It’s crazy to think that we’ve arrived at the week before training camp. It almost feels like we shouldn’t be here with everything that’s been going on in the world, but alas, here we are.
Tampa Bay had its most memorable off-season in franchise history, but now it’s time for the on-field production to match the talent on paper. Training camp is where all that begins.
The Bucs still have some wrinkles to iron out despite another year with the same staff and most of the starters returning, so we decided that a good old-fashioned roundtable would be the best way to figure out the most “pressing” issues the team will need to address during camp.
What’s the biggest storyline of camp?
David: The biggest storyline of training camp will be Tom Brady. The biggest storyline for the success of the season however, will be whether or not the defense can pick up where they left off. Literally, all eleven starters for this defense are returning. Every impact member of the squad that looked great in the back half of 2019 is back. As are the coaches. And they only got better with the addition of Antoine Winfield Jr. If this unit gets even better then the Bucs have almost no chance of missing the playoffs. If they hit a wall and plateau as a unit, it will have a big impact on how 2020 plays out.
Evan: I hate to be obvious, but this is easy. How quick can Tom Brady and the rest of the offense get a good feel for each other? Nine of 11 starters return on offense for the Bucs, which is great, but swapping out your quarterback usually sets the offense back until the new QB gets acclimated to everything.
The Coronavirus has obviously been a major issue and has severely limited Brady and the offense’s time together. They will certainly be looking to make up for lost time when camp rolls around, however, there’s no guarantee that the offense will see positive results early on.
Jon: I agree with Evan. COVID-19 is less than ideal, and the Bucs are perhaps the most win-now team in recent memory. They can’t afford to spend 8 weeks getting on the same page. It has to happen very quickly. How long it takes the offense to iron out the wrinkles and timing will be the storyline not just of camp but of the season.
Bailey: Honestly, I hate to be that guy, but I almost feel as if COVID-19 itself will be the biggest storyline of camp. Having some football to talk about will be great—and it’s been sorely missed—but this virus has dominated the news for months and it will continue to do so. How it’s affected the offseason, whether or not protocols are working and of course any positive tests will be the talk throughout camps all over the country. That’s the unfortunate reality right now.
Now, if we’re talking strictly on-field storylines, I’ll go ahead and stray away from the pack here and give a nod to Tampa Bay’s defense—and the secondary in particular. Perhaps no position group on the team had as much momentum at the end of 2019 as the defensive backs, so it’ll be interesting to watch (hear? read?) about how they continue to build off of their strong finish to last season.
James: Yep. Overlooking the obvious and how COVID-19 will affect all teams as they attempt to play the 2020 season, the biggest football storyline is Tom Brady and how quickly he can adapt to the offense and gel with his new receivers. That’s going to be the big difference in a Super Bowl run and another year of disappointment and anguish. They brought Brady here for one reason and one reason alone but without chemistry, it will all be for nothing.
Ben: Besides COVID-19, I believe that the biggest storyline of camp will be not just Tom Brady, but how dangerous the offense is all around. With the weapons that Brady has around him, the Buccaneers could potentially have the strongest passing game in the NFL.
What question needs to be answered the most?
Jon: Does the defense have a real and consistent pass rush? It’s extremely unlikely for Shaq Barrett to get remotely close to his sack numbers from last year, and Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul are another year older on the wrong side of 30.
David: My biggest question heading into camp is just how Tom Brady, Bruce Arians, and Byron Leftwich mix. We’ve heard coaches give the ‘scheme to strengths’ speech before. We’ve seen coaches turn out to be liars after they said those words too. The potential issue dealing with people who have reached the height of their given professions is, they all know what they’re doing, even when they’re doing different things. Brady doesn’t fit the straight up air-it-out style Arians is known for. Arians’ reputation says he’s too aggressive to live off dink-and-dunk plays which rely on yards after catch more than chunk plays. And poor (not really) Leftwich is stuck between the two.
Evan: Jon certainly raises a good question, but I’m going to stick with the offensive side of things. To me, the question is how much of Brady’s influence/Bruce Arians’ adjustments will we see in camp?
This will be hard to follow, especially since there will be limited media attendance and no fan attendance during camp, but I’m sure one of the reporters who cover the team will be sure to ask someone about this topic at some point and you better believe I will be all ears/eyes when they do.
