TAMPA — The Bucs enter their tenth day of training camp today, and the team’s first real test comes at the end of the week: A preseason opener on Friday night at Pittsburg.
We’ve seen a lot already. Here are some early impressions from Bucs training camp.
It all starts with Jameis
Jameis Winston is the team’s biggest X-factor. If he cuts down on turnovers, the Bucs will have a better chance to win. The coaching staff consistently emphasizes making better decisions fast, showing a willingness to checkdown or throw the ball away instead of unleashing those “high hot ones” that lead to trouble. Overall, Winston’s camp has been promising. Every interception he throws will be scrutinized, but the coaches have always planned to allow Winston to make mistakes early and have him learn from them, and he appears to be doing that. There’s no question he still possesses chemistry with his receiving corps. His early play in the red zone during practice indicates the Bucs should be able to improve there. And you have to believe that practicing against Todd Bowles’ complex defense will help Winston.
Biggest reason to be optimistic
The Bucs secondary is young and energetic. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, the graybeard of the position at the age of 25, might be having the best camp of Bucs players. Second-year cornerback Carlton Davis has been strong, and rookies Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean found important supporting roles quickly. Fellow rookie Mike Edwards appears to be playing beyond his years at safety. This group displays a level of confidence and ball-hawking skills that past groups lacked. They’ve been fun to watch, and maybe, just maybe, they can bring some much-needed swagger to the Bucs defense.
Biggest cause for concern
Offensive line depth was a concern, and we’ve seen nothing to change that thought. In fact, after seeing the reserves filling in on the first unit with starters Donovan Smith, Demar Dotson and Caleb Benenoch missing some practices, we feel worse about the line, particularly at the tackle position. If the Bucs have any injuries here , they could be in trouble. Keep an eye on starting right guard Alex Cappa, who played sparingly as a rookie, to see whether he’s improved his pass blocking.
Who we’re looking forward to seeing
The Bucs rave about second-year running back Ronald Jones, and he’s had a good camp. He’s shown a lot of power running between the tackles after bulking up in the offseason, and two of the loudest collisions of camp have been with Jones carrying the ball. He will have the opportunity to play a lot this preseason, and he has to put up numbers if he’s to threaten starter Peyton Barber’s playing time. Also, it’s easy to overlook what receiver Breshad Perriman has done this camp. He’s been a reliable target who can either gain big yards with the deep ball or yards after the catch. We’re also looking forward to seeing speedster Scotty Miller show what he can do in games.
The dark horses
Every camp, a few players emerge from obscurity, and this year’s dark horses are interesting ones. Dare Ogunbowale is competing with undrafted free agent Bruce Anderson (Newsome High) for the fourth running back spot, and Ogunbowale appears to be leading. He’s drawn his share of second team reps and he’s impressed Bruce Arians’ staff with his strong running and pass-catching ability. The Bucs also already know that Ogonbuwale, who played two games last season, can contribute on special teams (he averaged 19.6 yards per kickoff return), which is the biggest way to earn one of the last roster spots. And keep watching out for undrafted rookie safety D’Cota Dixon, who the coaches also love. Dixon has a nose for the ball and is a good tackler, and is standing out by quickly grasping the team’s new defense.
The No. 1 pick
Bucs inside linebacker Devin White has lived up to the hype. This kid is exciting to watch. He’s always around the ball, and his speed and playmaking ability is as advertised. One thing we’ve taken note of is that he’s done a solo job covering the bigger tight ends out of the backfield. And it’s clear that the Bucs veterans have allowed the 22-year-old rookie, who will be tasked with relaying the play calls, to lead while also trying to ease his adjustment to the NFL. One veteran said recently that White has such a magnetic personality that you just want to help him succeed in every way.
The kicking game
This battle will be decided by who performs better in preseason games. Arians said as much following Saturday, but the battle between fifth-round pick Matt Gay and incumbent Cairo Santos has developed into a good one. Take it with a grain of salt that most of their kicks have been indoors, but both kickers are converting kicks at a strong clip, especially from 40 yards and longer, which has been a bugaboo for Bucs kickers. Santos definitely improved his distance from last season, and Gay’s strong leg produces an uncommon “boom” when he strikes the ball. On Saturday, Gay made four kicks of 50 or longer, including a 62-yarder. The fact that the Bucs spent a draft pick on Gay suggests he’s the frontrunner. The good thing is that Gay seems to be level-headed about the challenge, and speaks with a calm confidence.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard