Since January, all we’ve been able to do is talk about what the Buccaneers will look like in 2019. With training camp just over one week away, talking season is nearly over. We’re about to actually see what the team looks like on the field.
For NFL players, the end of July and the entire month of August is all about returning to game shape, getting reps and in some cases, fighting for roster spots. For fans, it’s simply a time to appreciate finally having football back. There’s always a group of players that get a bit of extra attention throughout training camp and the preseason.
Who is in that group this year for Tampa Bay? Over the next week, we’ll be looking at five players to watch for in each of the following categories: returners, newcomers and undrafted free agents. Today, we get going with five returning players worth following over the next month or so.
DT Vita Vea
There is so much to get excited about when it comes to Vita Vea in 2019. The 2018 first-round pick came on very strong in the second half of last season, totaling 25 tackles (four for loss), two sacks and three quarterback pressures over the Bucs’ final six games. This year, he is looking to take the next step. That starts, of course, with staying healthy. This is really Vea’s first full NFL training camp, as he spent last year’s sidelined with a calf injury. Getting some extra time and extra reps without necessarily game prepping (at least not as intensely) should be huge for the 6-foot-4, 347-pound tackle. When he returned from that calf issue last year, he stepped right into full-on game prep each and every week.
Under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Tampa Bay is set to run a lot of looks out of a 3-4 front. Vea working at nose tackle should be plenty intriguing by itself, but the overall transformation of the defense should benefit him as well. With Gerald McCoy gone to Carolina, Vea is being trusted as THE guy in the middle of the Buccaneer defensive line. Training camp will be the first chance to see how he responds to that responsibility.
QB Jameis Winston
The connection between Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston and new head coach Bruce Arians is no secret. The two met long ago, Arians has been a fan of Winston’s for years and now here we are. Arians’ track record with quarterbacks is well-documented. He’s coached Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer. His next project is taking Winston to the next level and, in turn, bringing Tampa Bay back to contender status for the first time in far too long.
What’s not to be excited about? Winston has gotten to work with Arians a bit this offseason, but things will get kicked up a notch during training camp. The veteran head coach clearly has talent to work with in the young quarterback. But sharpening that deep ball and cutting down on bad decisions is where Winston needs the most work. This head coach/quarterback duo has been called a “perfect fit” this offseason. It’s now time to see that play out on the field. Will we see a new, next-level Jameis Winston in 2019?
RB Ronald Jones II
Whereas Vita Vea’s rookie year started slow and picked up considerably, Ronald Jones II’s first year started slow and never got going. Things started on a down note. The second-rounder didn’t do anything impressive in the preseason. There were questions about his knowledge of the playbook, though no one ever seemed to know if that was really a valid issue or not. Regardless, the former coaching staff clearly didn’t think Jones was ready last year. The USC product was inactive early on in the season, and when he was active as the year progressed, he didn’t get many meaningful carries. For the year, he rushed for 44 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries (1.9 yards per carry). He never found a rhythm, nor was he given a chance to.
With Bruce Arians and a brand new coaching staff in the building this year, Jones should be getting a fresh start. There’s been talk that the staff has been impressed with him at different points this offseason. Plus, Jones has built up more muscle this offseason. As long as the added muscle weight doesn’t cut down on his speed, we could see a new version of the guy who shined in his college days with the Trojans. This is a huge month for Jones and his future. That makes him the center of one of the bigger storylines in Tampa Bay’s camp.
OLB Noah Spence
Speaking of fresh starts, here’s another one. It wouldn’t be hard to convince someone that Noah Spence wasn’t on the team last year. His promising rookie season in 2016 feels like it was lifetimes ago at this point, which means there is a lot at stake for the former second-round pick in 2019. So far in his career, he has played in a 4-3 defensive end role. With the Bucs moving to more of a 3-4 front, Spence is now listed as an outside linebacker on the team’s roster. His size and speed make him a fit for such a role, but how he adapts to it and performs during camp and the preseason will tell us how much of a hand he’ll have in the 2019 Tampa Bay defense.
This, realistically, is Spence’s last chance with the Bucs. He flashed potential as a rookie in 2016, had an injury cut his season short in 2017 and became virtually non-existent last year. Will the scheme change rejuvenate his career? With Jason Pierre-Paul dealing with a serious injury, there isn’t much depth at outside linebacker. Carl Nassib and Shaquil Barrett likely have the two starting spots right now, one would think. The Bucs could certainly benefit from Spence stepping up and providing a solid depth option at the position. The opportunity is there. But if he struggles in August, might the team look for outside help heading into the regular season?
CB Vernon Hargreaves III
This offseason has been awfully strange for Vernon Hargreaves III. Early in the offseason, Bruce Arians raved about the young corner’s potential and overall talent. But things got weird once OTAs came around. When Hargreaves was watching practice from the sidelines, questions came up. Arians responded by telling reporters to ask VH3 why he wasn’t practicing and said he needed to get his mind right for practice. Well, when the former Florida Gator returned to practice, he downplayed the comments completely. He said something about tough love and no hard feelings. There were thoughts that he was injured, Arians seemed to contradict himself later on and who even knows what was going on?
Bruce Arians on Hargreaves last week:— Greg Auman (@gregauman) May 21, 2019
"He's got to get his mind right for practice."
Bruce Arians on Hargreaves today:
"He's never been a problem mentally. It's just getting his body right, knowing you're not always going to be 100 percent."
All of that stuff aside, this is also a big year for Hargreaves. He has been hit-or-miss in his career, but past defensive schemes have had him off the ball the majority of the time. That’s not what made him a first-round pick in 2016. He’s been moved to the slot at times, which has helped. But with Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Hargreaves will play man-to-man — which is what he knows and is comfortable with — on the outside. That should help his confidence considerably, and we’ve seen what a confident Vernon Hargreaves can do against opposing receivers. If he comes into camp confident and manages to stay healthy, the Tampa Bay secondary will get a huge boost.
All right, Bucs Nation. Which returning players are you most looking forward to following when training camp comes our way next week?