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Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5 Position Battles to Watch

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Training camp for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers begins next week and we will get to see the new regime and players in action! It has been a very active offseason for the Bucs. Lovie Smith was ousted from the Bay area and was replaced by former Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter.

Add another familiar face in Mike Smith as Defensive Coordinator, as well as Todd Monken as Offensive Coordinator, and you have a completely new look and feel to the Buccaneers. Things on the offensive side of the ball should remain somewhat similar but defensively, we don’t have much of an idea on what scheme Smith will deploy. One thing is for sure: Competition will thrive at every position. Here is a look at some of the best battles we should see throughout training camp.

Can Austin Seferian-Jenkins fend off Cameron Brate?

Based on talent alone, Austin Seferian-Jenkins should win this battle 10 out of 10 times. He was drafted in the 2nd round a few years ago for good reason and has given Buc’s fans glimpses of stardom when he has been on the field. When you only play in half of your team’s games in two years though, both coaches and fans can understandably become frustrated. ASJ played in only seven games last year due to his shoulder injury and was extremely limited in the final five that he saw the field.

He still amassed 21 catches for 336 yards (16.1 ypc) and 4 touchdowns, showing us that he can dominate when he is healthy. When he is not, other players have a chance to emerge and this is exactly what Cameron Brate did. Even through a cluttered depth chart at the TE position, Brate was a solid and reliable option for Winston the rest of the season.

Brate shared his duties with Luke Stocker and Brandon Myers but made his name known in limited snaps, and finished the season with 23 catches for 288 yards (12.5 ypc) and 3 touchdowns. He may not be the blocker that Stocker is but his hands make him a very reliable option if ASJ goes down. I believe this leaves Myers as the odd man out at this position.

When the depth chart is cemented, I fully expect to see ASJ at the top. He will need to overcome his injuries and will need to focus on not making mistakes as he did earlier this offseason. He was sent home from a minicamp practice in early June because he “didn’t know what he was doing,” according to Greg Auman (Tampabay.com). This was one of Koetter’s first ‘statement’ moves, setting a work-hard mentality in place. Now it is up to ASJ to keep grinding and fend off the competition that is quickly approaching in his rear view.

Note: Danny Vitale is currently listed as TE on the Buccaneers depth chart (Yahoo! Sports) and is an intriguing prospect to watch. I believe he may be asked to play several positions, including RB, FB and TE. I don’t think he will take over any starting duties but nonetheless, he is a name to keep an eye throughout August.

Who will be the Buccaneers slot WR?

In 2015, Louis Murphy was averaging a whopping 19.8 yards per catch until tearing his ACL against the Washington Redskins in Week 6, which immediately sent him to the Injured Reserve. To add insult to injury, literally, Vincent Jackson also went down that week causing quite a mess for the offensive attack.

Lacking depth and experience at the WR position behind Mike Evans, the Bucs would turn to rookies Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye for the rest of the season. Humphries showed some ability, converting 18 of his 27 catches into first downs. On the other hand, Dye struggled with several drops in key situations. He will need to improve his consistency to have a shot at making this roster.

One name we have yet to mention is the player I believe will ultimately win this job: Kenny Bell. Also known as ‘Afro Thunder’, Bell was selected in the 2015 draft, displaying extreme athleticism and speed while playing at the University of Nebraska. Unfortunately, he was placed on IR before he ever touched the field during his rookie year. Barring injury, this year should be a different story. If you haven’t had a chance to see his highlights, enjoy the next few minutes from the video below:

Not only does his speed make a perfect match for the slot position but he also excels with Kick/Punt returns, an area that the Bucs have struggled finding consistency at for years. Jenna Lane of ESPN has reported that Winston and Bell have developed some good chemistry in minicamp, setting up some expectations for training camp and preseason. If their chemistry can continue to grow, Bell will be a nice compliment to all of the height on that Buccaneers offense.

Who will rush the passer from the outside?

Pass rush has been close to non-existent for the Buccaneers since Lovie Smith took over. Smith never saw double-digit sacks from any of his defensive line during his entire tenure. As was the case with the secondary as well, the defense as a whole suffered from both scheme and lack of talent. Mike Smith joined the Buccaneers this offseason and brings in a talented resume from a defensive standpoint.

