The first three days of Bucs training camp are in the books and the team is preparing to have its first day in full pads on Monday before getting Tuesday off. Here are my observations and insights thus far. I’ll be sharing my thoughts on Monday’s practice – along with those of Mark Cook and Trevor Sikkema – on Tuesday on PewterReport.com in the next Pewter Nation Podcast.
Bucs rookie wide receiver, Chris Godwin, the team’s third-round pick, has actually out-shined tight end O.J. Howard, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick, through the first three days of training camp – that’s saying something because Howard is off to a great start. Godwin has primarily been used outside at flanker with the second team and also the first team when DeSean Jackson replaces Adam Humphries in the slot, but, on Sunday, Godwin took a rep or two inside and made a nice catch across the middle. He has tremendous body control and great hands, and looks bigger than his 6-foot-1, 205-pound measurable on the Bucs roster.
Because he’s going to be a guy that the Bucs want to keep on the field, Godwin may steal a few reps away from Humphries, but not the starting slot job. Humphries pulled away from defenders to make two great catches on Sunday. The Bucs love Humphries and his “steady Eddie” approach and he’s deserving of his share of playing time.
What stands out about Howard thus far is his hand-eye coordination. He made a spectacular one-handed catch on Saturday and then grabbed a pass that had been tipped up in the air twice from defenders trying to intercept it. We’ll get a good look at Howard’s blocking ability – as well as a better read on the offensive line play – on Monday when the Bucs practice in full pads.
Cameron Brate is still the starting tight end, but while he’s made some very good plays and he’s been consistent, he hasn’t had the opportunity to make some highlight reel catches like Howard has, or as he did last year when he scored eight touchdowns. The Bucs have used a lot of two tight end sets with Brate and Luke Stocker or Howard and Stocker. There will be some packages with both Brate and Howard on the field together, too.
Bucs WR DeSean Jackson – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
Jackson is such a weapon and it’s interesting to see how Dirk Koetter has been using him. He’s not only going deep and catching 80-yard bombs from Jameis Winston as he did twice on Saturday in the rain, but he’s also running end arounds and catching wide receiver screens, too. Former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden told me that Jackson is one of the best receivers in the league at tracking the deep ball and that’s true.
It’s hard to gauge which receivers stand the best chance of making the team as the fifth and/or sixth wideout behind Mike Evans, Jackson, Humphries and Godwin. Derel Walker, Donteea Dye and others have each had their moments, but keep in mind that the final receiver spot(s) will be determined largely by special teams play, whether it’s as a return specialist or someone covering kicks and punts. Remember, that’s how former Bucs receiver and special teams ace Russell Shepard earned his roster spot years ago.
That ability was on display on Saturday when cornerback Vernon Hargreaves should have had a leaping interception, only to see the slick ball slip through his hands and into the waiting arms of Jackson, who took it the final 20 yards or so untouched for the score. Although Evans is going to be the primary weapon in the passing game, Jackson is just as dangerous of a receiver – just in a different way.
Tampa Bay has spent a good deal of time early on working on its quick passing game. One of the biggest ways to help Winston stay upright and healthy and take pressure off the offensive line is to get the ball out of Winston’s hand quicker. Whether it’s quick slants and outs with receivers or tight ends or the screen game with running backs, Koetter is going over volumes of plays designed to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers as soon as possible.
Part of the reason why New England’s future Hall of Fame quarterback, Tom Brady, has been to seven Super Bowls and won five of them is because he doesn’t get hit much. Koetter is always saying the greatest ability is availability. Winston has been available for all 32 starts of his NFL career and Koetter wants to keep it that way.
Bucs left tackle, Donovan Smith, remains susceptible to being beaten on inside moves, and that’s a concern. Although he has trimmed down and lost weight, his feet still look heavy at times and second-year defensive end Noah Spence has been giving him a run for his money by using a hard speed rush to the outside on one play and then faking outside and coming inside on the next. Spence, who was Sunday’s Bucs Camp MVP, has dazzled early while working on his moves, but Smith needs to become a more balanced left tackle capable of defending an outside or an inside rush. This is a big area to keep an eye on throughout camp and the preseason.
Bucs C Ali Marpet – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The rain during Saturday and Sunday practices is a welcome sight for center Ali Marpet and quarterback Jameis Winston. Marpet has never played center in an NFL game before, and thus he has never snapped or shotgun snapped in a game before. With a good deal of rain heading for Tampa this week, Marpet should master the wet snap by the weekend.
Second-year lineman Caleb Benenoch has been spending most of his time at right tackle with the second string at the start of training camp, and it looks like the Bucs are giving him a shot at becoming the heir apparent to Demar Dotson. Leonard Wester, another second-year lineman, is strictly playing left tackle in practice thus far, so the Bucs may not have a true swing tackle this year that will practice and play both sides. Actually, if there were an injury to either Smith or Dotson in a game situation, the plan would be to move left guard Kevin Pamphile to tackle and insert veteran guard Evan Smith in at left tackle to replace Pamphile.
