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. NEW, IMPROVED BUCS DEFENSE UNVEILED
Now that the pads have come on, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have unveiled their new defense. Gone is the old Tampa 2 scheme with Lovie Smith deploying a predictable four-man rush, with Cover 3, Cover 2 and man-based coverages and the occasional middle linebacker blitz on third down.
What has replaced it is Mike Smith’s unpredictable scheme that Tampa Bay’s defensive players absolutely love. As promised, Smith’s defense has a 4-3 base but has certainly been multiple in terms of the different coverages and fronts it shows.
Bucs DC Mike Smith – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
The two primary defenses we’ve seen at camp have been 4-3 Over and Under schemes, as expected. The four-man front is similar to what Monte Kiffin and Lovie Smith used to run in Tampa Bay, but Mike Smith changes the personnel so often that outside of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the other defensive linemen are shuffled so much that opposing offensive linemen will literally have to study the tendencies of three or four different opponents at nose tackle, left defensive or right defensive end – not just one every down opponent.
That’s because on one snap it could be a technician like Clinton McDonald at nose tackle or a short, powerful player like Akeem Spence playing the nose technique. Or it could be right defensive end Robert Ayers moving inside next to McCoy as an interior rusher at the nose spot in nickel defense, or it could be a long and strong player like the 6-foot-6 Will Gholston.
The Bucs have lined up Gholston, Johnson, Jacquies Smith and Kourtnei Brown with the first two defensive lines with Gholston and Smith the typical starters. At right end, Ayers, Johnson, rookie Noah Spence and Howard Jones have all seen time with the starters and second-teamers with Ayers and Spence as the typical starters.
From a coverage standpoint, the Bucs are playing a lot of man coverage with a single high safety, Quarters coverage and some Cover 2, which are staples of Smith’s defenses in Atlanta and in Jacksonville. Zone drops with athletic defensive ends like Brown and Spence dropping into coverage. Although they are better suited for it, Gholston and Ayers have also buzzed the flat in coverage in some schemes.
Bucs DE Kourtnei Brown – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
What Smith’s defense does so well is disguise the coverage so quarterbacks can’t make accurate pre-snap reads. For example, the Bucs displayed Cover 1 as a pre-snap read with Bradley McDougald back in centerfield Chris Conte showing blitz at the line of scrimmage. At the snap, Conte then buzzed to the right flat as he exchanged with Alteraun Verner, the right cornerback who essentially dropped back as a safety to replace Conte at the snap, giving the Bucs what appeared to be a Cover 2 look or resembled a Quarters coverage.
That’s the type of disguises the players and coaches talk about, and it certainly confuses Tampa Bay’s quarterbacks. Disguising coverages forces Winston to do a better job of diagnosing plays quicker after the snap and he’ll be a better quarterback because of it. By the time Tampa Bay faces Atlanta in Week 1 Winston will have seen it all from a disguised defensive standpoint and faced a myriad of blitzes.
The chemistry of that defense is showing and [that it’s] their first year in that defense, it’s very impressive,” Winston said. “I can’t wait to see how things work out for them because I know they’re giving us trouble out there and they’re very tough. It’s so good for the quarterbacks. The quarterbacks, we talk about it all the time, we get so many different looks. And these guys are doing it to the T. And just for them to just be installing it the way that they are, it’s pretty good.”
Interceptions were a problem last year, but after one week of camp there have been plenty of picks at the linebacker level and in the secondary. Cornerback Brent Grimes leads the way with multiple INTs, but fellow starting cornerback Alterraun Verner has one, as does both starting safeties Bradley McDougald and Conte, who are asked to play more coverage this year. Starting outside linebackers Daryl Smith and Lavonte David also have an interception, with David’s coming off a screen pass.
On Thursday, Tampa Bay reserve linebacker Jeremiah George dropped an interception and heard about it.
Bucs S Chris Conte – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
“I’m not sure if you all saw when J.G. dropped the interception,” David said. “We were ticked off at him because he dropped it. He knows he’s going hear it so when he came over there he had his head down because he was going to hear it from us. We have our competition chart and every day we come in the defensive meeting room there’s a big sign on the board that says ‘All about the ball.’ And that’s what we try to do – take the ball away as much as can. J.G. killed that opportunity, but it’s all good. … That’s for the entire defense, but at the same time we competing with each position group to beat the in turnovers, so the competition level is pretty good.”
There is one misnomer to clear up about where David plays. Like legendary Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks did in Tampa Bay, David plays the weakside linebacker role in the Bucs’ 4-3 Under front, which means he plays away from the tight end while the strongside linebacker is on the line of scrimmage over the tight end. Yet David actually plays more strongside linebacker than he does weakside ‘backer.
“In the 4-3 Over, the Will always go to the strong side,” David said. “You’ve got to have a guy that is good in coverage. I believe all the linebackers are athletic the way we draft guys and the way we mold guys. I think all the guys are athletic, but that’s basically the main job of the Will – to actually cover the tight end on the strong side.
“Not every play, but most of the time probably about 85-95 percent of the time I’m basically the strong side guy. You know it’s the way they put it nowadays – the Will is actually the strongside linebacker.”
Because the Bucs moved away from the 4-3 Under scheme in 1998 after using it with great regularity in ‘96 and ’97, Brooks actually played more strongside linebacker in his career than he did on the weakside. The same holds true with David, who will also be asked to do more blitzing in Mike Smith’s scheme.
“It’s just the way the defense is,” David said. “At certain times and certain situations I may be used on the blitz, I may be used in pass coverage or I may be used in zone drops. But I feel like I’m more involved in certain things now, I’m getting a lot of action, getting a lot of plays thrown my way and stuff like that. So it’s pretty good, I like to take on challenges like that and it helps me get better.”
Bucs LB Lavonte David – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Lovie Smith, who called plays last year in Tampa Bay, seldom blitzed, and when he did it was typically Kwon Alexander in the A gap on third downs. Mike Smith will blitz cornerbacks, nickel corners, safeties, and any of the three linebackers on any down.
“There are lots of blitzes in this defense, and not just on third down,” said Bucs rookie middle linebacker Luke Rhodes, who is running with the second string. “Nowadays with how much passing there is in the NFL we’ll blitz on first down – it doesn’t matter.”
Disguised coverages, blitzing, tighter coverages and different personnel groupings along the front four have given Tampa Bay’s young, prolific offense fits in practice through the first week of training camp – but Dirk Koetter’s side of the ball knows that it will only be better because of it.
“It keeps us on our toes as an offense,” Bucs right guard Ali Marpet said. “You can’t really practice that when you know what you’re getting, so, yeah, seeing different looks just really helps you prepare.”
The Bucs’ revamped defense is prepared to turn things around quickly in Tampa Bay and the unit has successfully installed the new scheme at a break-neck pace that will allow the team to give Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons fits in Week 1. Smith, who was fired as Atlanta’s head coach after the 2014 season, would love nothing more than the opportunity to get some payback against his former team to start the season.
FAB 2. McDONALD’s STRONG PLAY IS BACK, HIS LEADERSHIP NEVER LEFT
Tampa Bay made an uncharacteristically huge splash in free agency just months after the hiring of head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht in the offseason of 2014. The Bucs signed the premier defensive end on the open market in Michael Johnson, the top available quarterback in Josh McCown, an up-and-coming left tackle in Anthony Collins, an unheralded pass-catching tight end in Brandon Myers and some guy named Clinton McDonald, a rotational nose tackle from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
Bucs DT Clinton McDonald – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Of the five free agent splash signings, the humble McDonald definitely created the least buzz at the press conference despite recording a career-high 35 tackles, 5.5 sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery in 2013. That is until he stepped on to the field.
Despite missing three games due to a late-season back injury, McDonald finished his first season in Tampa Bay with a career-best 46 tackles, five sacks, two fumble recoveries and an interception and earned the entire team’s respect by his no-nonsense approach to football along the way. By the time the 2015 season rolled around, McDonald surprised the Bucs fan base again.
Not just by ending up as the best player among those five splash signings, especially after Collins, McCown and Johnson were cut after one disastrous 2-14 season in 2014. McDonald was named one of the Bucs’ six team captains, joining the likes of wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Logan Mankins, linebacker Lavonte David, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and special teams ace Russell Shepard.
While that selection may have caught fans that underestimated his value to the team off guard, McDonald’s teammates simply rewarded him with the captain status he deserved.
