In one week training camp will begin, and in just 2.5 weeks the Buccaneers will travel to Miami for their first pre-season game. It has been an eventful off-season in Tampa after a solid free agency, draft period, and the upcoming suspension of Jameis Winston. The pressure is on and if the Bucs hope to have a winning season they must do so right out of the gate. That makes these next 6 weeks crucial for the coaching staff to not only prepare these players, but to get it right by making sure the best combination of players makes the 53 man roster. That said, we will break down one key position battle to watch for on each side of the ball. As the two groups that will be mentioned could arguably be the key to a winning or losing season for the 2018 Buccaneers.
-Offense, Running Back-
After drafting USC RB Ronald Jones II in the 2nd round (38th overall), the former Trojan has instantly breathed new life in what has been overall a lack luster backfield. During his time at USC, he averaged 6.1 yards per carry and scored 42 touchdowns in just 3 seasons. The eye-popping stat to me is the fact that he always seemed to find himself in the end zone. Over his college career, he was good for an average of just over a touchdown per game. That same production should bring consistency to a backfield that only found the end zone 8 times last season.
The Bucs backfield isn’t completely bare though. Payton Barber did pick up some of the slack left by Doug Martin by averaging 4.2 yards per carry for 335 yards during the back half of the season. Also don’t forget the newly re-signed Charles Sims, who is a solid pass catcher out of the backfield on third down.
Jones will challenge Barber for the starting back role right out of the gate, but I don’t expect him to overtake Barber until after week 2 or 3 barring a mind-blowing camp and pre-season performance. Until then, look for them to split carries. I do fully expect though that Jones will eventually get the majority of the snaps as the season progresses.
No matter what, the 1-2 punch of Jones and Barber, and then the pass catching Sims could just be what the doctor ordered for this woeful unit.
The secondary was down right awful, if this unit wasn’t addressed in the off-season, I’m sure some Bucs fans would fall just short of protesting in front of One Buc Place. Thankfully it was addressed indirectly and directly. Indirectly by beefing up what should be one of the better defensive lines in Tampa in recent years, and directly by drafting M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis, and Jordan Whitehead.
M.J. Stewart looks to have the best chance to compete for the starting right cornerback spot opposite Brent Grimes. He is physical, solid in run defense, and has a good football IQ. Currently he sits behind Vernon Hargreaves in the initial depth chart, but watch for that to change as camp progresses. Stewart has the makings of what the Bucs are looking for at outside cornerback, and it helps Stewart’s chances of starting that Hargreaves stats are better when he plays in the nickel back position. In fact, he was one of the top rated DB’s that played in the slot last season.
Carlton Davis currently sits behind Grimes on the depth chart, but look for him to also compete for the open cornerback position. He might even get a few reps at safety. Davis had a solid career at Auburn so don’t overlook his chances to make an immediate impact.
Finally we have Jordan Whitehead out of Pittsburgh. He is tough, physical, and the Bucs have noted the versatility he brings on defense. Look for him to mainly compete for a safety spot against Tandy or Conte, and should get some work in with special teams as well.
This DB Corp will probably be the most closely watched during training camp, and hopefully vast improvement over last year is seen. My expectations are that by the end of camp Stewart would have locked down the open cornerback spot, Davis will get some time at outside corner and in the slot. This will force Hargreaves to mainly live in the slot, and leaves Ryan Smith on the bubble. The biggest upgrade could come at safety where I fully expect Conte to lose his starting role by the first few weeks of the season at the latest. Even though Conte has come through with some big plays, the consistency just isn’t there to make his starting role secure.
The Bucs Report will continue to update you as these training camp battles and more develop.