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Bucs’ most interesting depth-chart battles as June minicamp looms

While all starting jobs appear set, several backup spots could feature some fierce competition
Could former Gators quarterback Kyle Trask, the Bucs' second-round selection, unseat Blaine Gabbert as the primary backup to Tom Brady in 2021?
Could former Gators quarterback Kyle Trask, the Bucs' second-round selection, unseat Blaine Gabbert as the primary backup to Tom Brady in 2021? [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published May 18

Having concluded their de facto three-day job orientation, the Bucs rookies now embark on job competition.

The reigning Super Bowl champs, who wrapped up their minicamp for rookies and tryout players Sunday, shift their focus to their mandatory minicamp June 7-9. While all 22 starters (and all three primary specialists) from the 2020 squad remain intact, some intriguing battles for key depth chart spots formally will commence at that time.

Here’s a look at four of the more interesting battles:

Starting tailback

Bucs running back Ronald Jones (27) had 978 rushing yards in the 2020 regular season, falling just shy of 1,000 after landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list late in the season.
Bucs running back Ronald Jones (27) had 978 rushing yards in the 2020 regular season, falling just shy of 1,000 after landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list late in the season. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

So aside from a catchy new nickname (“Playoff Lenny”), what did Leonard Fournette’s dazzling postseason performance earn him? Another one-year deal with Tampa Bay and no assurances of a starting gig in 2021.

Before landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list in December, Jones was destined for a 1,000-yard regular season (he finished with 978). Had he remained healthy down the stretch (he missed the first playoff game with a quad injury), who’s to say he wouldn’t have similarly flourished in the playoffs, when the Bucs became more committed to the run and play-action?

At 23, Jones is three years younger than Fournette, and faster. Both struggled mightily as pass catchers (12 combined drops in 2020), but veteran acquisition Gio Bernard should assume most of the receiving workload out of the backfield. A potentially prime scenario: Jones starts, with Playoff Lenny providing a change of pace and perhaps closing out games.

Backup quarterback

Former Gators quarterback Kyle Trask (2), the Bucs' second-round draft selection, is seen on the field Friday during the opening day of the team's weekend rookie minicamp.
Former Gators quarterback Kyle Trask (2), the Bucs' second-round draft selection, is seen on the field Friday during the opening day of the team's weekend rookie minicamp. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Who represents the catastrophic-insurance policy in the event Tom Brady is banged up? While drafting record-setting Gators quarterback Kyle Trask in the second round, the Bucs also re-signed veteran backups Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin.

Gabbert possesses the most NFL experience by far (48 career starts) and presumably would be the first out of the bullpen at this point. But what if Trask — being groomed for the post-Brady era — proves himself a quick study? Coach Bruce Arians said after Friday’s initial rookie workout that he was impressed by Trask’s ability to process information and find the open receiver.

The fact the Bucs’ offensive concepts (if not the verbiage) bear a strong resemblance to what Trask ran at Florida doesn’t hurt. Which isn’t to suggest a less-tricky learning curve looms.

Trask appeared to underthrow an out route Friday that undrafted cornerback Cameron Kinley returned for a touchdown and took a couple of sacks during team work Saturday. But he also had a couple of nice completions to tryout player Amara Darboh, including one in a tight zone-coverage window.

“I thought he was great. I thought he was fantastic,” Arians said Saturday. “He’s got three guys coaching the s--t out of him on every play, so they need to calm down and let him go. I’ve been really pleased with him and where he’s at right now.”

Related: Kyle Trask looks the part of a Bucs quarterback at rookie minicamp

Fifth cornerback

Brigham Young cornerback Chris Wilcox was drafted by the Bucs in the seventh round.
Brigham Young cornerback Chris Wilcox was drafted by the Bucs in the seventh round. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | Associated Press ]

Perhaps the most intense preseason battle, which almost certainly will require candidates to excel as a special-teams gunner. Sean Murphy-Bunting, Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Ross Cockrell remain rightfully entrenched at the top four corner spots, and no fewer than five candidates appear in play for the fifth and final one.

Florida Atlantic product Herb Miller impressed coaches in four games as a rookie last season, but the Bucs drafted Brigham Young speedster Chris Wilcox in the seventh round. Additionally, they signed third-year veteran Nate Brooks (who has appeared in three NFL games) two weeks ago, and signed veteran Antonio Hamilton (57 career NFL games) following his tryout during the rookie minicamp.

Another fledgling candidate is Kinley, president of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy who was contacted by the Bucs immediately following the draft. Kinley had a pick-six of Trask on Friday.

“The length of all those corners is impressive, and their speed,” Arians said Saturday. “It’s a really good-looking group.”

Fourth inside linebacker

Bucs rookie inside linebackers K.J. Britt (52) and Grant Stuard (48) engage in drills during the first day of the team's rookie minicamp Friday at AdventHealth Training Center.
Bucs rookie inside linebackers K.J. Britt (52) and Grant Stuard (48) engage in drills during the first day of the team's rookie minicamp Friday at AdventHealth Training Center. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Because Lavonte David and Devin White rarely come off the field, we see the Bucs carrying only four inside guys, with ninth-year veteran Kevin Minter presumably entrenched as the next man up.

That leaves veteran Joseph Jones, who has appeared in 49 games over four NFL seasons, trying to hold off late-round draftees K.J. Britt (fifth) and Grant Stuard (seventh) for the final spot.

Britt, a natural leader who refused to opt out after sustaining a season-ending thumb injury after two games of his senior season at Auburn, was a coaches first-team all-SEC pick in 2019. Stuard, also a team captain in college (at Houston), is a special-teams kamikaze.

Should be highly entertaining, if only for the blowup potential on kickoffs and punts.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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