TAMPA — With Bucs veterans reporting Thursday — and the first full-squad practice of training camp scheduled for Friday afternoon — there will be several key position battles to keep an eye on over the next few weeks.
New coach Bruce Arians and his staff offer a fresh set of eyes and present a new opportunity for holdovers, and the newcomers arrived with the approval of Arians and his coaches.
Here’s a look at some of the most interesting position battles to be held at the Advent Health Training Center.
Peyton Barber vs. Ronald Jones
The battle: The Bucs’ rushing attack was one of the league’s worst last season. Barber ran for a career-high 871 yards but averaged a pedestrian 3.7 yards per carry, which ranked 13th among 14 NFL rushers with at least 200 carries.
Jones, the Bucs’ second-round draft pick out of USC last year, had a forgettable rookie season, recording just 44 yards on 23 carries, but there’s every reason to believe he will have the opportunity to compete for more snaps this year. The new staff loves his talent, and he impressed it immensely during offseason organized team activities. And he has added 13 pounds to his frame and now weighs 221.
Still, Jones will have to show all that translates into games. He must be productive in the preseason to get a share of the rushing load. Arians has made it clear he wants to run more, and some of his best Cardinals teams had productive running games. If Jones continues to grow, he could earn the majority of snaps, but even so, it remains likely that he and Barber will share reps when the regular season starts.rts.
Worth knowing: Not only did the Bucs’ rushing offense rank 29th of the 32 teams last year with an average 95.2 yards per game, it was 31st in yards per carry at 3.92.
Matt Gay vs. Cairo Santos
The battle: The Bucs spent a fifth-round draft pick this year on Gay, who has a reputation for having a big leg, and given that investment, one has to think the job is Gay’s to lose. Add that he is another strong kickoff option along with new punter Bradley Pinion and it doesn’t look favorable for Santos, who was re-signed early in the offseason after making 9-of-12 field goal attempts after the Bucs initially signed him in mid November.
The competition will come down to Gay showing the Bucs he can convert consistently, especially in the clutch — something that can’t be entirely gauged in the preseason — and his ability to make kick from 40 yards and farther.
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If Gay has a shaky start, it will invoke the ghost of Roberto Aguayo, whose second-round selection in 2016 was a failure.
Worth knowing: The Bucs’ 74.1 field-goal percentage last year ranked 29th, and Tampa Bay kickers were just 4-for-10 on field-goal attempts from 40 yards and farther.
Alex Cappa vs. Earl Watford
The battle: The Bucs didn’t address the offensive line in the offseason, which put second-yard player Alex Cappa atop the depth chart at right guard.
The right part of the line was being held together by tape by the end of last season as Caleb Benenoch struggled in his transition to guard and tackle Demar Dotson’s age — he turned 33 in October — began to show.
Cappa didn’t debut until Week 11, and he averaged just 17 snaps over six games. So during training camp, Cappa must show he can handle the rigors of being a starter. In his small sample size last year, he was serviceable as a run blocker but he struggled as a pass blocker, allowing 11 pressures and hits in 75 pass-block snaps.
If Cappa isn’t ready to start, the duties would likely fall to Watford, a known commodity to this staff because he started for Arians in Arizona. Watford’s biggest asset to the Bucs is his flexibility to add depth across the line — he can play guard and tackle — and he hasn’t been a starter since the middle of the 2017 season.
Worth knowing: The Bucs’ run blocking graded out to 50.2 by the statistics website Pro Football Focus, a number that tied for 28th in the league.
Shaquil Barrett vs. Noah Spence
The battle: There’s no telling what the Bucs will get from Jason Pierre-Paul this season after an offseason automobile accident landed him on the active/nonfootball injury list to open camp. Meanwhile, they must fill his outside linebacker spot opposite Carl Nassib in defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ 3-4 scheme. This competition figures to be one of the most intriguing of camp. Barrett is a free-agent signing who performed well in Denver despite playing a secondary role on the Broncos’ vaunted front seven. Spence’s sparse playing time since being taken in the 2016 draft is a disappointment.
Barrett played the 3-4 in Denver, and he’s coming off a strong season in which he posted a 76.1 overall grade, according to Pro Football Focus. That grade would have ranked third among Bucs defenders last season.
Spence has a new life with a new staff, and rushing upright from the edge could fit his skill set better than the Bucs’ old 4-3 scheme. The new staff has been impressed with Spence, but he must produce in preseason games to earn playing time.
Worth knowing: Spence, drafted in the second round in 2016, averaged 37 snaps over his first two seasons, the second of which was cut short by a shoulder injury. He played just 44 defensive snaps last season, and half of them came over two games, 11 against the 49ers in Week 11 and 11 in the season finale against the Falcons.
Jordan Whitehead vs. Kentrell Brice
The battle: The two safety positions might be the most uncertain on a defense full of questions. Strong safety Justin Evans will open camp on the physically unable to perform list, and rookie Mike Edwards is the most likely to fill his role.
Whitehead’s role grew at free safety as last season progressed. And though he quickly showed an ability to play the run game, he made strides as a pass defender, an important facet of Bowles’ defense. In free agency the Bucs brought in Brice, who played 10 games with the Packers last season and plays well against the run.
They also began transitioning cornerback M.J. Stewart to free safety, in part because of his cover skills. More than likely, both safety spots will be fluid because the Bucs have a variety of players who can fill a hybrid safety/cornerback/linebacker role provided they can show the pass-coverage skills Bowles’ defense forces the secondary to play.
Worth knowing: If you consider Stewart, drafted in the third round, a safety, the Bucs have drafted four safeties in the first four rounds over the past three drafts.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.