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FAB 1. Bucs Training Camp Battles
The Bucs are a week away from their first training camp under new head coach Bruce Arians, and PewterReport.com continues its training camp coverage with this edition of SR’s Fab 5. Let’s begin by examining seven of the biggest Bucs training camp battles – three on offense, three on defense and one on special teams.
Bucs Training Camp Battles – Offense
The Main Event – Starting Right Guard
The Bucs would love for Alex Cappa, last year’s third-round pick, to emerge victorious at right guard. He’ll battle veteran Earl Watford, who missed a good deal of the offseason workouts, but knows the offense from his days playing under run game coordinator Harold Goodwin in Arizona.
Cappa has a great frame at 6-foot-6, 305 pounds and can pack a nasty punch when he connects. No one has worked harder along the offensive line this offseason than Cappa, who saw limited playing time at right guard down the stretch during his rookie season while rotating with Caleb Benenoch, who was moved back to right tackle this offseason. Where Cappa has struggled is getting off the ball late in pass protection and giving up pressures and sacks. He’s fared better as a run blocker, but the Bucs are hoping his time spent in pass protection as a left tackle at Humboldt State clicks now that he’s used to playing in confined quarters inside.
If Cappa struggles and doesn’t appear ready to start, the Bucs can turn to Watford, who has plenty of experience as a seven-year vet. Watford is a bit smaller at 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, but has intimate knowledge of the system and should serve as a valuable on-field mentor to Cappa in addition to providing some competition. The Bucs must guard against throwing Cappa into the starting lineup if he’s not ready because Jameis Winston needs to stay upright and healthy in a pivotal contract year for the fourth-year quarterback.
Prediction: Watford starts the year at right guard, but Cappa takes over at midseason.
The Undercard – Running Back Depth
It’s interesting to note that the Bucs will have just five running backs in camp after the team parted ways with the oft-injured Shaun Wilson in July. If Tampa Bay is going to make a roster move before the start of camp it could be to add another running back where only Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones II are guaranteed roster spots come September. Barber will be the Bucs’ starter and Jones has bulked up to 221 pounds and made big strides following a disastrous rookie season.
The fight for the two remaining spots on the depth chart will be between veteran newcomer Andre Ellington, Dare Ogunbowale, who returned kicks last year, and undrafted free agent Bruce Anderson. Ellington knows Bruce Arians’ system from his days in Arizona. He was drafted by Bucs general manager Jason Licht in 2013, and should have the edge for the No. 3 running back job if he can stay healthy. Ellington last played in 2017 in Houston and missed all of last year due to injury.
Whoever shines on special teams helps cement the final roster spot, and that could give Ogunbowale an advantage if he can once again win the kick return duties. Ogunbowale has already drawn heavy praise from special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong. But the Bucs coaches like Anderson, who has better skill as a running back. If he can be productive on offense Anderson may pull an upset and win a roster spot over the 30-year old Ellington.
Prediction: Barber, Jones, Ogunbowale and Anderson make the team at running back.
The Undercard – Wide Receiver
The top three wide receivers on the Bucs roster are set with Pro Bowler Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and newcomer Breshad Perriman. Gone is deep threat DeSean Jackson and slot receiver Adam Humphries. Godwin moves to the slot this year, while Perriman fills the speed receiver role outside. Justin Watson, last year’s fifth-round pick, has mastered all three receiver spots and has impressed the coaches this offseason. He is the current favorite to be the fourth receiver on the depth chart.
The battle for the fifth receiver – and perhaps final spot on the depth chart if the Bucs only keep five – will come down to holdover Bobo Wilson and several newcomers, including Scotty Miller, this year’s fifth-round pick, K.J. Brent and rookies Anthony Johnson, DaMarkus Lodge, Byrant Mitchell, Spencer Schnell, Cortrelle Simpson and Xavier Ubosi. Miller and Wilson generated the most buzz in the OTAs and mini-camp and are the current leaders of the pack heading into training camp.
The final spot – or two – will come down to special teams. If one or two of the young receivers can carve out a niche on fourth downs it could mean a roster spot. Miller, Schnell and Wilson were returning punts during the offseason, and that aids their cause. Mitchell, Ubosi, Johnson and Lodge are all 6-foot-2 or taller and will really have to earn their stripes not only offense, but also covering kicks and punts on special teams in practice.
Prediction: Evans, Godwin, Perriman, Watson, Miller and Lodge make the team, as the Bucs keep six receivers with Miller serving as the punt returner.
Bucs Training Camp Battles – Defense
The Main Event – Cornerback
The Bucs will keep six cornerbacks on their 2019 roster, but one of those will be Ryan Smith, who is suspended for the first four games of the season due to PED (performance-enhancing drug) usage. The top four cornerbacks on the depth chart are set with Vernon Hargreaves III, Carlton Davis and rookies Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean. Jalen Allison will battle De’Vante Harris for the final spot, which will be No. 5 on the depth chart when the season starts and Smith’s suspension begins.
