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Bucs’ story lines for 2020 start with you know who

From getting acclimated to Tom Brady, to the rivalry with the Saints, to Matt Gay's kicks, we get you set for training camp.

Tom Brady is the Buccaneers quarterback. That still is going to take some getting used to. Not just for the fans, but his new teammates.

When Cameron Brate got his first text from Brady shortly after he signed with the Bucs, the tight end was starstruck.

Brate played at Harvard from 2010-14 when Brady went to two of his nine Super Bowls, winning one of six NFL titles during that stretch.

“The first time he texted me I had to get double confirmation from other people that it was actually Brady,” Brate said. “He said, ‘Hey, this is Tom. Give me a Facetime when you can.’ I had to reach out to Chris (Godwin) and Mike (Evans) and be like, ‘Hey, is this Tom?’ I didn’t want to be calling some random dude thinking it was Tom Brady.

“He’s just been awesome to work with. (We) still have got to pinch ourselves, the fact that we have him at quarterback and everything that goes along with it. Everyone here is just super pumped.”

Related: Cameron Brate beat the coronavirus, says onus is on players to avoid spreading it

Bucs training camp begins with the full squad — those who have passed two COVID-19 tests — joining rookies and quarterbacks at the AdventHealth Training Center this weekend.

Of course, the biggest story line for the NFL and the Bucs surrounds the pandemic. Here are a few more.

How will the Bucs fashion their offense to fit Tom Brady?

Will Tom Brady forge a connection with wide receiver Mike Evans? [ Times (2019) ]

This will be a collaborative effort. Brady likely has mastered the Bucs terminology by now, not an easy feat considering he was in the Patriots system for 20 years. Coach Bruce Arians likes to push the football downfield and Brady still can make those throws. But he utilizes tight ends and running backs more on short and intermediate routes than what Arians’ system has called for.

“He’s way ahead of the curve,” Arians said of Brady. “He’s a very bright guy. The terminology was the big thing. As we now get together, we’ll start to collaborate a little bit more. So, yeah, I think he’s in a great spot right now as far as that goes.

“He’s quick with the trigger. He can move his feet and still be accurate down the field. Yes, there’s age (43 on Aug. 3) but we’re all getting older. I don’t see a huge drop-off in any phase of his game whether that’s deep outside, deep down the field or his accuracy underneath. I think, if anything, he’s as mobile inside the pocket as he’s ever been.”

Related: Tom Brady greets rookies, comes face-to-face with biggest challenge

Brady has lots of familiarity with Rob Gronkowski. But the lack of an offseason limited his time with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate and Ronald Jones to the workouts he organized at Berkeley Prep.

“He’s got a great demeanor about him, the way he leads,” Brate said of Brady.

The biggest thing will be building chemistry with his pass catchers on the practice field.

“Again, it’s a dual thing — him learning what we do, me learning what he likes, meeting in the middle and doing a lot of different things,” Arians said. “I’m not going to ask the other 21 guys to learn something new when they’ve already had a good year and good experiences in the offense. I would’ve liked to have had a couple of preseason games, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Will Bucs players opt out during a pandemic?

So far, the only Bucs player who has discussed publicly the possibility of opting out is left tackle Donovan Smith. With his first child only a couple of weeks old, he wondered last month whether it was “too risky” for him and his family to attempt to play during the coronavirus pandemic.

Smith did report with the veterans Saturday.

Arians said previously that he had not had discussions with Smith. “Obviously, it’s a personal choice for guys to do this, and I respect their choice,” he said.

Related: Tristan Wirfs knows his job is kind of a big deal

If Smith ends up opting out, the Bucs likely would move Colts free agent Joe Haeg to left tackle. Rookie Tristan Wirfs said it would be an easy transition for him as well. Brad Seaton also is an option.

“We’d work out a bunch of guys,” Arians said.

Right now, there’s no reason to think Smith won’t play and earn his $14.5 million.

How will the running back position change with LeSean McCoy aboard?

Kansas City Chiefs running back LeSean McCoy (25) fends off Oakland Raiders cornerback Trayvon Mullen (27) during a game last December. [ REED HOFFMANN | Associated Press (2019) ]

McCoy is 32, many years removed from his Eagles and Bills days when he churned out 1,000-yard seasons.

But he provides the Bucs with veteran depth and a player Brady can trust. Because there was no offseason program and there won’t be preseason games, experience will be an asset. Ronald Jones is entering only his second season as a starter. Rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn is on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Dare Ogunbowale figures to be in the mix as a third-down back.

McCoy has caught 40 or more passes in a season seven times in his 11-year career. Picking up McCoy is what Super Bowl contenders do, same as the Chiefs last season.

What will the Bucs get from their rookie class?

Wirfs will be a starter. Protecting Brady may be Job One, so no rookie may be as important. Antoine Winfield Jr. already is listed as a starter on the depth chart. But there are other safeties such as Mike Edwards, Andrew Adams and D’Cota Dixon who have played some ball.

