Training camp is here, and all is right in the world. Alright, so maybe the world isn’t really that great right now. But football might be the best we can ask for. From the depressing dead period of sports that July is we spring forward into the time of unlimited optimism that training camp is. The Bucs report to camp on Wednesday, and the first open practice to the public is on Saturday with hundreds of Bucs fans sure to be in attendance. Training camp is typically rich with drama, competition and narratives, so much so that it can be overwhelming for the average fan to keep track of while in attendance. To help, I’ve tried to catalog and predict, position by position, some story-lines and situations to pay attention to over the course of camp.
Quarterback: Can Jameis Winston fix his deep ball? The Bucs offense in 2015 was an up and down unit but overall a pretty good one. One thing holding it back was a lack of deep chemistry between Jameis Winston and his receivers. Winston was often inaccurate on passes deep down the field (despite still having more 20-plus yard completions than many other quarterbacks), and missed opportunities to put the Bucs passing game over the top. Expect to see a lot of work on passes deep down the sideline early and often in camp.
Runningback: How will the role of Charles Sims evolve? Sims was electric last year, providing a big-play spark that every offensive coordinator craves. One complaint from me was how little Sims and Doug Martin seemed to be on the field together, with one of them carrying the load for entire drives at a time instead of both lined up in the shotgun or Sims playing wide receiver. The safe route is to maintain the status quo with Sims where he’s thrived, but his talent is such that he should be on the field as much as possible, ideally without sacrificing Doug Martin’s snaps. Dirk Koetter’s offense is sure to have new wrinkles in year two, and this could be one of them.
Bonus: Can Storm Johnson carve out a roster spot? Many people will read Storm Johnson’s name and scratch their head, but the UCF product was a sneaky-good signing by the Bucs this offseason. The 24 year old Johnson was a tremendous player for UCF, and managed to get some pro playing experience with the Jaguars. The Bucs employ a two-back system, so should Martin or Sims get hurt you can expect Johnson to see the field a good amount if he can make it through the gauntlet of training camp. His main competition will be with fourth year player Mike James.
Wide receiver: The wide receiver position is my number one group to watch in camp this year, and thus has a three-fold question with it. How consistent will Mike Evans’ hands be? How effective can Louis Murphy be after knee surgery? Will the Kenny Bell hype finally pay off? The basic act of catching the football plagued Mike Evans last year during the season, as well as Kenny Bell during camp and preseason before his eventual hamstring injury. Spectators will surely be keeping a tally on how many passes to these two hit the dirt. Before his ACL tear last season Louis Murphy looked like a safety net for Jameis Winston at times, coming up with multiple big catches. Murphy has since been placed on the PUP and the veteran’s roster spot could be in danger if his knee doesn’t allow him to fend off competition from the likes of Dontee Dye, Adam Humphries, Russell Sheppard and Evan Spencer.
Tightend: Austin Sefarian-Jenkins will no doubt be one of the most scrutinized players in camp this year. The third-year tightend has been injured for much of his career and been plagued by drops and overall inconsistency while on the field. How well he holds up from a mental and football standpoint will be something that many Bucs fans and media members pay close attention to during camp.
Bonus: What is Dan Vitale’s role? Vitale was a 6th round pick and has been tabbed as a “super-back” capable of playing all over on offense. His greatest skill seems to be catching the football and he’s listed as a tightend for the Bucs, but it’s hard to predict what exactly his position will be for the Bucs.
Offensive line: Who fills the void left by Logan Mankins? The Bucs signed J.R. Sweezy to fill Logan Mankins spot at left guard, but who on the Bucs offensive line will assume the leadership position that Mankins held? Mankins’ actual production shouldn’t be hard to replicate, but his voice and the respect that teammates had for him will be a much more complicated fix.
Bonus: Ali vs. Gerald, year two. This matchup was all sorts of fun last season, with the rookie Marpet surprisingly getting the better of the all-pro McCoy on a couple occasions. We know what to expect from Gerald McCoy, but how well Marpet holds up will be a good indicator of the progress he’s made from year one to year two.
Defensive line: What is Will Gholston’s position? The hulking fourth-year pro from Michigan State has shown he can play everywhere from defensive end to nose tackle, and has reportedly put on weight this offseason. With this added weight, Gholston’s pre-existing versatility, and the Bucs not adding defensive tackle depth, it seems pretty likely that Gholston will see more time on the interior line than he has in the past.
Bonus: Who are the starting defensive ends? Robert Ayers was paid starter money, so unless he pulls a Michael Johnson (he won’t), expect him to get one of the spots. The next spot is likely to go to Jacquies Smith but he’ll face stiff competition from rookie Noah Spence.
Linebacker: Kwon Alexander was a treasure trove of playmaking last season, but was inconsistent with his tackling and some of his drop-backs into coverage. The tackling aspect might be hard to judge during camp but we will certainly be able to see how comfortable Kwon is in coverage.
Cornerback: I wanted to focus in on one player or storyline in particular, but this unit was such an utter and complete abomination last season that the entire group is worth paying attention to in camp this year. Every single veteran corner on the Bucs – newcomer Grimes included – is coming off of a bad 2015 season, so how well they bounce back as a unit under new coaching will be one of the most important factors of camp.
Bonus: Where does Hargreaves play? Following the draft it was expected that Hargreaves would play almost exclusively in the nickel corner position this season, but multiple stellar performances during mini-camp might have the Bucs thinking otherwise if he can outshine the competition during training camp. The Bucs brass has stated multiple times that they’re comfortable with Hargreaves, despite his size, playing boundary cornerback.
Safety: Can Mike Smith hide the weakest (and least interesting) group on his defense? The Bucs have a lot of J.A.G.’s (just a guy) in their safety core, and are completely devoid of consistent difference-makers. The team decided to hold off on any big acquisitions for this group during the offseason (with the exception of 4th round cornerback/safety hybrid Ryan Smith), so it seems likely that incumbent starters Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald will hold on to their spots. Defenses can get by with less-than stellar safety play, so in camp it will be important to see this group keep their heads above water and manage to not screw up, while hopefully peppering in some big plays.
Special Teams: Roberto! The rookie kicker is sure to be the most scrutinized kicker in training camp history, so you can expect daily counts of misses and makes. But the more interesting, and quite frankly important, storyline will be at the punt and kick return spots, two places where the Bucs have struggled mightily recently (and for pretty much their entire existence). Expect the likes of Kenny Bell and Adam Humphries to duke it out for these spots, along with a myriad of other guys trying to find their niche on the roster.