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Seven Bucs returners who must make a strong minicamp impression

A number of returning guys could use a solid jump-start to the 2022 season.
A 2020 playoff hero, Bucs receiver Scotty Miller totaled only 10 catches (including playoffs) in an injury-plagued 2021 season.
A 2020 playoff hero, Bucs receiver Scotty Miller totaled only 10 catches (including playoffs) in an injury-plagued 2021 season. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jun. 3

TAMPA — In the wake of a rookie orientation and series of well-attended team activities, the Bucs will re-convene en masse next week for a three-day mandatory minicamp.

The sessions will mark the first full gathering of the team since that numbing home playoff defeat to the Rams more than four months ago. Including those rehabbing injuries, roughly 90 players are expected at AdventHealth Training Center.

It would behoove some of them to stand out in that crowd.

While no depth-chart fluctuation is expected to occur until late July, some returning players on the roster bubble — or at a career crossroads — can ill afford to waste one workout in their quest to solidify themselves in the rotation, or even make the team. Here are seven (listed in alphabetical order) who need to distinguish themselves, starting Tuesday.

RB Giovani Bernard

Veteran running back Giovani Bernard (25) had only 23 catches in his inaugural season with the Bucs last year, spending nearly a month on injured reserve.
Veteran running back Giovani Bernard (25) had only 23 catches in his inaugural season with the Bucs last year, spending nearly a month on injured reserve. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The quest for the No. 2 tailback job behind Leonard Fournette should emerge as one of the most intense position battles of the preseason. Bernard, who turns 31 in November, played sparingly in his first season in Tampa last year (23 catches, 123 yards, eight rushing attempts) as Fournette evolved into a three-down back, and spent nearly a month on injured reserve (hip). He may need every bit of his old burst and versatility to hold off third-year back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and third-round pick Rachaad White.

ILB K.J. Britt

A fifth-round draft choice in 2021, inside linebacker K.J. Britt appeared in all 19 games (mostly on special teams) last season.
A fifth-round draft choice in 2021, inside linebacker K.J. Britt appeared in all 19 games (mostly on special teams) last season. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Invariably, the Bucs will have to find a replacement for 32-year-old stalwart Lavonte David, possibly sooner than later. Question is, does that replacement already reside on the roster? A fifth-round pick in 2021, Britt played all 19 games last season, albeit primarily on special teams. Now that the Bucs have moved on from veteran backup Kevin Minter, this former All-SEC first-teamer has a chance to crack the rotation and make his case for the future.

WR Jaelon Darden

Aside from a 43-yard punt return against the Bears, Bucs speedster Jaelon Darden (1) made little impact as a rookie return specialist in 2021.
Aside from a 43-yard punt return against the Bears, Bucs speedster Jaelon Darden (1) made little impact as a rookie return specialist in 2021. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

This speedster from North Texas logged extensive kick- and punt-return duty as a rookie last season, and barely made a blip. Darden averaged a modest 19.9 yards on 18 kick returns and, aside from a 43-yard punt return against the Bears, never threatened to run one back. He made less of an impact as a receiver (six catches), and now faces serious competition for a roster spot in 2022.

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WR Tyler Johnson

After making a couple of postseason splashes as a rookie in 2020, Bucs receiver Tyler Johnson (18) totaled 36 catches in the 2021 regular season.
After making a couple of postseason splashes as a rookie in 2020, Bucs receiver Tyler Johnson (18) totaled 36 catches in the 2021 regular season. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

After a promising rookie season that included a pair of clutch playoff receptions, Johnson arrived at training camp in less-than-optimal shape last summer and managed only 36 catches on 55 targets. Thirteen of those catches came in the last four regular season games, when Chris Godwin and/or Antonio Brown were gone. Now, Johnson faces fierce competition for a roster spot in a congested room that includes guys who earned Tom Brady’s trust in 2021 (Breshad Perriman, Cyril Grayson), as well as newcomer Russell Gage.

WR Scotty Miller

Bucs receiver Scotty Miller (10) warms up during a training-camp practice last July at AdventHealth Training Center. Miller missed seven games with a turf-toe injury in 2021.
Bucs receiver Scotty Miller (10) warms up during a training-camp practice last July at AdventHealth Training Center. Miller missed seven games with a turf-toe injury in 2021. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Theories abound as to why Miller vanished from the Bucs game plan (five regular season catches in 2021) after immortalizing himself with that 39-yard touchdown catch in the 2020 NFC title game. Clearly, the turf toe he battled last year is one explanation, but it’s also believed he lacked the size and blocking chops Bruce Arians likes in his receivers. At 5-foot-9, 174 pounds, Miller can get vertical with the best of them. Question is, can he use that speed in myriad ways (i.e. special teams) to make the 2022 roster?

CB Sean Murphy-Bunting

Bucs fourth-year cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) hasn't recorded an interception since his three-pick performance in the 2020 postseason.
Bucs fourth-year cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) hasn't recorded an interception since his three-pick performance in the 2020 postseason. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Murphy-Bunting enters a contract year still seeking his first interception since the 2020 playoffs, when he had three. He dislocated his right elbow in last year’s opener against the Cowboys and missed nearly half the regular season, then was deemed inactive for the playoff opener due to a hamstring injury. A decent (but not dominant) tackler, Murphy-Bunting must make a greater splash in the secondary, plain and simple. His 14 passes defended in the last three regular seasons are four fewer than Carlton Davis III totaled in 2020.

RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn

Reserve running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn (21) ran for 130 yards and two touchdowns in place of injured starter Leonard Fournette in the final three regular season games of 2021.
Reserve running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn (21) ran for 130 yards and two touchdowns in place of injured starter Leonard Fournette in the final three regular season games of 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Arians seemed really high on Vaughn, who stepped in nicely late last season when Fournette was on injured reserve (25 carries, 130 yards, two TDs in last three games). He had only four catches on eight targets, though, and soft hands are a prerequisite for this job (Just ask Lenny). Moreover, White — the third-round pick — had 43 catches at Arizona State last season.

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

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