“Clinton has been around and he’s a veteran,” said Bucs center Joe Hawley, who goes against McDonald on a daily basis. “He knows what this team needs and he’s a big part of it. He’s a great leader and he’s always locked in. He’s never goofing around and he always gets the guys going.
Bucs NT Clinton McDonald and C Joe Hawley – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
“On the field he’s tough to go against because he’s always technically sound. He’s just tough. You always have to bring your ‘A game’ against him because he always plays with near-perfect technique. He has a low center of gravity and he’s a little ball of muscle. He’s so strong, too. He’s an undersized nose but he makes up for it with his strength and power.”
McDonald’s first season as a team captain was cut short after six games due to a torn pectoral muscle. With his lone sack of the season, which came in Week 2 at New Orleans, negated due to a penalty, at first glance it seemed as if McDonald wasn’t having as spectacular of a season as he had in 2014. But consider that the Memphis product had an incredible 31 tackles through the first five games and was leading all Tampa Bay defensive linemen in that statistic before his injury and you realize how valuable his play was last year.
If McDonald had stayed healthy for all 16 games last year he would have produced 82 tackles, which would have nearly doubled his career high.
“My high school coach always said ‘If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, it will be a very merry Christmas,’” McDonald said. “Hey, we all aspire to make plays on the D-line. We have great players that push each other. A guy like Gerald McCoy, he sets the standard by being a four-time Pro Bowl guy. Everybody aspires to make that level in their careers. We all work hard together.
Bucs NT Clinton McDonald and Will Gholston – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“It wasn’t just me. Will Gholston had to set the edge. Gerald had to take on the double team when I got those tackles. Jack Smith had to rush the passer. That’s the great thing about a team and working together. If everybody works together we can conquer.”
At age 29 and fully healed, McDonald has made his triumphant return to the practice field where he is doing his best to fend off a strong push by reserve Akeem Spence for the starting nose tackle job, and pick up where he left off as a run-stuffing playmaker along Tampa Bay’s defensive line.
“I remember plays where I said to myself, ‘Okay, this is my play’ and then I would see Clinton flash in there and make the tackle before I could get there,” Gholston said. “I’m definitely glad to see the old fella out here again. I wouldn’t call it a comeback – he never left. He never left the locker room. He might not have had the ability to play, but he was still there every single day for us.”
It’s not uncommon for some NFL players on injured reserve to take part in their rehab and kind of mentally check out on their teammates during the season. That’s not how McDonald was last year. That’s not who he is. McDonald took the responsibility of being a team captain seriously and knew that there were other ways to lead rather than by example on the football field.
Bucs DT Clinton McDonald – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“It was hard because your injury is something you don’t want,” McDonald said. “Nobody wants to be injured. You can’t control it. My injury was a freak one. Whether you are on the practice squad or the 53, you feel bad if you can’t play because you feel like you can contribute in some form or fashion. Last year was one of those years where the only way I could contribute was to keep guys up by talking to them and encouraging them and giving them information about what was going on during the game on the field. It was teaching guys the intangibles, the character-building things. That’s how I helped.”
Tampa Bay’s young defensive linemen appreciated McDonald’s wisdom and leadership even though he wasn’t able to contribute on the field.
“He was our defensive captain,” Gholston said. “You could definitely feel his presence. He has a tremendous football I.Q., so it was great to be able to see him break down the plays from the sidelines and be able to help us, especially Akeem, who plays the same position. He played well because of Clinton was helping him. He was the next man up with a starter’s mentality.”
Despite McDonald’s modesty, Spence got plenty of help from him last year and the competition between the two nose tackles for playing time is definitely a friendly one.
“Akeem is a young guy that is getting better every day,” McDonald said. “I don’t affect his game too much on the field because everybody has a different style of play. But he’s a great guy that listens.
“It was freaky timing last year because the same game I got hurt was the same game he came back. He’s a great guy that works his butt off. He’s a strong guy that came back and did a great job for us last year and he’s playing well right now.”
Spence has had a great start to camp, but so has McDonald, who is so technically sound that he has stayed atop the depth chart next to McCoy.
Bucs DT Clinton McDonald – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
“He gives 100 percent on every rep, and that’s why I love going against him,” Bucs reserve guard Josh Allen said. “When I go against Clinton McDonald and win, which isn’t often, it’s like a plus-one because it’s so hard to do. He’s an aged veteran who is really good at his craft. He brings his best every time. You have to bring your best going against him.
