It’s so close you can almost hear pads cracking, coaches barking and fans cheering. Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp is back and cleats will be stomping the practice field grass of One Buc Place by Thursday morning. will once again be all over the action, from Wednesday’s media session with players to Aug. 24’s final day of camp and then throughout the season. Today we’ll look at five top storylines that surround the team heading into the 2016 campaign.

Even the staunchest supporters of drafting Marcus Mariota last spring are hard-pressed to say quarterback Jameis Winston didn’t bring some excitement, positivity and optimism to the franchise.

To recap, Winston was thrown directly into the fire – head-to-head against Mariota’s Tennessee Titans, no less – and failed miserably. His first NFL pass went for a touchdown – to Tennessee cornerback Cody Sensabaugh – and first NFL game ended with an embarrassing 42-14 defeat in front of the home crowd at Raymond James Stadium.

Thankfully for the team and the fan base, alike, Winston bounced back from the defeat and spent the final 16 weeks of the season proving that he can be a professional football player, both on the field and off. Throwing for over 4,000 yards, 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions and tacking on another six scores with his legs earned him NFL Rookie of the Year honors and a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Now Winston needs to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump while achieving one main goal: Win more games. The Bucs stumbled to a 6-10 finish after flirting with playoff possibilities at 6-6.

Winston struggled at times throwing the deep ball and hitting receivers in stride his rookie year. Keeping tabs on his accuracy and precision throughout camp and preseason will be big in terms of his continued development.

Who ends up being the targets Winston’s drilling balls into the hands of will be determined over the next month.

Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans remain the team’s top two options, but the next few options are up in the air. Leading the way before tomorrow’s first practice will be returners Adam Humphries (27 receptions for 260 yards and one touchdown last year), Louis Murphy (starting camp on the active/PUP list), Russell Shepard (added value as special teams specialist), Kenny Bell (coming back from spending all 2015 on injured reserve) and Donteea Dye (11 receptions for 132 yards and one TD last year).

As of right now, Evan Spencer, Bernard Reedy, Freddie Martino, Jonathan Krause and Andre Davis will be the players working to unseat an incumbent.

In addition to watching for how receivers handle getting open and catching passes, there are other ways to get noticed. Key among these is returning kicks and punts.

Bobby Rainey handled all punt return duties last year and brought back 19 of 21 kick returns. Rainey’s now a member of the New York Giants and Dye returned the two other kicks.

Expect Dye, Humphries and Bell to be three of the top candidates lining up deep during summer drills.

This year begins the Dirk Koetter era of Tampa Bay Buccaneers football. Fans can only hope that this one lasts a little longer than the past few.

Koetter is the team’s fourth head coach since 2009. Raheem Morris hung around for three years (2009-2011) before Greg Schiano (2012-2013) and Lovie Smith (2014-2015) got the boot after just two.

Some more upbeat and engaging sound bites can be expected this year compared to the even-keeled dryness of Smith, but that will get old quick if losses start to outpace wins.

Aside from switching from an afternoon to morning practice schedule, fans will get their first look at how a Koetter and Co. led routine operates. Smith liked to keep things internal as much as possible and Koetter already deviated from that last month by openly sending tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins off the field during OTAs.

Looking beyond camp and preseason football, Koetter won’t have to wait long to get his first NFL head coaching challenges. The Bucs open with back-to-back road games at Atlanta and Arizona, then host the Los Angeles Rams and defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos before traveling to NFC South rival and Super Bowl loser Carolina.

Last season marked the fifth straight year Tampa Bay increased its sack total from the season prior. The 38 sacks are the most the team’s recorded since 2004 – the last time a Bucs team hit 40-plus.

Koetter and new defensive coordinator Mike Smith will have a similar defensive front than last year, with a few personnel tweaks. In are defensive ends Robert Ayers and rookie Noah Spence, and linebackers Daryl Smith and rookie Devante Bond. Out are tackles Henry Melton and Tony McDaniel and linebackers Bruce Carter and Danny Lansanah.

Early reports are that Smith plans to attack up front, which is a common statement from incoming defensive coordinators and coaches. Terms like “passive” and “reactionary” aren’t in the coachspeak lexicon. As the coaching staff continues installing its new scheme and implementing it during practice, a clearer picture of Smith’s intentions will develop.

Keeping Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald healthy in the middle of the line will go a long way, especially considering the Bucs’ lack of depth at the position. Defensive end will once again be where to look in terms of the entire unit making a big leap forward. Ayers is coming off a 9.5-scak year with the Giants and wasn’t brought to town to digress and blend in. With Spence, general manager Jason Licht and the team are hoping they hit a Kwon Alexander-type home run with the explosive athlete.

Doug Martin did what many athletes before him have when it’s time to get paid – he stepped his game up.

The running back locked up a five-year, $35.75-million by rushing for 1,402 yards and six touchdowns. His 4.9 yards per carry average topped the 4.6 he picked up as a rookie in 2012, but Martin did lose all four of the fumbles he put on the ground. Prior to last season he’d fumbled only twice in 33 games and lost one of those balls.

“I watched all those fumbles during the offseason,” Martin said while addressing the media Wednesday at One Buc Place. “It was more of me fighting for extra yards and not having my other hand on the ball. That will all be corrected. I don’t look forward to fumbling that much this year so that will be corrected.”

Martin doesn’t seem like the kind of player or person to suddenly get content with a lucrative, cushy contract. The biggest knock on him over his first four years in the league has been issues with injuries.

Fans should expect to see the same Doug Martin they’re used to throughout camp and preseason. McCoy took a couple minutes to back that up Wednesday, as well.

“He may seem quiet to you guys but he’s really not,” McCoy said of Martin. “He’s a very high-energy guy and that’s the same thing he brings to the football field. I always ask Doug, ‘How do you do it every day?’ [His] speed never changes. He’s just high energy at all times.”

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About the Author: Eric Horchy

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5 years ago

This train is going as far as Winston can take it. I have high hopes that his first full offseason of his career will benefit him immensely. All of the other pieces falling into place pale in comparison to the absolute need for Winston to take that next step and start to put this franchise on his shoulders over the next couple of years.

Reply to  e
5 years ago

I couldn’t agree more. I do believe Jameis did all he could to get ready. His training and reshaping of his body shows he has the heart and discipline to be a champion. Go Bucs!!!!

5 years ago

I’m psyched to finally see what it’s like to root for a team with a franchise QB. That Pro Bowl appearance really had and effect on him…

5 years ago

I second that. I really believe Mike Smith will get this defense humming also. I believe with better coaching, added talent and a better system that’s not so predictable. it’s going to put us a little bit better than the middle of the pack on D this year. I believe we will finally have a pass rush and with more diverse blitzing and better secondary play along with a Offense that’s putting up more points we will finally have a legitimate shot at the playoff’s. The tougher schedule really doesn’t bother me . If it even turns out to be… Read more »

Reply to  WinstonMVP
5 years ago

I totally agree with you WinstonMVP about people analyzing the schedule as to whether it is easy, hard or somewhere in between. That’s last year. Every team and situation is different. Every team can beat you and you can beat every team in the NFL. No doubt every one of our opponents fans is putting a W next to their game against the Bucs. An injury here, a bad call there a lucky or unlucky break or inability to cover the slant against a rookie can quickly change the predicted outcome.