JACKSONVILLE — More than seven months after Lovie Smith was hired, fans finally get to see him on the sideline tonight in the preseason opener. But beyond the new coach and new uniforms, what else should fans be looking for? Besides that first sneak preview at the new offense, here are five things to keep your eyes on:
Extra long extra points
The NFL, having realized PATs were something of a foregone conclusion, is backing them up to the 15-yard line for the first two weeks of preseason. Instead of a 19-yarder, players will be kicking from 33 yards out.
Last season, there were only five missed extra points, out of 1,273 attempts — one miss for every 255 tries. Along the same lines, field goals shorter than 30 yards had only four misses out of 256 attempts.
Connor Barth, coming back from a torn Achilles tendon, had no problem with short kicks in 2012, with only one miss inside 40 yards. And yes, the goalposts are taller — the league extended them from 30 feet above the crossbar to 35.
Those high-profile rookies
The Bucs used their top three picks on skill-position offensive prospects, and tonight gives fans their first glimpse at receiver Mike Evans, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and running back Charles Sims.
Evans and Seferian-Jenkins were slowed by injuries this spring, but now are fully recovered. Smith's hesitance to anoint them as immediate starters should mean a little more playing time in these first two preseason games.
Last year's primary returner on punts and kickoffs, Eric Page, is back, but he has challengers all over, so don't be surprised if you see a different returner every time the Bucs line up to receive a kick. That includes rookies like Sims and receiver Robert Herron, as well as returning players like Chris Owusu and Skye Dawson. For many of the return candidates, locking up a key special-teams role is a must if they're going to make the 53-man roster.
The top four jobs seem set, with Lavonte David, Mason Foster, Jonathan Casillas and Dane Fletcher. That leaves five linebackers likely battling for two roster spots, and expect to see much of them, on special teams and especially in the second half on defense.
That group includes Ka'Lial Glaud and Danny Lansanah from last season, two-sport athlete Brandon Magee, CFL import Damaso Munoz and undrafted rookie Nate Askew, the converted receiver from Texas A&M.
A few healthy cornerbacks
With Alterraun Verner out with a hamstring injury and Mike Jenkins likely in the same boat, the Bucs will have to use backups more than usual.
Expect Johnthan Banks and Danny Gorrer to start, but you'll see plenty of Rashaan Melvin and Deveron Carr, who were limited by injuries last year. Undrafted rookie Keith Lewis needs a strong preseason to make the team, as does Anthony Gaitor, who was cut then re-signed after the injuries.
There's even more depth to battle at safety — Kelcie McCray and Bradley McDougald are carryovers from last year who may be on the outside looking in. Expect starting safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson to be limited (if they play at all) so Major Wright and Keith Tandy should get the most playing time.