. He’s explosive out of route breaks and he’s learning the art of head and shoulder fakes by watching one of the best of all-time do it every day in Antonio Brown. Darden also plays bigger than his frame, shrugging off physical coverage down the field and extending to finish catches.
It remains to be seen how big Darden’s role could possibly be for the Bucs this season. The team’s wide receiver depth is among the best in NFL history, after all. But the Bucs can’t be anything but excited about what Darden is showing in camp. He’s looked every bit the part of a future Top 3 receiver for the team.
9. Encouraging Signs For Davis, Tryon
Much has been made about the encouraging start for first-round pick Joe Tryon, and it should be. His rumored flashes are real. The rookie outside linebacker has been a significant contributor on the field in 11-on-11 sessions, sporting a leaner, more flexible frame than the last time we saw him in college. Tryon seems like he’s cleaned up some of the false steps that plagued his get-off in 2019 too. There is no player I’m as anxious to watch on Saturday as Tryon.
Bucs DT Khalil Davis – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
But lost in the shuffle has been the growth of second-year defensive tackle Khalil Davis. Again, we’ve only seen him against offensive linemen on the fringes of the roster, but Davis has held his own in the run game and been impressive in one-on-ones as a rusher. During 11-on-11 on Tuesday, Davis dipped under Aaron Stinnie to record a sack of Blaine Gabbert. His frame has really filled out, so we’ll see how his explosiveness has been impacted by the added muscle on game day.
Right now, the Bucs defensive line is low on youth and upside. If they are going to maintain the elite standards set under Todd Bowles over the past two years, players like Tryon and Davis need to hit. So far, so good.
8. Bucs Starting OL Has Been Dominant
On a per practice basis, the Bucs starting five offensive linemen has been outstanding in training camp. Left guard Ali Marpet and right tackle Tristan Wirfs have continued to look special, and center Ryan Jensen has been his usually steady self. But right guard Alex Cappa and left tackle Donovan Smith are also having the best camps of their careers. Cappa, who is in a contract year, has crushed his opponents in pass protection, standing out in the one-on-one drills. Smith hasn’t fared as well there, but he’s been terrific in the team sessions.
The standard for the Bucs offensive line this season should be the best unit in the league. It’s a lofty goal, but they are talented enough to live up to it.
7. Bernard Changes Everything
When it’s all said and done, adding running back Giovani Bernard may be one of general manager Jason Licht’s most savvy moves. Leonard Fournette has had a frustrating camp, and Ronald Jones III is never going to be an elite receiving back. Last year, the Bucs would have had to just deal with the duo’s limitations. Thanks to the presence of Bernard, that won’t be the case this season.
Bernard has caught nearly everything thrown his way in camp, and he’s done it from multiple alignments. The Bucs have flexed him outside as a receiver, worked him into routes from the backfield and targeted him often in the screen game. Bernard has also impressed as a runner, showing the burst and acceleration the other Bucs running backs don’t possess. Simply put, the other Bucs running backs aren’t good enough to keep Bernard off the field as often as fantasy football experts seem to think.
6. Disappointing Camp For Bucs TE Room
I wrote yesterday about how O.J. Howard has underwhelmed so far in his return to action. Some of that is understandable given the significance of his injury, but this is a huge year for him. Fair or not, he needs to be better than he’s been to open training camp.
Bucs TE Rob Gronkowski – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Rob Gronkowski is Rob Gronkowski. I’m not worried about what he’s done or hasn’t done in camp, but notable accomplishments have been scarce. Gronkowski is moving fine, but just hasn’t had a ton of impressive plays. He’s holding his own as a blocker, however.
Cameron Brate just practiced sparingly for the first time since mini-camp. Tanner Hudson is still flashing as a receiver, but Bruce Arians said on Tuesday that the tight end has “regressed” as a blocker. Codey McElroy is talented, but he drops too many passes and can’t block either. Newcomer Jerell Adams is a journeyman who has flashed, but needs to be more consistent. De’Quan Hampton is an athlete, but not a tight end.
The Bucs tight end room will probably be fine when the regular season begins. But they haven’t exactly blown the doors off of camp so far after a solid first week.
5. All In On White
You name it, and inside linebacker Devin White looks better at it than he’s ever been. He’s in on almost every run stop, keeping himself clean and constantly flowing to the football. White has also been markedly better in pass coverage, anticipating throws in zone coverage and contesting catch points. I would guess White has broken up as many passes in camp as anyone not named Ross Cockrell. He won’t play as much man coverage as Lavonte David, but even in those situations White has been clearly better.
