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Bucs vs. Dolphins 2018 preseason: Rookie recap

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Tampa Bay’s trio of rookies in the secondary stole the show from their fellow first-years in Thursday night’s preseason opener.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Miami Dolphins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Buccaneers finally got their preseason going on Thursday night, starting the August exhibition schedule with a 26-24 road win over the Miami Dolphins. There was a lot to look for in the game, but perhaps nothing was more intriguing than how Tampa Bay’s rookies would respond to their first NFL action.

Overall, the group performed well. It’s never smart to read too heavily into the preseason opener, but the Bucs had to like what they saw from most of their first-year professionals. As we’ll do every week, let’s go ahead and break down what we saw out of the rookie class.

CBs Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart, S Jordan Whitehead

With first round pick Vita Vea sidelined due to a calf strain, a lot of the pregame focus was on second round running back Ronald Jones II. But over on the defensive side of the ball, a trio of rookies in the secondary took over the spotlight in their NFL preseason debuts.

Carlton Davis, a second-rounder out of Auburn, made an early impression by picking up a couple of tackles in the first quarter. By the time his night was over, he had five tackles (tied for second on the team) and two pass breakups. One of those was a beauty that came midway through the second quarter:

M.J. Stewart, the Bucs’ other second-round corner out of North Carolina, had himself a solid night as well. He didn’t have any eye-catching highlights, but played well in coverage and came up with three tackles.

The biggest winner of all the rookies had to be safety Jordan Whitehead, who was selected in the fourth round. He came up with two tackles and two pass breakups while collecting some big hits throughout the night. He clearly isn’t one to shy away from contact, which makes up one big aspect of his game. But he showed on Thursday night that he isn’t just a hard-hitter, playing well over the top in coverage. Have a look here as Tampa Bay stopped Miami inside the red zone with the help of the former Pitt Panther:

Whitehead did get beat on the Dolphins’ go-ahead two-point conversion in the fourth quarter, allowing the receiver to beat him to the outside. All three guys had their rookie moments on Thursday, but that was to be expected. Overall, the Bucs should be happy with these three, as they flashed plenty of potential already. With the injury to Vernon Hargreaves III and the struggles of Ryan Smith, we could see these guys quickly take control of the secondary.

RB Ronald Jones II

As expected, Peyton Barber got the start at running back for Tampa Bay. He looked quick on his four carries, rushing for 21 yards and a touchdown. After he got his work in, second-rounder Ronald Jones made his debut. He didn’t get off to the best start, letting a pass go right off of his hands on a key third down. Pass-catching is an area that he needs to improve on, so look for him to get a shot at redemption next week in Tennessee.

As far as his game on the ground, there wasn’t a lot to see. He carried the ball eight times for just nine yards, but most of his work came behind a second team offensive line that was missing some of its true second-teamers. The big positive of the night for Jones was that he picked up his first NFL preseason touchdown, making an excellent cutback to find the end zone:

WRs Justin Watson and Sergio Bailey

Former Penn wide receiver Justin Watson, a fifth round selection, made his professional debut as well on Thursday night. He took a solid step forward in his quest for a roster spot by catching all three of his targets for 30 yards, but what many might remember from his night was a costly fumble deep in Tampa Bay territory. The turnover obviously won’t cost him a roster spot immediately, but you can bet that he’ll learn from it. And as far as the jump from Ivy League to the NFL, he looked plenty comfortable out there.

Sergio Bailey, an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan, made a great first impression on Thursday. He finished the night as the team’s leading receiver, hauling in four passes for 52 yards. Two of his catches came back-to-back on Tampa Bay’s game-winning drive.

The best of the rest

Alex Cappa, a third round pick from Humboldt State, entered in the second half with the second/third team offensive line and held his own... Linebacker Jack Cichy, a sixth-rounder from Wisconsin, returned to game action on Thursday for the first time in over a year. A torn ACL cost him his senior season with the Badgers, but he stepped right in with the backups and collected two tackles (one solo)... Vita Vea was seen on the field pregame, again without his walking boot... A few promising undrafted free agents, running back Shaun Wilson (Duke), tight end Donnie Ernsberger (Western Michigan) and offensive lineman Cole Boozer (Temple) were held out from Thursday’s game.