The 2018 preseason finally gets underway for the Buccaneers on Thursday night with an in-state matchup in Miami against the Dolphins. The preseason opener gives us our first taste of Tampa Bay football since December, but it won’t give us a lot of definitive answers to the team’s many questions. Even still, there are plenty of storylines to follow.
1. How will the Bucs handle their quarterbacks?
Tampa Bay has a tricky quarterback situation on its hands right now. With starting quarterback Jameis Winston set to miss the first three games of the regular season due to suspension, backup Ryan Fitzpatrick needs to get his share of reps with the first team offense. Throughout training camp, head coach Dirk Koetter has given Fitzpatrick the majority of time with the starting offense, while mixing Winston in with all three groups.
But now, it’s time for real game action. Koetter noted earlier this week that Winston will probably get around a quarter, but what about Fitzpatrick? Considering his importance for the first three games of the season, will we see him for just a series or two?
How Koetter handles his quarterbacks will be worth keeping an eye on. It’s likely that he’ll keep things open and adjust to what the game calls for. Fitzpatrick needs to get in rhythm with the starters, but Tampa Bay needs him healthy. The same goes for Winston. There’s a fine line to walk. Knowing the Buccaneer fan base, opinion on Koetter’s handling of the situation will be split, no matter what he does.
2. What kind of early production will the Bucs get from their new-look defensive line?
Part of the busy offseason for general manager Jason Licht consisted of a complete overhaul of the defensive line. Last year, the Bucs were dead last in sacks. Pressure was hard to come by, which created problems for the secondary. Because of the line’s ineffectiveness, something had to be done. Clinton McDonald, whose contract expired, was freed up to go elsewhere. Robert Ayers Jr. and Chris Baker were both released, which created space for newcomers.
The free agency period brought Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein aboard to help out Gerald McCoy on the interior of the line. The team then signed Vinny Curry and traded for Jason Pierre-Paul to shore up the edge, adding to a group that already featured Noah Spence and William Gholston. The group has a brand new look, which has already raised expectations for this season.
How quickly will all of these guys come together? That should be an interesting group to watch on Thursday night, whether it’s the starters or backups. Considering it’s week one of the preseason, we may not see guys like McCoy, Pierre-Paul and Curry for all that many snaps. But there appears to be a lot more depth up front for the Bucs heading into this season, so seeing how the second-teamers play may be just as fun as watching the starting group.
3. How will the rookies respond to their first NFL action?
When it comes to Tampa Bay’s 2018 draft class, there’s a lot to be excited about. Defensive tackle Vita Vea, the team’s first round pick, won’t be available on Thursday night due to a calf strain. Even with him on the sidelines, there are more than enough rookies to keep an eye on.
On the offensive side of the ball, there’s second round pick and running back of the future Ronald Jones II. Additionally, Alex Cappa is set to get his first professional reps up front at the guard position. He might be a work in progress, but he has a lot of raw talent to work with. Former Penn wide receiver Justin Watson is another intriguing prospect, one who should get a good number of looks from the second and third team quarterbacks. And when it comes to preseason, undrafted rookies shouldn’t be overlooked. Keep an eye on those guys, like former Duke running back Shaun Wilson, who has received a lot of praise throughout camp.
Despite Vea missing time, the defense has its own share of youngsters getting their first NFL snaps on Thursday. The secondary is full of them, with M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead ready to kick off their careers. Linebacker Jack Cichy, a sixth-rounder, is a guy who could be a sleeper to make the team’s 53-man roster. He is making his way back from an ACL injury, so Thursday’s game could be a big step for him.
4. Does Tampa Bay finally have a kicker?
The Bucs have had their fair share of issues with the kicking game in recent years. Those struggles have been well-documented. From Kyle Brindza to Roberto Aguayo to Nick Folk, there have been far too many wide lefts and wide rights. The team hopes to get rid of those issues this year.
Tampa Bay signed Chandler Catanzaro in free agency, giving him $3.75 million guaranteed. If that guaranteed money didn’t already solidify him as the kicker for 2018, the Bucs waiving rookie Trevor Moore, his only competition, on Tuesday probably did.
Kicking in training camp, as Bucs Nation’s Steven Beck outlined here, doesn’t hold much weight. What matters is how a kicker performs when the pressure gets turned on in game action. Now, preseason action won’t necessarily measure that completely, but it would be encouraging to see Catanzaro remain cool, collected and accurate on Thursday night.
5. Who will take the early lead in their respective position battles?
Training camp practices and preseason games are all about position battles. Whether it’s a battle for a starting job or simply a roster spot, every team has competitions to work through. There don’t appear to be as many open spots for the Bucs this year, but there are still guys fighting for attention.
At the running back position, Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones have the No. 1 and 2 spots held down firmly. But Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims and undrafted rookie Shaun Wilson are all going to be in the mix for that third spot. The top four wide receivers are also set, though we could see some shuffling between the three guys behind Mike Evans. Chris Godwin could overtake DeSean Jackson’s spot on the outside, but even if he doesn’t, he might slot in at No. 3 ahead of Adam Humphries. The offensive line has its own share of battles to work out, although injuries are messing with that at the moment.
The secondary has the majority of the defense’s position battles. Rookies Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart are already putting pressure on Vernon Hargreaves III and Ryan Smith. With strong play in the preseason, could they work their way into starting roles by the opening weekend of the regular season?
It may only be week one of the preseason, but it’s Buccaneer football and it’s back. Excited?
What are you most looking forward to following in Thursday night’s game?
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New-look defensive front