The Bucs open their 2016 season with a divisional showdown in Atlanta, against a Falcons team they swept last season after being swept by the Falcons in 2014. Which way will the series go this season? Here are five things to watch that will shape that ...
Test for secondary
1. How will the Bucs' pass defense fare? With rookie Vernon Hargreaves and Pro Bowl newcomer Brent Grimes as big additions at cornerback, the Bucs get a huge test right away in Falcons WR Julio Jones, who led the NFL in receiving yards last year. He has averaged 116 yards per game against the Bucs, so it's more about containing him and trying to keep him out of the end zone. An improved pass rush should help the secondary by getting pressure on Atlanta QB Matt Ryan.
2. What does the new Jameis Winston look like? Last year, he opened the season with a pick-six on his first pass in a humbling 42-14 loss to the Titans. He can show how far he has come against the Falcons. Can he limit turnovers and still make plays, showing the offseason progress made in building a connection with top WR Mike Evans?
Here's the kicker
3. Does Roberto Aguayo make his kicks? The second-round pick from Florida State was a lightning rod in the preseason, missing kicks early then going 9-for-9 in the last two games. Considering last year's Bucs-Falcons games were decided by three points (in overtime, no less) and four points, every kick could count today. Aguayo's last college game was in the Georgia Dome, so that makes for less of a transition there.
Rookies put it on the line
4. Exploiting two rookie linebackers for Atlanta. The Bucs got a huge game from Kwon Alexander in the Georgia Dome as a rookie linebacker last year. Now Atlanta is starting two rookies at linebacker in second-round draft pick Deion Jones and fourth-rounder De'Vondre Campbell. That's the kind of inexperience the Bucs and coach Dirk Koetter will seek to exploit — Jones is a close friend of Alexander's and has much the same speed, but there's always some transition as rookies get adjusted to the pace of NFL offenses.
Will new faces run the place?
5. Newcomers, all over: Tampa Bay's 53-man roster includes 11 rookies, plus six newcomers from free agency, so there will be fresh faces introducing themselves all over. The biggest impact among the veterans? Watch for DE Robert Ayers and CB Brent Grimes on defense, as well as WR Cecil Shorts, who just joined the team this week. As for draft picks, CB Vernon Hargreaves and DE Noah Spence get their first chance to make a splash in the NFL, and you'll want to see a lot of K Roberto Aguayo, who seems to have gotten past early preseason struggles. The team has five undrafted rookies, but a few of those could be inactive. Keep an eye on Peyton Barber, who will be active as the team's No. 3 running back.
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.