TAMPA — These dog days of swelter at AdventHealth Training Center bely the fact the sun barely has risen on the 2021 season.
More than a week remains before the preseason opener, and more than a month remains before the Bucs kick things off for real on a Thursday night against the Cowboys at Raymond James Stadium. Still, Bruce Arians’ team has put 10 training-camp practices in the books, allowing us to make some observations more nuanced than knee-jerk.
In no particular order, here are 10 things we’ve seen so far, and what we’ve deduced from them:
1. Joe Tryon’s ready for the edge-rush rotation
While he still lacks gap discipline from time to time and might bear some live-game rust, the Bucs’ first-round pick has dazzled Arians and his staff with his speed and aggressiveness.
On Sunday, the veteran coach announced Tryon has been “whipping a lot of guys’ asses” in camp. As for an actual game? Well, the preseason opener against the Titans on Aug. 14 will be the first for Tryon —who opted out of Washington’s 2020 season — since the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 21, 2019.
“He’s got to learn to stay in his gap on defense. He can’t freelance,” Arians said after Monday’s practice.
“He gave up a couple really big runs coming around blocks and trying to make plays instead of just doing your job. He’s got such great talent and he’s obviously a hell of a pass-rusher, but there’s more to the game than just that. Just do your job and do it really well.”
2. Blaine Gabbert is Tom Brady’s backup
The moment the Bucs took Kyle Trask with the 64th overall pick in April, speculation abounded about how quickly the record-setting Gators quarterback could ascend the depth chart.
Three months later, it’s clear Trask isn’t leapfrogging 11th-year veteran Blaine Gabbert anytime soon. For all practical intents, Trask appears bound for another redshirt year (meaning he’ll be inactive most Sundays) as he methodically absorbs the Bucs’ playbook and adjusts to the speed of the NFL game. Meantime, Gabbert has looked sharp as the No. 2 guy in practice.
“My confidence (in Gabbert) is off the charts,” Arians said Tuesday. “I know how good Blaine is. ... He knows where the ball should go, when it should go there; he can make every throw.”
3. Brown also belies his birth certificate
Brady’s routine defiance of chronology and logic at age 44 has mildly overshadowed the camp performance of 33-year-old Antonio Brown, who has shown some astounding spryness of his own to this point. The final play of Thursday’s practice: a short Brady-to-Brown scoring pass in red-zone work.
A limited participant the first couple of practices, Brown has displayed sleekness circa 2016 in his first full-fledged training camp in three years. His performance so far has elicited hearty speculation about what he can achieve in a complete season after signing with the team last November.
“I’m sure he’s excited to be here, to be in a training camp again. I think you guys are starting to see some of that,” fellow receiver Chris Godwin said. “He’s a showman and he likes to make plays. Seeing him run around, he’s still explosive, he can still run all day.”
4. Bernard could bust out
While it remains unclear if Ronald Jones II or Leonard Fournette will take the first handoff, all signs indicate newcomer Giovani Bernard will take the first dumpoff pass out of the backfield. The 5-foot-9 veteran, who totaled 359 catches and nearly 3,800 rushing yards in eight seasons in Cincinnati, possesses the best pass-catching chops of the tailback corps and is going to cut into someone’s playing time. How that affects the others will remain a story line to follow.
5. The vets must pace themselves
Goes without saying, injuries stand as the foremost threat to dislodge the hope of a Super Bowl repeat. With that in mind, Arians has made it a point to give his veteran players days off in a rotation-style form.
Brady showed up but barely practiced Tuesday (his 44th birthday), while 31-year-old linebacker Lavonte David suited up Thursday after sitting out three of the previous four workouts. With 14 more practices before the preseason finale, the law of diminishing returns kicks in for some of the elder standouts, who simply don’t need that many. (Also bear in mind: The regular season’s now 17 games).
6. The secondary still feels disrespected
Even in the wake of a mostly glistening postseason (which featured seven interceptions), the corners and safeties on this club still bear a medicine ball-sized chip on their collective shoulder pads.
Despite a few regular season blemishes (see first half vs. Chiefs), the starting assemblage of first-, second- and third-year corners and safeties effectively complemented a fierce pass rush (and the return of nose tackle Vita Vea) in the playoffs. Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting had three postseason picks. Rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. had a pick, two pass deflections and a forced fumble.
Yet one senses the group still feels slighted. “I feel like we’re still fighting for recognition, but we also just know that we’re still young and we just want to continue getting better and better,” Winfield said.
“Like C.D. (cornerback Carlton Davis) said before, we want to be feared. That’s our goal this year, to be feared whenever we step on the field.”
7. Jaelon Darden is a dynamo
If his 5-foot-8, 174-pound frame can withstand NFL punishment, fourth-round draft pick Jaelon Darden will get the ball in his hands, either as a slot receiver or punt returner. Clearly, the coaches are enamored with Darden’s speed, otherwise Arians wouldn’t ride him like the pee-wee coach badgering his own kid. Which is to say, he wants Darden to flourish. The preseason could reveal a lot.
8. Ross Cockrell’s a keeper
Out of work only 10½ months ago, this eighth-year veteran cornerback has mostly shined while working out at safety, where the Bucs have a mild depth issue. An effective backup at corner after signing with the Bucs in late September, Cockrell’s three interceptions during Monday’s workout might have set some kind of single-day training-camp record.
“He understands safety because he understands what the corner and the nickel are supposed to be doing, so that gives him a leg up there,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said Thursday.
“I’ll still be interested to see (him) in live tackling and everything else, but he has a great understanding of the game, he’s very versatile and he’s a good piece to use.”
9. Injury didn’t cost Cappa his job
After breaking his ankle in last season’s wild-card game against Washington, then watching Aaron Stinnie sparkle in his place, right guard Alex Cappa seemed the one offensive lineman in jeopardy of losing his starting gig.
But so far, Cappa consistently has lined up with the first team. Which isn’t to suggest Stinnie’s no longer lurking.
“(Cappa’s) full speed. I mean, he’s not holding back at all. He looks fine,” Arians said. “Stinnie’s putting a lot of pressure on him. Stinnie played really well when he got his opportunity last year. ... There’s always competition.”
10. These guys missed the fans
After a season of performing inside sparsely filled stadiums (and even barren ones), the Bucs clearly have fed off the standing-room-only throng of season-ticket members, suite holders and sponsors that has appeared at most practices.
When Mike Evans’ “momentum” wasn’t carrying him into the covered-bleacher area following a reception, Antonio Brown was inciting roars from fans lining the fence behind an end zone after hauling in a Brady pass.
“This was a huge crowd compared to last year,” defensive lineman Will Gholston said after Saturday’s practice, staged before a crowd of roughly 2,000. “It was fun to be able to get the fans back into it and see them and know that they’re supporting us.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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