“He’s always saying ‘Iron sharpens iron’ and he gives the best motivational speeches before practices and games. That’s why he’s a great mentor for our team. He’s a leader. He doesn’t have to have his picture up on the stadium walls. He does enough in the locker room and on the field. That kind of stuff – the fame and notoriety – it doesn’t matter to him. He’s a leader for our whole team and not just the defense. Everybody knows what Clinton McDonald brings on and off the field. I promise you that.”
Whether it was in Lovie Smith’s four-man front or Mike Smith’s defensive scheme, the nose tackle does the dirty work by drawing up a significant number of center-guard double teams lining up in the A gap and freeing up McCoy to usually go one-on-one in the B gap as the three-technique defensive tackle.
“The strength, determination, grit – Clinton is a real player,” Bucs guard Kevin Pamphile said. “He’s a pro right there. Whenever we are working a combination block I know I got to take over and block Clint with it. Nose tackles are just like us, honestly. We don’t get much recognition. We are pretty much the most important position on each side of the ball. The offensive line is where it all starts for the offense. And the nose tackle is where it all starts for the defense, and he’s taking on double teams, freeing up Gerald and our linebackers – Lavonte [David] and Kwon [Alexander].”
McDonald said new defensive coordinator Mike Smith moves the nose tackle around in his 4-3 Over and Under schemes.
“The nose in this defense is a bit different because you are playing over the guard a little bit and you’re playing over the center a little bit – back and forth,” McDonald said. “The objective is still the same. You have a gap – whether you’re double-teamed or single-blocked – you take your gap. Last year was more up the field, up the field, up the field. It’s a little bit different. It’s not shuffling side to side. We’re still getting up the field and we’re still attacking blocks. There is just a little bit more going into it from an excitement standpoint with more scheming and blitzing. Coach Smith makes it very exciting for us to get into the game plan and I love it.”
McDonald is not just competing for playing time with Spence. With Mike Smith having more personnel groupings than Lovie Smith did, defensive ends like Gholston, Robert Ayers and George Johnson are also moving inside in sub packages and getting reps at the nose tackle spot.
Instead of worrying about his playing time, McDonald demonstrates his leadership by helping the players who are competing against him.
Bucs DT Clinton McDonald – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“Shoot, I’ve never played nose before,” Gholston said. “Just like Gerald was helping me with the 3-technique last year, Clinton is helping me with the nose. Just the mentality of sharing information together and coming together like brothers in the defensive line room is amazing, and he’s a big part of that.”
Because he couldn’t play for the final 10 games of the 2015 season, McDonald had to essentially be a coach from the sidelines. Now that he’s back in action, McDonald has transitioned to being a coach on the field, especially to players like Gholston and Johnson when they move inside.
“In the sub package, those guys do have to go inside and transition to nose tackle from playing defensive end, and that can be hard,” McDonald said. “At the same time, it’s the way we communicate on the field. It’s everybody helping each other get better because we need each other. Will played a little bit of nose last year, and George is coming on, too. He understands his speed, his quickness and his leverage is his greatest strength. He is really improving in there.”
Johnson suffered a leg injury during Thursday’s practice and the extent of that injury was unknown at the time this edition of SR’s Fab 5 was being written. But he was thriving inside as a nickel rusher from the nose tackle position thanks in part to McDonald.
With David and McCoy entrenched as team captains due to their leadership and Pro Bowl-caliber play, Alexander, who is in his second year as Tampa Bay’s middle linebacker, could assume the role as captain from McDonald when the players cast their votes later this month. But just because McDonald might not have a “C” on his chest his leadership won’t be diminished.
“Clint is the big chief around here,” Tampa Bay defensive end Kourtnei Brown said. “His presence inside is remarkable in that he takes on two blocks every play for the most part. His leadership and the way he teaches young guys like me, I’m just so happy he’s back and I’m looking forward to playing with him.”
Bucs DT Clinton McDonald – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
With or without the captain’s “C” patch on his jersey, McDonald will continue to give fire-and-brimstone speeches before practice and game days, often quoting scripture. He and McCoy set the pace for the defensive line room in terms of work ethic and they plan on taking it up a notch in 2016 to help the Bucs get over the hump and back to their winning ways of yesteryear.