White is more patient, smarter and more under control as a player. He’s always had rare physical and athletic gifts for the position. In his third season, the potential meets reality. I’m all in on White being special this season.
4. Playmakers Galore At Safety
Easily the biggest surprise of Bucs training camp has been the consistently marvelous play of Cockrell. I’ve written about it already, but the fact that Cockrell has taken to a new position of safety with such ease is pretty remarkable. There is a lot more to learn before we see if Cockrell can make these kind of plays in a game, but he’s been lights out in practice.
Bucs DB Ross Cockrell – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Six or seven interceptions in camp so far. Tons of leaping, high-point pass breakups showing off his range at free safety. And Cockrell is hardly ever caught out of position. It’s been an eye-opening camp for the 30 year old veteran.
But Cockrell has hardly been alone. Mike Edwards has intercepted plenty of passes, including a pick-six off of Gabbert on Monday. Jordan Whitehead had a two-pick day during the second week of camp, which included a goal line interception of Tom Brady. And Antoine Winfield Jr. has also had an impressive camp as he last line of defense.
I’m not sure how the Bucs get all these guys on the field, but I am very ready for an increase in 3-safety looks for the Bucs defense this year.
3. Brady Looks Terrific
I didn’t expect a drop-off for Brady this offseason, nor did I expect him to look considerably better despite the MCL surgery. But … he has. Pewter Report’s Paul Atwal had an insightful interview with quarterback mechanics expert Morey Croson, in which Croson explained that Brady may be able to throw out-breaking routes better on his surgically repaired knee.
Almost three weeks into camp, and that has absolutely been the case. Brady never lost his zip on the ball, but his mechanics have been cleaner on out-breaking routes as he’s able to adjust his weight and stance easier in the pocket. The result has been elite velocity to all levels of the field, and the ability to continue to challenge extremely tight windows. Brady’s still throwing a pretty deep ball, and his pocket movement has been impressive in camp. It’s not breaking news, but Brady has had as good a camp as anyone on the team. The Bucs will go as he goes this season.
2. Defensive Position Battle Leaders
At defensive tackle, nothing is clear yet beyond the locks. Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, Will Gholston, Steve McLendon and Rakeem Nunez-Roches will make the team. I would bet on Pat O’Connor (special teams) and Davis to claim the last two spots, if the team keeps seven.
Bucs OLB Cam Gill – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The only question at outside linebacker is how many the team will keep. Right now, Anthony Nelson is holding off Cam Gill for the No. 4 spot, but the Bucs could keep five OLBs. If Gill makes the active roster, the Bucs could put Elijah Ponder on the practice squad. He’s been more impressed than Quinton Bell or Ladarius Hamilton in practice.
I thought Joe Jones would seize the fourth inside linebacker spot, but if K.J. Britt impresses in the preseason, it’s probably his job to lose. Fellow rookie Grant Stuard has had a tough camp. I think it’s a two-horse race right now between Britt and Jones.
At safety, Raven Greene was late to camp, and is now out with an injury. In between, he’s done nothing to impress. If the Bucs keep Cockrell with the corners and carry four other safeties, Javon Hagan is the front-runner. Hagan has played over Greene all camp. But the Ohio product needs to make a splash on special teams in order to lock up a spot.
In the cornerback room, veteran Antonio Hamilton looks like the only real option to replace Ryan Smith. None of his challengers have impressed during camp. Hamilton can play inside, outside and be a quality special teams coverage option. He feels safe as the fifth cornerback.
1. Bucs Offensive Roster Set?
Preseason action is set to get underway on Saturday, but barring injury, the Bucs offensive roster is pretty much set. At quarterback and running back, there isn’t much competition for roster spots. Will they keep seven wide receivers or four tight ends? Both?
Bucs WR Jaydon Mickens – Photo by: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If it’s seven wide receivers, Jaydon Mickens is head-and-shoulders above the likes of Travis Jonsen, Cyril Grayson, Josh Pearson and T.J. Simmons right now. If it’s four tight ends, Hudson probably grabs the final spot despite his poor blocking. It’s not like McElroy, Adams or Hampton have been any better.
Eight spots on the Bucs offensive line are set in stone, with Josh Wells, Aaron Stinnie and Robert Hainsey locks for the top three backup positions. It would be a surprise if Nick Leverett wasn’t the ninth offensive lineman at this point. He’s impressed at every spot on the offensive line. Sadarius Hutcherson and Brad Seaton have been solid, but inconsistent. It’s Leverett’s job to lose.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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