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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. SR’s Bucs Training Camp Insider
I’ll admit that I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about the start of Tampa Bay’s 2018 training camp. After two decades of covering the Buccaneers and watching nearly 10 practices this offseason between OTAs and the team’s three-day mandatory mini-camp, the last thing I want to see is more practices in shorts, jerseys and helmets.
I’m ready for full pads.
I’m ready for hitting.
I’m ready for Sunday – not necessarily Thursday.
But Thursday was full of surprises that intrigued me on the first day of training camp – even if it resembled another OTA in the indoor facility due to lightning in the area. By the time the air horn blew at 10:30 to signal the end of practice – and the beginning of some Jacksonville Jaguars-like wind sprints after practice – my reporter notebook was full of interesting anecdotes and insights that I’ll share with you to lead off this edition of SR’s Fab 5.
• I spent a lot of time during the first hour of practice focused on the defensive line. Not because I have a “coach crush” on Brentson Buckner and his new approach that has already made the D-line more violent and physical even before the pads come on. I’m interested in the defensive line because right now I can rattle off the names of eight players worth filling up the depth chart with in Gerald McCoy, Beau Allen, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, Vita Vea, Mitch Unrein, Will Gholston and Noah Spence.
Does defensive end Will Clarke or defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu have a chance of pulling an upset in the preseason and stealing a roster spot? Or is it just a foregone conclusion that Tampa Bay’s depth chart will in fact comprise the “Great 8” that I already rattled off. The Bucs also like defensive tackle DaVonte Lambert, who shouldn’t be quickly dismissed, either.
It’s worth noting that the Bucs defensive line is not only in good hands with Buckner, but also with assistant D-line coach Paul Spicer. I don’t know if there is another staff that has two former NFL defensive linemen on it, and I think that helps tremendously as Bucker and Spicer coach the positions they played in the league – defensive tackle and defensive end, respectively.
Here are a few other notes from the defensive line. Vea is playing exclusively at three-technique behind McCoy – not nose tackle. Allen, Unrein and Tu’ikolovatu are playing nose tackles.
Spence was nowhere to be found on the two-deep depth chart on Thursday. The second-team depth chart featured Gholston at left end and Clarke at right end. I think Spence is strictly going to be used as a situational pass rusher this year, probably in an effort to help keep him healthy despite the fact that he has bulked up to 257 pounds. In a few nickel pass rush downs the Bucs did line up with Curry at left end, Spence at right end and McCoy and Pierre-Paul inside at defensive end. Tampa Bay also has a package that features Spence at left end and Pierre-Paul at right end with McCoy and Curry inside at tackle.
• While the defensive line was at one end of the practice field, the big news of the day was taking place at the other end as veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick was taking the majority of the starting reps at quarterback while Jameis Winston was the primary backup working with the second team. The fact that Fitzpatrick began training camp as the starter was a clear message to the team that the focus is on the New Orleans Saints on September 9 – the first of three games Winston will be suspended for – not necessarily developing Winston or paying attention to the fact that Winston is expected to be under center from Weeks 4-17.
The Bucs can’t afford to start the season behind the eight ball with a 0-3 or even a 1-2 record. Fitzpatrick has to be ready and Koetter’s offense needs to be revved up and humming by the start of the season to avoid that from happening. While he wasn’t spectacular, Fitzpatrick looked sharp on Thursday, which was a sharp contrast to how Winston performed.
Looking humbled and subdued Winston didn’t have any bounce in his step and it showed. He had a very mediocre practice, throwing one fluky interception that was picked off by McCoy after the ball slipped out of wide receiver Sergio Bailey’s hands as he hit the ground.
Perhaps Winston was worried about having to face the media for the first time since the NFL handed him his three-game suspension. Perhaps he was dejected by his demotion. It was odd seeing Winston not high-fiving teammates, smiling and playing with a bounce in his step. We’ll see if Winston’s demeanor changes as camp progresses, and if Koetter will ultimately alternate starting reps between Fitzpatrick and Winston on different days throughout camp, or if Thursday’s practice is a preview of what’s to come for the next month.