Bailey: It’s kind of a cop-out considering it covers a variety of positions, but I think the biggest question the Bucs have to answer is whether or not they have enough depth. This roster is built to win right now. That’s clear. But with no offseason programs and no preseason games, it’s going to be a shock if there aren’t some injuries that the team has to deal with, especially early on in the season. Does Tampa Bay have the guys who will be able to step up if/when needed, particularly at running back, wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker and cornerback? (I told you it covered a variety of positions).
James: To me, it’s whether or not Shaquil Barrett can replicate his 2019 performance. There was so much stress on ensuring the entire defense would return in order to build on what they accomplished down the stretch. However, if Barrett regresses, the defense may not be able to live up to that level of performing and we’re right back to square one. By that I mean an offense that can move the ball but a defense that can’t get to the quarterback and leaves the secondary in a vulnerable position where the Bucs end up blowing late game leads. The Bucs need Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul to be a lethal one-two punch.
Ben: Can the offensive line protect Tom Brady? At this point in his career, Brady can no longer escape when the pocket collapses. With the Patriots, Brady’s offensive line has played a huge part in his success. Last season, the Bucs ranked 22nd in the NFL with 2.9 sacks allowed per game. First round pick Tristan Wirfs can hopefully help limit some pressure from the right side.
Who needs to have a good camp in order to make the team?
Evan: I hate to say this, but Antony Auclair may be the odd man out if he doesn’t have a good camp.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a really good chance he makes the team. Arians has raved about him and the Bucs showed their interest in him when they re-signed him instead of tendering him earlier this year. Plus, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate, and Rob Gronkowski have all dealt with injuries throughout their careers, so there’s no guarantee that all three players will be around for the entire season.
But at the same time, you have to wonder how often he’d actually see the field if the team does carry four tight ends. Would it be worth the salary/cap room? Auclair provides tremendous value as a run blocker and special teams player and the Bucs carried four tight ends into 2019, however, the team also has Tanner Hudson, who made the final 53 in 2019. So it’s not like there isn’t competition under him, either.
It really feels like Auclair could get squeezed out if things don’t go well during camp.
Jon: MJ Stewart.
David: Jon makes a good point. So does Evan though. I think it’s TJ Logan though. Honestly, I think Raymond Calais has the leg up entering camp. The fact he won’t get to return any punts or kickoffs against live competition hurts, but if he shows even a moderate level of potential on offense, he’s getting the nod over Logan. They didn’t draft Calais because they were happy with special teams, and Logan would still likely be on the market weeks later if the rookie didn’t live up to expectations early on.
James: I’m with David. The Bucs drafted Calais for a reason and that reason very well could be Logan’s ticket out the door. They may not have a marquee name at running back, but the Bucs have built a versatile stable of backs and not all of them are going to be on the roster week one.
Bailey: All good picks here. Auclair has some pressure on him solely due to the amount of talent Tampa Bay has at the tight end position. Logan may have already been on the roster bubble before the selection of Calais, whose speed is unreal, so now I’m thinking he may already be on the outside looking in. But Jon is right. It’s M.J. Stewart. The dude has to carve out some kind of role for himself—and prove to be effective enough in it—or he’s gone.
Ben: I have to agree with Evan here. I think Auclair needs to stand out in camp if he wants to make the roster. The Buccaneers currently have three tight ends who could on majority of NFL teams. With how deep their roster is and the though of keeping a few undrafted free agents like Parnell Motley, I don't think the Bucs will have the space to keep him. However, if one of the other three tight ends is traded, Auclair will probably still have a spot on the team.
Which camp battle will you be following closely?
David: Free safety. It’s the position I wanted the Bucs to answer the most in 2019, and it was the position I wanted them to answer the most in 2020. Love the addition of Winfield Jr. Also love that they brought back Andrew Adams. Mike Edwards is no slouch, and has room to improve. Oh, and one more year hoping Justin Evans gets back in the mix? I mean, if we can still spend money on Madden, we can still have hope for Evans, right? This position battle has a little bit of everything, so count me in.
Jon: The offense is pretty much locked up, so I will go with the defensive backs, including the safeties. There’s a lot of bodies and only so many spots. The play on the back end has been subpar for years. It’s finally time for that to change.
