Ten position battles ahead for Bucs training camp
The Bucs have four more days of OTA workouts this week, then a three-day mandatory minicamp next week, but after that, they're done until the start of training camp, which should be right around July 27. HBO's "Hard Knocks" will be here in town, chronicling the Bucs for five weeks of training camp and preseason, so there will be a national audience as the buildup to Tampa Bay's 2017 season unfolds in August.
With that in mind, here are 10 position battles that will be among the major storylines of preseason -- some will be answered when final cuts are made in early September, but others will be answered as the season progresses. Drum roll ...
10. Fourth defensive tackle: Stevie Tu'ikolovatu and Sealver Siliga. Literally the biggest battle in training camp, with both hovering around 350 pounds as massive run-stoppers who may only play 15 snaps a game, but key the Bucs' run defense in short-yardage situations. The two were actually college teammates at Utah and are only 18 months apart in age, despite Siliga being in his seventh year trying to make NFL rosters.
Even as a seventh-round pick, Tu'ikolovatu has the inside edge, but he'll have to show he's as reliable as Siliga showed in brief appearances last season.
9. Fourth tight end: We know that O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate will be the two primary tight ends used extensively this season, but how many others will the Bucs keep? Unless they carry a fullback -- unlikely at this point -- the Bucs will rely on tight ends to double as blocking backs and H-backs, so it's likely they'll carry four on the 53-man roster.
Does Howard's superior blocking ability hurt veteran Luke Stocker's chances to stick as a backup? He had only five catches last season, so he's competing with two young tight ends -- second-year pro Alan Cross and undrafted rookie Antony Auclair -- for a roster spot. Stocker's salary -- he's due to make $1.7-million -- wouldn't be a major issue, and his absence would leave them without a veteran presence in the room. If the Bucs were to cut Cross or Auclair, would they clear waivers and be able to return on the practice squad?
8. Third outside cornerback: Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves are certainly the Bucs' starters, and likely not coming off the field much at all. But who's behind them? There's a separate and related battle for the nickel or slot cornerback job -- more on that in a minute -- but for now, second-year pro Ryan Smith would be the third corner, despite having never taken a snap on defense in the NFL.
You could see Jude Adjei-Barimah go back to outside corner, where he played and started as a rookie in 2015, or could see Robert McClain in a backup role outside if Adjei-Barimah were to win the nickel job. There will be cross-training to be sure, and it will be worth watching to see who gets playing time -- and where -- in the preseason to have the chance to seal those jobs.
7. Strongside linebacker: This could be a battle of availability -- how quickly can rookie Kendell Beckwith get healthy enough to get the practice reps he needs to fill a key defensive role? The Bucs will also look at second-year Devante Bond, who missed last year with a hamstring, and the remaining options have most of their experience on special teams, so the Bucs will likely be very young at the position.
Tampa Bay had plenty of experience last year with Daryl Smith, but limited production -- one interception, but no forced fumbles or sacks among 35 tackles. Finding both sides of the nickel/Sam split is an uncertainty heading into the season.
6. Fourth running back: With Doug Martin suspended the first three games, this won't be an issue untl he can return in Week 4. Until then, the Bucs can carry Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims, rookie Jeremy McNichols and second-year back Peyton Barber on the 53-man roster. But if Martin indeed joins the roster after his suspension, the Bucs would likely have to part ways with a young back -- Barber was an undrafted rookie last year, but showed promise last season and has drawn consistent praise from Bucs coaches.
Would last year's slew of injuries make the Bucs carry five backs just to insulate themselves from another loss? Would Sims -- a free agent next spring -- be in any danger if McNichols establishes himself with a similar skill set as a pass-catching or third-down specialist? The roster drama won't necessarily end with final cuts before the season opener.
5. Both return jobs: The Bucs got very little impact from returns in 2016 -- their kickoff returns set an NFL record for lowest average, and punt returns had a long of 25 yards all season. Perhaps with Adam Humphries being needed less on offense, the punt-return job is his to lose; kickoff return remains wide-open. Josh Huff and Ryan Smith got looks last season, but showed so little that it's barely an advantage. If rookie Justin Evans isn't on the field as a starting safety, perhaps that's a role for him, or a backup running back like Jeremy McNichols.
4. Fifth receiver: Josh Huff, Derel Walker and many others: We're writing in Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries as locks to make the roster at receiver. If there isn't a significant special-teams role from the rest, the Bucs might only keep five receivers, which means guys who played significant snaps last season will be among the final cuts and likely landing elsewhere in the NFL.
Huff didn't show much in his three games on the active roster last season -- his speed is somewhat less needed with Jackson and Godwin on board, but he could win a return job. Walker, the CFL import, would have upside but needs to show in preseason that his skills translate to the NFL. There are three players with Bucs experience under Koetter: Freddie Martino, Bernard Reedy and Donteea Dye, but most of their playing time came as a result of injuries in past seasons. Add in two undrafted rookies as long shots in Thomas Sperbeck and Bobo Wilson, and you have a seven-wide battle and something to watch in the second half of preseason games in August.
3. Nickel cornerback: Robert McClain vs. Jude Adjei-Barimah vs. Javien Elliott: The Bucs used a third cornerback on about 61 percent of their defensive snaps last season, so it's more of a starting position than strongside linebacker. McClain was a late signee this summer, adding experience to the relative youth of Adjei-Barimah, who held the job for much of 2016; Elliott took over when he missed the final five games with suspension and injury.
Adjei-Barimah and Elliott held their own last year, but neither has any career interceptions; McClain only has four in his seven NFL seasons, but his best ball came in Atlanta with Mike Smith from 2012-14.
In theory, this battle goes three ways -- winner is the nickel, runner-up becomes a backup outside corner, and third place likely doesn't make the 53-man roster. So it's also crucial to show a value on special teams in preseason to add to whatever role you're playing in the secondary.
2. Starting safety jobs: Justin Evans, J.J. Wilcox, Chris Conte, Keith Tandy. This may be the best every-down on-field battle of the preseason -- the Bucs have invested in Evans and Wilcox among the biggest newcomers in the draft and free agency, but got huge plays in their five-game win streak last year from Conte and Tandy.
Can the new guys pick up the defense well enough to be on the field in Week 1? It's hard to imagine both starting the year on the bench. And wherein last season the Bucs rarely substituted, keeping the starting safeties on the field for nearly every down expect in case of injuries, they might be more likely rotate during the game and take advantage of their improved depth to have fresher legs at the end of games.
Safety will be some combination of returning experience and new talent -- and that could easily change as the season progresses. Finding the answer by Week 4, when they face Eli Manning and Tom Brady in a span of five days, will be important for the defense to have its lineup in place.
1. Place-kicker: Roberto Aguayo vs. Nick Folk. You're already seeing kick-by-kick updates in May OTA practices, but this will be decided in preseason, simply by who gains the confidence of Dirk Koetter and Jason Licht by making their kicks most reliably. The Bucs take a financial hit no matter which kicker is cut -- Folk got $750,000 guaranteed, and part of Aguayo's salary is guaranteed from his rookie contract, and his original signing bonus would accelerate against the cap if he was cut. We've been writing this about Aguayo since his preseason struggles last year -- there's ample precedent for a young kicker needing a year to work out his NFL transition, but have the Bucs seen enough? Tampa Bay fans will have a reason to watch every field goal in preseason this summer.