Running back Doug Martin has looked good at the start of training camp, but hasn’t looked quite as explosive as he did during the OTAs. Perhaps Martin is just pacing himself, but Martin looked like he was a tick faster back in May and June and was playing a speed comparable to what he played at in the 2015 preseason in advance of his 1,402-yard Pro Bowl season. However, Martin’s speed doesn’t look pedestrian as it did last year after receiving a big contract extension, either. It will be interesting to see what kind of year Martin has in 2017 after missing the first three games due to a suspension.
While Jacquizz Rodgers is handling second-team rushing duties behind Martin as expected, Charles Sims, Peyton Barber and rookie Jeremy McNichols have each been given some reps with the starters early in camp. Koetter is giving the top four running backs on the depth chart an opportunity to show that they deserve not only a roster spot, but also playing time. The Bucs will be without Martin until Week 4 and Koetter needs to find his replacement starter, which could be Rodgers, and his primary backup and third-down running back, which could be Sims or McNichols.
On Monday, the pads come on and that’s where we’ll see bigger, more physical players like defensive end Will Gholston and defensive tackle Chris Baker stand out. Baker was seen icing his right knee towards the end of practice and there are some that are questioning his level of conditioning due to missing a good deal of the offseason OTAs.
It’s early and we don’t want to make any snap judgments, but defensive tackle Clinton McDonald is 10 pounds heavier and looks like he’s in great shape. Just because the Bucs paid Baker handsomely this offseason doesn’t mean he’s automatically guaranteed to start. The knock on Baker from his days in Washington was that he doesn’t like to practice. We’ll see if he ends up supporting that rumor or if he debunks it this offseason.
Bucs LB Kendell Beckwith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David look like they are ready to pick up from where they left off. Alexander has been a huge favorite in training camp and is perhaps the most popular player with fans as they chant his name with great frequency. But there are some other linebackers that are standing out, too.
Devante Bond is getting virtually all of the reps as the starting SAM (strongside) linebacker. He looks quick and fast and is getting his feet wet at the position after missing all of last year with a hamstring injury. Rookie, Kendell Beckwith, has spent a good deal of practice time with the second unit, but as a middle linebacker. At 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, Beckwith is huge and stands out like a giant among the Bucs’ undersized linebackers. He shows no ill effects from knee surgery when he’s asked to make quick, sudden cuts in pass coverage. With a reputation as a thumper, it will be interesting to see how Beckwith’s game shows up when the pads come on.
Rookie, Richie Brown, has really stood out the first three days of practice as the second-team strongside linebacker. Brown picked off a pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick on Saturday and has made some plays coming off the edge in a 4-3 Under scheme, which the Bucs have frequently deployed in practice. It could come down to Brown or Cameron Lynch for the backup SAM spot, as Lynch has seen quite a bit of playing time with the second unit, too. Adarius Glanton has had some bright spots at weakside linebacker thus far, backing up David.
The secondary has been a pleasant surprise to start camp. For as much firepower as Tampa Bay’s offense has, Tampa Bay’s young secondary has been up to the challenge. Ageless wonder Brent Grimes looks as comfortable as ever and has given Evans and Jackson fits at times. But the real story has been at right cornerback where Vernon Hargreaves III is playing with much more confidence and aggressiveness.
Hargreaves’ infectious attitude hypes the secondary up where second-year defender, Javien Elliott, has been the starting nickel cornerback over Jude Adjei-Barimah and newcomer Robert McClain. Elliott is a steady presence in the slot and has kept McClain on the second team thus far with Adjei-Barimah and Ryan Smith as the outside cornerbacks. The Bucs’ second unit in the secondary has been quite formidable in practice at the start of camp.
Bucs FS Chris Conte – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Tampa Bay’s safety position, which is regarded by some as a weakness, has been a pleasant surprise. Both starters Keith Tandy and Chris Conte are playing with a lot of confidence and have made plays. Conte had a deep pass breakup on a ball thrown to Evans down the sidelines on Saturday, and came up with a diving interception on Sunday. Conte is playing free safety, while Tandy is lining up at strong safety.
J.J. Wilcox is playing strong safety with the second team, and had his first interception of training camp on Saturday when he was the Bucs Camp MVP. Rookie Justin Evans is playing free safety opposite Wilcox. While he hasn’t looked lost, he looks like he’s swimming a bit in his head, too, which isn’t uncommon for a rookie.
It’s too early to determine who leads in the kick and punt return game, and it’s neck-and-neck at the kicker position right now with Roberto Aguayo and Nick Folk each dueling with 4-of-5 efforts on field goals on Sunday.
My next Bucs Training Camp Insider report will come on Friday within my new SR’s Fab 5 column.