James: I’m watching the running backs. Where is Vaughn going to fit in? Is Ronald Jones going to see 60-70% of the touches at the position? Which back is going to make a big splash and find their way on to the roster? There’s a lot of questions at the position - and we know how much Brady likes to utilize the backs in the receiving game. So who is going to emerge as Brady’s favorite dump-off target?
Bailey: While Jon is right that the offense is pretty much locked up, I’m still interested to see what happens at receiver. The group is essentially set, right? Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are at the top, with Scotty Miller, Justin Watson and rookie Tyler Johnson rounding out the group. But I want to see how those last three guys compete. I’m interested to see who ends up as the team’s No. 3, and I’m curious about how the depth chart as a whole will shake out behind the top two. Not to mention, there are plenty of intriguing options should the Bucs carry a sixth receiver.
Evan: I’m going to be watching the safety battle, as well. Andrew Adams played a ton of snaps last year —over 600 on defense, to be exact— and the Bucs have Jordan Whitehead, so you have to wonder where Mike Edwards, Antoine Winfield Jr. and Justin Evans fit in. The coaching staff also really like D’Cota Dixon before he got hurt during camp. Will he be a factor?
We could see any combination of the aforementioned guys as the starters on opening day, which will make this battle one of the most intriguing battles of training camp.
Ben: I’m with Jon on this one. As he stated, Brady loves using the running backs for the dump off and I’m excited to how Vaughn will fit in. I’m also curious to see how many times will the Bucs actually run the ball.
What do you want to see happen more than anything?
Evan: I just want to see an organized and healthy training camp. I know that this year will be unlike any other year we’ve seen before, so it will be hard to define “organized”, but I’d still like to see some form of structure and not a free-for-all.
Sure, this is basically a cop-out, but that’s the ultimate goal for me and it rings true in a big way this year. There are all kinds of questions heading into camp and the answers to those questions will likely determine if there is a season in 2020 or not. And that’s not even the biggest worry. That has to be the scenario in which someone is seriously hurt as a result of playing football during a pandemic.
Everyone just needs to stay healthy and if we even have a semblance of some kind of organized practice(s)/game simulation(s), then I’ll be a happy camper.
(football-wise, I want to see Tristan Wirfs to take over the starting right tackle job!!)
Bailey: Really, I’m with Evan. I’m still not sure how good of an idea it is to go through with trying to play football while the pandemic rages on—especially in Florida—but I just want everyone to be healthy. Aside from that, I don’t know! It’s hard to pick just one thing. Seeing footage of Tom Brady connecting with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin will be fantastic and watching the defense continue to improve should also be a treat. But, man, more than anything? I want to see consistency out of Matt Gay. The way he finished 2019 was troubling, and I really just want the Bucs’ kicking issues to be a thing of the past.
Jon: For the defense to actually be good.
David: I just want football. We’ve got racial issues, virus issues, political drama, and Hollywood is basically full of scumbags it seems. All of those things are important, no matter what side of each you stand on, or if you’re one of the really unlucky few who stand in the middle. Each topic deserves it’s own time in the spotlight, but we all deserve a little reprieve every now and then. Between 15:00 left in the first quarter and 0:00 left in the fourth, none of it impacts what happens on the field of play. Of course, the virus could very well impact who is on said field, but the point stands. Nobody drops a pass because he and the quarterback voted for different candidates. A linebacker with police in his family will still lay the lumber on a running back who also has police in his family. None of those things matter between the first and last whistle. It’s a simpler time.
James: I’m with the majority here. I want to see the season actually happen without COVID-19 weighing over everything like a dark cloud. Get these protocols in place, ensure the players are safe, and give people an escape from the bleakness and negativity running rampant right now. That’s what sports are. They’re entertainment, sure - but they’ve always been a way for people to escape for a few hours from the stresses of daily life or their job and just soak it in. That’s what I want to see. That’s what we all want to see.
Ben: I agree with everyone here. I think all football fans are hoping for a football season. But the players health is what is most important here. I want football to start as normal as much as everyone else does, however the NFL needs to do whatever keeps their players in the best health. Hopefully the NFL can come up with an intelligent plan that keeps the players safe and has the season go on as planned.