“I take responsibility for it,” McDonald said of his captainship. “What you say is one thing, but how you work is another. You can’t say something without backing it up. When I say something I’m going to back it up because those are the lessons that were instilled in me as a child.
“It was an honor to be here – whether I was on the field or hurt last year. The way last season went is not what we expected or what we trained for. We’re back again this year and we’re planning for a greater outcome because we’re planning on working even harder this year.”
McDonald is back in action in 2016, but in a lot of ways he never left last year.
“He might have gotten hurt but he was there every single game for us on the sidelines and every day for us in the locker room and the meeting room,” Bucs defensive end Howard Johnson said. “He has great strength and we look up to him a lot. He’s always there for us – even if he’s not on the field. He’s always been a great leader and he’s back and he’s ready to roll. He’s ready to take the initiative to lead us once again.”
FAB 3. BUCS FINALLY BUILDING LINEBACKER DEPTH
Over the years the Buccaneers have struggled to build quality linebacker depth. Outside of Danny Lansanah replacing Jonathan Casillas at the beginning of the 2014 season at strongside linebacker, there has been an obvious drop off in talent when the next man is up in the linebacking corps in Tampa Bay.
When middle linebacker Mason Foster went down for a few games in 2014, Dane Fletcher was an inadequate replacement. When Lavonte David missed two games later that season, Lansanah had to move to weakside linebacker, Orie Lemon replaced Lansanah and the lack of quality depth was noticeable. Even with an experienced player like Bruce Carter filling in for Kwon Alexander last year, Carter couldn’t fill Alexander’s shoes over the final four games of the year and was released in the offseason.
Bucs LB Devante Bond – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht has had to spend the last two years scrambling to sign linebackers late in the season to help out on special teams and for depth purposes, acquiring Lemon late in 2014 and Josh Keyes, who had been with the Bucs in camp last year, in November of 2015. Growing tired of the team’s carousel at the linebacker position, Licht wanted to bolster the talent heading into 2016 and believes that has been accomplished with a couple of new arrivals.
Licht and the Buccaneers spent a sixth-round pick this year on Devante Bond, who has had a nice debut in Tampa Bay, earning second-team status at the strongside linebacker position and even a few snaps with the first unit in training camp so the coaches can evaluate him with the starters.
“Bond has been getting some first team reps, he’s coming along well,” David said. “Obviously still got a lot of work to do because I’m not sure if he’s been used in a certain system like this, but his turnovers have been really good. He’s been one of those guys that’s been standing and asking questions and things like that. So he’s been doing what he’s supposed to do, right now he’s just learning his job and that’s all we need him to do.”
But there are two other lesser-known players that have made quite an impact in the offseason and through the first week of camp at the linebacker position, too.
Luke Rhodes, a middle linebacker from William & Mary, quickly established himself as Alexander’s backup during the OTAs with his cerebral ability and leadership traits. Rhodes amassed 341 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in his career for the Tribe and with a solid preseason he could lock up a roster spot as an undrafted free agent.
Bucs MLB Luke Rhodes – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Adarius Glanton, who was signed off Carolina’s practice squad on November 30 last year, has limited NFL experience with 12 tackles and one forced fumble for the Panthers, but has flashed his talent enough to secure the No. 2 weakside linebacker spot behind David – at least for now.
“He’s one of the guys that can play,” Bucs strongside linebacker Daryl Smith said. “We have a lot of talent in the linebacker room that is eager to learn. He’s one of those guys. He’s out here showcasing what he can do.”
When Tampa Bay’s second-string defense takes the field in base defense or nickel, Glanton and Rhodes have been the mainstays at the linebacker position throughout the first week of training camp and have played well.
“I’m always learning and it was a big step for me from what we did in college to what we are doing now,” Rhodes said. “I have a lot of the veterans pushing me and helping me and the coaches are doing a great job of teaching us what we’re doing. I’ve played the middle linebacker position my whole life, so learning the game and understanding the game is something I have always prided myself on. Not making the same mistake twice is the biggest thing.”
Like Rhodes, Glanton has quickly absorbed the playbook and has let his ability take over on the practice field.
“The first week went really good and I think we’re just trying to learn and get the defense down,” Glanton said. “We try to show it on paper in the classroom and then take it out to the field with the pads on because it’s real with the pads. We still have a long way to go, but we’re getting there. You want the coaches to be able to count on you, so you try to go out and make plays.”
