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Position battles, potential breakout Bucs to watch as camp arrives

Though most starting jobs are set, a few significant spots on the depth chart remain up in the air.
Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward (35) attempts to tackle Bucs running back Leonard Fournette (28) during Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium.
Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward (35) attempts to tackle Bucs running back Leonard Fournette (28) during Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Jul. 16
Updated Jul. 16

By the end of next week, the Bucs will possess fresh swag — and sweat — in abundance.

Five days after the team visits the White House, and three days after players and staff formally receive their Super Bowl 55 rings, the inaugural workout of the 2021 training camp commences. The Bucs will hit the AdventHealth Training Center practice fields with all 22 starters, all three primary specialists, all three coordinators and the head coach from last season’s title team.

Yet a few questions linger. Among them: Who wins the following position battles?

1. Backup quarterback

Bucs rookie quarterback Kyle Trask has drawn praise from coaches for his mental acumen and absorption of the playbook.
Bucs rookie quarterback Kyle Trask has drawn praise from coaches for his mental acumen and absorption of the playbook. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

While veteran Blaine Gabbert (48 career starts) most likely gets the nod in the event of a Tom Brady injury, the progress of rookie Kyle Trask will be interesting to monitor. Coach Bruce Arians and quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen have gushed about Trask’s mental acumen and absorption of the playbook, comparing him in that regard to Andrew Luck.

That said, Trask and Ryan Griffin worked mostly with rookies on one field during the June minicamp while Gabbert and Brady worked with the front-liners on another.

Related: Bucs coaches believe they acquired a bit of Luck in drafting Gators QB Kyle Trask

2. Starting tailback

Can Leonard Fournette channel "Playoff Lenny" for an entire season?
Can Leonard Fournette channel "Playoff Lenny" for an entire season? [ ANDREW HARNIK | AP ]

We can hear it now: Arians will insist that fourth-year speedster Ronald Jones and resurgent veteran Leonard Fournette are both starters in his mind. Still, someone must trot out there first, and because veteran Giovani Bernard projects as a passing-downs weapon, either Jones or Fournette is likely to get the first handoff.

Can Fournette regain the staggering momentum he built during his prosperous 2020 postseason? Can Jones build more all-around consistency?

3. Punt returner

Bucs wide receiver/return specialist Jaydon Mickens, left, works with rookie Jaelon Darden during a voluntary session in June.
Bucs wide receiver/return specialist Jaydon Mickens, left, works with rookie Jaelon Darden during a voluntary session in June. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

One of the more ironic images of June’s minicamp was that of veteran Jaydon Mickens (16 returns, 6.2-yard average in 2020) offering punt-return tutelage to rookie Jaelon Darden, who just might take his job. Mickens is coming off a turbulent year in which he spent time on the reserve/COVID-19 list and was waived in December (before returning).

Darden, who set a plethora of records at North Texas, projects as a specialist and slot guy. If he develops as rapidly as he runs, Mickens’ days might be numbered.

4. Fifth cornerback

Herb Miller likely will have to battle a trio of draft picks/free agents for that No. 5 cornerback spot.
Herb Miller likely will have to battle a trio of draft picks/free agents for that No. 5 cornerback spot. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The blossoming triumvirate of Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean is entrenched, and coaches love veteran backup Ross Cockrell. But Florida Atlantic alumnus Herb Miller (who had an interception at Detroit in December) will be challenged by former Navy standout Cameron Kinley, sixth-round draft choice Chris Wilcox and free-agent signee Nate Brooks for the fifth spot.

Kinley, whose successful effort to have his military commission delayed has been nationally chronicled, will be a sentimental favorite in this competition.

Four breakout players to watch

1. Linebacker Devin White

Bucs linebacker Devin White makes the stop on Saints running back Ty Montgomery last postseason.
Bucs linebacker Devin White makes the stop on Saints running back Ty Montgomery last postseason. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Yes, the former first-round pick already is a star. But there is another level of superstar in the NFL and White is about to reach it. No player this big (6-0, 238 pounds) should be this fast. White’s ability to recognize plays and beat offensive linemen to the gap is so good, he frequently wins the footrace with Lavonte David.

But in the postseason, White took his playmaking ability up a notch. The fumble recoveries, the interceptions. Calling his shot at New Orleans with a pick of Drew Brees. Before the 2021 season is over, don’t be surprised if White is the new Ray Lewis of the NFL.

2. Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting

Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) celebrates his interception during the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay.
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) celebrates his interception during the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

His regular season was nothing special. Murphy-Bunting struggled with a series of nagging injuries that limited his production. He had only three passes defensed and one interception. But Murphy-Bunting took over in the postseason.

His three picks led the Bucs. Not only that, he produced game-changing plays, like one in the first half of the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay. The Bucs need another ballhawk in the secondary and it should be Murphy-Bunting.

3. Outside linebacker Joe Tryon

Bucs outside linebacker Joe Tryon is the one rookie a lot of eyes will be on in training camp.
Bucs outside linebacker Joe Tryon is the one rookie a lot of eyes will be on in training camp. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Sure, it’s nice when a first-round pick makes an impact. The truth is that Tryon is stuck behind two Pro Bowl players in Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett. But what better guys to learn from?

Tryon is a physical specimen (6-5, 262) who should find his way into the pass rush rotation pretty quickly. He has an incredible first step and will make an immediate impact covering kicks on special teams.

4. Guard Aaron Stinnie

Tight end Rob Gronkowski, right, celebrates a touchdown with offensive guard Aaron Stinnie during the Super Bowl.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski, right, celebrates a touchdown with offensive guard Aaron Stinnie during the Super Bowl. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

In the Bucs’ first playoff game at Washington, the Bucs lost Alex Cappa to a broken ankle. For most teams, that would be a devastating injury. But most teams don’t have Stinnie, the guard from James Madison.

All Stinnie did was anchor the right guard spot for three postseason games, including the Super Bowl. He’s athletic and very poised under pressure. The Bucs appear set at guard with Cappa and Ali Marpet, but Stinnie may force his way into the lineup before it’s all done.

A preseason picture of health?

While Brady showed no lingering effects of that previously torn MCL during the team’s June minicamp, no fewer than four other prominent players sat out part or all of that three-day session. Bruce Arians, however, said at that time all of the following should be fine for training camp:

Jordan Whitehead (torn labrum sustained in playoffs)

O.J. Howard (ruptured Achilles sustained in Week 4 last season)

Antonio Brown (arthroscopic knee surgery, didn’t participate in minicamp)

Ndamukong Suh (wrist injury, limited participation in minicamp)

Related: Bucs' O.J. Howard missed a Super Bowl season but gained so much more

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