FAB 4. 5 Takeaways From OTAs
The Buccaneers are nearing the conclusion of the four OTAs (organized team activities) this week – Tuesday through Friday. The local media was allowed to watch Tuesday’s OTA on May 28 and will be able to view the final OTA on Friday, May 31 at the AdventHealth Training Center at One Buccaneer Place. Here are my five takeaways from watching Tuesday’s OTA, which took place under bright sunny skies and brutally hot conditions with temperatures around 95 degrees.
1. Auclair Is Making Big Strides
Tuesday was Antony Auclair’s birthday and quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Blaine Gabbert gave him a ton of presents in the form of a bunch of perfectly thrown passes – all of which were caught. After practice, the Bucs’ third-string tight end, who has been elevated to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart with Cameron Brate sitting out the spring after offseason hip surgery, told me he had a “career day” with his number of targets. Auclair is entering not only his third year in the NFL, but also playing American football after hailing from Canada, and he’s making a lot of progress.
Bruce Arians was quick to note after practice that Auclair’s role in his offense is that of a blocker, but with both Brate and starter O.J. Howard having their share of injury issues, it’s nice to see Auclair developing into an all-around tight end capable of picking up some first downs as a target in the passing game as well. Auclair is a big target at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, and he has some sneaky speed, too.
2. Miller Is Blazing Fast
The Bucs have been without speed receiver Breshad Perriman for over a week since he injured his shoulder diving for a ball in practice and it’s given new wide receiver Scotty Miller, the team’s sixth-round pick, the chance to get some reps with the starters and the rookie has looked impressive. At 5-foot-11, 174 pounds, Miller is three inches shorter and about 35 pounds lighter than Perriman, but he has instant acceleration and the ability to separate from defensive backs.
Miller caught a couple of deep balls for touchdowns on Tuesday, but the vertical elements in Arians’ passing game just aren’t go routes downfield. Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich will also have Perriman and Miller, assuming he makes the team, on medium and deep crossing routes, using their speed to create yards after the catch to make big plays downfield. While Dirk Koetter’s downfield attack was more vertical based, Arians has some of the same vertical elements in addition to more deep crossing routes taking advantage of the middle of the field. Should be interesting to watch this offense come to life in the preseason.
3. Rookies Are Creating Takeaways
Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III dropped a potential pick-six in Tuesday’s practice, which drew some criticize from Arians in his post-practice press conference, but Arians said VH3 had an interception in a previous OTA. That’s a good sign because the entire Tampa Bay cornerback group has one combined interception – and that was from Hargreaves in his rookie season. Getting more playmakers was a big priority for Bucs general manager Jason Licht, who spent a second- and third-round pick on cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean in this year’s draft a year after selecting cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis.
Murphy-Bunting and Dean have impressed early on, rotating in with Davis and Hargreaves in the starting defense. Both rookies have come away with interceptions, and Dean ended the day with a pick on Tuesday. After the practice, Arians disclosed that 95 percent of the team’s takeaways have come from rookies, including linebacker Devin White, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in April, and safety Mike Edwards, the team’s third-round pick. The Bucs only had nine interceptions last year, and the players responsible for six of those picks, including Andrew Adams, who had a team-high four, are gone. New playmakers are needed in Tampa Bay and they might come from the rookie class.
4. Blitzing Will Determine Who Wins The Nickel Job
On Tuesday, Arians listed four players that are in contention for the nickel job as the Bucs’ fifth defensive back, including one cornerback in Murphy-Bunting, and safeties Stewart, Edwards and rookie Lukas Denis. While the nickel position has traditionally been a cornerback in previous defensive schemes under Lovie Smith and Dirk Koetter, it’s open to either a cornerback or a safety in Todd Bowles’ defense because it’s a different role as the nickel blitzes more in Bowles’ defense than in other schemes. In fact, the nickel blitzes more than any other position in Bowles’ defense.
The Bucs won’t have a clear cut starter until the pads come on in August because it’s not just a matter of getting to the quarterback coming free on a blitz. It’s also which nickel candidate can beat a block and still sack the QB. Stewart, who is the current starter, struggled in coverage last year as the team’s nickel and was eventually replaced by Javien Elliott. Stewart’s deficiencies in coverage can be masked with double-teaming the slot receiver with a safety over the top in Bowles’ scheme, so that still makes him a viable option to start. Keep an eye on Murphy-Bunting, though. If he can prove to be an effective blitzer, his superior speed and coverage ability may ultimately give him the edge.
5. Vea Picking Up Where He Left Off
It’s incredibly difficult to evaluate the play of offensive or defensive linemen in OTAs with no pads on. After all, these spring practices are non-contact, right? Someone forgot to tell that to nose tackle Vita Vea, the team’s starting nose tackle and former first-round pick. With or without pads, Vea’s strength is evident for all to see, and there was a play where he literally slapped Caleb Benenoch, who was starting at right guard on Tuesday due to several offensive linemen being sick after a Memorial Day barbeque.
Vea’s move was one part club, one part swim and he caught Benenoch on his inside shoulder and literally slapped him sideways and out of the way as Vea charged towards Jameis Winston like a rhino. Vea had a slow start to his rookie season that was compounded by a torn calf muscle early in training camp, but found his stride towards the end of the year, finishing with three sacks. All indications are that he is picking up from where he left off last year and is turning into a dominant force upfront. Bowles’ 3-4 defense is similar to the scheme Vea played at Washington, so he’s making a smooth transition.