That’s what Glanton, who is wearing Shelton Quarles’ old No. 53 jersey, has been able to do in early August. On Wednesday, Glanton blanketed Storm Johnson 30 yards downfield on a wheel route and broke up a deep pass to the reserve running back.
“I did make a play downfield on Storm Johnson,” Glanton said. “I’m known for my speed. I think I’m an all-around player, but I’m pretty fast. I’ve always been fast. I can cover guys downfield. I just have to keep showing it.”
In fact, Glanton is the second-fastest linebacker in Tampa Bay behind Alexander and ahead of David.
Buccaneers LB 40-yard dash times Kwon Alexander – 4.55 Adarius Glanton – 4.59 Lavonte David – 4.65 Jeremiah George – 4.66 Josh Keyes – 4.67 Micah Awe – 4.67 Devante Bond – 4.68 Luke Rhodes – 4.73 Cassanova McKinzy – 4.83 Daryl Smith – no current 40-time
Glanton, who grew up in nearby Bartow, Fla. and went to Lake Gibson High School in Lakeland, is 6-foot-1, 230 pounds and is similarly built to David, who he is modeling his game after.
“He’s a great player and he’s done some great things,” Glanton said. “We’re learning the new defense together. If he sees something he lets me know, and if I see something I’ll let him know. He’s a big help and I look up to him. I try to steal as much as I can from him when I’m out there on the field.
“This new defense lets you play faster and we disguise a lot of what we’re doing. They want you to make plays in this defense – make as many as possible. There’s a lot of blitzing in this defense and I think that suits me real well.”
Rhodes likes to blitz, but admits he has a ways to go in learning the nuances of pass coverage.
“That’s probably one of the biggest things I’m trying to learn, playing a bunch of coverages that I didn’t play in college,” Rhodes said. “Covering the flat wasn’t something I have done. We didn’t do a lot of man-to-man on backs and tight ends in college. I’m really trying to work with my hands and feet in space and do my job, but it’s coming along.”
If the roster cuts were today, Bond, Rhodes and Glanton would back up David, Alexander and Smith, who is the team’s veteran strongside linebacker. But Tampa Bay has four preseason games to play first, and how the reserve linebackers perform on special teams will play a big role in who stays and who goes. George had six tackles on special teams last year, while Keyes had two. Carter, who is no longer on the Bucs roster, finished second on the team in special teams tackles with nine stops.
“The goal is for everybody to show they can play defense if you’re a defensive guy,” Glanton said. “I’m a defensive guy, and I have to show I can play in this scheme in the preseason and be counted on if my number is called. I love special teams, though. It’s fun. It’s a big part of football.”
The Bucs’ young linebackers know that how they play under the lights on defense and special teams will go along way in evaluating the depth chart in August and determine who makes the final roster come September. It all starts with the preseason opener in Philadelphia next Thursday.
“Coach [Dirk] Koetter has been saying for players in our position that this is our Super Bowl,” Rhodes said. “This is what we work all offseason for and the first two weeks of camp for – to show what we can do in the preseason games on the field as a player, and not just on the practice field against your own team. That’s going to be key for guys like me.”
FAB 4. NEW WRINKLE, STACKED COMPETITION HIGHLIGHT BUCS’ WR POSITION
After one week of Bucs training camp there are three things you need to know about Tampa Bay’s wide receiving corps.
The first of which is something PewterReport.com has been reporting all offseason, and that is that the coaches and personnel department really like the talent on the roster. That’s why the Bucs didn’t draft a receiver or sign a more proven player with a household name in free agency.
Bucs WR Adam Humphries – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
The second thing to know about Tampa Bay’s receivers is that it’s going to be a dogfight for the fourth, fifth and potential sixth spots on the 53-man roster behind Humphries.
“I feel like everybody is very competitive,” Humphries said. “We’re all competitive in nature, and I feel like we’re all going out there and trying to fight and win the spot. At the same time, we’re all pushing each other and I feel like – like I said, it’s a good group and we’re all very competitive.”