• Another revelation on Thursday was Vernon Hargreaves III starting at right outside cornerback in Tampa Bay’s base defense opposite Brent Grimes on the left side. Maybe it’s because Hargreaves has had a pretty good offseason, or maybe it’s because the Bucs have a first-round investment in him, but Hargreaves is being given one final chance to start outside. We’ll see how he fares and if he can remain confident and make plays there.
In nickel defense Hargreaves moved inside and was replaced outside by Ryan Smith, who got the starting nod over rookie Carlton Davis. I expect Davis to make a move up the depth chart in August, and I’m not alone in that line of thinking.
• One thing that wasn’t a surprise was seeing Adam Humphries and Bernard Reedy fielding punts on Thursday. What was a pleasant surprise was seeing DeSean Jackson doing it too, and taking as many reps as they did. Of course linebacker Lavonte David and Grimes were back there fielding a punt or two, but they’ll never see action in a real game on special teams. But having Jackson back there is different.
It’s been four years since the 31-year old Jackson was a team’s primary punt returner, and that happened back in in 2013 in Philadelphia. Jackson has four punt return touchdowns and a career 9.6-yard average. With a stacked wide receiver position that features an emerging star in Chris Godwin, why not use Jackson’s 4.3 speed as a punt returner to help flip field position or even score a touchdown? If I’m head coach Dirk Koetter and I’m entering 2018 on the hot seat (see Fab 2), I’m pulling out all the stops and making Jackson the premier punt returner.
What does Koetter have to lose? If Jackson gets injured returning punts the receiving corps could weather that storm with the likes of Mike Evans, Godwin, Adam Humphries and either Bobo Wilson, Justin Watson or Freddie Martino – not to mention getting by with pass-catching tight ends like Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard.
At 5-foot-10, 175 pounds and in his 30s, you better believe Jackson wouldn’t take any unnecessary risks fielding punts with 11 players running right at him. He would know when to fair catch it out of self-preservation and when to turn on the jets and try to take one to the house.
• It was an ominous sign seeing rookie running back Ronald Jones drop a very catchable ball in 7-on-7. Jones was five yards away from the quarterback and the ball hit him in the hands. He has to make that catch.
Jones, who is one of PewterReport.com’s Training Camp Diary participants, has suspect hands. There is no other way to say it. He’ll make a few catches and then drop one you think he should have caught. This has been going on since the rookie mini-camp and through the OTAs. Keep in mind that Jones only had 32 career catches in his three-year career at USC. Peyton Barber, Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers and Shaun Wilson all have better hands than he does, and that’s a problem because how Jones performs in the passing game will determine if he can be more than a two-down back in Tampa Bay during his rookie season.
As I said on the latest Pewter Nation Podcast, Jones’ electric 4.41 speed can really be used in the passing game on wheel routes and on screens. Jones has the ability to take a screen pass 80 yards while Barber could take the same screen pass eight yards, which isn’t bad – but it’s not a touchdown.
Jones was working after practice on his hands with offensive coordinator Todd Monken. If he can do that on a daily basis and use the JUGGS machine regularly he can make some strides that will help him earn more playing time, and ultimately help the Bucs offense. How quickly Jones improves his hands is definitely something we’ll keep an eye on in camp.
• One last thing. You can forget about Ryan Griffin making a challenge for the starting quarterback job in Week 1. He’s not beating out Fitzpatrick. Griffin had some awful throws off his back foot on Thursday and he doesn’t have the strongest arm to begin with. He’s the kind of QB that needs to step into his throws and for some reason he was throwing off his back foot. It wasn’t the right way for Griffin to start training camp.
Keep in mind this is just Day 1 of training camp. A lot can – and will – change over the next month in Tampa Bay, but it was certainly an eventful start to the Bucs’ 2018 training camp.