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Bucs rookies who could have the biggest impact in 2018

The Bucs draft appeared to be a good one, led by defensive tackle Vita Vea. But for impact in 2018, Jones is rushing to the head of the class
Bucs rookie running back Ronald Jones averaged 12.7 explosive runs per 100 carries during his career at USC. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Bucs rookie running back Ronald Jones averaged 12.7 explosive runs per 100 carries during his career at USC. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Jul. 23, 2018|Updated Jul. 24, 2018

TAMPA — On one of his first days as the Bucs head coach, Dirk Koetter declared that he would have a "run-first football team.''

Bucs rookies reported to training camp Monday, and because of the number times he will touch the football, Southern Cal running back Ronald Jones should have the biggest impact among his class on the 2018 season.

It's hard to imagine any Bucs first-year player matching Jones highlight for highlight, assuming he remains healthy.

Defensive tackle Vita Vea, the Bucs' first-round pick from Washington, is a massive talent at 6-foot-4, 347 pounds. The Bucs were last in the NFL in total defense a year ago, and Vea will occupy two blockers and be an immediate force against the run.

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But Vea will be part of a defensive line rotation opposite Gerald McCoy which could also include former Eagles defensive tackle Beau Allen and former Bears defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, among others.

The Bucs played on a lopsided field last season. Although Koetter tried to maintain balance in his offense, he simply couldn't get any production from the run game.

Doug Martin failed to rush for 500 yards for the third time in four seasons and was suspended the first three games for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing drugs. Martin's best game was his first, when he rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries in a 19-14 loss to the New England Patriots.

Tampa Bay averaged only 3.7 yards per carry last season, which ranked 27th. The lack of explosive runs —defined by Koetter as a run of at least 12 yards — was jarring. The Bucs had only 19 explosive runs last season. That tied Washington for the second fewest behind only the Cardinals with 17.

For the second straight season, the Bucs declined in this category, going from 42 explosive runs in 2015 to 25 in 2016.

Compared to what the Bucs have had, Jones is Aaron Judge, a home run hitter who can change games with any carry. Jones averaged 12.7 explosive runs per 100 carries during his career at USC, comparable to Penn State's Saquon Barkley (13.0).

Jones most likely won't be a three-down back this year. Like all rookies, he has a lot to learn about route running and pass protection. Peyton Barber, who had a good second half last season, will carry some of the mail early in the season with Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims or Duke rookie Shaun Wilson.

But considering Jameis Winston will be suspended the first three games, Koetter would do well to rely on his run game to take the pressure off 35-year-old veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. And up front the Bucs are better with free-agent addition Ryan Jensen at center and Ali Marpet moving to guard.

Here's my ranking of the remaining Bucs rookies who will have the greatest impact:

2. VITA VEA, DT, WASHINGTON

Vea has unbelievable strength and very nimble feet. He will be a hard guy to move with one blocker, which will be tough for defenses because McCoy commands so many double-teams.

At 347 pounds, Vea has yet to show any struggles playing the heat of Tampa Bay. But temperatures and the humidity have increased quite a bit since he was here for miniccamp. Even so, Vea could be a real force on a rebuilt defensive line.

3. CARLTON DAVIS, CB, AUBURN

Davis had the edge in the offseason to become the Bucs' third cornerback. At 6-1, he gives the Bucs the kind of length and man coverage ability they have lacked. When teams go to at least three receivers, starter Vernon Hargreaves will move inside to the slot, leaving either Davis or fellow rookie M.J. Stewart to cover outside. Stewart came on late in the spring, so it's still too close to call. But it's not a deep position, so the potential impact of Davis covering bigger receivers such as Julio Jones is huge.

4. M.J. STEWART, CB, NORTH CAROLINA

Stewart will impress once the pads are on. He has the ability to play inside or out, but will compete with Carlton initially. He is the Tar Heels' all-time leader in pass breakups with 47 and had six career interceptions. He's a surprisingly physical player who also had 11.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

The temptation may be to one day move him to safety, but given that Brent Grimes is 35 and Hargreaves' play has been wobbly, Stewart could play a big role this season.

5. ALEX CAPPA, OL, HUMBOLDT STATE

Cappa is 6-foot-6, 304 pounds. He's also very green, trying to make the jump from Division II to the NFL. He started all 10 games at left tackle last season. Cappa plays with great effort. He could project to guard or right tackle, but if he plays early this season, it would likely mean as the result of an injury.

OTHERS:

Jordan Whitehead, S, Pittsburgh (would have to beat out Chris Conte and/or Keith Tandy), Justin Watson, WR, Pennsylvania (Bucs are loaded at wideout) and Wisconsin LB Jack Cichy (longshot but heady player coming off an ACL tear).

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