Bucs training camp is here! Rookies and quarterbacks have already reported to the Advent Health Training Center, with the rest of the roster arriving on Saturday. The first practice of Bucs 2021 training camp kicks off on Sunday. So far, we’ve featured a new position group every day leading up to the start of camp:
As a bonus in the training camp battles series, we’ll briefly cover some of the smaller competitions at quarterback, tight end and returner.
At quarterback, the spots seem rather secure. Tom Brady’s return, the re-signing of Blaine Gabbert and the drafting of Kyle Trask have the Bucs room fairly set. Ryan Griffin is also back on a one-year deal, and will challenge Gabbert for the third and final spot.
As with the quarterback position, all the tight ends from last year’s team are back. Rob Gronkowski re-upped on a one-year deal and O.J. Howard looks to work his way back from injury. Cam Brate adds a nice insurance policy as he returns on a reduced salary.
The returner position will be one of the most intriguing battles of camp. Rookie Jaelon Darden looks to challenge Jaydon Mickens for the job, while also vying for a role in the receiver room. A storyline to watch is if Mickens can force the Bucs to keep a seventh receiver on the roster.
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Not much to say here. Drafting Kyle Trask in the second round was a surprise to many, but it shows the Bucs are committed to the future as much as they are the present. It’s always good to invest in the quarterback room. In a year with very few holes, it made sense for the team to address the position this year. Trask will be afforded every opportunity in camp to earn extra looks, while learning from one of the best to ever do it and a phenomenal coaching staff. Trask, because of his draft status, is firmly cemented on the roster for the 2021 season.
The battle between Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin, if you can call it that, is the only thing to monitor in camp. Playing the entire second half against the Lions, Gabbert put up solid numbers with 143 yards and 2 touchdowns. In that outing he showed that the team should be in capable hands if a minor injury to Brady were to occur. Griffin enters his seventh season with the Bucs and will face an uphill battle to make the roster.
The Bucs have a lot of money invested into this group. Gronkowski is back for another year after elevating his play as the season wore on. A “blocking tight end”, Gronk tallied 45 receptions for 623 yards and seven touchdown in the regular season. His postseason play was exceptional, culminating in a two-touchdown, six-catch, 67-yard performance in the Super Bowl.
Brate was sharp for the Bucs when Howard went down with an injury. The biggest question mark in this group is O.J. Howard and his health. Set to make over $6 million this year, Howard has yet to put together a full 16-game season. He has shown flashes of the ability that made him a first round selection, but health has been a major concern. If Howard can stay on the field, it will add another dimension to an already potent offensive attack.
Tanner Hudson has been on-and-off the roster the past few years, but provides valuable insurance as a pass-catching tight end. The Bucs brought in some outside competition to the group in former Giants and Texans tight end Jerell Adams. Adams, who signed on after a rookie mini-camp tryout, has over 30 games of experience in the league, but hasn’t caught a pass since 2019. Codey McElroy enters his third season with the Bucs. The former basketball player has shown some promise as an athletic pass-catcher, recording a 30-yard reception in his lone game in 2019.
With the drafting of rookie wide receiver Jaelon Darden, the job appears to be his to lose. Mainly a punt returner in college, Darden averaged 8.9 yards per return over the course of his career. As he ascended into a prominent receiver position, Darden stepped away from those duties in 2020. His best season came in 2017 when he returned 10 punts for an 11.9 average and a touchdown, while adding 16 kick returns for an 18.4 average. Darden will get extensive work in training camp as he tries to beat out incumbent returner Jaydon Mickens.
Mickens who manned the spot last season, turned in an impressive 25 yards per return on 14 kicks in 10 games in the regular season. In the playoffs he turned it up a notch with a 43-yard return in the NFC Championship Game on his way to a 22.2 average. Mickens wasn’t nearly as productive as a punt returner however, managing just 6.19 yards on 16 returns. Facing gun charges stemming from a March arrest, Mickens will need to overcome off-field transgressions as well as impress on the field.
As the fourth running back on the depth chart, Ke’Shawn Vaughn will need to find some way to contribute on special teams to be active on Sundays. One way for him to do so is by entering the competition at kick returner. While not something he has done often in his career, Arians mentioned prior to the start of the 2020 season Vaughn could see snaps at the position. Another option is running back Giovani Bernard. Bernard returned two kicks in 2020 for a 19-yard average with the Bengals. With only seven career returns, he’s more of a “break glass in case of emergency” option.
With a newly-opened roster spot, the Bucs could also re-visit signing running back Kenjon Barner. Barner stepped up in place of Mickens when he missed games, averaging 23 yards per kick return and five yards per punt return.
It will be worth monitoring if Trask can beat Gabbert out for the number two spot, but it is unlikely. With the practice squad rules remaining the same as last season, Griffin is a likely candidate to stick around there. In doing so it will make him the longest-tenured QB in Bucs history. Not bad for a guy who has completed two career passes.
It remains to be seen if the Bucs plan to keep four tight ends on the active roster. If they do, it’s probably Hudson’s job to lose. As Adams and McElroy try to take that spot away from him, they’ll have to turn in a very impressive camp. If they plan on only keeping three tight ends, look for them to try to sneak Hudson back on the practice squad if he clears waivers. McElroy has a good chance of staying with the team there too.
Rounding out the roster will be challenging for the Bucs this year with so many talented players. It will be interesting to see how much they value position versatility when constructing the final team. In that sense, I see an extremely uphill battle for Mickens to remain on the active roster. Not offering as much as a wide receiver will be his Achilles heel in the battle with Darden. Darden’s explosive run-after-the-catch ability will help him secure the job as the team’s top return man in 2021. Still, Mickens may stick around on the practice squad as an insurance policy if Darden struggles.
On Saturday, I’ll have out a final recap of all the battles and my 53-man roster prediction for the 2021 Bucs.
J.C. Allen is one of PewterReport.com’s newest beat writers. As a New England transplant, he has closely followed Tom Brady’s entire career and first fell in love with the game during the Patriots 1996 Super Bowl run. J.C. is in his second year covering the team after spending a year with Bucs Report as a writer, producer and show host. Some of his other interests include barbecuing, being outdoors, and spending time with family and friends. His favorite Buccaneer of all time is Simeon Rice and believes he deserves a spot in Canton. Follow J.C. Allen on Twitter @JCAllenNFL.
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