The No. 3 receiver position is wide open, and Minnesota rookie Tyler Johnson, the Bucs’ fifth-round pick, may have a big learning curve compared with Scotty Miller and Justin Watson.

Related: Want to watch Tom Brady and the Bucs? Good luck

“There’s nothing you can do virtually to make up onfield repetitions,” Arians said. “Walk-throughs and practices are really how our guys learn today. … Walking through in practice is the best way to teach. So those are invaluable minutes and reps missed.”

Wirfs know there isn’t much time to catch up. “I think we’re going to hit the playbook more because we missed all these reps.”

How does the trade for Rob Gronkowski change the tight end room?

O.J. Howard likely will become Tom Brady's second-favorite tight end target, behind Rob Gronkowski. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Brady talked Gronk out of retirement and strongly encouraged the Bucs to trade for his rights with New England.

Makes sense. Brady knew no player on the Bucs roster, and in Gronkowski he has a player who has caught nearly 80 touchdowns from him.

But where does that leave the Bucs’ other tight ends? They could make frequent use of what is called 12 personnel, which is one running back, two tight ends and two receivers. Chances are the No. 2 tight end will be O.J. Howard, who is in the final year of his contract but the Bucs picked up his option year for 2021.

Related: Bucs, NFL use new technology to distance safely during training camp

Brate, who played only 38 percent of the offensive snaps last season, could see even more playing time reduced. Antony Auclair still may be used as an occasional inline blocker, and Tanner Hudson will have to fight to make the team.

“We’ve got a really strong tight end room top to bottom,” Brate said. “Obviously, when people think of Tom Brady, he goes hand-in-hand with Gronk in the way he used him in New England. … It’s hard to say exactly what all of our roles are going to be having not practiced together, but I’m super excited with the chance to work with Tom to try and learn as much as I can from Gronk, too.”

Secondary improvement

For years, the Bucs’ weakness on defense was their secondary. Poor coverage was followed by shoddy tackling and blown assignments.

It’s not for a lack of trying. Tampa Bay drafted six defensive backs in the past three years.

Last year, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting got off to slow starts. Dean was beaten for three touchdowns in an overtime loss at Seattle. In the first nine weeks, opponents completed 64.4 percent of their passes and 2.38 touchdowns per game, third most in the NFL.

The turnaround began after Dean’s meltdown. He had the game-clinching interception vs. the Cardinals, and Murphy-Bunting led the team with three picks, including one he took to the house at Detroit.

Arians says Carlton Davis is a top-10 cornerback. He and Dean had the most pass breakups in the NFL. Now if they can only catch the football. ...

About that kicking game ...

When Matt Gay is on, he looks capable of breaking the Bucs' kicking curse. When he's off ... oof. [ Times (2019) ]

How many years must this be a story in Tampa Bay? Until they get it right.

Matt Gay looked to end the curse when he made 24-of-27 field-goal attempts in the first 13 games. But in five of his final eight games, he missed at least one kick or had one blocked. Even extra points were an adventure. He made only 89 percent, 34th in the league. His five field goals of more than 50 yards were the third-most in the league.

Place-kicker Elliott Fry was brought in to cushion any possible fall.

“I think (Gay) learned a lot of things about life off the field in the NFL and how it affects on-field performance,” Arians said. “Up (through) November he was having a heck of a year and then he had a bad December. We’ll find out if it was a rookie wall or if it’s a problem. If it’s a problem, we’ll fix it.”

Will Shaquil Barrett be a flash in the pan?

It’s a fair question. Barrett had only 14 sacks in five seasons in Denver, but led the NFL with 19.5 sacks in his first year with the Bucs. The team applied its franchise tag, preventing Barrett from the generational wealth he felt he earned.

Now Barrett has to prove his worth again, and the Bucs are under no pressure to re-sign him if he doesn’t.

Will Devin White be Bucs’ most improved player?

Linebacker Devin White (45), right, is congratulated by cornerback Carlton Davis (33) after White recovered the loose ball in a Dec. 21 game against the Houston Texans. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

As a rookie, White injured his knee and got off to a slow start, missing all or parts of three games. The fifth overall pick made up for lost time. He was the NFC Defensive Rookie of Month for November and December.

White also scored two touchdowns. He has a nose for the football, and a year of familiarity with both the NFL and Todd Bowles’ defense should allow him to make a huge improvement. White is a Pro Bowl talent.

Saints rivalry

The Saints have won the NFC South three consecutive years. The Bucs haven’t reached the playoffs in a dozen years. Brady should change that, especially with playoffs expanding to 14 teams. But the best path to the Super Bowl is to win the division and to do that, Tampa Bay has to go through New Orleans and 41-year-old quarterback Drew Brees.

The problem is that coach Sean Payton and Brees have been together for 215 games. When the Bucs open in New Orleans on Sept. 13, it will be the first game together for Brady and Arians.

There’s been a lot of trash talking between teams. Receiver Mike Evans vs. cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan vs. everybody. Oh, and some guy named Jameis Winston is the Saints’ No. 3 (for now) quarterback.

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