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A primer on what to expect from Bucs this season

Bucs rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves tackles Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins during a preseason game at Raymond James Stadium.

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Bucs rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves tackles Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins during a preseason game at Raymond James Stadium.

Toughest games

1. at Arizona (Week 2)

2. at Carolina (Week 5)

3. vs. Denver (Week 4)

4. vs. Seattle (Week 12)

5. at Chiefs (Week 11)

Easiest games

1. at 49ers (Week 7)

2. vs. Rams (Week 3)

3. at Chargers (Week 13)

4. vs. Saints (Week 14)

5. vs. Falcons (Week 9)

Five impact newcomers

1. CB Vernon Hargreaves (left): He has shown glimpses of being a playmaker and ballhawk in the secondary. How big a splash can the former Wharton High and Gators star make as a rookie at a pivotal position?

2. DE Robert Ayers: Is he the pass-rusher the Bucs have needed for so long? If his 2016 is anything like his second half in 2015, he will look like a free agent bargain, bringing a nasty edge to the defensive line.

3. DE Noah Spence: The Bucs lined up their newcomers in pairs, and Spence will learn from Ayers, with a huge upside as a scary-quick pass-rusher. Can he play well against the run? How many sacks would it take to make an all-rookie team?

4. LB Daryl Smith: He won't play as much as in recent years, but his veteran leadership can take the team's linebackers — with Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander — to another level. Watch how creatively coordinator Mike Smith uses him.

5. K Roberto Aguayo: Somewhere on that schedule, there's a chance to win a game on a final kick. Can Aguayo validate the huge faith GM Jason Licht showed in his ability to create game-changing value rarely seen at his position?

Five position battles

1. Cornerback: The commitment is there to have first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves on the field a ton, which means Brent Grimes and Alterraun Verner, both making $6 million-plus, are battling for snaps, unless Hargreaves is inside at nickel. Whatever the combination, there's no position where the Bucs are better poised to improve, after giving up 31 TD passes last season and allowing opponents to complete 70 percent of their passes.

2. Kickoff return: Perhaps the only real unknown. Does punt returner Adam Humphries double up with kickoffs? Does backup RB Charles Sims get a chance to show off his speed? Does newcomer Cecil Shorts add that on top of learning an offense this week? With Bobby Rainey gone to the Giants, it will be someone new, whoever lines up deep.

3. Center: Joe Hawley kept the starting job last year even after Evan Smith returned healthy from injury, and Hawley has the job to lose now. Smith has versatility to be the top backup at guard and center — it's the only job at all up for grabs on the line, at least until J.R. Sweezy returns from a back injury.

4. Tight end: Who ends up with more catches, Cameron Brate or Austin Seferian-Jenkins? Brate opens the season as the starter after a consistently impressive preseason — he made a name for himself with three TDs last season. Can ASJ prove himself healthy and stay out of coach Dirk Koetter's doghouse? Both can be productive and give Jameis Winston even more targets downfield.

5. Defensive end: Expect a rotation of players attacking opposing quarterbacks, so who turns their role into the most sacks? Newcomer Robert Ayers, who will slide inside in the nickel defense, had 91/2 sacks with the Giants last year, and watch for second-round rookie Noah Spence to make a splash. Especially on third downs, Jacquies Smith has shown he can get to the quarterback, with 131/2 sacks in his two seasons with the Bucs.

Bold predictions

1. Running back Charles Sims finishes second on the team in receptions. He did so last season, of course, but in part because Vincent Jackson missed six games. Look for him to be an even bigger part of the passing game — he could lead all NFL backs in receptions after getting 51 last season. Expect more cameos at WR, too.

2. Robert Ayers becomes the first Bucs player since 2005 to get 10 sacks in a season. The long wait is over — the defensive line should be the team's most improved position, which will help the secondary get much better as well.

3. LB Lavonte David gets back to making splash plays. Remember 2013? David had five interceptions and seven sacks and deserved to go to the Pro Bowl. In two seasons since, he has combined for three picks and four sacks, but he will be used more creatively — and aggressively— in coordinator Mike Smith's defense.

4. Jameis Winston becomes the first NFL quarterback to pass for 4,000-plus yards in each of his first two seasons. Only the Colts' Andrew Luck and the Panthers' Cam Newton have reached 4,000 as rookies, but both came up short in Year 2. The key hurdle? Staying healthy, which Winston did well as a rookie, and not missing a snap.

5. The Bucs play host to Carolina on Jan. 1 with a wild-card spot still in play. It will be a big step forward again if Tampa Bay has something to play for in Week 17 against a Panthers team still a strong favorite to win the NFC South. Would 8-7 entering that game — or if you're real confident, 9-6 — give them a huge home game to finish the regular season against the defending NFC champs? If Winston hopes to follow Newton's career path, he might have to beat him to get the Bucs a long-awaited return to the playoffs.

Greg Auman, Times staff writer

A primer on what to expect from Bucs this season 09/09/16 [Last modified: Friday, September 9, 2016 11:46pm]
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