But the real battle in camp will be which cornerbacks will emerge as starters? Hargreaves and Davis, who started 14 games as a rookie last year, enter camp as the favorites, but both Murphy-Bunting and Dean made some eye-catching plays in the offseason that put them in the mix to start as well. Murphy-Bunting thrived in the slot as the nickel and could very well win the starting job if he can beat out safeties M.J. Stewart and Lukas Denis for that role.
This is a big year for Hargreaves, who is in a contract year despite having his fifth-year option picked up by the team in 2020 – although it’s not guaranteed. Can he stay healthy and not fold under the pressure? Can Davis become a playmaker after not recording an interception during his rookie season, or will Dean, his former teammate at Auburn become a better ballhawk and steal a starting job? The cornerback positions – and the nickel – will be ones to watch in training camp.
Prediction: Davis and Dean wind up starting outside at cornerback and Murphy-Bunting at nickel, with Hargreaves, Smith, who will start the season on the suspension list, and Harris rounding out the depth chart as reserves.
The Undercard – Safety
There will be a battle royale at safety where the Bucs hope veteran Justin Evans is over his foot injuries and ready to start at free safety alongside Mike Edwards, the team’s third-round pick, at strong safety. Evans and Edwards make the team, but the other two or three safeties that wind up on Tampa Bay’s depth chart is anybody’s guess as training camp opens. Veteran Deone Bucannon will split time at nickel linebacker and safety in dime packages. He too will make the team. But after those three it’s wide open.
Stewart proved to be a good special teams player and is vying for the nickel job due to his physicality. He’ll compete for a roster spot with holdovers Isaiah Johnson (free safety) and Jordan Whitehead (strong safety), in addition to newcomers Kentrell Brice and Orion Stewart and rookies Denis and D’Cota Dixon.
Brice stands the best chance of that group to stick due to his experience in Green Bay and his blazing 4.4 speed. Johnson is a really solid special teamer and needs to continue to in that role to have a chance at making the team. He also recorded his first career interception last year gaining valuable playing time on defense.
Prediction: Evans and Edwards start with Bucannon starting in some packages, and Johnson, Brice and Stewart making the Bucs are reserves.
The Undercard – Outside Linebacker
Jason Pierre-Paul will miss at least half the season with a serious neck injury from a car crash in May. While his absence will hurt Tampa Bay’s pass rush, the Bucs can keep an additional young outside linebacker on the roster, assuming they will keep four.
Carl Nassib is expected to be the starter on the strong side and after recording a career-high five sacks last season, he’s the odds-on favorite to be Tampa Bay’s leading sacker in his contract year. Newcomer Shaquil Barrett signed a one-year deal after being a situational pass rusher in Denver and figures to start opposite Nassib on the weak side of the line.
Noah Spence will actually enter training camp as the starting weakside linebacker, but will battle Barrett and rookie Anthony Nelson, the team’s fourth-round pick. Spence has just one sack in the past two seasons after have 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles as a rookie. Spence has the most to prove in camp, and will benefit the most by Pierre-Paul’s absence. With Nassib, Barrett and Nelson assured of making the team, Spence, who is in a contract year, must fend off a challenge from holdovers Patrick O’Connor, Demone Harris and newcomers Kahzin Daniels, Dabid Kenney and Farrington Huguenin.
Prediction: The Bucs wind up keeping five outside linebackers in Nassib, Barrett, Nelson, Spence and Kenney.
Bucs Training Camp Battles – Special Teams
The Main Event – Kicker
No position has been more volatile and disappointing than that of kicker in Tampa Bay. Bucs general manager Jason Licht has traded for a kicker (Kyle Brindza), signed veterans (Pat Murray, Nick Folk, Chandler Catanzaro and Cairo Santos) and has even drafted two kickers (Roberto Aguayo and Matt Gay) among other moves he’s made to try to solidify Tampa Bay’s field goal and extra point production – all to no avail.
Santos and Gay will have a kicking duel in training camp. Santos has the veteran experience and is accurate inside of 40 yards, yet he doesn’t have a strong leg and isn’t very good at kickoffs. Gay, who won the Lou Groza Award last year at Utah and was drafted in the fifth round, has a booming leg, but no experience due to rookie status. He can also handle kickoffs, but Licht signed punter Bradley Pinion to also take on the role of kickoff specialist, freeing up either Santos or Gay to handle field goals and PATs exclusively.
The Bucs would like to see Gay win due to his leg strength, and if it’s close between he and Santos in the preseason, he’ll win the tiebreaker. Licht would also like to have some vindication from the failed Aguayo pick in 2016 and that could come if Gay makes the team and has success as a rookie kicker.
Prediction: Gay will be given every opportunity to win the job, has the edge heading into training camp and should prevail.
Next let’s examine some of the sleepers in Bucs training camp.