FAB 2. Insider Analysis Of Bucs Mini-Camp
Tampa Bay concluded its 2018 mandatory mini-camp on Thursday, June 14, and to be honest, there was noting different about the three mini-camp practices than there were the team’s 10 OTAs (organized team activities) that were held in May and early June. It was the same set of circumstances – helmets, jerseys and shorts with no real contact – only players could be fined if they didn’t show up.
Much to Tampa Bay’s delight, everyone was in attendance from part-time OTA participants wide receiver DeSean Jackson and cornerback Brent Grimes, to the lone Buccaneer who missed every OTA – defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
So what did we learn from mini-camp – as well as the rest of the OTAs? Plenty.
Let’s start with the Bucs offense.
Quarterback Jameis Winston is perhaps slightly more accurate with downfield throws, but if I’m being honest, I didn’t see any real noticeable improvement from last year. He still makes some amazing throws that will “wow” you, but also tends to stare down his primary receiver and force the ball into coverage too often than he should. Some old habits die hard.
Ryan Fitzpatrick still looks better than Ryan Griffin, and given his 2-1 record last year as a starter and his years of playing experience, Fitzpatrick will be the No. 2 quarterback barring an injury in training camp or the preseason.
Peyton Barber is still the starting running back and will continue in that role into training camp. Barber is leaner and a tick faster this offseason and it shows once he gets to the second level. Rookie Ronald Jones is an exciting, electric back, but doesn’t have the surest of hands. He needs more work on the JUGGS machine to have a chance at being more than a two-down back in his first year.
One-trick-pony Charles Sims will get the first crack as the team’s third-down back, but don’t be surprised if undrafted rookie Shaun Wilson comes for Sims’ job in training camp. Wilson earned a lot of praise this offseason as a pass catcher, and if he can pass protect once the pads come on, he could be the surprise of training camp.
Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard are as spectacular as ever as the team’s 1-2 punch at tight end. Pencil in at least five touchdowns apiece again this year. Brate has always been Winston’s favorite receiver, and you can see that Howard and Winston have developed even more of a rapport.
Antony Auclair missed some time with an ankle injury, but he’s further along in his understanding of the passing game, and he’s a better blocker, which he didn’t get to show given the non-contact nature of mini-camp and the OTAs. Both he and Alan Cross, who continues to assert himself as a weapon in the passing game, should make the team over a trio of undrafted free agent tight ends that will compete in training camp.
Mike Evans is Mike Evans. He says he wants to get more yards after the catch, but the routes that Dirk Koetter and Todd Monken have him run, crossing routes towards the middle of the field between the safeties and out routes near the sidelines, don’t lend themselves to YAC. Evans is a better, more athletic version of Keyshawn Johnson, which is damn good enough in this league.
Godwin was easily the offseason star at the wide receiver position. His arrow continues to point up and he will be a starting this year opposite Evans. He’s too good not get less than 60 catches. Godwin has a better rapport with Winston and has found a sweet spot in the back of the middle of the end zone where he caught a ridiculous amount of touchdowns this spring.
DeSean Jackson is still running vertical routes outside, but kudos to Koetter and Monken for using Jackson more in the slot this year, catching quick slants, wide receiver screens and shorter routes that are designed to have him use his sub-4.4 speed to get yards after the catch. With Winston only slightly improving his downfield chemistry with Jackson on deep balls, the way to make Jackson more productive is to let him turn a seven-yard pass into a 17-yard gain. Koetter and Monken seemed to have figured that out to a degree this offseason, which is good.
Bobo Wilson and Freddie Martino are the backup receivers who have stood out the most. After a hot start – and some pub – Wilson started to drop too many catchable passes. He needs to catch everything if he’s going to stick as the No. 5 receiver, otherwise he’s opening the door for the steady, yet unspectacular Martino.
It’s hard to gauge how the offensive line is doing in just shorts without shoulder pads, but the real standout was left tackle Cole Garner. The second-year player who was in training camp last year before getting injured really turned some heads as he ran with the first string while Donovan Smith missed some time with a minor injury.
Leonard Wester filled in for Demar Dotson at right tackle, and Caleb Benenoch subbed for the injured J.R. Sweezy at right guard. Benenoch and rookie Alex Cappa, who was the second-string right guard will put up a fight for the starting position when Sweezy returns for training camp. Meanwhile, Ali Marpet looked natural at left guard and newcomer Ryan Jensen looked as good as advertised at center. The Bucs offensive line looks better and deeper at first glance.
On defense, it’s an embarrassment of riches on the defensive line. I mean it’s night and day from last year with this unit, which features new additions in Pierre-Paul, defensive end Vinny Curry, and defensive tackles Beau Allen, Mitch Unrein and rookie Vita Vea.
Pierre-Paul has the gravitas that the legendary Simeon Rice brought to the Bucs’ pass rush when he arrived in 2001. Not only will Pierre-Paul rush from the right end position, he also saw time inside at defensive tackle next to McCoy in the nickel rush package on Wednesday with Noah Spence at right end and Curry at left end. Expect to see Curry play some defensive tackle in nickel rush, too.
