Mandatory reading: Five story lines for Bucs minicamp

New Bucs defensive tackle Beau Allen works with Gerald McCoy, left, and rookie Vita Vea, right, at practice last week.(JIM DAMASKE | Times)
New Bucs defensive tackle Beau Allen works with Gerald McCoy, left, and rookie Vita Vea, right, at practice last week.(JIM DAMASKE | Times)
Published June 11 2018

After rookie minicamp and a month of voluntary organized team activities, the Bucs have their full squad together for three days of mandatory minicamp starting Tuesday, the last work before they convene for training camp in late July.

Here are five story lines to watch this week and into August, with unanswered questions and roster battles that could carry over to final cuts in early September.

1. How much improved will the Bucs defensive line be? The team won't have full contact this week, but these practices will be the first chance to see all five newcomers to the defensive line together. That means Pro Bowl end Jason Pierre-Paul makes his first appearance, joining DE Vinny Curry and three new DTs in Beau Allen, Mitch Unrein and rookie Vita Vea.

So more than half of the top-eight rotation will be new this fall, with Gerald McCoy, Will Gholston and Noah Spence the top returners. DE Will Clarke would be in line for the fifth end spot, and if the Bucs carry a fifth tackle, there's good competition between DaVonte Lambert, Channing Ward and Stevie Tu'ikolovatu.

New defensive line coach Brentson Buckner is tasked with turning around the front of a defense that managed a league-low 22 sacks. Along with the running game, it's widely expected to be the Bucs' most improved area in 2018, and it will need to be if they want to be relevant in December.

2. Which rookie cornerback will challenge Vernon Hargreaves for playing time? The Bucs are looking at Hargreaves in two different spots as an every-down player again — at outside corner in the base defense, and inside at nickel when the Bucs are in their nickel sub package, which they end up playing about 65 percent of the time.

The Bucs used two of their second-round picks on cornerbacks M.J. Stewart of North Carolina and Carlton Davis of Auburn, and both will challenge Hargreaves for playing time. Veteran Brent Grimes has one corner job locked up, but Davis (with the best size of any Bucs corner) will compete for the other outside spot, along with Ryan Smith, who started much of last year. At nickel, Stewart will push Hargreaves for playing time, with both rookies potentially rotating in, given how high they were drafted.

Interceptions have been a big part of OTA workouts, and remember that Bucs corners totaled just six last year, in three from Grimes and three from Robert McClain, who remains unsigned. If those rookies can establish themselves as ballhawks, there's plenty of opportunity to get on the field.

3. How does the right side of the offensive line look? Guard J.R. Sweezy remains a major question mark as he works to return from a knee injury, and tackle Demar Dotson isn't expected back until training camp recovering from his own knee surgery.

That has opened up reps at both spots, with Caleb Benenoch stepping in at right guard and Leonard Wester at right tackle. Benenoch is trying to separate himself from third-round pick Alex Cappa, and Wester is working to solidify himself as the swing tackle, which would mean dressing every Sunday.

The injuries have also given younger players a chance to make their case for the last roster spots on the offensive line. Sweezy's status remains a qustion, but if Evan Smith and Cappa are the top backups, that leaves two spots for Wester and another inexperienced tackle. Is it undrafted rookie Cole Boozer from Temple, or a second-year guy like Cole Gardner or Brad Seaton?

4. Can rookie running back Ronald Jones make a splash? The second-rounder will go into training camp with every expectation of adding the big-play threat that's been sorely missed in the last two years. He'll share the load with third-year pro Peyton Barber, and Charles Sims will have a chance to keep the  third-down role he held last season.

Jones understanding the offense and pass protection and all a running back must do beyond just running the ball is a major prerequisite to him gaining the full trust of his coaches. Establish that now, and he's in line for a larger role earlier in his rookie season, and a reliable run game would do wonders for offensive balance and taking pressure off Jameis Winston.

5.  Who wins the backup linebacker jobs? With Kendell Beckwith out recovering from an ankle injury suffered in a car accident, there's a bigger window for backup linebackers to make their case to stick in September.

There are three backup jobs available, with Devante Bond and Adarius Taylor (nee Glanton) as the most experienced options. Rookie Jack Cichy, a sixth-round pick, has to establish himself as better than returning special-teams players like Cameron Lynch, Riley Bullough and Nigel Harris.

Part of winning those jobs is upgrading the Bucs' kick coverage, which struggled at the end of last season.