TAMPA — The open practices have ended.
Workers disassembled the bleachers at the Bucs’ AdventHealth Training Center on Monday.
On the field, the Bucs’ preparation has morphed into regular-season mode. Instead of the first-team offense running against the first-team defense, each starting unit worked against reserves that would translate to a scout team.
Training camp is over, and preparation for Friday’s third preseason game against the Cleveland Browns at Raymond James will mirror regular-season preparation in every way.
Still, it’s the preseason. Bucs coach Bruce Arians and his coaching staff doesn’t need to cut the roster down to 53 players until Aug. 31 at 4 p.m., leaving two more games to assess the 90-man roster and make decisions. But as the page turns, here’s what we learned from the past three weeks of practices and two preseason games.
1) The second-year guys are making a show
Much of the buzz entering training camp focused on the Bucs’ vaunted rookie class, but it’s the second-year players who have become the talk of the preseason. Running back Ronald Jones has shown glimpses of the promise that made him a second-round pick last year. Running back Dare Ogunbowale opened eyes by showing flashes of a complete game: rushing, receiving, returning and blocking. And tight end Tanner Hudson is the Bucs’ leading receiver in the offseason, making big catches down the stretch in both preseason games. Second-year defensive backs M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead have shown progress in shoring up a secondary that struggled mightily last season.
2) Players love Todd Bowles’ defense
Talk to players about the transition to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ 3-4 defensive alignment and the reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Bowles arrived in Tampa with a reputation for having success with transformative defenses, and the players like the new scheme’s aggressive and physical nature. Corners get to play more press man coverage, pressure comes from all over and each player has an important role in order to make it all work. Players have said they feel more free to show their athleticism.
3) They actually picked up some impact free agents
Ndamukong Suh has played well providing pressure up the middle, and his versatility along the defensive line fits the Bucs’ new 3-4 scheme well. Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett is also a strong fit for Bowles’ system, and his pass rush ability off the edge is evident, something the Bucs need with sack leader Jason Pierre-Paul out. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman had a great camp and is developing a rapport with Jameis Winston as a possession receiver and a deep threat. And Deone Bucannon, who is filling in for injured inside linebacker Lavonte David, is a ballhawk.
4) Injuries to key defensive players raise concern
As mentioned above, three of the team’s most impactful defenders are injured. The Bucs must look at anything they get from the return of Pierre-Paul, who isn’t expected back until October at the earliest following an offseason neck injury, as a plus. Knee injuries suffered by David and Vea aren’t expected to be serious, and Arians is optimistic both will be ready by the regular season opener, but that window is closing quickly. There’s the most concern with Vea, who had a slow start to his rookie season last year after he missed eight weeks with a training camp calf injury.
5) Jameis Winston is adapting well to a new offense
The Bucs starting quarterback will have to make decisions fast in Arians’ offense. Receivers, running backs and tight ends will be receiving options, but that will leave the front five as his only protection more often than not. He will have to rely more on checkdowns and throwaways instead of forcing throws downfield. He threw his share of interceptions during camp, but lots of them appeared to be bad routes. So far, he’s played mistake-free football in games, even though he’s only played two preseason drives. He will have more opportunities on Friday against Cleveland, and while Arians insists it’s okay for Winston to take chances downfield, throwing too many of the “high hot ones” will lead to trouble.
6) Who’s on the line? Questions in the trenches on both sides
Beau Allen provides a veteran presence to fill in for Vea. And no news is good news when it comes to Alex Cappa, the biggest question mark along the offensive line entering camp as the new right guard. But the depth behind those two starting units offers little clarity. Injuries on the lines will occur, and you need depth to overcome them. The offensive line is thin after the starters. A pair of undrafted rookies, center Nate Trewyn and right guard Zack Bailey, recently took second-team reps. Defensive tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter has a strong camp before an ankle sprain sidelined him for the remainder of the preseason. Expect the Bucs to scour waiver opportunities to address the depth.
7) Chris Godwin appears ready for a breakout season
Entering his third NFL season, it appears the stars are aligning for Godwin. Arians loves him, projecting him for a slot receiver role where he'd be able to make catches in bunches in the new Bucs offense. And during training camp, Godwin turned in his share of highlight-reel catches in practice, showing a rare combination of body control and footwork. All-Pro Mike Evans even said he feels like he has competition from Godwin for the title of the No. 1 receiver. We can expect a strong start from Godwin, but the difference will be whether he can finish the year strong, something he struggled to do his first two seasons.
8) Matt Gay looks like the kicking solution
Jason Licht took heat for drafting a kicker in the fifth round, but it appears to be a good move so far. Gay’s leg strength is as advertised. He’s made all three of his field goal attempts, including a 55-yarder on the road and a game-winning 47-yarder in the clutch to beat the Dolphins last week. There’s no better way to start for Gay, not only for his own confidence, but also the Bucs incumbent players who had been though the team’s dubious kicking struggles. Over the last three seasons, the Bucs have the NFL’s worst field goal percentage. Arians said he’s still in a competition with Cairo Santos, but it’s hard to believe that, barring Gay bottoming out in the last two weeks. The job is all but his.
9) The rest of the rookies? Meh
Again, a lot was expected from this rookie class coming into camp, but other than Gay, their performance so far grades an “incomplete.” There’s no reason to believe first-rounder Devin White won’t be the player they expect, but we’re mostly relying on what his teammates say about him rather than anything he’s done in the brief playing time he’s received. Third-round pick Jamel Dean has great length and came up with a huge interception on Friday after missing the preseason opener. Second-rounder Sean Murphy-Bunting was great in practice, but that hasn’t translated to games yet. After a strong start to camp that had him penciled in as a starting safety, third rounder Mike Edwards is injured, as is fourth-round pick outside linebacker Anthony Nelson. Speed-to-burn Scotty Miller, the sixth-round pick who missed the first two preseason games, returned to practice Monday but has some catching up to do.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.