The Tampa Bay Buccaneers open 2020 NFL training camp on July 28 at the team’s Advent Health Training Center headquarters in Tampa. Here’s a closer look at a few storylines behind arguably the NFL’s hottest team this offseason.
Will Bucs coach Bruce Arians tailor his offense to quarterback Tom Brady?
Brady will run Arians’ offense with Arians’ terminology -- the Bucs simply couldn’t install an entirely new offense with no offseason program due to the coronavirus pandemic. But they will try to incorporate some of the concepts Brady ran successfully in New England. The Bucs' coaching staff has been studying a lot of film on Brady.
We could see more quick screens with three-step drops instead of five- and seven-step drops, as well as more short-to-intermediate passes, which would help an offensive line that struggled with protection last year. It would also save Brady’s arm for some of the deep passes Arians is known for. The Bucs' coaching staff believes Brady can make all the throws, but he may not have the same volume of deep shots that Winston took last year. He also doesn’t have Winston’s mobility.
“He’s quick with the trigger. I mean can move his feet and still be accurate down the field,” Arians said. “Yes, there’s age but we’re all getting older. I don’t see a huge drop-off in any phase of his game whether that’s deep outside, deep down the field or his accuracy underneath. I think, if anything, he’s as mobile inside the pocket as he’s ever been.”
How much the Bucs can adopt from the Patriots will also depend on their personnel. Brady will have his favorite target in tight end Rob Gronkowski, who can line up all over the field, and Pro Bowler Mike Evans, who is probably the closest thing Brady has had to Randy Moss since playing with Moss. He’ll also have Chris Godwin.
The Bucs don’t have a bona fide pass-catching running back, which Brady relied on heavily in New England. But the hope is that rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn or veteran T.J. Logan can compete with Dare Ogunbowale for the third-down back role.
The Bucs’ secondary struggled through much of last season. What can we expect in 2020?
Despite surrendering 4,322 passing yards last season -- third most in the league -- the Bucs did not sign a veteran cornerback or safety in free agency. Instead, they selected Antoine Winfield Jr. in the second round of the NFL draft. So once again, they’ll be relying on youth, with all three cornerbacks who finished last season as starters -- Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean -- having two years or less experience under their belts.
If you divide last season into two halves, there are reasons for optimism with this group. In Weeks 1-9, opposing quarterbacks completed 64.4% of their passes, averaged 2.38 passing touchdowns per game (third-most in the league) and had five interceptions (tied for 10th fewest in the league). They allowed five wide-open (5 yards or more of separation) passing touchdowns (tied for fifth-most in the league), illustrating that they weren’t always in the right place, but also, their opponents’ 11.94 receiving yards after first contact per reception (10th worst in the league) demonstrates that they struggled with tackling.
Week 10 marked a turning point for this group. After Dean surrendered three touchdowns in an overtime loss at the Seattle Seahawks, the rookies began coming into the facility before 6 a.m. for additional film study with defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Dean notched the game-winning interception that week against the Arizona Cardinals. Murphy-Bunting would have two of them on the road -- at the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 13 and at the Detroit Lions in Week 15. In Weeks 10-17, they allowed opponents to complete 58.9% of their passes (sixth best in the league) and 1.38 passing touchdowns per game (14th). They allowed two wide open passing touchdowns (tied for 10th fewest in the league). Opponent receiving yards after first contact per reception improved to 10.81 yards -- seventh-fewest in the league. They were also very good defending the red zone all year long.
While Davis, Murphy-Bunting and Dean all look to reclaim their starting roles, the safety position is up for grabs. Winfield offers ball-hawking that this group has lacked. Justin Evans is a true center fielder with excellent range and athleticism, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy the last two years with foot and ankle problems. Mike Edwards got a late start last year as a rookie because of a hamstring injury. Jordan Whitehead has been the most reliable in terms of health and is showing he can not only be an in-the-box thumper, but he can cover too. Journeyman Andrew Adams, who had a breakout three-INT performance against the Carolina Panthers two years ago, is more of a hybrid safety-linebacker, so his skill set may translate better into a subpackage role. D’Cota Dixon, who signed as an undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin last year, was in the running for a starting spot before suffering a shoulder injury in camp.
Who is hurt the most by the Bucs’ lack of an offseason?
While Brady touches the ball more than any other player and has had to learn a whole new playbook for the first time in 20 years, Bucs rookies will face the biggest hurdles.
Tristan Wirfs, the 13th overall draft pick, is expected to immediately start at right tackle. Winfield has the all-around skill set to compete for a starting job. Vaughn is more of a complete back and has better hands than Ronald Jones, but blitz pickup is arguably the toughest adjustment rookies have to make coming in from college. And Tyler Johnson, the Bucs’ fifth-round pick out of Minnesota, who possesses a great blend of size and ability to compete for the ball, could become the third wide receiver behind Mike Evans and Godwin.
“We’ve missed over 400 reps already, missing all of spring practice,” Arians said. “So especially our young players have a lot catching up to do. And we’ve got some guys I think are gonna have critical roles for us this year that haven’t even been on the field or in a meeting.”
Yes, other teams’ rookies are also missing reps, but Arians’ rookies and backups tend to get a lot more reps because in each practice during camp, he has two separate scrimmages going on at all times (this is one perk of having a very large coaching staff). Younger players trying to develop could see even fewer reps this year if training camp rosters are downsized due to the inability to social distance, which has been discussed by the NFL.
“There’s nothing you can do virtually to make up on-field repetitions," Arians said. "Walk-throughs and practices are really how our guys learn today. … Walking through in practice is the best way to teach. So those are invaluable minutes and reps missed.”
What are the chances that the Bucs have a new kicker in 2020?
That is a possibility. The Bucs claimed kicker Elliott Fry off of waivers after he was waived by the Panthers in May. His job is to not only give Matt Gay’s leg a break but to push him after a rough finish to the 2019 season.
Gay made 24 of 27 field goal attempts in the first 13 games of the season (87.2%), but he missed a kick or was blocked on five of his last eight attempts, which Arians attributed to hitting the “rookie wall.” Extra points were an issue; he made 43 of 48 PATs (88.9%, 34th in the league). But his leg strength was on display, making 5-of-8 field goal attempts from 50 or more yards -- tied for third-most in the league.
Arians had hoped that Gay could spend all spring camp kicking in the south end zone which, like the north end zone, is open air, but doesn’t have a large pirate ship to help with the wind. Arians believed it would help with his confidence. That didn’t happen because of the pandemic.
“When you look at the history of that stadium, that’s where most kicks are missed because of the crazy wind across that back side of the stadium,” Arians said at the end of the season. “I think it’s definitely in his head right now, that end zone. The other end zone is no problem.”