Five storylines to watch as Bucs training camp nears
Training camp has nearly arrived for the 2016 Bucs -- rookies report Monday, veterans on Wednesday, and the team's first practice is Thursday morning, with only two weeks then until Tampa Bay's preseason opener at the Eagles on Aug. 11.
With that in mind, here are five storylines we're expecting to unfold between now and the start of the regular season. We'll write plenty about Jameis Winston's improvements and Mike Smith's new defense, but there are other compelling questions. We'll get some answers with the first practice, with others not resolved until final roster cuts in September.
1. Is anyone still injured? The biggest concern might be guard J.R. Sweezy, who hasn't practiced since he was signed in March, due to a still-undisclosed "procedure." He's expected to take over for Logan Mankins at left guard, so having one of the Bucs' biggest additions healthy is important.
Dirk Koetter said in June that no players had injuries expected to make them miss training camp. So has DE Jacquies Smith's shoulder fully recovered? Or WR Louis Murphy, who had ACL surgery in November? What about rookie guard Dominique Robertson, who was shot twice in California -- no details have surfaced as to the severity of his injuries and how they'll impact his preseason.
2. Which familiar names from 2015 are battling to keep their jobs? The Bucs haven't cut any players due to expensive salaries, but that's not to say they won't if key veterans can't emerge from camp as starters. It looks like Alterraun Verner, once seen as a potential casualty, will play a big enough role in the secondary to stay on with a $6.75 million salary this season.
But if Gosder Cherilus is just a backup to Demar Dotson at right tackle, do the Bucs pay him $4.5 million if Kevin Pamphile is already a solid backup? Evan Smith, likely backing up Joe Hawley at center, has guard/center flexibility to better justify his $2.5 million salary as a backup. Other veterans in jeopardy if they are in line for lesser roles include DE George Johnson ($2 million), TE Brandon Myers ($1.75 million) and S Major Wright ($1.75 million).
3. Which undrafted rookies can make the 53-man roster? Koetter mentioned the Bucs can upgrade some spots with waiver pickups after final cuts, but a handful of undrafted rookies have this preseason to convince him he doesn't need to.
Can Auburn's Peyton Barber, with only one season as a college starter, flash enough promise and establish some special-teams value to beat out Mike James as the team's No. 3 running back? Can Cassanova McKinzy and/or Luke Rhodes find a spot in a young linebacker group that should already have rookie Devante Bond as a backup? Can tackle Leonard Wester or guard Dominique Robertson grab the last offensive line job? Or Travis Britz at defensive tackle?
This is something to watch in the second half of preseason games, when the starters are long gone -- what can these rookies show in August to keep them around in September?
4. Who will emerge as the backup receivers? If Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson are locks, the rest of the Bucs' receivers are still at best penciled in for jobs. Kenny Bell, who missed last season with a hamstring injury, looked strong and fully recovered in spring drills, and Adam Humphries, who was productive as an injury replacement last year, also looked good in non-contact practices.
Can Louis Murphy return from his knee surgery in time to claim a job? Is Russell Shepard's special-teams value still strong enough to keep him on roster when he hasn't contributed much on offense? Can an unproven young player like Donteea Dye or Bernard Reedy or USF's Andre Davis grab a return job (or two) and keep a spot that way? There are 11 receivers battling for six or maybe five jobs, so this is the team's widest competition in preseason for the last spots.
5. How will the cornerbacks shake out? The Bucs tried every combination of corners last season, with little success, allowing opponents to complete 70 percent of their pass attempts. With a heavy dose of the nickel package expected, there are really three key cornerback jobs getting starter-level playing time.
First-round pick Vernon Hargreaves will be a major part, and veteran Brent Grimes is being paid like a starter, so the conversation has to start there. But how well can Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks -- two former starters all but abandoned at times by Lovie Smith last season -- bounce back as reliable contributors? Banks is the only one of the four taller than 5-foot-10, and the Bucs will see their share of bigger receivers, especially early in the season.
After those four, there's competition between Jude Adjei-Barimah, who played well as an undrafted rookie, and Josh Robinson, who got a modest one-year prove-it contract in free agency. Do the Bucs carry all six corners, or just five and a fifth safety? The battles extend to competing with other positions for the last spots on the 53-man roster.