Kenny Bell, last year’s fifth-round pick, has the inside track on one of those spots even though he has cooled off from his hot start to training camp. Bell is also a gunner on special teams and is vying for the kick return role as well. After missing last year on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, Bell is competing with Russell Shepard, Donteea Dye, Evan Spencer, Freddie Martino, newcomer Jonathan Krause, Andre Davis and Bernard Reedy for the right to wear red and pewter this fall. Veteran Louis Murphy is still recovering from an ACL injury from last year and will likely start the season on the PUP list or injured reserve with a designation to return after eight weeks.
“Three through eight right now in that receiver group is pretty close,” Koetter said. “You take a guy like Kenny Bell – days ago looked like the MVP, then he disappeared yesterday. And ‘DD’ looked like he didn’t belong out here two days ago, and it was better yesterday. Russell Shepard has had his moments. Evan Spencer has had his moments. All those guys have a chance.
“You even look at Bernard Reedy and Freddie Martino, those are two guys that stuck with us a long time in Atlanta, two veteran players and they know what they’re doing. I like this Jonathan Krause kid. He has flashed a little bit. So no doors are closed right now for those receivers. I like our talent there, I like all those young guys and that’s what this preseason will be for.”
Bucs WR Jonathan Krause – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR
The preseason was where Humphries and Shepard earned their spots as the team’s fourth and fifth receivers last year with standout statistics in the preseason. Against Cincinnati on Monday Night Football, Shepard hauled in two catches for 44 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown, and had a 12-yard run.
“I said before, Shep’s one of those guys that I find myself wanting to write him off as a wide receiver and look at him as a special teams only player,” Koetter said. “And Shep’s one of those guys – you can’t wear him out. You can’t wear the kid out. He just hangs in there, hangs in there, hangs in there and he’s been making a few plays.
“That [wide receiver] competition, four through eight, is going to go for awhile.”
Humphries led all Tampa Bay receivers in the preseason with nine catches for 139 yards, and had a touchdown catch against Miami in the preseason finale to cement his roster spot. While Bell only played in two preseason games last year, he failed to record a catch, which has to change in 2016 if he wants to stick with Tampa Bay.
Keep an eye on the stat sheet in the preseason. Whoever performs well and racks up the yards, catches and touchdowns will end up sticking around. The guess here is that Bell and Shepard make the team along with either Krause or Spencer. Special teams play will also be a determining factor for the young reserve receivers.
The third notable item with Tampa Bay’s receiving corps is a new wrinkle that has been a mainstay in training camp practices – the wide receiver screen. The players love it, whether they are catching the ball or blocking for it on the perimeter.
“It’s a really fun play,” Bell said. “It’s a great way to catch defenses off guard and keep them honest on the blitz. We have some playmakers that can go. You put any of our receivers or Charles Sims out in space and they are going to create a lot of problems for defenses. Coach Koetter recognizes that and he calls them at a great time.
Bucs WRs Kenny Bell and Evan Spencer – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“I take a lot of pride in blocking and I was very fortunate in college to block for who I believe was the best back in college football in Ameer Abdullah. Now I get to block for the best runner in the NFL in Doug Martin and the stable of backs we have. Any way I can help our team win, I’ll do that, whether it’s blocking in the run game or the screen game or catching bombs. I just want to be out here and contribute.”
Humphries is well versed in running wide receiver screens from his college days.
“We did that a lot at Clemson, so it’s something I’m comfortable with – blocking or catching and running,” Humphries said. “Obviously, those screens are going to help us out in the run game, which is a big part of our game plan, so it’s good to see.”
Last year the Bucs used screen passes to Sims and Martin effectively in the flanks, but the wide receiver screens have been highly successful because they are immediate throws that get the ball to the perimeter quickly.
“A screen is a good play for a blitz, so if you’ve got a defense that has a blitz called it’s not very good to go up against a wide receiver screen,” Bucs linebacker Adarius Glanton said. “You’re going to be outnumbered [on the flank] and that causes a lot of problems. If all 11 guys don’t pursue on screen passes you can get a big play at any time.”
Keep an eye on that during the preseason games. The Bucs receivers do a great job of blocking it effectively and it has been a sure-fire gain of at least 10 yards during training camp practices.
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• Not only is rookie middle linebacker Luke Rhodes looking forward to suiting up in a Bucs uniform for the first time next Thursday as Tampa Bay travels to Philadelphia, he loves the fact that it is in his home state.