Allen and Unrein are just grown men. Big, physical, tough bullies that will help the Bucs shut down the run. Vea actually impressed me more as a pass rusher than a run stuffer during the offseason. I think he’s going to get three or four sacks and surprise some people during his rookie season.
But the real surprise was some of Tampa Bay’s returning defensive linemen. Gerald McCoy remains the real deal at the three-technique spot, but Will Gholston, Will Clarke and Spence all made a great impression on me during the OTAs and mini-camp. Gholston is in incredible shape. He’s dropped 20 pounds from a year ago and seems primed for a bounce-back year in 2018.
Spence is up to 257 and still looks lightning fast. He should make an impact as a third-down speed rusher opposite JPP.
I don’t know how Clarke makes this team. Count ‘em up on the D-line: McCoy, Allen, JPP, Curry, Gholston, Vea, Spence, Unrein. That’s eight. If the Bucs end up keeping nine defensive linemen then Clarke could be the ninth guy. He ran with the second team at right defensive end a lot when JPP was absent and looks more confident in what he’s doing thanks to new defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, who will be a difference-maker this year.
The Bucs linebacking corps looks as good as ever. Kwon Alexander is in complete control of the defense. This is his defense and he is flying around the field with a purpose. Lavonte David is hungry for the playoffs and seems like a man on a mission. Alexander even has the usually quiet David talking some trash on the field.
While Kendell Beckwith has been out recovering from a broken ankle, Adarius Taylor (formerly Glanton) got a lot of looks with the second team defense, as did Devante Bond and Riley Bullough, who is the second-string middle linebacker. I can’t say that Bond impressed me. He just doesn’t make a lot of plays. Taylor did impress me, as did Bullough, who looks leaner and much quicker from a year ago.
Rookie Jack Cichy has a chance to make this roster if he performs well on special teams. He is a very instinctive linebacker that doesn’t play with wasted steps. He has a decent burst considering he’s still recovering from a torn ACL that cost him the 2017 season. Keep an eye on him in training camp.
In the secondary, second-year free safety Justin Evans is a star in the making. He just looks so confident after getting a year’s worth of experience under his belt as a rookie. Evans has a chance to be a real ballhawk and double the number of interceptions he got a year ago. That’s right. He has a chance to get six picks – and hopefully a pick-six, too.
Whether you like it or not, Chris Conte will be the starting strong safety heading into training camp, and barring an upset, he’ll be the starting strong safety on opening day, too. He’s not spectacular, but he’s steady. Keith Tandy will stick as a reserve safety.
Speaking of steady, Grimes remains the starting left cornerback, and I bet that rookie Carlton Davis III winds up as the starting right cornerback by the end of training camp. Two cornerbacks that have impressed this offseason are Ryan Smith and David Rivers, who have both seen time with the starters when Grimes was absent from OTAs. Smith is steadier and more confident after some growing pains in his first year playing defense in 2017, while Rivers is a nice surprise that built upon a very good showing at the rookie mini-camp as a first-year player.
Vernon Hargreaves III was almost exclusively playing nickel cornerback in the slot towards the end of OTAs and during the mini-camp. He looks natural and more confident playing there than he does outside. Where Hargreaves struggled was catching the ball. He dropped several interception opportunities this spring, and that’s where rookie M.J. Stewart, who also played primarily in the slot with the second team, can make up some ground. Stewart has sure hands and had his share of interceptions since arriving in Tampa Bay.
Don’t count out Javien Elliott, who moved from slot to outside corner, and undrafted rookie free agent Mark Myers. Both had their share of interceptions this spring and saw time with the second- and third-string defenses. They will provide competition and make it interesting when it comes down to roster cut-downs.
Bryan Anger is the only punter on the team, and the Bucs actually have two kickers, veteran Chandler Catanzaro and rookie Trevor Moore. There have been days where Moore has looked every bit as good as Catanzaro, but overall, Catanzaro was more consistent in the spring. He even ended mini-camp early with a 58-yard bomb right down the uprights, which delighted his teammates.
Rookie wide receiver Justin Watson and rookie safety Jordan Whitehead missed a good deal of the OTAs with minor injuries. Both still have a chance of making the 53-man roster this year, but will enter training camp behind the eight ball after missing valuable on-field time this spring.
Overall, the defense looks much more talented and improved along the defensive line and in the secondary than it did a year ago, and a trimmer Mike Smith is often seen with a smile on his face as a result. Smith didn’t have enough defensive linemen that could get to the quarterback last year, nor did he have enough cornerbacks that could cover effectively, and was often in no man’s land as a result.
Blitzing would help the pass rush, but create too many one-on-ones for the secondary to be able to handle. Not blitzing allowed quarterbacks more time to find open receivers and put too much pressure on the secondary. Look for Smith to blitz more often this year as a result, and expect nothing less than 40 sacks combined this season between the defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs.