Welcome to The Hook, a column that hooks you into a different Tampa Bay Buccaneers topic each Thursday, as well as some of my thoughts on the Bucs and the NFL at the end in a section called Cannon Blast.
I invite you to offer me some feedback on The Hook below in the article comments section.
We are just a week away from the kickoff of the 2020 NFL season. I’ll admit, there were plenty of times over the last few months when I had little faith we would even see a football season. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a nightmare this country is trying to wake up from.
But this isn’t just a bad dream.
COVID-19 has become a reality and I have no idea when it ends – or if it really ever ends completely.
I miss the media room at One Buccaneer Place. I miss Ira Kaufman wandering around with his styrofoam cup of bad coffee and his bickering with Fred Goodall about who made it. I miss tripping over Jenna Laine’s cart and four bags of stuff she carries everywhere she goes. I miss open locker room, talking with the players and waiting on Bruce Arians to come in for his daily press conference.
I miss people. I miss physical contact. I miss going somewhere and only socially distancing when I get too close to someone who decided they didn’t need to wear deodorant that day.
I miss the normalcy of every day life.
But like you, we are just learning to adjust to what has been described as a supposed “new normal.”
But enough bellyaching, let’s analyze what I’ve seen through Tampa Bay’s abbreviated training camp and also take a look ahead to the Bucs’ 2020 season.
Table of Contents
Most Improved Buccaneers
Every year a handful of Buccaneers just look different when they show up to camp. This year a number of them have stood out to me. My top improved guys on offense have been wide receivers Scotty Miller and Justin Watson.
Miller was hampered by a camp hamstring injury as a rookie in 2019 the set him back. But it wasn’t just the injury. Miller was swimming while trying to learn an NFL offense, get on the same page with Jameis Winston, and figuring out if he could play in the league with the size and speed of NFL defenders.
Cue 2020 and it’s like a different player walked through the doors. You can just sense a difference under the helmet for Miller. While the size is the same, you see a more relaxed – and confident – Miller on the field, playing bigger than his small frame.
Watson has an extra year on Miller, and may not exude the same confidence. Shy, and reserved, Watson has at least shown he feels like he belongs on the same field as his competition. He has had an early chemistry with Tom Brady so far in camp, and the team hopes that his late season production when the team was decimated by injuries last year continues.
Others who I have noticed as improved are tight end O.J. Howard, who looks as focused as ever, right guard Alex Cappa, who has transformed his body from a small school, Division II left tackle to an NFL-sized guard, and left tackle Donovan Smith, who at least through camp, looks to finally be ready to step up and become closer to an elite tackle that he can be.
Defensively, everyone – coaches and teammates included – has raved about reserve nose tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches’ camp. Adding size and strength should make people forget about Beau Allen, and you could see Nunez-Roches even eat into some of Ndamukong Suh’s snaps at three-technique tackle this season. He looks that much improved over last season. At the very least he should be the first man up when Suh or Vea need a breather.
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting is another player that looks completely different than he did a year ago at this time. He has been solid in camp nearly every practice we’ve seen but there is just a new confidence over last year. And make no mistake, confidence is half the battle.
There aren’t may players who make it to the NFL who don’t have the talent to succeed, but where they end up, who coaches them and just as importantly, how confident they are can be the difference between a two-year career or one that lasts as long as Ronde Barber’s did.
Best 2020 Camp Rookie
This one is pretty simple for me – rookie safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. I think Tristan Wirfs will develop into a fine right tackle, at the very least, but Winfield can be a long-time starter and standout for the Bucs if he continues to develop.
He came pro-ready, and brought a pedigree for success from his father, who spent 14 years in the NFL. His football IQ matches his physical talents and the only thing that kept him from being drafted in the first round was about two inches of height.
That football intelligence has allowed him to absorb a tough Todd Bowles’ scheme and also gives him the versatility to play free and strong safety while also nickel corner if called upon. There will some bumps and bruises along the way. Those are inevitable, especially without a normal offseason, training camp and preseason. But expect to see Winfield in the starting lineup sooner rather than later.
Worst 2020 Camp Rookie
Most would assume rookie running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn would be my pick here, and while I haven’t seen anything to make me excited about the team’s third-round pick yet. But wide receiver Tyler Johnson has been even more frustrating.
At least Vaughn has been on the field, unlike Johnson, who has spent more time in the cold tub than on the hot turf. Another reason he is my choice over Vaughn was the excitement level most had when Johnson was selected in the fifth round last April. Many – PewterReport.com included – felt the Buccaneers have a steal on their hands. Now we wonder if he can clear waivers to even get brought back to the practice squad.
2020 Camp MVP
This one is too predictable and too easy – quarterback Ryan Griffin.
I kid. Obviously it is Brady.
We have mentioned it numerous times in writing and on the Pewter Nation Podcasts, but seeing truly is believing. We all know about Brady’s accolades – the Super Bowls, the MVPs and all the stats – but watching it on television as opposed to seeing it daily in person was an eye opener, even for myself who has seen nearly every QB snap from Bucs camp over the last 10 years.
Brady is just on another level and with all of the weapons he has been given, this Bucs offense, if relatively healthy, will be difficult to stop – especially with the addition of running back Leonard Fournette. In fact, no one will stop them, just hope to slow them down. They should be that good and a big part of that is No. 12 who has looked cool, calm and deadly accurate over the last month. If anything Brady should actually get better as the season progresses.
2020 Bucs Camp Thoughts
• What makes Brady so good? in my opinion – and in the opinions of many – it’s his mind. You can just see the computer processing the information in his head as he leaves the huddle. Brady’s football smarts, combined with 20 years of experience means there isn’t a whole lot he hasn’t seen a 1,000 times already. Football can be pretty simple, and while defensive coordinators have designed more complex schemes than ever before, they won’t outsmart Brady. They might overwhelm him with pressure and disruption, but from a schematic standpoint, they are no match given Brady’s mental abilities and overall experience.
• Tight end Cam Brate is a player who some wondered if he would even have a role on this team with the offseason addition of Rob Gronkowski. Some suggested he might be traded or outright released, but I believe the Bucs made a wise decision to keep Brate – even if he isn’t a primary target as often as Gronkowski and Howard figure to be in 2020. Both Gronkowski and Howard have missed significant time with injuries over the years and Brate is more than a capable backup. Plus, when you are talking about football I.Q., he is way up on the intelligence scale. Getting his diploma from Harvard wasn’t a prize in a Cracker Jack box.
• Expect inside linebacker Devin White to become a household name in 2020. After a solid rookie season, White should be exceptionally better with this his second year in the league. Besides just understanding the game of football, White should have Bowles’ intricate scheme down pat and that means playing fast without thinking. Watch out, NFL.
• Kicking! Simple right? Use your foot and kick it between those yellow post things in the end zone. Well, for the Buccaneers kicking has been anything but simple. Kicking is 30 percent talent and 70 percent mental. And right now the mental part of things has plagued the current crop of Tampa Bay’s foot warriors. Everyone in the organization hoped Matt Gay was there answer to the Matt Bryant curse, and at times last season we all thought the demons were being exorcised. Wrong. It’s down to Gay and veteran newcomer Ryan Succop. If there is one thing other than injuries can derail a season for the Buccaneers it is inconsistency in the kicking game.
Recently a reader offered up a question for PewterReport.com’s Bucs Monday Mailbag. I am not sure if they we’re serious, but I decided to save it for this week’s The Hook column instead.
You have to go on a three-day cross country road trip with one current Bucs player. The radio’s busted so you have to talk. Who’s going with you?
There are lots of choices who I think would be good cross-country travel partners. A few years ago I would have said my guy, former Tampa Bay fullback Alan Cross. We could have told inappropriate jokes, stopped at every strip club from here to Los Angeles and each chewed an entire 10-can roll of Copenhagen Long Cut spitting out the window on passing cars. But Cross is gone. Same with Demar Dotson.
An obvious choice now would be quarterback Tom Brady, as we would attract a ton of attention every stop we made. But then I am pretty sure he would just harass me about my awful eating habits and then converse in baby talk with Gisele on the phone for half the trip. No thanks, Tom.
I love Mike Evans, but man, we are so far apart generationally. He would be talking Fortnite, Nipsy Hussle and why his Madden rating isn’t higher. I would say, “Hey Mike, what’s your favorite Skynyrd song?” Cue the eye roll.
By the time we’d hit Lake City we’d both want to jump from the moving car.
Antony Auclair, the Bucs’ resident Canadian, would be fun. He could teach me some French (words – not kissing). Jamel Dean is a pretty crazy and funny guy, so we would laugh a lot. Carlton Davis is pretty quiet, so we both could get some rest. Nacho is just a nut job – my kind of guy.
But I suppose if I had to choose one Buccaneer it would be Rob Gronkowski. First of all, thanks to COVID we have only spoken on Zoom calls, but you can tell he is exactly the kind of person you see on television and on social media.
Gronk and I would have every car load of blondes on the interstate following us, and he would know every dive bar from here to California. I’m pretty sure he would give me the real low down on Bill Belichick. Plus you know he has some great Brady stories I could convince him to share.
• On Wednesday I asked head coach Bruce Arians if there was ever any doubt in his mind that the 2020 NFL season, which kicks off for Tampa Bay on September 13 in New Orleans, would even happen.
“If you asked me in June, I would’ve said there’s no way,” Arians said. “But, if you ask me now, I don’t see any reason why not. It’s just a matter of the commitment of everybody that’s in Tier 1 and Tier 2 to stay safe and don’t bring it into the building. It’s a big transition weekend. Guys are getting cut, people are moving into apartments, they’re finding new places to live – guys that make the team – so this will be a huge, huge weekend for that.”
I, like Arians, have been impressed with the way the NFL has went about it and has been successful thus far in battling COVID-19 – and winning. What does the future hold? I am not sure. I wouldn’t bet either way, but for now I am just happy that a week from now we will finally see the 2020 Bucs season kick off. At least for now.