“I’m from Pennsylvania, so I have a ton of family up there,” Rhodes said. “Putting on the pads and start hitting again and getting that soreness has been fun, but I can’t wait to put on a real uniform and run out for my first NFL game in front of my family in what is the second-closest stadium to home.”
Bucs DE Kourtnei Brown – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
• Tampa Bay defensive ends Kourtnei Brown and Howard Johnson hit the weight room hard in the offseason. Both players added nearly 10-15 pounds of muscle to bulk up to play in Mike Smith’s new defensive scheme.
“I’m about 265-270 now,” Brown said. “I’m comfortable playing on the left or right side with my size. I’ve played both.”
Brown, who came to Tampa Bay last year after spending training camp with the Houston Texans as an outside linebacker in their 3-4 defense, has impressed veteran nose tackle Clinton McDonald during the first week of training camp.
“This guy is freaky athletic,” McDonald said. “A guy like that who is big, strong and agile like that is rare to find. He’s working hard to play this game and earn a position. I like to see him come out here and work hard and be an inspiration for guys like myself about what it’s all about.”
Johnson, who made his mark a year ago as a rookie with five sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble return for a touchdown, was an undersized speed rusher last season. Now he wants to be a complete defensive end capable of playing on more than just obvious pass-rushing downs.
“I’m up to about 247 now,” Johnson said. “I was in the 230s last year when I got here. I’m up about 10-15 pounds, but I feel just right. I still feel fast. I feel like I’m a good fit in this defense and I’ve been learning with the other guys. I’m ready to roll and help the team any way I can.”
• Aside from getting schooled by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in 1-on-1 drills, third-year Bucs guard Kevin Pamphile has filled in well for the injured J.R. Sweezy thus far in camp. Pamphile was hoping he would be named as the replacement for Logan Mankins, who retired after the Pro Bowl, but the team signed Sweezy to a lucrative contract in the offseason.
With Sweezy sidelined with a back injury during the entire offseason and the start of training camp, Pamphile has gotten a lot of valuable playing time, especially since he has seen action in just one game at guard in the NFL, which was when he started against Jacksonville in place of Mankins last year.
“The way I see it I’m the starter out there,” Pamphile said. “I want to help the team win. Once Sweezy gets back it’s going to make our team better – it just adds more depth to the line. We have great guys, great starters. I’m happy to be in this position. I’m just trying to help the team win any kind of way.
“You can try to imitate game type speed in practice you can only get game type speed in the games but I’m going to enjoy every moment going in there at guard get as many rep as possible just getting ready for the season.”
• Bucs fans, be sure you’ve read the latest exclusive Bucs Training Camp Diaries from rookie fullback-tight end Danny Vitale and cornerback Alterraun Verner. Both Buccaneers are doing a great job of providing unique insight into Tampa Bay’s 2016 training camp and appreciate your comments at the end of the articles and your interaction on Twitter.
Bucs Kenny Bell and Lavonte David and the Johnson family
• And finally, the Bucs did a tremendous job of hosting my friend Xavier Johnson and the Johnson family at One Buccaneer Place on Thursday. For those of you that don’t know, a tragic tubing accident in May of 2015 seriously injured Johnson, who was a 16-year old linebacker at Sunlake High School in Land O’ Lakes, Fla. Johnson was in a coma for weeks and suffered brain damage that has left him cognitive, but wheelchair bound with limited motor skill control over his limbs and the inability to talk.
Johnson is on the long road to recovery, but was uplifted by a visit to training camp where he got to visit with his favorite Buccaneer, linebacker Lavonte David, and meet another favorite, Tampa Bay receiver Kenny Bell. Johnson grew up a Nebraska Cornhuskers fan, and when his tragic story made local news, both David and Bell reached out to the Johnson family on Twitter to express their sympathy and support.
Jameis Winston, Kenny Bell, Lavonte David and Xavier Johnson
On Wednesday, Bucs chief marketing officer Brian Killingsworth, provided Xavier with a new Lavonte David Bucs jersey after hearing word that his previous jersey had been stolen out of his locker in high school prior to his accident back in 2015. Xavier also met Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, who autographed a football along with Bell and David for the fallen high school linebacker.
Bell and David spent 20 minutes visiting with X and the Johnson family and the smile on the kid’s face had never been wider. They both pledged to check in on Johnson to see how he was doing and showed tremendous class in spending that time with X and his family.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com
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