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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. 5 Critical Camp Questions – Bucs Offense
This is the final SR’s Fab 5 of the offseason, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookies report for training camp on Monday, followed by the veterans on Wednesday. By next Friday the Bucs will be hitting the fields as they prepare to start the 2018 season nearly five weeks later in New Orleans on September 9.
To get you ready for the start of Bucs training camp, I’ve decided to use this SR’s Fab 5 to list 20 Critical Camp Questions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I’ll list five for the offense, five regarding the defense, five more for Tampa Bay’s special teams and then five more for general manager Jason Licht and the Bucs’ front office in the month of August.
Let’s start with the offense. Here are five big questions as the start of Tampa Bay’s 2018 training camp is just days away.
1. How will Dirk Koetter divide the starting QB reps in training camp?
Now that the biggest question of the offseason – will Jameis Winston be suspended? – has been answered, the next biggest question heading into training camp becomes how Koetter will split up the starting quarterback reps between Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is projected to be the starter for the first three games of the season. It’s a fine balancing act between getting Fitzpatrick ready for Week 1 while making sure Winston gets enough work in to improve his rapport with his receivers and be able to come back sharp in a Week 4 contest at Chicago.
The good news is that Fitzpatrick saw action in five games last year with three starts, and he knows Koetter’s offense. He has 119 career starts, so being an opening day starter is nothing new to him. I think he’ll take on maybe 10 percent more of the reps in training camp because Winston is expected to start for the bulk of the season.
At age 35, Fitzpatrick isn’t going to get better. And with two years in Koetter’s system he knows the playbook. Yet, Winston, who is entering his fourth year in the league, still has a long way to go in his development, at age 24. Koetter needs to treat Winston like the starter regardless of his three-game suspension to start the season and not reduce his reps too much. There’s a lot of growth potential over the four weeks of training camp and the three preseason games Winston will play in.
2. Will Jameis Winston reduce his amount of turnovers this season?
I’m not sure. Winston had the “turnover machine” label on him at Florida State and he’s done little to shake that moniker at the NFL level after three years in Tampa Bay. Winston threw 11 interceptions last year, which was his fewest number of picks in his three years as a starter, but he missed three games due to injury. Still, throwing seven less INTs than the year before while increasing his completion percentage from 60.8 percent in 2016 to 63.8 percent last year is a step in the right direction for any young passer.
While Winston had less picks, he was still a turnover machine as he had a career-high 15 fumbles, according to NFL.com, which was five more than he had in 2016, and keep in mind that he played in three less games. Seven of those fumbles resulted in turnovers, compared to six the season before. Sometimes a quarterback can’t help fumbling the ball when getting sacked from the blind side. But some of Winston’s fumbles came from holding on to the ball too long, and that’s a poor decision-making turnover.
Winston improved when it came to what to do with the ball as it left his hand. If he can throw only eight or nine interceptions over a 13-game season this year that will be a step in the right direction getting his INT totals under double digits. But Winston must also improve his pocket awareness and do a better job of either decisively throwing the ball away and living to fight on another down, or protecting the ball and taking a sack.
If Winston can simply erase the bone-headed plays that he tends to make from time to time from his game, he can take a big step forward in his on-field maturity and development in 2018. If he can’t do that this year, I don’t know if Winston can ever shake that bad element from his game. It may just be something Dirk Koetter has to coach around like Mike Holmgren did with Brett Favre’s turnovers in Green Bay. Is Koetter good enough to be able to manage a quarterback who will turn it over nearly twice every game on average?
3. How big of a role will rookie RB Ronald Jones II earn in camp?
I’m guessing a big one, but that’s up to him. In our most recent Pewter Nation Podcast, PewterReport.com’s Trevor Sikkema made a great point about Jones, the Bucs’ second-round draft pick. He said that he’s not so much competing against Peyton Barber, who is entering his third year in the league and was last season’s leading rusher in Tampa Bay, it’s that Jones is competing against himself and how much of the playbook he can absorb and master in the four weeks of training camp and the three preseason games he’ll play in.