Smith regularly had a top-5 defense when he was employed as DC of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Bringing his ideologies to the Bucs defense, it will be interesting to see who he has rushing from the defensive-end position.  Statistically, Robert Ayers is the most obvious option to deploy at one of the DE slots. He totaled 9.5 sacks in 12 games with the New York Giants last year and comes to the Buccaneers with the most DE experience. I think he will fair far better than the sack-less George Johnson, who was another FA signed just the year before.

Jacquies Smith would be another viable option to start at DE, as he has totaled 13.5 sacks in two years with the Bucs, even with an injury-rattled campaign in 2015. Smith has a knack of being around the ball, adding 3 Forced Fumbles and 3 Fumbles Recovered last year. Will Gholston, yet another solid option, can play all the positions on the defensive line and was one of the more reliable rushers last year, especially against the run.

He was a vital reason that the Bucs allowed only 3.4 yards per carry, best in the NFL. Gholston was 5th on the team in tackles to go along with his 3 sacks. Howard Jones, who is a talented speed rusher but still very raw, saw some nice action last year when injuries piled up. He compiled 5 sacks but was vulnerable against the run game. He will need to improve his pass-rushing moves and lack of vision to get on the field more regularly this season.

The most intriguing option at the DE position is rookie Noah Spence. Before a few off-the-field issues at Ohio State, Spence had ‘top-10 pick’ written all over him. The Buc’s coaching staff did their due diligence and drafted him early in the second round this year. If Spence can stay out of trouble and follow Mike Smith’s orders, he has the ability to become an every-down player and give the Bucs the pass rush and consistency it has been lacking.

When Week 1 arrives, I believe Ayers and Spence will be the starting DE’s, with Smith and Gholston heavily involved in the rotation.

The CB’s aren’t my concern – it’s the safety position that worries me.

Safety is the biggest question mark on this team. Not that Bradley McDougald and Chris Conte (current projected starters) are bad, but it’s more because I am unsure of their potential. The scheme of the Buccaneers secondary was so questionable last year that it is unfair to be critical of any player but there is a lot to be seen.

Although McDougald was third on the team in tackles, he was a liability in coverage and often took bad angles on the ball. As for Conte, I was pleasantly surprised. I was highly critical of the Conte signing in 2015, as he was on the wrong end of more highlight reels than I could count. I thought he was yet another ‘Lovie’ signing (along with Major Wright), trying to assemble the Chicago Bears of the past.

Conte proved me dead wrong; he was always around the ball and made several splash plays that made me eat my words. Depth behind these two is very thin and lacks experience, including Wright, Keith Tandy, and Kimario McFadden. We will see how this secondary shapes up but I will be surprised if Conte and McDougald aren’t the starters on day one.

Right Tackle up for grabs – Dotson or Cherilus?

One of the most questionable groups heading into the 2015 season was the offensive line. The Bucs were starting two rookies and starting RT Demar Dotson had suffered an MCL sprain in the preseason, creating quite the void on the right side of the line. To fill Dotson’s replacement, the Bucs scrambled to free agency and came across Gosder Cherilus, former right tackle of the Indianapolis Colts.

His veteran presence helped the line for 13 games and brought some decency to a position that most thought would lack. Although the OL had its issues, particularly with penalties, they had a very good season. Doug Martin ran for the 2nd most yards in the league behind this line. They kept Winston on his feet for the most part, allowing only 27 sacks, 3rd best in the league (ESPN.com).

Cherilus will compete for the starter role, but I believe it is Dotson who will win due to his higher upside. ProFootballFocus gave the Buc’s offensive line at #27 in the league going into 2016; whoever wins this starting gig will try to prove them wrong.

Note: A rookie to watch is Caleb Benenoch, drafted in the fifth round of this year’s draft. I’m not sure that he comes in and starts right away but some analysts believe he will push the competition. PewterReport has a great article on how Benenoch is making waves sooner than expected.

These are just a few of the Buccaneers position battles heading into training camp. The better the competition, the better the Bucs will be. Tune into Bucs training-camp coverage on Thursday, July 28th, 2016.

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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at robert.cobb@theinscribermag.com