Ryan Fitzpatrick makes his case for Bucs backup QB

Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick participates in an "open OTA practice" at One Buc Place, the team's training facility, in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, May 23, 2017.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick participates in an "open OTA practice" at One Buc Place, the team's training facility, in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, May 23, 2017.
Published June 8, 2017

TAMPA — Entering his third year in the NFL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston appears to be on the cusp of stardom.

But at Thursday's OTA, the final of the year before minicamp begins next week, newcomer Ryan Fitzpatrick stole the show during scrimmages.

While Winston shook off the rust, throwing an interception and having a few passes broken up, Fitzpatrick — whom the Bucs signed last month after two years with the Jets — made crisp throws. Early on, he rolled out on a bootleg to his right and found Chris Godwin in the end zone. Off a play-action fake, he fired a bullet to tight end Cameron Brate. As practice wrapped up, he launched a perfect fade to Godwin, who fell backward into the end zone.

Brate, a Harvard alumnus like Fitzpatrick, complimented the 12-year veteran for his "gunslinger mentality."

"He's been airing it out a lot, giving the receivers a chance to make plays, which as a receiver, you love," Brate said. "He's obviously played a long time, kind of seen everything, so he brings a lot to the table."

While Winston has started all 32 games for the Bucs over the past two years, he did injure his knee in a November loss to Atlanta. As a mobile quarterback, he encounters defenders more often than his peers at the position, making a steady backup a necessity for Tampa Bay.

Fitzpatrick wasn't the only quarterback who turned heads Thursday. Ryan Griffin, also in his third season with the team, took reps during scrimmage.

The competition between Fitzpatrick and Griffin for backup quarterback should be a "good battle," as neither has the upper hand right now, said coach Dirk Koetter.

"(Fitzpatrick's) got the experience factor, that's for sure, but Ryan Griffin's had a really good offseason and is throwing the ball tremendous," Koetter said. "We'll see how it plays out."

Secondary standouts: In the competition for nickel cornerback, Javien Elliott made his name heard. He nearly made a leaping interception but couldn't come down with the ball; he'd later bat down a pass to prevent a touchdown.

Koetter lauded the second-year pro, who filled in as an undrafted rookie last season when Jude Adjei-Barimah was suspended.

"What the coaches notice is every single day, (Elliott) makes a play or two," Koetter said. "He knows what to do and how to do it, and he shows up and he makes plays."

After playing special teams last season, Ryan Smith has made the transition from safety to cornerback this year. On Thursday, he cut in front of a Winston pass on the outside for what would have been a pick-six.

When Koetter asked Smith if he could outrun the quarterback and the center to score, Smith just laughed. "We knew he could," Koetter said.

With starting cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves returning, the team may have two different positions — third outside corner and slot corner — supporting them, Koetter said. Smith should play primarily outside, and Elliott, Adjei-Barimah and Robert McClain could play both, he added.

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"Who's going to be the third corner, who's going to be the nickel corner — it's a good competition," Koetter said.

New weapons: Winston will have more receiving talent this year. His top targets from 2016 — Mike Evans and Brate — are heading into their fourth seasons. Speedster DeSean Jackson, who had his fifth 1,000-yard season last year for Washington, signed with the Bucs in March. And in April, the team drafted Alabama tight end O.J. Howard with the 19th overall pick.

Evans stepped up as a leader last year when wide receiver Vincent Jackson went down with a knee injury. He expects to have a similar role this year.

"We've got a lot of capable guys, and it's been fun," he said. "(Jackson) is an experienced player, and he brings a lot of swag and he's fun to be around."

Evans added that he's fine with catching fewer passes if it helps the team, quipping that he'd "catch zero passes if we could win the Super Bowl."

Brate said he and fellow tight end Luke Stocker are helping Howard adjust to the offense. The rookie's diligence and eagerness to learn have impressed Brate.

"Any time you come into a new offensive system, there's kind of new terminology, kind of small nuances in the offense that are hard to pick up on," Brate said. "(Howard's) always staying after, asking us questions. … He's been a great teammate so far."

Weather woes: The rain came and went — first a light drizzle, then a more steady downpour for a few minutes. While it makes practice more difficult, Koetter said it helps the team prepare for adverse conditions later in the year, including the team's Week 1 game in Miami against the Dolphins.

"I've been in several games in Miami where it's wet," Koetter said. "Quarterback-center exchange, all the ball-handling — it makes it a little bit sloppy at times, but it's actually good for us."

Nevertheless, Koetter said the team is "thankful, to say the least," for the indoor practice facility at One Buc Place, which should be finished by September.

"Yesterday, we had to change our whole schedule around because of the rain," he said. "It's going to be so nice to be able to stay right on, walk out there and get our practice done."