Bruce Arians comes aboard, but can he change the Bucs’ course?

When training camp starts next week, the new staff will seek answers to these key questions.
Even when practices are forced indoors, Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians can simulate two practice fields. Here he watches drills during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organized team activities on May 14, 2019 at the AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa, Florida. (MONICA HERNDON   |   Times)
Even when practices are forced indoors, Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians can simulate two practice fields. Here he watches drills during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organized team activities on May 14, 2019 at the AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa, Florida. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published July 19

TAMPA ― The batteries have been recharged, and not just the ones on Bruce Arians’ golf cart. Players and coaches had about five to six weeks to get away from the Advent Health Training facility, although not too far from football.

Rookies report Sunday with the full squad due Thursday. The Bucs — and the rest of the NFL — are back.

The Bucs lured Arians out of retirement after one year to become the head coach in Tampa Bay, which has finished last in the NFC South eight of the past 10 seasons and hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007.

The two-time NFL coach of the year said everything just fell into place. He got the quarterback he wanted to work with in Jameis Winston, a general manager he was familiar with in Jason Licht and most of the coaching staff he had assembled from Temple to Tempe over the past three decades.

[ MORE BUCS: A breakdown of the 2019 roster ]

Arians’ language can be a little blue and his temper can run red hot, but he brings the combination of swag and substance the Bucs need at this critical juncture of their moribund franchise.

Perhaps most importantly, if Winston is going to fulfill his expectations as the Bucs franchise quarterback, this is his last best chance.

His $20.9 million contract expires at the end of the 2019 season. Arians has had success with Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer. Winston would like to join that hit parade.

Arians will bring a new vibe and set a different tone for training camp. The music is turned off. The heat is on. Summer storm clouds will be building.

What kind of team does he expect to have with the Bucs?

“I hope smart, fast and physical," Arians said. “I think the smart part is coming. The fast part is there. We’ll find out about the physical when we get the pads on. I told the coaches that it might be that we do simplify so that we don’t beat ourselves in September. They can’t learn what we knew in five years in Arizona."

There’s a lot for Arians to learn about this Bucs team and no shortage of questions that must be answered. Here are just a few:

What's the status of Jason Pierre-Paul?

The Bucs’ sack leader suffered a cervical fracture when he lost control of his Ferrari and hit a retaining wall on Interstate 95 on May 2.

After being evaluated by the team, it was decided that Pierre-Paul would not undergo surgery immediately. He will be treated with a neck collar and be re-evaluated in about 11 weeks.

Bucs defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was an early standout at the 2018 training camp, but his status for this season remains uncertain. CHRIS URSO   |   Times
Bucs defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was an early standout at the 2018 training camp, but his status for this season remains uncertain. CHRIS URSO | Times

Pierre-Paul will report to training camp Thursday with the rest of the veterans, but he won’t be able to pass a physical and will be placed on the Non-Football Injury list. Even if he is cleared to play football this season, the Bucs don’t expect Pierre-Paul to be available until October. If it’s determined that he needs surgery, well, he won’t play in 2019.

Pierre-Paul has overcome long odds before when he lost several fingers in a fireworks accident in July of 2015 and returned to play. But even under the best case scenario, the Bucs may have to play the first two months without JPP.

“I would think so," Arians said. “Just to be safe and not rush it. Knowing him, he’s one of the fast healers. I hate to put a time limit on it, but earlier the better."

[ RELATED: Jason Pierre-Paul proves there's no bad luck like Bucs Luck ]

Who will pick up the slack for Pierre-Paul as an edge rusher?

What Pierre-Paul provided the Bucs is not to be under-estimated. His 12.5 sacks tied for 12th in the NFL, becoming the first Bucs player with double-digit sacks in a season since Simeon Rice in 2005. So who is going to pressure the quarterback off the edge now?

Fortunately, the Bucs have changed schemes. Pressure will come from a lot of places, with an array of blitzing linebackers and defensive back. But there is a transition to make for edge rushers from defensive end in the 4-3 scheme to outside linebacker in the 3-4.

Carl Nassib, who had six sacks last season, will be a tone setter with this effort. But the Bucs have to get pressure from players such as Noah Spence, Shaq Barrett and Iowa rookie Anthony Nelson off the edge.

With the departure of Gerald McCoy, who is the vocal leader of the defense?

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers introduced their 2019 NFL Draft first-round pick, linebacker Devin White on April 26, 2019 at the Advent Health Training Center in Tampa, Florida. White, who played at LSU, was the 5th pick. (MONICA HERNDON   |   Times)
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers introduced their 2019 NFL Draft first-round pick, linebacker Devin White on April 26, 2019 at the Advent Health Training Center in Tampa, Florida. White, who played at LSU, was the 5th pick. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)

Devin White turned only 21 in February but he will be the face — and the voice — of the defense. Based on position alone, the middle linebacker is the only player speaking in the huddle. Moreover, White is an emotional player. He’s going to make a lot of tackles and his love for the game is infectious.

So far, he hasn’t had any problem adjusting to the defense. “He jumped right in there and took control of the huddle,’’ Arians said. “He had a very good command of what he is doing.’’

[ MORE BUCS: LSU still raving about Devin White ]

It’s a lot of responsibility to put on a rookie. But by all accounts, White is a special talent and his leadership may be his best attribute.

Is Vita Vea ready for his close-up? Can he become the Bucs’ dominant DT?

Ndamukong Suh has the resume, the Pro Bowl appearances and a $9.25 million contract. He’s also been given No. 93, worn by McCoy. But Suh only signed for 2019. Make no mistake about it, the defensive tackle who has to replace McCoy’s play-making ability is Vea. That’s why he was selected 12th overall in the 2018 draft, a few spots ahead of Chargers Pro Bowl safety Derwin James.

Vea needs to report to camp in the best shape of his life. On the first day in pads last season, he likely became dehydrated and suffered a calf injury that cost him seven weeks. Vea did play better the second half of the season, with three sacks in his final seven games.

Vea is not a vocal player. That’s fine. But he needs to make some noise on defense and be a disruptive force from the first day of practice until the last. The spotlight will be aimed at him.

Will Jameis Winston cut down on the turnovers under Bruce Arians?

Winston took a step back last season with the three-game suspension and being benched for three more. His completion percentage has improved each season. Until a four-interception game at Cincinnati, which got him replaced, he was on his way to the fewest picks of his career but finished with 14.

“Clyde (Christensen) has watched every throw he’s made his rookie year and Byron (Leftwich), too. You’re trying to look safeties off too long and your feet are crossed," Arians said. “So much of it is mechanical," Arians said. “The other is he’s down 21 points. Anyone down 21 is going to throw a pick or two. And he’s down 21 a bunch. You’re going to throw picks. Tipped balls, bad balls. You think you can hit everything. Give him a running game. Give him a defense. See how good he can be.

“I think we can limit turnovers. Then you talk a bunch about it in practice."

DIRK SHADD   |   TimesTampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) talks with reporters during a media scrum after mandatory mini-camp on June 5, 2019 at the AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa, Florida.
DIRK SHADD | TimesTampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) talks with reporters during a media scrum after mandatory mini-camp on June 5, 2019 at the AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa, Florida.

Arians is the quarterback whisperer. Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger had their best years under him. But it’s a new offense, which can create mistakes. And Winston will have to make quicker decisions with the football because Arians won’t be keeping running backs and tight ends in to block.

“We’re going to try and do a better job of creating offense to help us score points and win football games and be more situationally football aware and try not to end up in a situation when we’re playing catchup," Leftwich said.

[ MORE BUCS: Ranking Tampa Bay's most important offseason moves ]

Will Ronald Jones win the starting RB job over Peyton Barber?

Jones says he wants to lead the Bucs in rushing. That probably won’t happen unless at some point early in the season he emerges as the starting tailback ahead of Peyton Barber.

Jones now understands the urgency and production he must show in training camp and preseason games. Jones is up to 221 pounds from 208. It remains to be seen if that weight game was a good idea. His explosiveness is what led the Bucs to draft him in the second round.

Jones needs a fast start. Last season, he lost confidence in himself. Worse yet, his teammates eventually lost confidence in him as well. A lack of maturity may have been an issue, but Jones appears to have grown from the adversity, not shrunk from it.

Can Breshad Perriman or Scotty Miller provide the deep threat void left by DeSean Jackson?

Mike Evans has deceptive speed, and given enough runway, can get behind the defense. But he’s rarely going to draw single coverage. That means the onus is on the other receivers to stretch the field with the loss of Jackson, who was traded to the Eagles.

Perriman averaged 21.4 yards per catch last season. But injuries has limited him to 37 games in three seasons. Miller has the speed to fill Jackson’s role, but both will have to compete for playing time with second-year pro Justin Watson. Winston, who doesn’t throw a great deep ball, has to get used to his two new deep threats.

How will the starting secondary shake out?

The obvious weakness in the Bucs defense, which allowed 29 points per game, was the secondary last season. That’s why Arians drafted three defensive backs. Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis will begin camp as the starters outside. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles loves to play press man-to-man coverage. That should be a better fit for the Bucs cornerbacks. Rookies Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean could win jobs. The safety position is wide open. Justin Evans missed the offseason with toe and heel injuries. Rookie Mike Edwards, who showed great ball skills in the offseason, could emerge as a starter.

Who will win the backup QB job: Blaine Gabbert or Ryan Griffin?

Gabbert would probably have to play himself out of the No. 2 job because he’s Arians’ guy, having played for him in Arizona. By design, neither is a threat to Winston. Griffin still hasn’t taken a regular-season snap in six NFL seasons. Gabbert also will be a bigger asset to Winston due to his experience in this offense.

Who will win the placekicking job: rookie Matt Gay or Cairo Santos?

Here we go again. Who doesn’t love a kicking competition? Gay has the edge since the Bucs invested a fifth-round pick in the Utah star. He also has a much stronger leg and can be an effective kickoff man, although that task could be easily handled by punter Bradley Pinnion if Santos wins the job.

Honestly, no matter which kicker makes the roster, it won’t mean anything unless he proves he can hold the job for the entire regular season. The Bucs field goal percentage over the past four seasons has been 74.1, 73.5 71.0 and 72.5 percent.

[ RELATED: Cairo Santos, dead man kicking ]

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud.

Advertisement