Jones has electric acceleration and breakaway speed – two elements that no other Bucs running back possesses. Can he run between the tackles, read his blocks and bounce plays outside? Yes. But how much of a factor can he be in the passing game? That’s going to be the big question as Jones showed suspect hands as a receiver in the offseason and we won’t know how effective a pass protector he’ll be until the pads come on in training camp.
Barber, who is inspired and in tremendous shape, will most likely start the season, as he earned Dirk Koetter’s trust last year and he’s further along in the passing game. But Jones has the talent to eventually takeover as the starter or at least get more touches. The key will be putting himself in position to see playing time on third down. If he’s limited to just being a two-down back, Barber may wind up with slightly more touches in games. So it’s up to Jones to compete against himself and really work hard on third downs were his speed and elusiveness could really be used in Koetter’s screen game.
4. Who will emerge as the winner in the battle at right guard?
We all saw J.R. Sweezy’s release coming. The Bucs have two young, talented contenders at right guard in Caleb Benenoch and Alex Cappa, this year’s third-round pick, while Sweezy was scheduled to make $6.5 million in 2018 after an awful year last season as he returned from a back injury that cost him the entire 2016 campaign. When Sweezy was cut a few weeks back, it surprised no one.
Keeping Sweezy on the roster and creating a three-way competition at right guard would have stunted Cappa’s growth, as he would have had fewer reps to improve with. Now Cappa can battle Benenoch with both young linemen taking the lion’s share of snaps during training camp. The edge certainly goes to Benenoch, who has seen playing time in the regular season at left guard and right tackle over the last two years. Benenoch is a powerful run blocker who struggles a bit in pass protection – at least he did last year at right tackle down the stretch as he filled in for the injured Demar Dotson.
With Benenoch inside playing guard with help from Dotson to his right and new center Ryan Jensen to his left, Benenoch should improve his pass protection, which may be Cappa’s strength right now. As a four-year starter at left tackle in college, Cappa plays with a solid base and has a nasty punch. His aggressive playing style will also help him push the pile in the run game. Look for Benenoch to wind up the starter, but Cappa should get enough playing time in the preseason to rapidly develop and continue to push Benenoch all season. Both young guards will benefit from going up against the likes of Gerald McCoy, Beau Allen and Vita Vea on a daily basis in camp.
5. Will O.J. Howard overtake Cameron Brate as the Bucs’ starting tight end?
The short answer is no. Brate has a three-year relationship with Jameis Winston that makes him the young QB’s go-to guy in the red zone and elsewhere on the field when the play breaks down. Brate just cashed in on a huge contract extension, so the last thing the Bucs want to do is reduce his role or his playing time. And given the fact that Dirk Koetter loves running two-tight end sets, both Brate and Howard will see plenty of playing time.
But just because Brate might play a few more snaps and get a few more targets doesn’t mean that Howard won’t out-produce him. Keep in mind that last year Brate had 48 catches for 591 yards and a team-high six touchdowns. Howard, who was Tampa Bay’s first-round draft pick, missed the last two and a half games due to an ankle injury, yet had 26 catches for 432 yards and tied Brate with six TDs of his own. Howard’s 16.6 average yards per catch was the highest of any Buccaneer with 10 catches or more, and he had only 159 yards less than Brate on 22 fewer catches.
And keep in mind that Brate was targeted 38 more times last year. Look for Howard, who has 4.5 speed and the ability to make bigger plays in the passing game, to get more targets this year and wind up with a total much closer to Brate’s at the end of the season. Brate can still improve as a blocker, but he’s a skilled receiver and route-runner and I’m not sure how much higher his ceiling is.
Howard, on the other hand, stands to make a quantum leap from his rookie year to his second season in the NFL, and has a greater understanding of Dirk Koetter’s offense. With his 6-foot-6 frame and blazing speed down the seam, Howard has the athleticism to become a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end in the league, and will take a huge step in that direction in 2018.